XXI

THE NOBLES AS A DE FACTO CLASS

1 THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE ANCIENT ARISTOCRACIES OF BIRTH

FOR the writers who first gave feudalism its name, for the men of the French Revolution, who worked to destroy it, the idea of nobility seemed inseparably linked with it. It would scarcely be possible, however, to find an association of ideas more palpably false—at least if we set any store by the exact use of historical terms. Certainly there was nothing egalitarian about the societies of the feudal era; but not every dominant class is a nobility. To deserve this name such a class must evidently combine two characteristics. First, it must have a legal status of its own, which confirms and makes effectual the superiority to which it lays claim. In the second place, this status must be hereditary—with the qualification, however, that a limited number of new families may be admitted to it, in accordance with formally established rules. In other words, actual power is not enough, nor is even that form of inheritance (effective though it is in practice) which consists as much in the advantages children enjoy through having parents of high status as in the wealth they may inherit; it is necessary, in addition, that social privileges as well as hereditary succession should be recognized by law. If in France we speak today of the upper middle classes as a capitalist aristocracy, it is only in irony. Even where, as in our modern democratic societies, the legal privileges of the nobility have disappeared, the memory of them keeps class consciousness alive; no one is accepted as a genuine nobleman unless he can prove that they were exercised by his ancestors. In this sense—and it is the only legitimate one—nobility made its appearance relatively late in western Europe. The first lineaments of the institution did not begin to emerge before the twelfth century, and it took definite shape only in the following century when the fief and vassalage were already in decline. Throughout the first feudal age, and in the period immediately preceding it, it was unknown.

In this respect the first feudal age differed from the earlier civilizations whose legacy it had received. The Later Empire had had the senatorial order, from which, under the first Merovingians, despite the disappearance of the legal privileges of former days, the leading Roman subjects of the Frankish king still proudly claimed descent. Among many German peoples

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