The nobility represents, or has represented, the higher stratum of a society in which social classes can be distinguished. The most distinctive feature of nobilty is that once acquired, it is passed to descendants, possibly according to some rules. The "noble" in "nobility" have also the meaning "doing an act worthy of respect" to most people.
Initially nobility descended from chivalry (or warrior class) in the feudal stage of the development of a society. Originally, knights or nobles were mounted warriors who swore allegiance to their sovereign and promised to fight for him in exchange for allocation of land (usually together with serfs living there). The invention of the Musket slowly eliminated the privately owned and operated armies of nobles in feudal societies during the time period of The Military Revolution.
In the modern era, in countries where the nobility was the dominant class, the bourgeoisie gradually grew in power; a rich city merchant was more influential than a minor countryside nobleman. In France, influential high bourgeois, most particularly the members of the parlements (courts of justice), obtained nobility titles from the King. The old nobility of military origin, the noblesse d'épée ("sword nobility") became increasingly irritated by this newer noblesse de robe ("gown nobility"). In the last years of the ancien régime, before the French Revolution, the old nobility, intent on keeping its privileges, had pushed for restrictions of certain offices to noblemen who could demonstrate that their family had enough "nobility quarters" (i.e. that they were from old noble families, not from bourgeois families recently elevated to noble rank).
The nobility of a person might be either inherited or earned. Nobility in its most general and strict sense is an acknowledged preeminence that is hereditary, i.e., legitimate descendants (or all male descendants, in some societies) of nobles are nobles, unless explicitly stripped of the privilege. In this respect, nobility is distinguished from British peerage: the latter can be passed to only a single member of the family. The terms aristocrat and aristocracy are a less formal means to refer to persons belonging to this social milieu. Those lacking a distinct title, such as junior siblings of peers (and perhaps even the children of 'self-made' VIPs) may be considered aristocrats, moving within a small social circle at the apex of a hierarchical social pyramid. Blue blood is an English expression for noble birth or descent. It may be derived from an original Spanish phrase, or simply refer to the delicate, pale skin favoured within that social circle, which more transparently reveals the blueness of the veins and arteries beneath.
Nobles typically commanded resources, such as food, money, or labor, from common members or nobles of lower rank of their societies, and could exercise religious or political power over them. Also, nobles typically, but not necessarily were entitled to land property, which was reflected in the title. For example, the title Earl of Chesterfield tells about property, while the title Earl Cairns was created for a surname. However all the above is not obligatory; quite often nobility was associated only with social respect and certain social privileges. An example of the latter would be Polish szlachta. In the modern age, the notion of inherited nobility with special rights has become, in the Western World, increasingly seen as irrelevant to the modern way of life. The founding fathers of the United States rejected anything that may help in recreating a nobility; the French Revolution abolished the nobility and its special rights (though some nobility titles would be recreated by Napoleon I and III, they were mostly honorific).
A list of noble titles for different European countries can be found at Royal and noble ranks. To learn how to properly address holders of these titles, see Royal and noble styles.
Some con artists also sell fake titles of nobility, often with impressive-looking documents to back them up. These may be illegal, depending on local law.
Nobility by nation
For full categorized countries, see Category:Nobility by nation; some other follow:
Last updated: 10-26-2005 04:52:27