Some peasants could be nobles

History of nobility

Privileges for nobles

Weddings, deaths, births and married dramas "at the King's" fill the columns of the rainbow press. But what did it look like in the past? What was the significance of the nobility? And who was who?

Noble is someone who was born into a noble family or who acquired the nobility through property or merit. Initially the emperor, later also king or duke, could raise people to the nobility.

A number of privileges were associated with this. Nobles did not have to pay taxes. On the contrary, they had the right to demand taxes and services from peasants.

Aristocrats had good career opportunities: their right to higher civil servant and officer positions as well as the right to political participation enabled the nobility to maintain and expand their prominence in society.

It was the nobility who could determine political, social and, to a large extent, cultural events in the country.


But the rulers of the nobility and the estates took advantage of their privileges so intensively that, as a reaction to the unrestricted freedom of many princes, a tighter consolidation of the state was carried out:

Absolutism became the dominant form of government in the 17th and 18th centuries. At the top stood the absolute monarch by the grace of God, who now carried out all state activities.

But even absolutism in its rigid form could not last long. With the secularization and the Enlightenment, the belief in the divine right of the ruler disappeared more and more. And so absolutism became an "enlightened" absolutism.

Religious tolerance, humanized criminal law and a state-organized education system were introduced. One thing remained absolutist: the subjects had no right of co-determination in the state.

The last emperor

It was not until the 19th century that the absolutist monarchy was replaced by the constitutional monarchy. After the November Revolution of 1918, the German Kaiser abdicated. The Weimar Republic took the place of the monarchy.

The nobility lost power and influence: after 1919, the nobility in Germany only kept their title as part of their name.

In other countries too, social upheavals had consequences for the nobility: in Austria the title was completely abolished. And where the communists came to power, the nobility were expropriated, driven out and sometimes even murdered.

In Great Britain, on the other hand, the nobility retained their socio-political influence.

Not all nobility is created equal

First, a distinction is made within the class between high nobility and low nobility. The high nobility in the Holy Roman Empire included emperors and kings as well as clerical and secular princes. It was characteristic of the high nobility that he performed government duties.

The lower nobility included those who came from recognized noble families outside the circle of the high nobility. The primal nobility also belongs to the lower nobility, i.e. noble families whose nobility can be traced back to before the 13th or 14th century.

The letter nobility is also assigned to the lower nobility. Postadel was first awarded by a German emperor in 1360.

Kaiser - the name says it all

The highest political dignity, however, was that of the emperor. The name comes from the Latin (caesar), from the time of the Roman Empire. Since the Roman Empire was a world empire and the name "Kaiser" stood for a powerful, successful ruler of a world empire, the name became the program.

In France, with Napoleon's coronation as "Emperor of the French", European empire revived long after the fall of the Roman Empire. Until 1918 there was a German emperor who was counted among the high nobility and princes.

König - quarrel about the award of the title

The king accompanied the second highest dignity in the state. Its name is derived from the Old High German "Chunni", which translates as "gender". The royal dignity was hereditary among all Germanic peoples.

Who was allowed to bestow the title of king? This question repeatedly caused disputes between the secular German Emperor and the Pope. In the German Empire there were four kingdoms until 1918: Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria and Württemberg. Compared to the other princes, the kings had the privilege of being able to ennoble.

Herzog - with the privilege to ennoble

The duke also belonged to the group of princes. Its name is derived from the Latin "Dux" (leader). In Germania, the duke was originally a military leader who was elected for the duration of a campaign.

In the Frankish empire he had his position between the king and the counts. A duke presided over several counties. Dukes and grand dukes had the privilege of being able to ennoble.

Prince - today only part of the name

The prince, derived from the Old High German "Furisto" (the first), also belonged to the ruling class of a people. A distinction was made between secular and spiritual princes. The spiritual princes included archbishops, bishops and abbots from imperial abbeys.

Secular princes meant margraves or palatine counts or the electors.

The electors played a special role from the 13th century: In the Golden Bull of 1356 they were granted the privilege of electing a king. There are still some royal houses in Germany today, but since 1918 they have only had the title of prince as part of their name.

Count - an official

Graf comes from the Greek "gráphein" and means to write. An office was already defined in the name. The count was originally appointed by the king or prince as his official. His work mostly consisted of enforcing royal power such as administrative, legal, financial and military service.

For his services he received lands and special privileges. Later, the title of count was awarded without being tied to an office.

Freiherr - the "truly free man"

The baron belonged to the lower nobility. In contrast to the dependent peasant, with a baron (late Middle High German: vriherre) you were dealing with a "truly free man".

In the German Empire, the award was tied to a certain wealth or income. A baron is often still referred to as a baron - a title that, however, was not awarded in the German-speaking world, but is considered pure politeness.

Untitled - neither count nor baron

The impression that all aristocrats are now named is deceptive: Most aristocrats are the so-called "Untitulated" from the lower nobility, aristocrats who do not have a count or baron in their name, but simply a "from" or a "from and to" or also an "on" or a "from".

And then there are the families who, although they are aristocratic, do not bear any nobility mark. Prominent untitled writers are the writer Heinz G. Konsalik, who died in 1999, and the politician Jutta Ditfurth.