How were nobles 'promoted' in aristocracies?

How were nobles 'promoted' in aristocracies?

According to this list, how were nobles promoted? For instance, Baron to Viscount, and Duke to Archduke? If ranks are hereditary, were there only a specific number of each rank given out in each country? Is there a record of this? For instance, does England's Parliament have a document outlining these numbers?

Otherwise, Google is somewhat sparse.

And aristocracy seems like a better tag than nobility.

Firstly, there is the distinction between inherited versus conferred titles. Inherited titles passed more or less automatically from parent to child, e.g. King, Duke, Baron, Viscount.

Conferred titles were granted as rewards for merit -- e.g. knight or as temporary offices -- or powers -- e.g. viceroy (in the stead of the king).

Inherited titles were attached to land or, very rarely, some other kind of economic asset like a harbor or fishing rights. Our current use of the word "title" to mean proof of ownership comes directly from the titles of aristocrats. Just to confuse things, titles could be bought and sold, might be seized by the king because of some real or fictional offense, or won or lost in battle.

Titles were so important that they became an individual's legal and cultural formal identity, e.g. the Earl of Essex. All obligations of fealty, military service, taxes, protocol, etc. attached to the title, not the individual. Any particular individual could have a vast array of titles. In fact, one could argue that "collecting titles" was the primary occupation of nobles.

To the extent that noble titles had actual ranks, they expressed the degree of fealty the holder is required to give to another noble, usually the king, in the form of military service. The granting of fealty was very much a business deal and really had no defined hierarchical structure. Most nobles owed fealty and its military service to the King because the King was the strongest noble around, but they might also pledge or inherit fealty to another noble for various reasons. Fealty was not always hereditary in theory, much less practice.

Since fealty really established chain of military command, ranks and deference depended on fealty instead of title. So, if a Duke also held the title of Baron of some little backwater and that that title of Baron came with an obligation of fealty to a Count, then the Duke would be obligated to follow the orders of the Count and to defer to him in matters of status and protocol… in theory. In reality, Dukes were usually richer and more powerful than Counts and the Count wouldn't bring the matter up.

Dukes held titles that, in legal theory, made them independent of the King but they pledge their fealty anyway… sorta, kinda, maybe on a good day. Earls, Counts and Barons started out as various Germanic military ranks with lesser grants of conquered land. However, by the medieval era, this had become all muddled and a Baron might have more land, wealth and military power than an Earl.

Secondly, as for promotions, since titles weren't really ranked, there weren't any. Most nobles lived and died with their inherited titles. The only situation analogous to promotion occurred when a King or other high noble found themselves holding titles because of conquest, treason or because a line had died out. (One of the special powers of the English crown was that titles "reverted" to the crown if there were no male heir.)

Kings could parcel out or recombine these titles and their associated lands to "create" a new title of nobility and confer that title on this or that individual.

It might look like a promotion to modern eyes to read that a the Baron Strange was created by King Henry the Nth, the Earl of Nonsuch, for services in the Third Bloody Stupid War of Godforsaken, but really he was just being paid for service in land. The individual was still Baron Strange, but now he had that nice piece of Nonsuch as well. If the title of Baron Strange owed fealty to Count of Down, then, even though the individual now also held the title of Earl, would in his persona as Baron Strange, still have to demonstrate the rituals of fealty to the Count of Down.

Still, as lineages rose in power, the size of their titles usually rose and fell in tandem. That would also look somewhat like promotion and demotion to modern eyes but since titles were land and land was wealth, it was really just their bank accounts rising and falling. (Only in later times, when noble titles began to lose their real practical power, did you find ruined nobility with titles but no wealth.)

But all of this is just rule-of-thumb stuff. You have to remember that this was a constantly evolving system that grew over the course of a thousand years and crossed over numerous political, legal and cultural lines (even in relatively isolated England.) As such, the rules for handling titles were constantly in flux and depend strongly on what particular when and where you examine.

More importantly, legalism and custom were often merely fig leafs for brute force, murder and bribery. Every single "noble" title traces back to a successful act of violence. As long as titles had real economic and military force, they continued to be apportioned largely by implicit or explicit threats of violence. There never was any real system of law, as we would understand law today, controlling who had what title. Political marriages, battlefield victories and the odd poisoning or infant strangling, led to more "promotion" than any "noble" deed.

Despite all our romantic associations, at their heart, the aristocrats were never anything but a caste of thuggish killers who trained for warfare incessantly, fought wars purely for profit and oppressed the great majority of the population cruelly. If we weren't the inheritors of centuries of pro-noble propaganda, bought and paid for by nobles, the word "noble" would have connotations of "drug dealing mob thug" instead "representing highest virtue."


Until the Glorious Revolution and the installation of William the III of Orange by parliament on the English throne, even the politics of merry old England look distinctly lawless and more like the revolving series of coups in the 3rd world today. It was not until the "commoners" finally rose up and gutted the power of the aristocracy did titles of nobility acquire some sort of moral legitimacy by modern standards.

You don't usually get promoted. You either are or you aren't. Titles are additive. So if you are the Baron of Butterscotch, and the king decides to make you the Duke of Diddlysquat, you don't stop being the Baron, you become both a Baron and a Duke.

Medieval titles of nobility are almost always associated with land. The more land, the bigger the title. In general, you get the land first, then the title after. If you were rich enough, you could become titled, just by buying enough land. Usually you would get a title from warfare. This can happen in one of three ways:

(1) Working for the king. You fight for the king. He conquers new lands. He appoints you the ruler of the new lands. You get the title associated with the new lands.

(2) Working on your own. You gather a bunch of men. You attack and conquer some land with your men. You then make a deal with the king: recognize my ownership of this land and I will pledge fealty to you. You then get a title.

(3) Inheriting the land from a previous empire. Your family owns the land from the past. A new king comes and conquers everything. You make a deal with the king same as #2. The only difference is your family already owned the land, it didn't conquer it.

To answer your final question: there are no numbers. The titles go with land, roughly in accordance to size, but also tradition. For example, one plot of land might be a "baronage", but another of exactly the same size might be a "duchy". It depends on the history of the land. Duchies were more Roman things. Earldoms were vikingish land. Baronages were continental German (like Saxons and people like that).

Note that knights are not nobles. They are the equestrian order (horse owners).

Nobles don't get promoted, they gain titles

Someone may obtain a title 'Duke of Someplace'. If he wasn't a duke before, that event might be treated like a 'promotion'. Do note that it always involves gaining that Someplace together with it - a duke doesn't get more respect than a baron because he has a fancier title; a duke gets respect because he owns a duchy and the barons don't. This also is the limit of the number of ranks. There can be no more counts than there are counties, and there can be far less as some people hold multiple counties/count titles.

You can get a title over the previous holder's cold, dead body

There are two ways to get a title - either you inherit it from the previous holder, or you take it by force and ensure that others recognize it. The second way doesn't neccesarily require the previous holder to die, but it helps if you want him to leave it that way. Both ways are really not similar to a 'promotion'. In large conquests, a winning leader might distribute large lands to his war companions which is a bit like a promotion - but only in the very rare large-scale conquests the higher titles would be distributed that way, those were the exceptional cases that most generations didn't see.

