Organization into a Status Hierarchy
The nobility gives us the first opportunity in this book to delve into the dynamics of status hierarchy. Although focused on the nobility’s characteristic organization into a hierarchy, the elaboration below also provides a useful point of reference for our analyses of other status hierarchies later on. Moreover, even though this elaboration is limited to a narrow selection of European nobilities, I am sure it will serve to highlight more general trends in the development of the nobility’s status hierarchy. As Dewald (1996, 1-6) points out, nobilities changed across Europe in essentially similar ways, under the impact of essentially similar forces. For me, these similarities are more important than national differences. In line with Clark (1995, 15-18), I regard the nobilities in their different forms as a status, constituted legally with the emergence of the modern state under monarchism. This status, in my view, too, was similar throughout Europe. Moreover, I take no account of differences in ennoblement in different monarchies, but include in the nobility all those families who are registered in the almanacs of nobility.
© The Author(s) 2017
R. Jallinoja, Families, Status and Dynasties,
Historically, nobilities originated in the order of knighthood, the fighting class, which formed the backbone of medieval armies (Bush 1988, 21; Eriksson 2011, 138-40; Scott and Storrs 1995, 9). Later on, the privileged status of nobilities was grounded in their increasing involvement in state governance in the monarch’s proximity (Clark 1995, 158-67; Thompson 1995, 228; Collins 2009), creating a strong interdependence between the monarch and the nobility. Occasional fluctuations in the balance of power between the monarch and the nobility are of secondary importance in this respect, and I purposely do not discuss them in this book. Nobles played a major role in all aspects of the administration of the kingdom, in the army and at court, but noblewomen were only permitted to serve the monarch as ladies-in-waiting at court, a crushing inequality between the sexes.
Those who are in power are a small minority in each society, and this was also true of nobilities. In my sample of monarchies, nobilities were the most populous in Spain, where they accounted for 12-13 per cent of the population in 1700, dropping to 4 per cent in 1797 (Bush 1988, 7-8). Everywhere else, the figures were much lower: in England, France, Prussia and Austria, the proportion was from 1 to 2 per cent (Cannadine 1999, 20; Melton 1995, 75; Swann 1995, 144). The Scandinavian nobilities were minuscule. In Denmark, nobilities accounted for no more than one-quarter of a per cent between 1600 and 1800 (Jespersen 1995, 45, 63), and in Sweden and Finland for around half a per cent in the eighteenth century (Upton 1995, 28). In Russia, too, nobilities accounted for 0.5 per cent of the population in 1744 (Bush 1988, 7-11; Cannadine 1999, 20; Eriksson 2011, 8). The numbers and proportions varied over the centuries, depending above all on the willingness of the monarch to ennoble, the inheritance system—primogeniture or partition—and the extinction of old noble families. Primogeniture, which gave the firstborn son the sole right to inherit the title and estate, was categorically applied in England (Cannon 1995, 54), but since the seventeenth century many other monarchies also showed a strong inclination towards the one-heir model, put into effect by fideicommissum, a dispensation from the partible inheritance to hold the title and estate undivided with the firstborn son (Melton 1995, 127; Donati 1995, 253-5; af Kleen 2010).
Although the nobility formed a privileged status aggregate, it was not a homogeneous entity. The basic divide across Europe ran between the higher nobility, generally styled the aristocracy, and the lower nobility (Crummey 1983; Bush 1988, 32-6; Cannadine 1999; Collins J. 2009). This divide distinguished the peerage in England and France, the grandees in Spain and the boyars in Russia from the rest of the nobility (Cannon 1995, 54-71; Mettam 1995, 127-32; Thompson 1995, 188-94; Crummey 1983; Madariaga 1995). In Brandenburg/Prussia, the upper nobility comprised barons, counts and occasionally princes, while the lesser nobility held no titled status (Melton 1995, 74). The same system was applied in Denmark, Sweden and Finland (Cannon 1995, 54; Bisgaard and Jensen 2015; Eriksson 2011; Tandefelt 2013, 19). In Habsburg Bohemian and Austrian monarchy, the corresponding divide was between the Herrenstand (lords) and Ritterstand (knights) (Bush 1988, 31; Melton 1995, 117). Titles of honour defined and preserved the gradations within the nobility. In England, the five ranks of the peerage, recognized by law as the hereditary nobility, were duke, marquis, earl, viscount and baron (Cannadine 1999, 11). In France the titles were almost the same: duc, marquis, comte, vicomte and baron (Mettam 1995, 131). In Spain, there were four ranks: duke, marquis, count and viscount (Thompson 1995, 185). Other monarchies such as Sweden and Denmark had fewer titles—count and baron.
Titles divided the nobility into hierarchically ordered statuses, but ambitious noblemen were not content with the statuses implied by titles alone: in the end one’s standing in the status hierarchy was determined by the office held. State administration, the army and court, where noblemen were mainly employed, were rigidly hierarchical institutions, laying the ultimate foundation for noblemen’s hierarchical order. In Sweden, for instance, King Karl XI followed the Danish example and ordained in 1680 a 40-rank hierarchy of all military, civil and court offices (Norrby 2014, 143). These kinds of ranking lists were promulgated across all European monarchies (Madariaga 1995, 244-6). But the organization of offices into a detailed hierarchy did still not suffice. A plethora of performances was moreover needed to re-establish the hierarchy over and again.
