aristocracy (ăr´Ĭstŏk´rəsē) [Gr.,=rule by the best], in political science, government by a social elite. In the West the political concept of aristocracy derives from Plato's formulation in the Republic. The criteria on which aristocracy is based may vary greatly from society to society. Historically, aristocracies have usually rested on landed property, have invoked heredity, and, despite frequent conflicts with the throne, have flourished chiefly within the framework of monarchy. Aristocracy may be based on wealth as well as land, as in ancient Carthage and medieval Venice, or may be a theocracy like the Brahman caste in India. Other criteria can be age, race, military prowess, or cultural attainment. The best example of a modern landowning aristocracy that conducted government was in England from 1688 to 1832. A resurgence by the French aristocracy in the 18th cent. was ended by the French Revolution, which abolished most of the privileges on which it was based. Inflation, which cut into the fixed income of the aristocracy, the loss of the traditional military role of the aristocracy, and the rise of industry and decline in the importance of landed property have all worked against the aristocracy. Today the political power of traditional western aristocracy has all but disappeared.

See J. H. Kautsky, The Politics of Aristocratic Empires (1982).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Aristocracy: Selected full-text books and articles

The Last of the Best: The Aristocracy of Europe in the Twentieth Century
Andrew Sinclair.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969
Aristocratic Women and Political Society in Victorian Britain
K. D. Reynolds.
Clarendon Press, 1998
Nobles and Nobility in Medieval Europe: Concepts, Origins, Transformations
Anne J. Duggan.
Boydell Press, 2000
Nobles and the Noble Life, 1295-1500
Joel T. Rosenthal.
George Allen & Unwin, 1976
Cultures of Power: Lordship, Status, and Process in Twelfth-Century Europe
Thomas N. Bisson.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995
English Political Culture in the Fifteenth Century
Michael Hicks.
Routledge, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Aristocracy"
European Society in Upheaval: Social History since 1750
Peter N. Stearns.
Macmillan, 1975 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "The Rural Classes: The Aristocracy" begins on p. 23
Early Modern European Society
Henry Kamen.
Routledge, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "The Ruling Elite"
Law, Land & Family: Aristocratic Inheritance in England, 1300 to 1800
Eileen Spring.
University of North Carolina Press, 1993
The Abolition of Feudalism: Peasants, Lords, and Legislators in the French Revolution
John Markoff.
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996
Count and Bishop in Medieval Germany: A Study of Regional Power, 1100-1350
Benjamin Arnold.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome
Matthew B. Roller.
Princeton University Press, 2001
An Anglican Aristocracy: The Moral Economy of the Landed Estate in Carmarthenshire, 1832-1895
Matthew Cragoe.
Oxford University, 1996
Noblewomen, Aristocracy and Power in the Twelfth-Century Anglo-Norman Realm
Susan M. Johns.
Manchester University Press, 2003
English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers
Barbara J. Harris.
Oxford University Press, 2002
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