Nobility - History

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History

The term derives from Latin nobilitas, the abstract noun of the adjective nobilis ("well-known, famous, notable"). In ancient Roman society, nobiles originated as an informal designation for the political governing class who had allied interests, including both patricians and plebeian families (gentes) with an ancestor who had risen to the consulship through his own merit (see novus homo, "new man").

In modern usage, "nobility" is applied to the highest social class in pre-modern societies. In the feudal system (in Europe and elsewhere), the nobility were generally those who held a fief, often land or office, under vassalage, i.e., in exchange for allegiance and various, mainly military, services to a suzerain, who might be a monarch or a higher-ranking nobleman. It rapidly came to be seen as a hereditary caste, sometimes associated with a right to bear a hereditary title and, for example in pre-revolutionary France, enjoying fiscal and other privileges.

While noble status formerly conferred significant privileges in most jurisdictions, by the 21st century it had become a largely honorary dignity in most societies, although a few, residual privileges may still be preserved legally (e.g. Netherlands, Spain, UK) and some Asian, Pacific and African cultures continue to attach considerable significance to formal, hereditary rank or titles. (Compare the entrenched position and leadership expectations of the nobility of the Kingdom of Tonga.)

Nobility is a historical, social and often legal notion, differing from socio-economic status (or class) in that the latter is mainly based on income, possessions and/or lifestyle. Being wealthy or influential cannot, ipso facto, make one noble, nor are all nobles wealthy or influential (aristocratic families have lost their fortunes in various ways, and the concept of the 'poor nobleman' is almost as old as nobility itself).

Although many societies have a privileged 'upper class' with substantial wealth and power, the status is not necessarily hereditary and does not entail a distinct legal status, nor differentiated forms of address.

Various republics, including former Iron Curtain countries, Greece, Mexico, and Austria have expressly abolished the granting and/or use of titles of nobility to or by their citizens. This is distinct from countries which have not abolished the right to inherit (formerly) noble titles, but which do not grant legal recognition or protection to them, such as Germany, and Italy, although Germany recognizes their use as legal surnames. Still other countries and authorities allow their use, but forbid attachment of any privilege thereto, e.g. Finland, France, Norway and the European Union, although French law also protects lawful titles against usurpation.

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