To understand the peculiarity of the nobility’s status and the urgency of status to be performed, it is useful to examine Collins’s (2009, ix) reinterpretation of the evolution of the modern state in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France. First, Collins rejects the popular term of ‘absolutism’ in favour of the ‘monarchical state’. This choice of words is meant to emphasize the growing influence of the state apparatus even under hereditary rule, as well as to counter historians who continue to speak of absolutism. Collins is not alone in this opposition (Scott and Storrs 1995, 2; Stites 2014, 8). His critical notion of absolutism hinges on the view that monarchs had limited ability to rule alone. Collins (2009, xix) concedes that the king of France did not require consent to make public policy, but he did require cooperation and he had to operate within the bounds fixed by society. Central to this cooperation at the time were those who were appointed to run state affairs under the monarch. The most significant actor in this respect was the nobility, whose significance grew in step with the expansion of the state apparatus. The nobility acquired their high status from this association.
Second, clarifying the duty of the French king to operate within the bounds of society, Collins (2009) takes Louis XlV’s dinner table at Versailles as an example. Louis had the right to elevate a person to the rank of duke and peer of France, but he did not have the right to change the seating order at his dinner table. Versailles is an apt example since there the king’s everyday life was ritualized down to the last detail, including the daily habits of dining (Muir 2005, 134-9, 281). Guests were to take their places according to a rigid hierarchy of precedence. For this reason, seating arrangements were sensitive sites of conflict (Eriksson 2011, 178; Rangstrom 2010, 105). Indeed, conflicts or at least embarrassment often ensued because the hierarchy, despite its apparent clarity, was, nonetheless, somewhat obscure (Mettam 1995, 127). For example, how were officeholders of the same rank to be seated at the dinner table? Sometimes it happened that the monarch’s favourites were given a better seat than other guests of the same rank, while some who wanted to receive extra favours from the monarch were keen to pass as higher in status than they actually were. An example is provided by Henriette, the second lady at the French court. She would have preferred to sit in an armchair in the presence of the queen, but this was forbidden by Louis
XIV (r. 1643-1715), because the right to be seated in an armchair was limited to the wives of monarchs, that is, queens. Henriette, the wife of the king’s brother, was not in this status category. She as well as the wives of dukes and peers of France was only permitted to sit on stools, while other French subjects had to stand in the king’s presence (Barker Nichols 1989, 94-5).
The fixed seating order at the king’s dinner table and the king’s sole right to elevate people to higher ranks are not in fact as contradictory as Collins claims. The king’s right to elevate a person to a higher rank, which at first glance may seem like an indication of absolutism, actually demonstrates conformity to the same rule that determined the seating order at the dinner table. The king was bound to the hierarchical structures of his kingdom. As Collins (2009, 59) remarks, the king had to appoint a prince or duke as an army commander, just as he had to appoint someone of exalted rank to be a provincial governor. Eventually, these offices became more and more restricted to members of families that had held them before (Sabean and Teuscher 2007, 12). But there were also many other events where it was necessary to make clear everybody’s status, such as coronations, where the most powerful noblemen were granted the right to carry the regalia: the crown, the sword, the orb, the sceptre and the key (Eriksson 2011, 139). Monarchs also dispensed favours by agreeing to godparentage, the highest honour that any noble family could receive, but having any member of the royal family as a godparent was almost equally appreciated (Hattersley 2013, 17). In France, dukes and peers were the only noblemen who were allowed to dance with queen and princesses (Mettam 1995, 131), while in Spain the grandees alone had the right of access to the king, to be addressed as ‘cousin’ and to carry his coffin (Thompson 1995, 192). Another rule in monarchies was that no one ever attended an event hosted by a social inferior (Mettam 1995, 117). And so on, an unending directory of rules that the nobility was to obey.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that performances of status only concerned those who had access to the court or otherwise to the sovereign’s proximity. It was only these people who were to be organized into a hierarchical order. This was perfectly reflected by court etiquette, an extraordinarily elaborate collection of status performances.
Court etiquette was not meant for the whole population, but for the privileged few who were invited to courtly occasions and who had the right to take part in public processions of different kinds (Collins 2009, 102; Muir 2005). A classic guidebook was Count Baldassare Castiglione’s (2010) Courtier, written between 1508 and 1516, in which Castiglione sets out the characteristics of a ‘perfect courtier without flaw’. But outside the court, the excluded others had a special role: they were permitted or even expected to watch the monarch and his or her entourage go by. The public saw the order of precedence in all its transparency and superiority. The multitude of the public and their drab clothes made them look like a mass without a hierarchy, in contrast to those in the procession, whose hierarchical order was explicitly exhibited.
Whatever other reasons might have brought noble couples together in the nobility’s heyday, the choice of spouse was, nevertheless, a performance of status, as it was for royalty, who obsessively bowed to the imperative of status equivalence. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries 90 per cent of monarchs followed this imperative. In first marriages the figure was even higher. This leads us to ask, how closely were the requirements of status equivalence followed when nobles chose their spouses; how far were these choices allowed to expand beyond identical status equivalence and at what point did this go so far that it would be better to identify it with social decline? These questions are first explored for the heyday of the nobility, when it is thought that the imperative of status equivalence was most pressing. Then, we move on to look at the period when status equivalence was less rigorously followed, after the heyday in the nineteenth century, which would be a turbulent time of changes in status hierarchies and their relationships.