Your father might promote you

The only reasonably common 'promotion' case is the situation where father grants some of his lands and the relevant lower titles to his adult sons. Thus, the eldest son might be given some duchy or county already "in advance", and become a king some time afterwards when the inheritance happens.

I do not dispute the other answers, but I did want to point out that George Robinson, Earl de Grey, was raised to the 1st Marquis Ripon as a result of his success in negotiating the Treaty of Washington, which ended the US/British conflict over the (American) civil war.

The British were in a precarious position because of the Alabama claims. Had events turned out different, the Americans could have made a case that the British were co-belligerents with the Confederacy. The US negotiator was instructed to get Canada in recompense for the British actions, and to accept Jamaica if Britain refused to hand over Canada.

So Ripon managed to not only save Canada, but to create an Anglo-American alliance that is arguably the most successful in modern history.

This is an example of a modern (1859) "promotion" in recognition of service to the crown.

(Aside: Although I can't find the citation at the moment, it also resulted in the removal of the last unit of British troops from American soil - a clause that the British had agreed to in the Treaty of Paris, but had never actually withdrawn the troops. So in reality, the Treaty of Washington ended the American Revolutionary war and started the Anglo-American Alliance.)

(Second aside: Ripon was successful where his predecessors had failed in part because he capitalized on his Masonic ties to the US negotiators. Conspiracy nuts are now permitted to don their tinfoil hats. I on the other hand, choose to admire a skillful negotiator.)

Several answers say that there as never any promotion for titled nobles, that their titles were all derived from possession of land and gaining more land gained the title that went with it. Some say that the only way to get a new title was by force.

But of course what we call titles of nobility have existed for about 1,500 years until the present and thus their status and methods of acquiring them have greatly changed.

In some times and places a duke, for example, was the elected war leader of a tribe, in others a rank of Roman general, in others a royal official that the king could appoint and remove at will, in others a powerful hereditary governor of a large area (the original duchies in Germany were larger than most medieval kingdoms), in others a titled aristocrat with a vote in his kingdom's legislature, in others the hereditary monarch of a small semi or fully independent realm, in others merely the possessor of a title of honor.

And in some times and places a duke had an intermediate status being a combination of two or more of the above.

After the development of feudalism in western Europe in the 9th century AD the possessor of a noble title was the more or less hereditary holder of the land mentioned in the title as a fief with considerable financial and judicial and military powers within that fief.

But centuries later in the later middle ages and in modern times, it became common for monarchs to grant titles of nobility without any power over the lands mentioned in the titles. So if a minor noble without a title was made a baron or a lord that could be considered a promotion. And if a baron was created a count that could count as a promotion.

When nobles no longer necessarily ruled over the lands mentioned in their titles, it became possible to grant victory titles to victorious generals and admirals even if the titleholder and his monarch did not rule over those regions. Napoleon, for example, granted some of his marshals victory titles for victories in lands that Napoleon never ruled - Prince de la Moskowa and Prince de Wagram, for examples.

And there are many examples of nobles of various types seeking higher titles from their monarchs even if they didn't come with more lands. For example, in 1495 count Eberhard V of Wurttemburg was promoted to Duke Eberhard I of Wurttemburg.


ARISTOCRACY AND GENTRY. In most European countries society and politics were dominated during the early modern period by the power and influence that nobles enjoyed, either as individuals or as a social group. Noble hegemony was not always uncontested, but by successfully adapting to political and cultural changes and by integrating competing social elites, nobles managed to maintain their dominant position in most cases until the late eighteenth century. Although noble elites across Europe were defined according to distinct local and national customs and legal criteria, noble men and women from different countries nevertheless tended to recognize each other as members of the same social estate, if not necessarily as equals, united by a specific sense of honor and adherence to common values.

The Role of Parlements

Pressed and eventually won over by his entourage at court, the king gave in and exempted the clergy from the twentieth in 1751. Eventually, the twentieth became a mere increase in the already existing taille, the most important direct tax of the monarchy from which privileged classes were exempted. It was another defeat in the taxation war waged against the privileged classes. As a result of these attempts at reform, the Parlement of Paris, using the quarrel between the clergy and the Jansenists as a pretext, addressed remonstrances to the king in April 1753. In these remonstrances, the Parlement, made up of privileged aristocrats and ennobled commoners, proclaimed itself the “natural defender of the fundamental laws of the kingdom” against the arbitrariness of the monarchy.

During the reign of Louis XV, the parlements repeatedly challenged the crown for control over policy, especially regarding taxes and religion. The parlements had the duty to record all royal edicts and laws. Some, especially the Parlement of Paris, gradually acquired the habit of refusing to register legislation with which they disagreed until the king held a lit de justice or sent letters patent to force them to act. Furthermore, the parlements could pass certain regulations, which were laws that applied within their jurisdiction. In the years immediately before the start of the French Revolution in 1789, their extreme concern to preserve Ancien Régime institutions of noble privilege prevented France from carrying out many simple reforms, especially in the area of taxation, even when those reforms had the support of the king. Chancellor René Nicolas de Maupeou sought to reassert royal power by suppressing the parlements in 1770. A furious battle resulted and after King Louis XV died, the parlements were restored.

How were nobles 'promoted' in aristocracies? - History

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"For the significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions, in its vital memories, and he, the Prince, was the last of his house to have any unusual memories, anything different from those of other families. His grandson, Fabrizietto, would have only banal ones. embittered by the gadfly thought that others could outdo him in outward show."
&mdash Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard

You'll encounter their cultural legacy everywhere you go. Castles, palaces and piazzas all reflect the heritage of the aristocracy and its political arm, the peerage .

Like the Romans and Byzantines before them, Sicily's Saracens (Arabs) had an aristocracy, and while Sicily itself eventually became an emirate, the Arabs had nothing similar to the feudal system.

For several decades following their arrival in 1061, the Normans gradually introduced the feudal system throughout Sicily. By 1100, the transition was nearly complete. Except for demesnial towns, whose feudal rights and taxes appertained directly to the Crown, most of Sicily was a patchwork of towns and large farms (fiefs) belonging to the companions of Roger I and the various knights who followed him into Sicily. They held these estates in return for military service, but over the centuries it became common for the barons to render a tax (scutage) in lieu of this service.

An early twelfth-century record called the Catalogus Baronum lists the nobles of southern Italy and their feudal rights and duties. This is Italy's Domesday Book, but it deals only with the southern part of the peninsula, not Sicily. Nevertheless, it is clear from the Catalogus that the members of the new aristocracy based their surnames on toponyms. In other words, their surnames were in most instances the names of places they owned in Italy, rather than Normandy. This is why among the Sicilian aristocracy there are few surnames of Norman derivation. It is obvious that most of these knights, and even the de Hauteville dynasty itself, were of minor families of Normandy's nobility. Some might not have even been of the landed class of Normandy. Like their Viking forebears, many were simply adventurers in search of fortune. The more important families sent their sons to conquer England, not Italy. Over time, a number of Longobard families also arrived in Sicily.

In Sicily, feudalism did not entail serfdom. It did, however, permit the nobles (at first enfeoffed knights, then lords and vassals, and then barons) to tax and control the lands they held in fee from the King. This policy, however, applied only to feudal towns. Cities, and certain demesnial towns, such as Calascibetta and Piazza Armerina, appertained directly to the Crown, and thus fell outside the jurisdiction of the nobility.

