In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nobility and Gentry in the Early Modern Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • European Overviews
  • National Perspectives
  • Nobility as a Sociopolitical Group
  • Values and Ways of Life
  • The Very Long Eighteenth Century
  • Nobility and the State
  • Courts, Patronage, and Networks
  • Establishing Native Nobilities
  • Colonial Nobilities
  • Colonial Landowners
  • Aristocratic Cultures
  • Great Men, Famous Families
  • Imperial Transfers and Independences

Atlantic History Nobility and Gentry in the Early Modern Atlantic World
François-Joseph Ruggiu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0408


Early modern societies were organized in ranks or degrees, one of the highest being the nobility. The meaning of this word was different in the European countries but the superiority of a group of persons singled out by a title (prince, duke, marquis, earl, baron) or a quality (chevalier, écuyer, hidalgo, knight, esquire, gentleman, fidalgo…) and by privileges, especially legal and fiscal, was recognized in all Europe. They could generally boast a pedigree and an education, accompanied in many cases by a fortune, characteristics that qualified them to occupy the higher places in ancien régime societies. Sometimes neglected by historians in favor of the notions of elite, oligarchy, or aristocracy, the concept of nobility remains fundamental for understanding social identities and social dynamics during the early modern period. It is nevertheless accepted that nobility had little meaning in the overseas territories of the European states of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Even if the American societies of the colonial period remained ancien régime societies, the weak transposition of the feudal system would make the nobility less meaningful there. Moreover, in a context of high social mobility and proximity to Indigenous or enslaved populations, a form of ‘white’ egalitarianism would have prevailed over the social hierarchies inherited from Europe. Focusing on the states that participated in the global European expansion—France, Great Britain, Portugal, the Republic of the United Provinces, and Spain—this article shows that nobility and gentry have been a reality, both as a social group and as a social force, in most American societies in the early modern period. To understand this, we need to look beyond two common assumptions about European nobilities in the early modern period. The first is that the different forms of nobility that exist in European states were, if not identical, at least very similar. Beyond a common matrix, derived from the Latin nobilitas, the variety of terms that designate ‘the nobility’ in each of these states (nobility, gentry, nobleza, hidalguia, noblesse, gentilhommerie, nobreza, fidalguia, among many others) suggests however a greater complexity. The second assumption is that the nobility is naturally placed under the sign of stability and duration. Prince Tancredi’s famous aphorism in the celebrated novel (and film) Il Gattopardo, “everything must change for everything to remain the same,” is often quoted for suggesting that beyond the transformation of the sociopolitical systems, there was a continuity of families and of their modes of social domination. Social history shows that, on the contrary, the permanence of signs and values often conceals a constant renewal of the ways of being noble, of the rights and duties that this status entails and, above all, of the men and women who belong to this group. While Iberian societies remained anchored in a traditional definition of nobility, French and especially British societies were much more open and changes in the legal and political status of their nobilities had major repercussions in the overseas territories. The reverse is also true, with the return to Europe of enriched planters aspiring to genteel status. This is why it is necessary to understand the dynamics of nobility on both sides of the Atlantic.

European Overviews

The interest in the nobility throughout Europe, especially from the 1980s onwards, has engendered ambitious European syntheses such as Dewald 1996 or Lukowski 2003. These gave way progressively to collective works based on specific countries such as Scott 2007 or on themes (Romaniello and Lipp 2011, Wrede and Bourquin 2016). The evolution of the number of nobles, which seems to have declined throughout Europe during the eighteenth century, remains a frequent point of entry as does the search for similarities and dissimilarities between national nobilities. Colonial spaces are nevertheless rarely inserted in these vast syntheses. The last few years have seen a notable revival of studies on noble genealogy as no longer seen as an archaic endeavor, but as a practice that links the nobility to the major cultural developments of its time. Rouchon 2014, Jettot and Lezowski 2016, and Thiry and Duerloo 2021 bear witness to this renewal on an European level. On the whole, the creation in the Netherlands, in 2003, of Virtus, an online scientific journal that deals with the history of nobility, is a symbol of the growing importance of these studies. Doyle 2010 is a short and excellent introduction for a first contact with the topic.

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

    An ambitious and successful synthesis covering the whole of Western Europe from the late Middle Ages to the French Revolution. Defines the nobility, specifies the number of its members in different countries. and characterizes its wealth as well as its relationship to the land, which plays an essential role in its status. Insists on the capacity of the different national nobilities for adjustment to the great political and cultural changes that animated Europe in the early modern era.

