7) The original nobility: patricians and knights

by Jan-Olov von Wowern
By “nobility” I refer to that class in society which once had hereditary political, financial and social privileges guaranteed by law. By “original nobility” I follow the German (and now internationally accepted) definition and refer to those families who were ennobled (or generally recognised as nobles) before the year 1400. With “patricians” I refer to those families who from time immemorial were recorded as local and regional leaders, and usually as a base for their power had vast landed properties. With “knight” I refer to the warrior class that emerged and developed during 900 – 1300 AD.

The original nobility was comprised of those two categories, the patricians and the knights. The patricians soon developed into the higher nobility, and were often granted land and titles by the king or ruler. To administer the vast and scattered estates they needed local commanders, who in their turn needed well armed warriors to defend the properties. During the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries the duties and privileges (e.g. to maintain an armed force and enjoy tax exemption) became formalised and hereditary.

Among the knights one could originally distinguish two classes: the nobiles (who belonged to the hereditary and wealthy higher nobility, usually derived from the patricians), and the milites (the lower nobility which served as officers in the castles of the higher nobility).

During the 12th and 13th centuries these two groups, the nobiles and the milites, were merged, as the milites gained privileges, built their own castles and married the daughters of the nobiles.

Slowly a chivalric ideal developed, and chivalric virtues such as bravery and gallantry were praised.

As the military importance of the knights decreased during the 14th and 15th centuries, the chivalric system became more of a cultural institution. The knights became more closely attached to the royal and princely courts, and more importance was given to heraldry and various ceremonies. It became increasingly more common for the king or prince to create new nobles by means of letters patent, and soon this newly created titular nobility had by far outnumbered the original nobility. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries the creation of new nobles in many countries became so extensive they were soon regarded as the “only” and the “real” nobility. The original nobility had by then in many cases lost their original landed properties, due to ward and seizures, and along with them the recognition they once enjoyed.

So it was that the exception became the rule (patent nobility) and substance was replaced by shadow (landed properties with honorific titles). But until this day it remains true that “Laws may be changed, privileges may expire. But the duties to the Fatherland remain. And once those duties are fulfilled, little does it worry the true nobility where its position in society is put” (Count Gustaf Lagerbjelke, 1866).