The War of the Vespers (1282) spawned the earliest Sicilian "parliaments," most of which were little more than meetings of nobles. The first true parliament, a genuine legislative body, wasn't founded until the nineteenth century, based on the British model, and it included only the more important noblemen, designated "peers of the realm," whose estates had had particularly high revenues until feudalism was abolished in 1812.

The extinction of the de Hauteville and von Hohenstaufen dynasties by 1266 led to the brief Angevin rule of Sicily until the War of the Vespers. The Crown then passed, by consent of Sicily's nobles, to Peter of Aragon. This made it clear that the nobility, as a group, held effective control of Sicily, whomever the King or Viceroy might be.

Frankish succession (inheritance by male primogeniture) became the standard means of transmitting land and titles, though Longobard succession (inheritance by all heirs male) was practiced in certain Lombard families for some years.

Roger I was known as the "Count of Sicily." His son, Roger II, became a king, and with him Sicily became a kingdom. By the fourteenth century, the titles of baron and count were in wide use, whereas formerly the vassals were either seigneurs (lords) or cavalieri (knights). Under the Normans, the title seigneur was used to refer to most landed nobles. By the nineteenth century, these signori were designated baroni (barons), their holdings baronies, but from the fourteenth century onward frequent reference is made, collectively, to "barons" and "the baronage."

Contrary to popular belief, the title cavaliere ereditario (hereditary knight) was a late medieval development, though its name is based on the much older title of enfeoffed knight. Not being heirs, the younger sons (as opposed to the eldest sons) of feudatories (vassals) often went off to serve in the military orders, of which the best-known was the Order of the Hospital. This established the Sicilian practice, which existed into the nineteenth century, of referring to a titled nobleman's younger sons as "cavalieri" even though they were not actually knights.

Over the centuries, many prominent noble families were gradually promoted through the aristocratic ranks. By the eighteenth century, the titles of Noble Prince, Duke and Marquis were held by many men whose ancestors, just two centuries earlier, had been barons or signori.

The titles used in Sicily were: Prince, Duke, Marquis, Count, Baron, Lord, Noble (untitled nobleman), Hereditary Knight. Viscount, a rare title anywhere in Italy, was not a Sicilian title, and Patrician (Patrizio) was used primarily in the city-states and eventually Naples and Rome.

Certain families emerged as nobili (untitled nobles), something akin to England's landed gentry. They had coats of arms, aristocratic homes, and in some cases feudal rights. A number of these families descended from Sicily's Norman or Angevin nobility, perhaps from nobles who had lost their lands. Others resided in demesnial towns where several families emerged as local aristocrats as a result of their wealth and education. These families often remained in the countryside in spite of the exodus of the greater families from the country to the cities during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Rural mayors, town aldermen and other officials were often chosen from among such families.

In abandoning its affairs to surrogate managers, the greater aristocracy implicitly renounced much of the social power it had previously exercised in the countryside. In the Middle Ages, local lords (vassals) administered justice. By 1700, the stage was set for Sicily's rustic bandits to establish their own local power structure, though it took them decades to do so effectively.

At first, the absentee landlords entrusted management of their estates (latifondi) to trusted administrators, often members of the untitled noble families described above, but by 1800 many of the estates were managed by gabelloti, lesser-educated local men who hired farm workers and dealt with other day-to-day operation of the farms. Seen as little more than unrefined opportunists, the gabelloti were resented and disparaged by every social class but their own. In fact, their infiltration into rural society fostered development of the Mafia.

Until the abolition of feudalism, a man who purchased feudal property became the titular lord of that fief, usually a small barony. In this way, many gabelloti were ennobled in the late 1700s. It is for this reason that a degree of snobbery existed on the part of the greater nobility toward lesser nobles such as barons. This nouveau class exercised little real control in the Sicilian economy usually, their fiefs were little more than large farms. Larger towns and villages usually appertained to princes, dukes, and the occasional marquis.

With the abolition of feudalism, the nobility lost its last important privileges, particularly the right, with royal consent, to tax the residents of feudal townships, but the abolition of feudalism coincided with the establishment of a Sicilian Chamber of Peers based on the British model. This happened during the king's sojourn in Palermo, along with thousands of British troops, during the Napoleonic occupation of Naples. It was seen as compensation for the loss of feudal perquisites.

In 1860, Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Italy with the help of a rigged referendum allegedly "confirming" that 98 out of every 100 eligible male voters favored annexation. By then, the old nobility had lost much of its traditional power. A new bourgeoisie was rapidly emerging as an important social force, and with it a new criminal class.

Giuseppe Di Lampedusa's book, The Leopard, described these historical events at some length. Nobody could have predicted that his novel, written almost a century after the unification war of 1860, would top bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. If nothing else, the book's popularity indicates that there was still some interest in the Sicilian nobility long after its demise.

The Italian Senate, consisting almost entirely of titled aristocrats, was appointed by the king. In Sicily, the nobility still exercised a certain amount of political and economic control until the early 1900s. In terms of social prestige, perhaps, the nobility remained the most important class. In some ways it still is.

The Constitution of the Italian Republic did not abolish the use of noble titles, but established that they would not be recognized for use in legal documents after 1948. Furthermore, the Consulta Araldica, the government agency which regulated the use of titles of nobility, was abolished.

The Royal Family of Italy (the House of Savoy) still exists, of course. Prince Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia, son of the last King, Umberto II, lives in Switzerland, while his son Emanuele Filiberto, resides in Rome. Prince Carlo di Borbone (de Bourbon), the head of the House of the Two Sicilies, heir of the dynasty that ruled Sicily and most of southern Italy until 1860, divides his time between Rome and Monaco, with occasional visits to Naples and Palermo. His dynasty serves as a point of reference for the Sicilian nobility, and two royal residences in Palermo (the Chinese Villa) and Ficuzza (the Royal Hunting Lodge) are a silent testament to the family's past presence here. Both dynasties maintain the tradition of chivalry by bestowing honours in orders of knighthood.

The twenty-first century descendants of the Sicilian nobility comprise a fraying, loosely-woven tapestry of their caste. Membership in their club in Palermo, the Circolo Bellini, is reserved to descendants of titled noble families, but the aristocracy itself has suffered the effects of modern social ills divorces and unwed births are not unknown, and many children of aristocratic families behave in a profligate, even promiscuous, way that makes them indistinguishable from "everybody else." The effects of such behavior are especially obvious since most of the noble families have lost the other trappings that formerly distinguished them from the middle classes - their great homes, for example.

A few noblemen have preserved some vestige of traditional dignity as knights of the chivalric orders, which are still largely aristocratic organisations, but little else remains of their former grandeur. Even coats of arms, which in times past distinguished noble families from ordinary ones, can now be created and sold. At fairs, they are even printed using computers and sold to the general public, so that anybody coincidentally named Lanza can hang an image on his wall implying that he is a descendant of the Lanzas who were Princes of Trabia. (And so vast is the market in bogus titles of nobility that one can never be certain whether the man introduced as a count really is one.)

