In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nobility

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Medieval Background
  • State-Building
  • Patronage Studies
  • Court Studies
  • Military History
  • Economic History
  • Religious History
  • Family History
  • Gender History
  • Comparative History
  • France
  • Holy Roman Empire
  • Brandenburg, Prussia, and the Hohenzollern Dynasty
  • Spain
  • Portugal

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Renaissance and Reformation Nobility
Violet Soen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0281


“The” nobility is a slippery fish to catch, especially for the Renaissance and Reformation era, here understood as the two centuries between 1450 and 1650. Historians inevitably face the methodological problem of whether to define “nobility” according to juridical, social or cultural criteria. Over the past decades, they have abandoned a legal and essentialist interpretation in favor of a sociological and anthropological approach. Even if legal, fiscal, and social privileges persisted in “the making of” the nobility during the ancien régime, it is now widely acknowledged that the social composition of the group constantly changed, leading to an immense diversity among its members across Europe and the colonies. Likewise, it is accepted today that both the Renaissance and Reformation profoundly changed the cultural and ideological concept of “nobility” itself. These novel insights replace the older 19th-century paradigm claiming that from the late Middle Ages onward the nobility was in long-lasting crisis, losing its power and status to a rising bourgeoisie. Instead of this linear interpretation, a new consensus emerged around a persistent rise and decline among nobilities (not of the group as such), and their remarkable resilience in the face of state-building, religious change, and economic upheaval between 1450 and 1650.

General Overviews

There are several excellent attempts to bring the histories of the nobilities of Europe together in a synthesis. These divide into two categories: the first juxtaposes the nobilities in different countries according to the same interpretative questions, as in Scott 2007 and Clark 1995; the second integrates these separate histories into one explanatory narrative, as in Doyle 2010, Asch 2003, Zmora 2001, Dewald 1996, and Labatut 1978. To this day, this last category has invariably met with the critique that it extends the power balance of France, England, or the Holy Roman Empire across the rest of Europe, whereas local laws and culture often determined the outlook of the nobilities. A general overview including the fate of nobilities in Europe and in its colonial and overseas territories is much needed. See also the section on Comparative History. Labatut 1978 develops the classic interpretation of the encapsulation of nobilities into states by the end of the 18th century, with the comparative study of Clark 1995 arguing for noteworthy regional differences within this macro-historical process. Since then, Dewald 1996 has rewritten this narrative in more neutral terms of an ever-changing social composition of the noble estate, with Asch 2003 and Zmora 2001 pointing to the many moments of noble rebellion and resistance toward their rulers and overlords. Doyle 2010 might serve as the most recent, though probably too brief, introduction for Europe as a whole, and Scott 2007 remains the best starting point for deep study of the regional nobilities in the area covered.

  • Asch, Ronald G. Nobilities in Transition, 1550–1700: Courtiers and Rebels in Britain and Europe. London: Hodder Education, 2003.

    Detailed comparative study of English and European nobilities alike, while recognizing regional differences. Argues for a “genuinely European elite” with remarkable resilience in times of crisis and with an ongoing margin for maneuver toward early modern sovereigns. Gives detailed information on the foundations of the nobility, its changing composition, its cultural outlook, and its position at court and within the state apparatus.

  • Clark, Samuel. State and Status: The Rise of the State and Aristocratic Power in Western Europe. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1995.

    Older but still valid introduction from the perspective of historical sociology, indicating state formation’s centers and peripheries, and its impact on local nobilities. Focuses on the differences in status and power in the British Isles and on the Continent.

  • Dewald, Jonathan. The European Nobility, 1400–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Classic overview by a leading scholar. Despite criticism of its focus on France and England, it makes excursions to Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Dutch Republic. Among the first to reframe the “crisis” paradigm into a more neutral narrative of class formation, and of change and continuity (see also Stone 1965, cited under Britain).

  • Doyle, William. Aristocracy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199206780.001.0001

    The most recent, but a too concise, overview, ranging from Britain to Russia. Although “aristocracy” usually denominates the highest group within the titled nobility, it here groups titled and lesser elites alike.

  • Labatut, Jean-Pierre. Les noblesses européennes de la fin du XVe siècle à la fin du XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1978.

    Clear introduction to the titles and ranks among European nobilities, though mainly centered on France.

  • Scott, H. M., ed. The European Nobilities in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. 2d ed. 2 vols. London: Longman, 2007.

    Second improved and updated edition (1st ed. 1995), with excellent bibliographies. Without doubt the best introductory chapters for regional nobilities, from France to Russia.

  • Zmora, Hillay. Monarchy, Aristocracy and the State in Europe, 1300–1800. London: Routledge, 2001.

    Wide-ranging survey of the longue durée, with particular attention to the growing legal prescriptions concerning noble status. Questions the long-lasting impact of noble rebellion on early modern state formation.

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