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Security Of The Political And Social Position Of The Nobility In Early Modern Europe

1908 words - 8 pages

Security of the Political and Social Position of the Nobility in Early Modern Europe

The nobility of early modern Europe were descended on the whole from
the mounted knights of medieval armies who had been granted land along
with social and political privileges and had subsequently formed a
higher social class. Between 1500-1789 the status of the aristocracy
came under threat both politically and socially. The rise of
‘absolutism’ within the monarchies of Europe led to the desire of
governments to reduce noble power and bypass several of their
privileges in order to increase state revenue and centralise
governmental control. The growth of the middle classes and the
destruction of the feudal system meant that the aristocracy had to
dramatically adapt to new social and economic situations. A great
difference can be seen between the survival of the nobility in Western
Europe and Eastern Europe, the latter maintaining great political
control and a substantial section of society. Western Europe saw the
decline of the nobility but also its movement towards a new role in
society.

Scott describes the “three interlocking developments”[1] that
constituted the problems of the nobility in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries. The first was economic as many families
experienced difficulties and drew closer in wealth to the aspiring
middle classes. The sixteenth century saw prices continue to rise as
rulers manipulated currencies and this proved a burden to the nobility
who relied solely upon the land for revenue. The aristocracy were
losing their traditional authority “politically to the centralising
state that was coming into existence at this time and socially to
other groups in the community”[2]. Governments were becoming stronger
and more centralised and were starting to encourage greater justice
for the peasantry in competition with the nobility’s demands. Thirdly
the nobility experienced a crisis of identity and a loss of purpose as
their status decreased and there was a “general relaxation of
reverence”[3].

The exercise of arms had been an intrinsic element in proving a
noble’s worth but after 1500 “letters were often disassociated from
arms and proved a far more certain road to wealth and nobility that
the life of the warrior”[4] and an education became as important as
military prowess had been previously. This is another example of the
nobility being forced to adapt to the social pressures of the period.
As the middle classes grew they forced the nobility to change its
outlook and modernise to keep up with the rest of society or become
diminished and backwards. Educational standards also enabled the
nobles to be “judged by the universal standards of achievement rather
than birth”[5]. This demonstrates the changing attitudes of the lower
classes as they began to require...

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