To some extent, it is a sense of historical memory, if not continuity, that distinguishes Sicily's aristocratic families from others, but here we are reduced to generalities. For example, most noblemen did not support the revolution of 1848 or the arrival of Piedmontese troops twelve years later, and in many noble families a certain oral tradition of these facts has been passed down to descendants born in the twentieth century (at variance with the nationalist revisionism taught in Italian schools). This is the kind of historical knowledge less likely to be passed down in other families. It is also true that certain noblemen - being quite secure socially - don't share most Italians' obssession with the superficial don't expect a nobleman to base his self-esteem or social status on possession of a Rolex watch. Today, the main distinction of Sicily's great noble families are their histories and the titles they bear.

One of the best general books on the history and traditions of the European nobility is Robert Lacey's Aristocrats (London, Boston, Toronto 1983), which describes titled families of five countries, including Italy.

The Delusion That Made Nobles Think Their Bodies Were Made of Glass

One day in the late 1840s, Princess Alexandra Amelie, the 23-year-old daughter of the recently abdicated King Ludwig I of Bavaria, was making her way through the corridors of the family palace. Her relatives noticed that the obsessive, highly intelligent young woman—who only wore the color white—was acting even stranger than usual. Alexandra Amelie was walking sideways through doorways and labyrinthine hallways, tiptoeing and carefully turning her body so that nothing would touch her.

When asked by her family what she was doing, the Princess explained that she had just discovered something remarkable. As a child, she had swallowed a full-sized grand piano made entirely of glass. It now resided inside her—wholly intact𠅊nd would shatter if faced with any sudden movement.

Surprisingly, Alexandra Amelie’s odd fixation was not an unheard-of disorder. The princess was, in fact, following in a long tradition of royals, nobles and scholars who believed that all or certain parts of their bodies were made of clear, fragile glass. Known as “the glass delusion,” this psychological malady, first recorded in the Middle Ages, would become quite common before virtually dying out in the late 19th century. It was so well known that it would be mentioned by Rene Descartes, Denis Diderot and in scholar Robert Burton’s 1621 medical compendium, Anatomy of Melancholy.

Alexandra Amelie, daughter of Ludwig I of Bavaria. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

One of the first recorded patients to suffer from this delusion was probably its most famous victim. King Charles VI (1368�) had ascended the throne of France at the age of 11. Handsome, judicial and charismatic, he had spearheaded reform efforts after taking over from his corrupt regents in 1388—streamlining the royal bureaucracy and surrounding himself with enlightened advisors. These actions led him to be nicknamed Charles “the beloved.” But in 1392, he suffered a psychotic break (believed to be his first manifestation of schizophrenia), which would lead to sporadic violent episodes and periods of inertia and confusion for the rest of his life.

Charles “the beloved,” was now known as Charles “the mad.” Allegedly, the king had spells where he believed his body was made entirely of glass. To keep himself from “shattering,” Charles would stay motionless for hours, wrapped in piles of thick blankets. When he did have to move, he did so in a special garment, which included iron “ribs” to protect his glass organs.

King Charles VI of France in his bedchamber with servants and ministers. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Over the next few centuries, the delusion spread to the courts, monasteries and universities of Europe. According to researcher Gill Speak, who wrote the definitive paper on the glass delusion in 1990, two notable 16th-century doctors𠅊lfonso Ponce de Santa Cruz, the physician to Philip II of Spain, and Andre du Laurens, physician to Henry IV of France—told the story of an unnamed royal who believed he was not a human, but a glass vase. According to du Laurens, the nobleman was otherwise highly intelligent and well spoken.

The royal spent much of his time lying on a bed of straw to protect himself. Fed up, the man’s physician ordered that his bed of straw be set on fire and that the door to the man’s room be locked. When the man began to beat on the door begging for help, the doctor asked him why he wasn’t shattering despite the violent movements. The ploy worked. “Open, I am begging you, my friends and dearest servants,” the royal cried, according to PhD candidate Elena Fabietti, whose work focuses on the cultural history of transparent humans. “I don’t think I am a glass vase but just the most miserable of all men especially if you will let this fire put an end to my life.”

There are recorded references throughout the Middle Ages and into the 17th century of people who believed they possessed glass hearts, feet and heads. Others thought they were actually glass flasks. Men seem to have had a certain predilection for glass buttocks, which would shatter if they sat down without a pillow strapped to their behinds. Nicole du Plessis, a relation of France’s all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu, suffered from this particular delusion. Another man believing he possessed a glass rear end was beaten by his doctor, in the hopes he would realize it was his flesh that was sore from the thrashing.

Human heart made of glass. (Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Alamy Stock Photo)

Many who suffered from a glass delusion, including Princess Alexandra Amelie and King Charles VI, were considered exceptional people of great intelligence and ingenuity. Depictions of unusually clever victims of the disorder popped up in popular plays and literature over the centuries, most notably in Miguel de Cervantes’ short story El licenciado Vidriera  (known variously in English as The Glass Graduate, Doctor Glass-Case and The Glass Lawyer), published in 1613. In it, a brilliant young lawyer called Tomas Rodaja is the victim of a love potion that causes him to believe he is made of glass. He renames himself Vidriera (window) and gives honest counsel to many, unencumbered by the bonds of flesh:

“He asked people to address him from a distance, and he said that they might ask what questions they liked, because he was a man of glass, not 󻀮sh, and since glass is of subtle and delicate matter, the soul works through it with more speed and efficiency than through the material of the normal body, which is heavy and earthy.”

So what exactly was the cause of this peculiar manifestation of mental illness? Scholars at the time, including Burton, attributed it to the now discredited diagnosis of melancholy𠅊 kind of noble depression, often linked to aristocracy and genius. In the case of royals, contemporary psychologists speculate that believing one was glass could have been a way of expressing how vulnerable, fragile and exposed they felt in their public positions. It was a way of expressing humanity, sensitivity and perhaps a desire to be left alone.

“He shouted in the most terrible way,” Cervantes wrote in El licenciado Vidriera, �gging and pleading with predetermined words and expressions that no one come near because they would break him, that he really and truly was not like other men, that he was all glass from head to toe.”

Interestingly, at the time, glass—particularly clear glass—was a precious, novel commodity, mostly found in royal palaces, churches and government buildings. According to Professor Edward Shorter, a historian of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, fixations with innovative materials have been reported throughout history. Before the glass delusion, there were people who believed their bodies were composed of earthenware, and during the 19th century, people started to believe they were made of the dominant construction material of the day: concrete. Our modern-day delusions tend to involve technology: sufferers may believe the government has planted a microchip in their brain or that a computer is constantly monitoring them.

What people with these delusions have in common is that they all feel fragile. Indeed, when the author Giovanni Boccaccio was despairingly called a “man of glass” in 1393, he responded with a retort that could be understood by every human𠅏rom a high-born princess to a lowly pauper, notes Elena Fabietti in A Body of Glass, The case of El lienciaco Vidriera.

“We are all glass men, subjected to innumerable dangers,” he wrote in a written response to his critic. “The slightest touch would break us, and we would return to nothing.”

Downtown Abbey: The estate of the Earls of Grantham and their family through generations. But has seen hard times since the Earl only has daughters and his closest two heirs had gone down with the RMS Titanic. Luckily the new heir is a handsome young lawyer who has a shine to his oldest daughter.

