One single word, nobility, has played a significant role throughout the history of society. The term usually creates images of lavish lifestyles and royal abodes filled with elegant parties and wait staffs. Today the word is still passed around in the countries of Europe, and continues to signify a prestigious society of women and men.

Getting Back to the Roots

The word, nobility, can be traced back to the Latin word, nobilitas. That word is derived from the abstract noun of the adjective, nobilis, meaning famous, well -known, or notable. In the society of ancient Rome, the nobiles represented a political governing class who had the same interests. These classes included patricians and plebians with ancestors who had risen to the top through their own merit and actions. As societies developed, noble people were the highest ranked in the social classes. The feudal system of Europe included those who owned land or an office position, in exchange for services or allegiances to higher ranking officials or monarchs. The noble position soon came to be part of hereditary castes, meaning the rank could only be passed down through the family. These noble families then received legal privileges and usually owned great property and establishments.

21st Century Noble Status

Today the holding of nobility titles is mostly honorary without any large privileges. However, countries such as the UK, Spain, and the Netherland still provide their noble families with grand living and monetary gifts. Other countries throughout Africa, the Pacific, and Asia still recognize the significance of being from a noble family. However, many modern countries have removed noble titles from their societies, removing all legal rights from the title. These locations include Iron Curtain countries as well as Austria, Mexico and Greece. Other countries including Italy and Germany have not eliminated the right to inherit titles, but they do not give any special legal privileges or protections to those holding a title.

Nobility Across the Continent

Noble titles are most well-known across the continent of Europe. However, each country had different ways of marking those with noble statuses. In Germany, titles were held by those of noble families like the Count of Falkenstein. These hereditary titles included exquisite crests featuring the name of the family and a symbol representing the name. In Ireland and Scotland, noble titles like the Laird of Glencairn or the Lord of Cork were held by those who owned parcels of land. A man was titled as a Lairdand woman was titled as a Lady of a specific piece of land.

While nobility titles do not carry as much weight as they used to, they are still important parts of many family histories and heritages throughout the world.


The Role of European Nobility Throughout History
The concept of European nobility is deeply rooted in the feudal system which originated during the middle ages. Under this system, the noble class swore an oath to protect the sovereign from harm in exchange for a plot of land, which was usually shared land with medieval farmers indebted to the ruling lord. At the onset of what’s known as the Military Revolution, many nobles were deposed in favor of national armies, which overtook the protection duties from private armies usually commanded by knights.

Changes in Military Decreased the Role of Knights
Along with this loss of military influence came a decrease in the social standing of many possessing nobility titles. This decrease occurred on multiple levels, most notability due to a lack of economic authority. The reasons for this dwindling authority were compounded by the gains made by merchant classes during the Renaissance, who assumed much of the economic power through to the Industrial Revolution.

Political Influence Continued Into the 19th Century
While the middle-class enjoyed an increase in influence due to its economic power, nobles retained some importance when it came to socio-political matters. Using the United Kingdom as an example, high-born nobles played an active role in governmental affairs up to the middle of the 19th century. This influence has been on the decline ever since, with nobles enjoying less and less status due to legislation aimed at curbing their influence.

Nobles vs. General Population
Some countries contained a higher percentage of nobility than others. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth featured a whopping 15% of nobles during the 18th century, while the Castile region of Spain boasted 10% noble births when compared to the general population. Other countries contained a less robust collection, such as Russia, which counted approximately 3% of the total population as nobles. Pre-revolutionary France also contained a relatively low percentage, with just 1% of the population, while Sweden counted only .5% of its population as nobles in 1718.

Defending Territories Led to New Opportunities
Warfare was common in the heyday of the noble class, and this warfare usually centered on impeding ethnic outsiders from invading one’s land. This was especially true on the western and eastern frontiers of Europe, where marauding warriors would sometimes make their stands against the noble classes. This introduced a new class of noblemen as more and more men were called up to defend these terroritories. These same men also gained wealth in the form of the many spoils of war collected during their battles. During the 18th century, of the 190 million Europeans, approximately 4 million were nobles.