Our examination in Chap. 3 of the association between status and family in the context of the nobility provided some additional tools with which to elaborate this association at the pinnacle of power. The nobility received its power from the monarch in whose service noblemen were in state governance, the army or court. Nobility was a privileged status in its own right, but noblemen’s standing in the status hierarchy was ultimately determined by the level of office they had attained. Competition, therefore, was an integral part of the nobility’s pursuits. Due to the interdependence between the monarch and the nobility, their heydays followed the exact same trajectories, from beginning to end.
The examination of councillor dynasties showed that those at the very pinnacle of the nobility’s status hierarchy felt obliged to marry. And marry they did, in fact as often as monarchs. The highest echelons outside royalty were thus also burdened by a sense of dynastic duty. The range of status equivalence was determined by nobility—the equivalent of sovereignty in royalty—and indeed, noble-to-noble marriages were very common. However, at the highest tier of the nobility the preference was for identical status equivalence. In this case, the determination of who were identical status equals was based on offices held. A vast majority of councillors therefore married councillors’ daughters, particularly in their heyday, when councillor offices were passed on to sons in successive generations. After the heyday, status equivalence became more elastic, but the boundaries of the marriage market were hardly extended beyond the high nobility’s traditional range of offices. The only change in practice was that councillors were replaced by other higher civil servants, courtiers and particularly officers. Marriage arrangements were an endless process of fine-tuning the hierarchical order of nobles, but on the terms of the hierarchical order of offices. However, descendants of councillors regularly benefited from their families’ reputation as former councillor dynasties, and continued to do so for two generations. By marrying councillors or their daughters, the descendants were able to prolong their family’s heyday.
When speaking of social decline in the nobility, it is necessary to distinguish between social decline occurring in the nobility’s heyday and social decline happening when the nobility’s privileged status was drawing to an end. In the former case, social decline concerned individual dynasties or their branches, whereas in the latter case, the whole nobility was in decline. In individual families in the nobility’s heyday, social decline proceeded step by step, first to the lowest level of the nobility’s accustomed office hierarchy, but beyond this hierarchy there was a real risk of permanent social decline. Keeping up their own occupational traditions was thus paramount for the nobility. In the nineteenth century the situation was beginning to change as more and more noblemen were choosing to move outside the nobility’s three bastions of state governance, the army and court. This was reflected in marriages as well. Marriages to commoners were highly exceptional in the nobility’s heyday and therefore a high-risk move from a status point of view, but in the nineteenth century when more and more noblemen and noblewomen married commoners, it became increasingly difficult to judge which occupations would lead to social fall.
At first it seemed that social fall in the nobility was associated with heavy drinking, a licentious lifestyle and gambling, but it soon became clear that this kind of way of life was in fact being led both in the lower ranks and in prominent aristocratic families. Enclaves of lust in the nobility were part of a more common social phenomenon: high status was put into practice not only in the administration of an office and in marriages arranged according to status equivalence, but also in the realm of entertainment. It was here that the nobility intermingled with those who were socially beneath them, who in turn took full advantage of their unexpected access to noble circles. Social barriers were easier to cross in entertainment, where ceremonial formalities were often cast aside. Nineteenth-century salons, many of them hosted by noblewomen, instituted entertainments of this kind. However, such liberties did not do away with the discriminating divide between legitimate and illegitimate children; the latter were still kept categorically out of the nobility.
Changes started in earnest in the nineteenth century when the nobility as a whole lost its legally decreed privileged status. At the head of this transformation was the lower nobility—they were like younger princes in royalty—but for the aristocracy the journey from the height of nobility to commonalty was longer. The meaning of this commonalty for the nobility became clear during this process: nobles merged into common people selectively, that is, they chose occupations that came to be the new higher echelons in the twentieth century. Significantly, at the same time, part of the nobility remained in occupations traditionally held by noblemen, and they were also inclined to marry nobles. They were the counterparts of royalists in the royal marriage market. Those who married commoners stepped into a new world altogether, where they had to decide who was who in different status hierarchies. The winners in these ‘viewings’ were priests, lawyers and other learned professionals, but also industrialists, first in the nobility’s marriage market, then as noble men’s and women’s professions. These changes dissolved the nobility’s marriage market because its exclusiveness was no longer grounded in nobility.
In the same way as in royalty, the legacy of the nobility converted the glory of the privileged few into a national cultural heritage. And also in the same way as in royalty, what was made into a national cultural heritage were performances of high status, above all palaces—their splendour and grandeur, as they stood in the nobility’s heyday. The history of noble families is also performed in popular television series, but their private life has still not attracted the same kind of publicity as royal families, indicating perhaps that the nobility has more closely merged into the common folk than the royal family, even though their members do marry commoners.