Though Americans may adore Downton Abbey, there are plenty of viewers on my side of the Atlantic Ocean may be somewhat confused about the British Title System within its centuries old aristocracy which traces its origins to the Middle Ages and the feudal system. Yes, there are kings and queens as well as princes and princesses. However, there are other kinds of nobles as well and there’s even a hierarchy of peerage. As Americans might see them, these are incredibly rich nobles who live in some castle or big fancy house. Nevertheless, getting titles and styles correct for someone who’s not “to the manner born,” which of course, is the point. In fact, the complexities of the honor system served to weed out posers, fraudsters, and plain old liars. Of course, as you see on Downton Abbey, you tend to see broke aristocrats as well as rich and successful commoners. And some of these incredibly rich commoners can get titles, too. But they’re usually knighted, but they can receive higher honors, especially if they do something of incredible significance. So the title system can get very complicated to say the least in the United Kingdom. However, I’ll try my best to explain the kinds of nobles you see on Downton Abbey as simply as I could. It may not be as exact because there’s so much to discuss. But it’ll just be the basics. But before we go on, I’ll give you a heads up on some of the types first:

Royalty: A class and law unto themselves. Even now there are those who consider everyone not born into it (like dukes, duchesses, the Queen Mother, and Princess Kate) little better than commoners.

Nobility: Peers of the realm, each of whom passes on his title –or as often, package of titles-to his oldest son (if he has one). Originally the whole business had to do with ownership of land, discharge of feudal obligations, and the wielding of actual power rather than with mere wealth and privilege. However, in the last few centuries, though, it’s only that such hereditary peers (who come in 5 strengths), together with few “life” peers (who come in only one and whose titles ae not bequeathable) and Church of England bigwigs, sit together in the House of Lords and continue, with their wives and children, to provide England with her lords and ladies-and her much-debated class system. Note: Most of the female counterparts here are more often the wives. However, if the woman is the oldest daughter in the family with no male heirs, she becomes a titled noble in her own right (so Lady Mary could’ve become Countess of Grantham, if it weren’t for Matthew being in the picture). Wives of male peers can share their husband’s social rank like the Countess of Grantham but husbands of female peers do not (mostly because they didn’t want their husbands to be mistaken for being their wives’ subordinates instead of their lords and masters. Clearly, no red-blooded man in those days would tolerate that. However, this wasn’t the case prior to the Tudor era since husbands of female peers could assume titles through marriage and exercise their wives’ authority. Because in the Middle Ages, marrying a peeress was a ticket to living in a castle and becoming lord of the manor so they absolutely didn’t give as shit). However, until 1963, women who held a peerage in their own right couldn’t sit on the House of Lords. By the way the hierarchy of peerage from highest to lowest consists of duke, marquess, earl, viscount, and baron.

Lesser Nobility: Depending on your point of view, titled commoners. Come in 2 sizes: baronet and knight. Don’t look for either in the House of Lords. One title is hereditary, the other is not.

The Gentry: They can be of birth as high and breeding and fine as the nobility. In fact, many of them are the descendants of that nobility’s younger sons and daughters (like Matthew Crawley who had a direct ancestor as the Earl of Grantham along somewhere). But as intimidating as their manners and as awesome as their fortunes may be, what they lack is in titles. As the people of Burke’s Peerage point out, the English gentry are the only untitled aristocracy in the world.

So now that’s cleared up, I give you a list of the British upper crust to help you sort some questions out when you’re watching Downton Abbey.

Female Counterpart: Queen. A reigning king’s wife is referred to as Queen Consort (or Princess Consort as Camilla will be when Prince Charles becomes king). A reigning queen’s husband is referred to as Prince Consort (as with Prince Philip though it’s not official with him and he’s technically the royal Duke of Edenborough. However, it was with Prince Albert, but not until he was married to Victoria for 17 years and he was only called that by the British Elite because of their barely concealed xenophobia and that he had no other British title, so as a backhanded compliment in the sense of, “okay, you’re a prince who happens to be married to a queen so we’ll call you that.”).

Description: The reigning sovereign monarch. Mostly inaccessible, but easy to distinguish. Usually inherited by the oldest surviving child of the predecessor (normally the oldest son but there’s a way of succession if one shouldn’t be available. Then it would go to that heir’s children and then to monarch’s other children and their kids. Queen Victoria ascension is an example to this since she became queen after her uncle King William IV died . Her father was the 4 th son of King George III. And 3 of his sons were still alive at the time. However, before Victoria was born, King George III had only one legitimate heir named Princess Charlotte, daughter of the future King George IV and Caroline of Brunswick . At 21, Charlotte died after giving birth to a stillborn son which set off tremendous morning among the British as well as kicked off a major succession crisis. This led to King George III’s younger unmarried sons to ditch their mistresses, marry, and procreate. Edward, Duke of Kent would be the first one to do so successfully 18 months later with Victoria’s birth).

Way of Address: Upon meeting the monarch, bow or curtsy-depending on your gender- and say “your majesty.” Say “sir” or “ma’am” thereafter.

On Downton Abbey this is: Why King George V and his wife Queen Consort Mary of Teck. However, Prince Edward of Wales and Prince Albert Duke of York would both become Kings Edward VIII and George VI respectively. King George was seen as a stolid, conservative, and reliable monarch. Queen Mary was an icy cold bitch who compulsively stole jewelry. Both carried an image of dignity and were highly popular.

Prince of Wales: The heir apparent to the English throne who everyone’s dreading the day he becomes king. Likes to party and have affairs with married women. Seems polite and courteous who is willing to dance with a debutante whose family helped recover some incriminating love letters. However, they basically helped covering up an affair that almost everyone in Britain knows about as well as the fact he’s a royal pain in the ass. Destined to give up the throne in favor of his stammering little brother within the next decade.

Female Counterpart: Princess, either as consort or in her own right.

Description: This one is a bit complicated. They’re usually the offspring of the reigning monarch or their predecessors. They could also be the grandchildren of the sovereign through a sovereign’s or their predecessor’s sons. This might also apply to the grandchildren of the heir presumptive as well in the case of Prince George and Princess Charlotte. Also, a reigning queen’s husband is technically a prince, too like Prince Albert or Prince Philip (though the latter doesn’t seem to mind as much as the former did). On the continent of Europe, the title of prince doesn’t necessarily pertain to royalty. In France, princes usually rank below dukes. Russian princes are usually not direct members of the royal family either. Czarist children were known as Grand Dukes or Grand Duchesses.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, bow or curtsy and say “your royal highness.” Refer to them as “sir” or ma’am” thereafter.

On Downton Abbey this is: Prince Edward of Wales and Prince Albert, Duke of York. Still, while Prince Edward is seen as rather courteous and polite on the show, keep in mind that in real life he was an insufferable, selfish, and absolute jerk who liked to party and chase skirts. His tryst with Freda Dudley Ward was public knowledge as well as his relationship with Wallis Simpson later on. Even his family thought he was a royal pain in the ass that his old man hoped he’d never have kids so Bertie and the future Elizabeth II could take the throne after him. The public couldn’t care less for him either as if “that guy is going to succeed King George.” Oh, and he thought Hitler was awesome. Let’s just say abdicating the throne in favor of his little brother with a speech impediment was the best thing he ever did for his country.

