The sample essay on 18th Century Nobility deals with a framework of research-based facts, approaches and arguments concerning this theme. To see the essay’s introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion, read on.
From the outside the nobility may have appeared to be ‘a monolithic institution, powerful and united in defence of its interest’. 1 But in reality there were many divides within the nobility, such as the divisions between the old and new nobility or the rich and poor. Frictions between such groups have been held largely responsible for the erosion of power and prestige of the nobility within the eighteenth century, and some commentators such a Doyle have gone as far as claiming that their internal divisions left the nobility powerless, in other words ‘paralysed’.
To find out if this was indeed true the internal divisions have to be looked at in greater detail and these must be balanced against the number of other factors that united rather than divided the nobility.
Many of the divisions in noble society were caused by ‘non-structural conflicts between individuals, families or parties. ‘2 However many other troubles were drawn along ‘structural lines’. Probably the best example of this was the divide between the rich nobles and the poor nobles.
The ethos of nobility meant implied that nobles live off their own states, in a life of decadence, but this was far from the case for the majority of the nobles in Europe, as ‘honourable birth and status provided no guarantees against poverty. ‘3 This was particularly the case in Eastern and Southern Europe where the nobility was extremely large and extensive.
4 Often this resulted in them having to work and, in extreme cases, live as commoners. The poor nobility deeply resented this and were envious of the richer nobility who flaunted their wealth, wasting huge sums on money on their own pleasure and vanity.
The richer nobles were equally distaining. They saw the poorer nobles as an insult to their elevated class and felt that their failure degraded their position. Similar rivalries were present between the old, traditional nobility and the new nobility. Nobles liked to believe that they came from a long line of noble ancestors, but in reality this was rarely the case as the turnover of nobility was usually quite fast, as newcomers were able to be ennobled during the eighteenth century in every country except Venice, Genoa and Russia who officially operated closed door policies starting in 1758. Traditionally, there were two main ways that the nobility could be ennobled; firstly wealthy nobles and entrepreneurs could buy into the nobility. Louis XIV, for example periodically put titles on the market at times of great financial need. Thus, in France it was widely accepted that ‘while not every nobleman was rich, every rich man was noble’. 6 Or, secondly they could become noble by assuming the noble lifestyle and hence acting like the nobility. During the eighteenth century a third means of status gain emerged, in the form of gaining administrative posts.
This created a division between nobles of the crown – those who conducted royal administration – and nobles of the sword, who were the older nobility, whose royal function was principally military7. The nobles of the sword saw themselves as inherently more important than nobles of the robe, as they believed in the old connection between military valour and honour. They were hugely frustrated that the administrative nobles, while coming from supposedly inferior blood lines, were at the controls of government, while they had little influence in governmental affairs.
Also it was obvious that these administrative posts had been secured by wealth, ‘which the rich nobles despised and the poor nobles envied’8. Along the same lines as the rift between the old nobility of the robe, and the newer one of the sword was that of the court versus country nobility. Traditionally, great magnates had lived in the country on their landed estates, and ruled over their dynasties. But the eighteenth century brought a centralisation of governance, and the nobles of the country were left increasingly isolated.
It was the metropolitan noble, many of whom were relatively new to the nobility, who gained from this. Their estates were undoubtedly less grand, but they were at the centre of influence and were more able to influence their monarchs and the distribution of patronage. 9 This they used to better their own needs and their power in relation to the great magnates. This is highlighted by a magistrate in late eighteenth century declaring ‘the court nobility has, at all times, been the most pronounced and most dangerous enemy of other nobles. ’10
Religion could also be a factor for division. In England and Ireland after the defeat of the Catholic aggressors in 1691, Catholic nobles were deposed and by 1703 only 14% of Irish land was owned by Catholics. 11 Similarly, during the seventeenth century the Habsburg nobility had been divided over religion, with the upper nobility retaining Catholicism, while the lesser nobility adopted Protestantism. But how far did these divisions lead to the weakening of the nobility? During the eighteenth century there was an apparent sift of power from magnates to a more absolute state.
Kamen summarises this well ‘Thanks to divisions among the elite, the state was able to slowly extend its authority and encourage the creation of a national loyalty that transcended local allegiances headed by nobles. ’12 However, monarchs and governments were never able to infringe greatly on noble power as they feared the strength of a rebellious nobility and needed the nobility’s support to consolidate their own power. For example, the English Parliament failed, in 1701, to pass legislation banning nobles from governing. 3 But the most potent threat to the nobility was undoubtedly the politicisation of the peasantry and the rise of the middle class. Since the enlightenment, European society had been witness to an ever-increasing, secular group who questioned the rights of nobles to rule. They were supported by religious leaders, as many started to declare nobles undeserving of their titles and ungodly14. Many of the peasantry, tired of being at the undesirable end of the class system, found this very attractive and, led by the middle classes, attempted to take advantage of the nobles division.
This clearly happened in France, where the conflicts between the aristocracy, as well as the economic success of an extremely large bourgeois population led to the French Revolution, the disposition of the aristocracy and French nobles leaving the majority of the 83 French governmental departments. 15 But, elsewhere in Europe, while there were revolts and rebellion, the nobility were never deposed. Even though there was, present, this ‘cascade of distain’16 existed amongst the nobility of the eighteenth century, there were a number of unifying factors.
Many nobles were installed with the notions of nobility and, recognising each others membership strengthened their own position. 17 This was further strengthened by writing such as Montesquieu’s ‘Spirit of Law’ (1748), which outlined the nobility’s role in society18. Similarly, nobles were often reluctant to question other nobles legitimacy, in case this provoked these nobles or the peasantry to start posing similar questions against them. The nobles in this period came to recognise the united nature of their supreme social status.
They were sure that unless the lower classes were under control, they would instinctively rise and revolt. 19 Noble families were also brought together by matrimonial alliances. 20 As a result of primogeniture, second and third sons were often unable to find a wife of the same social class, and therefore if they inspired to marry within the nobility, they had to marry into a lower level. But, by the end of the eighteenth century the distinctions between the noble factions were decreasing, as the groups started to merge.
A form of noble exchange was created as bureaucrats desired to gain land, while the landed nobility desired to gain office and governmental influence21. It was also becoming increasingly apparent to the old nobility that in the ever expanding economy, no longer could they look down on the virtue of work. For them to survive they had to start taking part in some sort of enterprise. 22 There is little doubt that the nobility of the eighteenth century were greatly weakened by their internal divisions, leading to a greater centralisation of power and state control, but ‘paralysed’ is too extreme a description.
It is not easy to assess the strengths of the nobilities in most European countries, as only in France was the nobility properly tested, but the fact that elsewhere the middle classes and peasant masses where unable to sustain any national revolts shows that the nobility was far from paralysed. They had their divisions, but they also had many unifying factors; the common sense of nobility and the privileges that nobility entailed, were too great to create too permanent splintering. This was compounded as the century progressed and the noble groupings became blurred, leading, in general, to a frictional but robust noble class.