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

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199206780.001.0001

    Covers the history of the European nobility from the Middle Ages to the French Revolution through a series of notes referring to key words (“Origins”, “Land”, “Honour”, “War” . . . ). A practical bibliography to get into the subject.

  • Jettot, Stéphane, and Marie Lezowski, eds. L’entreprise généalogique: Pratiques sociales et imaginaires en Europe (XVe–XIXe siècles). Brussels: P.I.E-Peter Lang S.A., 2016.

    This work comprises eighteen contributions that cover a good part of Europe (France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and also including Türkiye) from the end of the Middle Ages to the present day. Explores the links between genealogical practices and family, religion, politics, scholarship, and consumer society. Has a particular interest in genealogies as material objects (paintings, engravings…) as well as publications, such as the well-known genealogical dictionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries.

  • Lukowski, Jerzy. The European Nobility in the Eighteenth Century. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781350392137

    A useful synthesis of knowledge about European nobilities, including those of Central and Eastern Europe, during the 18th century. The book addresses the classic themes of the definition of nobility, the routes to nobility, the relationship to the state, education, income, wealth, lifestyle, and the exercise of authority. The chapter on noblewomen is particularly original.

  • Romaniello, Matthew P., and Charles Lipp, eds. Contested Spaces of Nobility in Early Modern Europe. Farnham-Burlington, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    Eleven case studies covering Germany, Ottoman Bulgaria, Poland, France, England, Tuscany, Spain, and Portugal. Illustrates the capacity of European nobility to adjust to the major changes —economic, political, and cultural—from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. The confrontations and negotiations around the enduring legitimacy of the nobility in its domination of society are approached through a range of themes (such as maternity, masculinity, education, social climbing, and court culture); media (treaties of nobility); and places (such as funerary monuments and country houses).

  • Rouchon, Olivier, ed. L’opération généalogique: Cultures et pratiques européennes entre XVe et XVIIIe siècle. Rennes, France: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2014.

    Nine contributions preceded by a dense scientifically-oriented introduction. Focuses on Western Europe (England, France, Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Tuscany) from the Middle Ages to the end of the early modern period. Through the study of genealogical discourses, practices, and cultures, addresses the central question of the goals and means of the ancestors. Highlights the different regimes of truth that governed the constitution and use of genealogies, and includes a contribution on the genealogy of Christ as a model.

  • Scott, H. M., ed. The European Nobilities in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries. 2 vols. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

    Collection of contributions that cover Europe from the Mediterranean to the Baltic and from the Atlantic to Russia. The book highlights the national differences in the very definition of the nobility, the variations in the proportion of the population belonging to this group, and its internal hierarchies. Volume 1 focuses on Western and Southern Europe. Volume 2 focuses on types of nobility that are less well known than those in Western European countries, with an emphasis on service nobilities. The two volumes are essential reading.

  • Thiry, Steven, and Luc Duerloo, eds. Heraldic Hierarchies: Identities, Status and State Intervention in Early Modern Heraldry. Louvain, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2021.

    Eleven contributions preceded by a solid scientific introduction. Focused on Europe, but with a contribution on the Mamluks and another on the young American republic. Aims to extend to the early modern period the revival of heraldic studies that occurred some years ago for the medieval period. It shows how heraldry creates a visual regime of honor that states and individuals alike have tried to manipulate to their advantage.

  • Virtus. Journal of Nobility Studies. 1993–.

    Founded by the Werkgroep Adelsgeschiedenis, Virtus is an online journal specializing in the history of the nobility. Multilingual, it publishes in-depth articles as well as reviews which are particularly useful. A concerted effort at covering all the European nobilities.

  • Wrede, Martin, and Laurent Bourquin, eds. Adel und Nation in der Neuzeit: Hierarchie, Egalität, Loyalität, 16.–20. Jahrhunderts. Ostfildern, Germany: Thorbecke Verlag, 2016.

    A collective work that examines the complex relationships between the nobility and the formation of European nations from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Brings together twenty-three contributions approaching Western, Baltic, Germanic, and Central (but not Mediterranean) Europe. Perfectly illustrates the tensions between the inherently transnational nature of the nobility and the capacity of nobles, in specific contexts, to embody national identity.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.