Duke: An aristocrat of the highest peerage grade who comes to Downton looking for a rich heiress to marry. Knowing the estate an entail of significant assets, he’s willing to flirt with the oldest daughter. But renounces her after her daddy told her he has no intention to contest the entail. Also serves to show that the designated bad boy of the staff bats for the other team (but views him as a disposable play-thing).

Female Counterpart: Duchess, either as a consort or in her own right.

Description: Highest degree of British peerage. First English dukedom was created in 1337, and are usually a rare and much deferred to breed so they have a couple dozen in number. While the monarch’s sons can be referred to as dukes, but they’re “royal dukes” and relatives to the sovereign, but it’s more of a title such as the Duke of York. Also serves as a reward for military such as the Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of Winston Churchill) or Wellington (for defeating Napoleon). In Europe, dukes controlled vast areas like Bavaria and Normandy and pretty much called their own shots. Hell, in countries like France (and sometimes Russia), they could’ve even outranked princes. In some areas, they even ruled domains to their own like monarchs called duchies (such as in Luxembourg today). By the way, in England, royal dukedoms become non-royal after the second generation.

Way of Address: Upon meeting, say “your grace.” Same goes for his wife.

On Downton Abbey this is: There’s a few such as the Duke of Crowborough and the Duchess of Yeovil.

Marquess: An aristocrat of the second highest British peerage grade, who is a cousin by marriage to the Earl of Grantham who serves as a reliable government contact whenever they’re in need of someone to pull strings. Hosted a great event at his Scottish Duneagle castle in which he announces that he’s broke, is planning to sell up, and is taking a job. Leaves his bratty teenage daughter for the Earl and his family to babysit in the meantime. Wife is a real bitch to everyone and he’s planning to divorce her by Season 5.

Female Counterpart: Marchioness, either as consort or in her own right.

Description: Second highest British peerage, which is the least familiar to Americans (though we’re familiar with the French “marquis” but that’s because of Puss and Boots). Also, it’s pronounced “MAR-kwiss” and “MAR-shuness” and it comes from the old word “march” meaning border territory. Of course, it helps to explain that the first marquesses who were lords granted lands along the borders of Scotland and Wales. And they were considered important because they were guarding the realm from dangerous foreigners. It wasn’t well received at first since the first two honorees complained but eventually, with Tudor persistence, it gained acceptance. Was used as a reward to viceroys of India upon their return home, and in 1917, a compensation for George V’s relatives when he made them give up their obviously inappropriate German titles. There are almost as few marquesses around as dukes.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “my lord.” Address his wife as, “madam.”

On Downton Abbey this is: The Marquess and Marchioness of Flintshire (also known as the MacClares).

Earl: An aristocrat of the Middle British Peerage grade who’s the lord and master of Downton Abbey. Is a likeable man as well as a wonderful boss, husband, father, and benefactor but has his moments of noble douchery whenever those close to him reject the good old ways he always he takes pride in. That and whenever they try to challenge his power to save the estate. Is a complete idiot when it comes to economics and financial management. Don’t be rude to diss the aristocracy or try to get in his wife’s pants. Also, don’t mess with his mom who’s a real force to be reckoned with.

Female Counterpart: Countess, either as consort or in her own right.

Description: Third rung of the peerage system. As the marquess title is the English equivalent of a marquis, the earl is the English equivalent to a count. This is a very old and uniquely English title that has been around since Saxon times when it was the English equivalent to a European duke. Tough William the Conqueror tried to replace it with “count” the English people wouldn’t buy it mostly because to them at the time, the word had the aural similarity to a certain word for an undignified part of the body. Besides, it was the only hereditary title around at the time and it very damn well should have a native flavor (though lack of female equivalent led to women having to accept the title “countess.”)Comes from the Old English word “eorl” meaning “man of position.” Today there are 200 earldoms. Can be a reward for particularly effective prime ministers when they retire like Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield, and Anthony Eden, Earl of Avon.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “my lord.” Address his wife as, “madam.”

On Downton Abbey this is: Why, the Earl of Grantham of course. You also have the Countess and Dowager Countess of Grantham as well. The Lord Chamberlain of the Household (his name was

Rowland Thomas Baring 2 nd Earl of Cromer. He was also a diplomat. Served as a subaltern of the Grenadier Guards in WWI).

Viscount: An aristocrat of the second lowest grade of the British Peerage, who dumps his fiancee when a girl he’s had a crush on when he was young suddenly becomes available. Yet, after they spend a sex-filled weekend together, he becomes a real entitled jerk when she decides to dump his ass. Valet is a known serial rapist who gets his ultimate comeuppance. But not without causing a major inconvenience on some of Downton’s staff.

Female Counterpart: Viscountess, either as consort or in her own right.

Description: Second lowest on the British title system. Pronounced “VYE-count” and “VYE-countess.” Originally designated as the guy who stood in for the count or in England, the earl (think of the “vis-“ in “viscount” being like “vice” in “vice president” and you’ll see what I mean.” The most recent of the 5 grades of peerage which was in 1440. An accepted way to say thank you to a good speaker to the House of Commons.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “my lord.” Address his wife as, “madam.”

On Downton Abbey this is: Viscount Gillingham. You know, the guy who Mary had sex with in Season 5 before she dumped him and he became a real dick to her. Also, had a valet whose a serial rapist and brutally raped Anna during that recital by Dame Nellie Melba.

Baron: An aristocrat at the lowest grade of peerage, who romances a middle class widow after her son tragically died in a tragic accident with his sports car. A sweet, genial man with an interest in medicine, he’s a perfect gentlemen. Unfortunately for him, his two sons are absolute pricks.

Female Counterpart: Baroness, either as consort or in her own right.

Description: Lowest rank on the peerage totem pole. Originally took in Englishmen whose ancestors had fought during the Middle Ages in Wales, Scotland, or France, and more recently a number of industrialists and trade union leaders (who are generally given this title only for life). As demonstration for their lack of precedence, barons are never referred to by their title, merely as Lord So-and-So. His wife is always Lady So-and-So, never the baroness. Sometimes a given name sneaks in as with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In the Middle Ages, they were the King’s tenants in chief and giving the owner, whether by inheritance or by acquisition, a bundle of land, minerals, and other rights including those of public justice and privilege. In the 13 th century, some were among the first Parliamentarians. Then there are life barons, given by writ that might you a seat in the House of Lords but can’t be inherited. Before recent times, a lot of these life peerages were granted to women, such as the ennobled mistresses of King Charles II.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “my lord.” Address his wife as, “madam.”

On Downton Abbey this is: There’s a bunch like Baron Hepworth, Baron and Baroness Sinderby, Baron Merton, and Baron Aysgarth.

Baronet: A lesser nobleman who’s friends with the earl and strikes a romance with his middle daughter who’s 30 years younger. After his war injury, it becomes abundantly clear that he’d rather dump the poor girl at the altar than rob the cradle.

Female Counterpart: Baronetess, either as a consort or in her own right (though there have only been 4 of them and they’re usually addressed as “Dame”).

Description: Title means, “little baron.” It’s said that in 1611, King James I, needing capital, instigated, “a new designate between barons and knights,” open to anyone whose paternal grandfather bore arms, who possessed an annual income of at least £1,000, and who was willing to make a £1,095 down payment. While these guys were not, under any circumstances, to see themselves as noble, they were encouraged to adopt the style of Sir Joe Schmo, Bt., and they could pass on to their oldest son.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “Sir” and his first name. Address his wife as “Lady” and her last name.

On Downton Abbey this is: Sir Anthony Strallan, one of Lord Robert’s friends as well as the guy who left Edith at the altar. Another is Sir John Bullock who’s a drunken upper class twit.

Knight: A lesser noble who an Earl’s daughter hooks up with whenever her one true love is unavailable and doesn’t want the public know about how she lost her virginity. A ruthless newspaperman with a vicious streak a mile wide and a network of informants to give him scoops. Is willing to use blackmail when he notices that the earl’s daughter clearly interested in her one true love. Gets a wonderful thrashing at the end of Season 2.

Female Counterpart: Dame, but only in their own right. A knight’s consort is always addressed as, “Lady.” A dame’s consort gets no special distinction whatsoever. Same goes for male spouses of knights (like husbands of Sir Elton John, Sir Ian McKellen, and Sir Derek Jacobi).

Description: In the Middle Ages, the knight was the most significant figure in the feudal system, a mounted horseman who fought for his liege and lord (but more often for himself) and defended the honor of his lady (well, a noble lady who he’s supposed to be with, anyway). For some time, it’s been the most frequently conferred “dignity” in England by far for a male recipient. Guaranteed for one lifetime and one lifetime only.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “Sir.” Address his wife as “Lady.” As for dames, just address her as, “Dame” and her first name.

On Downton Abbey this is: Sir Richard Carlisle and Sir Philip Tapsell. Neither of them are nice guys. For the dames, we have Dame Nellie Melba (Helen “Nellie” Porter Mitchell) who was the first successfully Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician. Off-screen, there’s Dame Maggie Smith who portrays the Dowager Countess.

Esquire: The designation you give to a Manchester lawyer who’s just become Downton Abbey’s new heir as well as the destined love interest for the Earl of Grantham’s oldest daughter, thanks to a couple of guys dying on the Titanic. Despite ups and downs as well as belligerent sexual tension, they eventually manage to get married and produce a kid. And in the meantime, he also helps save Downton with his professional savvy in finance law and his inheritance from his ex-fiancee’s dad. Can recover from paralysis in record time. Fated to be crushed by his own fancy sports car after seeing the birth of his son at the end of Season 3.

Female Counterpart: Not sure if there is one, since this is usually reserved for regular guys in line to nobility on the show.

Description: In the Middle Ages, the esquire (or squire) attended the knight and carried his gear. Once the Middle Ages were over, it was later used to apply to, “the sons of peers, the sons of baronets, the sons of knights, the eldest sons of the younger sons of peers, the eldest son of the eldest son of a knight, his sons in perpetuity, the king of arms, the herald of a knight, officers of the Army or Navy of the rank of captain and upward, sheriffs of counties for life, J.P’s of counties whilst in commission, serjeant-at-arms, Queen’s counsel…” well, you get the picture. It’s basically a catchall with connotations of both rank and real estate, and a way of appeasing any number of people who would otherwise risk seeming, in the eyes of the world, no better than their neighbors. It didn’t really work out. Because when the Victorians reserved “esquire” for the landed gentry and withheld it from commercial and industrial types, the word had lost-through careless usage-almost all of its distinction. Today the entire male population of Britain and Ireland can regularly be addressed as “Esq.” (after their name taking the place of “Mr.” before it, of course) by mail-order houses and book clubs. As for squires who were the big country landowners who exercised authority and financial leverage over their districts and villages, spoke in provincial dialect, and rode hounds, they were extinguished by the 19 th century by the increasing taxes and creeping urbanism of the industrial revolution. Besides, it wasn’t much of an honor or even a slot in the hierarchy as a way of life, anyway. Good luck finding those guys at Downton Abbey.

Way of Address: There’s no official way to address them.

On Downton Abbey this is: Matthew Crawley and Charles Blake. George Crawley counts as well since his dad was smashed by his sports car during a collision.

Female Counterpart: Uh, gentlewoman?

Description: Historically, being of “gentle” birth, entitled to bear arms, owning at least 300 acres of land, but lacking the larger distinction of being an esquire, let alone a knight or better. For more than a century now the word has almost no agreed-upon meaning at all. However, in Jane Austen’s day, it was still something to keep in mind. For instance, Mr. Collins would qualify as a gentlemen and an appropriate suitor for Elizabeth Bennett despite being a fool, a clergyman, and her cousin. Not only that, but her best friend Charlotte Lucas who’s a knight’s daughter no less, was happy to land him. Then again, she was 27 and probably looking for a guy to settle down with. Seriously, I’m sure Mr. Collins wasn’t her first choice.

Way of Address: There’s no official way to address them.

On Downton Abbey this is: Matthew Crawley and Charles Blake might qualify at another time. But you’ll have a better time finding one in Austen.

Female Counterpart: Uh, yeowoman?

Description: These are small, independent farmers who like squires, would be forced out of existence by the pressurized ways of 19 th century life. Yet, until their demise, they had a reputation for being sturdy, hardworking, sometimes even educated, and possessed the kind of integrity that England is always tapping on your shoulder to tell you it has. Respectable, landowning, and can even vote. However, in the world of Austen, these guys aren’t as marriageable to women of good means.

Way of Address: No official way to address them.

On Downton Abbey this is: These guys were gone before the show even started. Most of the farmers you see on there are tenants on some aristocrat’s land.

Noble Daughter: While lovely in her own way due to a lifetime of privilege and fancy clothes, is basically as an inheritor to her daddy’s estate due to being born without a penile appendage. Oldest is usually used to set up with male heirs who are most likely her cousins. Fortunately, there’s an attractive attorney from Manchester set to inherit the estate. And he’s taken a shine to Lady Mary. Nevertheless, each girl tends to stir up trouble and cause scandal in their own way whether through wearing dungarees and running off with a politically radical chauffeur, losing her virginity to a Turkish envoy who suddenly died in her bed, or falling pregnant out of wedlock to a married newspaperman who ends up killed by Nazis.

As for the nobleman’s kids: In general, only the oldest son comes out on top, but not until the old man croaks. In the meantime, when Daddy is still the duke, marquess, or earl, the son is awarded a “courtesy title.” For instance, had Matthew Crawley managed to outlive his father-in-law and distant cousin, the Earl of Grantham, then his son George would’ve been addressed as “Viscount Downton” until the major title came free. But since Matthew got smashed in a collision with a truck, then George just be regular “Mr. George Crawley” until his granddaddy joins the choir invisible. As for eldest sons of barons and viscounts: well, they’ll just have to wait. They, and everyone else in the second generation, make do-most of them for life-with what’s called a courtesy style. If you’re lucky (supposing daddy is a duke or marquess), you’re “Lord” or “Lady” like Lady Rose MacClare or Lord Joe So-and-So. Also, if you’re a daughter of an earl, you get “Lady” put before your name, too like Lady Mary Crawley. If you’re not so lucky, you get a simple, “The Hon.” (read: “The Honourable”) to put before your name. Think Lord Merton’s asshole kids like the The Hon. Larry Grey as well as The Hon. Madeleine Allsop. If the Earl of Grantham had boys, then his sons would be referred to as “the Honourable,” too, save for the eldest who’d naturally be “Viscount of Downton” and be referred to as “Lord” (so it probably was better that Lord Grantham only had girls). As for the grandchildren, unless they belong to the oldest son, they’re on their own. A key example would be Winston Churchill who despite being of noble birth and the oldest son, had to make it on his own because his dad Lord Randolph Churchill was the 3 rd son of the 7 th Duke of Marlborough. As for any illegitimate noble spawn, well, little T. E. Lawrence is certainly not going to inherit his daddy Sir John Chapman’s baronetcy since he’s was the second oldest son of the guy and his daughters’ governess. Oh, and the guy was married to another woman at the time.

What percentage of medieval societies were nobles, clergy, middle class and peasants?

I've studied history for years, and don't think I've ever seen an analysis I trust providing a breakdown of how many nobles, peasants, middle-class/freemen and clergy were in a medieval European society.

I'm guessing what applied in Hungary didn't apply in England too but Iɽ love to see a breakdown. I'm also pretty sure that regions varied over time. Anyone have access to clear thinking on how many people belonged to the various classes in medieval life?

As far as I remember in Hungary the percentage of the nobility was 2-3% until the 16th century and after the Turkish wars, in the 18th century somewhere over 5%, because of the long wars. In Poland it was around 10% (that was the highest in Europe), in France it was 1-2% in 1789. England was a special case as it had a larger free population than the continental Europe. I guess that the free part of the population was around 5-15% everywhere with more noblemen in the east and more free townspeople in the west until the abolition of serfdom. If you need sources I can try to find some later.


The right of ownership regarding the land depended mainly on succession.

The people who settle a new village or who brought wastelands under cultivation, belong to the respective villages. These villagers became the owners of these lands.

The considerable section of the zamindars had the hereditary right of collecting land revenue from their respective villages. This was called his ‘talluqa’ or his ‘zamindari.’

For collecting the land revenue, the zamindars received a share of the land revenue which could go up to 25 percent.

The zamindars, not necessarily “owner” of all the lands over which he collected the land revenue.

The peasants who actually cultivated the land could not be dispossessed as long as they paid the land revenue. Thus the zamindars and the peasants, both had their own hereditary rights in land.

The zamindars had their own armed forces (to collect the land revenue), and generally resided in the forts or garhis which were both a place of refuge and a symbol of status.

The zamindars generally had, close connections with the caste, clan, or tribal basis and also with the peasants settled in their zamindaris.

In addition to these zamindars, there was a large class of religious divines and learned men who in return for their services, were granted tracts of land for their maintenance. In Mughal terminology, such grants were popular as ‘milk’ or ‘madad-i-maash’ and in Rajasthani terminology, it was popular as ‘shasan.’

The Aristocracy

There are rare cases where the lower ranks may be independent sovereigns but normally they governed a region of a larger state.


The kingdoms of Medieval Europe were frequently split up into counties, which as the name implies were governed by counts. But if the subdivision was on the border, particularly a border that needed to be defended, it was frequently the domain of a marquess, who had more soldiers than the count because he was defending the border. As he had more soldiers he had a higher title, marquess.

The marquess rules a border area called a march or mark, for example, Denmark. Of course, today Denmark has a king so it should be Daneland, or the king should be a marquess, but I digress.


The more normal subdivision of the kingdom was the county governed by a count. In England, the counts are called earls. However, the earl's wife is not an earless, she is a countess. The country is split up into counties, and the next title down from earl is viscount. All of this illustrates that an earl was really a count. But it was not always that way. Historically, before the Norman conquest in 1066 earls had been more powerful, the equivalent of continental dukes. But aristocrats that powerful can revolt so they reduced the earls from the equivalent of dukes to the equivalent of counts.


The next step below a count or an earl is a viscount, essentially a vice-count.


Finally, the barons are the lowest level of the aristocracy. They governed the smallest manors granted by the king, and were the lowest rank with the right to attend parliament as a lord.

Aristocracy and its Enemies in the Age of Revolution

When the National Assembly of revolutionary France abolished the status of nobility in June 1790, one aristocratic opponent, the comte de Landenberg-Wagenbourg, cried out in the chamber that nobles might submit to the law, but would “live with the blood with which they were born… nothing can prevent them living and dying as gentlemen”.

Little did his opponents know that they were helping to solidify this concept of an aristocratic caste. After the French Revolution, nobility indeed became something carried in the blood, a marker of distant ancestry, defended to this day by ardent genealogists. But ironically, before the Revolution, nobility was far more likely to be something that had been earned, or indeed bought, by far more recent ancestors, if not by still-living individuals themselves. Yet such individuals were buying into an idea whose value lay, at least in part, in the simultaneous myth of nobility as a separate and ancient race.

These are among the paradoxes that William Doyle ably and elegantly explores in this incisively-written volume. Nobility in France famously gave rise to a “cascade of disdain”, and the feeling was often reciprocated upwards. The philosopher Montesquieu in the 1740s wrote of aristocrats’ value-system: “Ambition in idleness, lowness in pride, the desire to grow rich without work, aversion to truth, flattery, treason, perfidy”, and the list went on. But Montesquieu was very proud of his own nobility as a member of Bordeaux’s judicial elite.

Everyone hated the nobility, but everyone – at least up to the eve of 1789 – wanted to get into it. Peasants had to endure bourgeois interlopers buying up the feudal rights of their overlords, and the state sucked in huge revenues (and accrued huge liabilities) by selling official positions, because both systems could put men, and their descendants, on the ladder to noble status.

Extraordinarily, even revolutionary Americans were not immune from this fever. Though state constitutions, and eventually the US Constitution itself, resolutely forbade the establishment of “any title of nobility”, former officers eager to commemorate their service in the War of Independence set up the Order of the Cincinnati, a hereditary body that provoked a serious political scare among opponents of privilege.

Its Latin motto might have had grammar so bad that a British diplomat scoffed “a boy of ten years old would have been flogged at Eton” for writing it, but George Washington himself had to intervene to calm a rising political storm, persuading the Cincinnati to renounce heredity. Tellingly, they did so only temporarily, until opposition died down, and survive, like the French nobility, as a hereditary caste to this day.

French nobles who had served in America also flocked to become Cincinnati in the 1780s – it was another decoration to parade on their chests, in an era when nobles did not go out in public without full regalia – and they also flocked back, two decades later, to a France which under Napoleon was re-establishing social distinctions.

The new-minted emperor, it is true, wanted to see “the old nobility… completely rooted out”, but his solution was not egalitarianism, but an elevation of state service as the only criterion of admission to a new hierarchy of dukes, counts and barons. He also insisted that his nobles had a financial base of inalienable landholdings, reflecting later from St Helena that “it is very hard to see a fool, who inherits a fortune built up over five hundred years, lose it by the throw of a dice”. Coming from an old but impoverished noble family, he knew whereof he spoke.

This and many other intriguing insights are on offer in this book, which falls down perhaps only in not giving more than an occasional sideways glance at the even more persistent survival of nobility in the British state.

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