For Your Enjoyment, Part 7: Premodern nobility for interesting aristocracy

Another week, another ramble about the intersection between history and worldbuilding! This week, it’s the commonalities between the upper classes of premodern cultures. I should note that while I use the word “nobility,” I just mean an upper class that is given special rights and/or responsibilities by the government. In general, the concepts used in this article have many different terms used in various cultures, so feel free to mix things up.

The usual conditions apply. Fantasy magic and cosmology changes a lot, though less for this topic than for others we’ve looked at. The usual “most fantasy is early modern” also affects less here. Finally, if my unfortunate European- and Mediterranean-heavy education shows here, please let me know and point me to places to learn. This is another area where there’s a significant amount of variation between societies, but I’ll do what I can to fish out general trends.

We’ll look at power bases, courts, and wealth displays.

Power Bases

  • One of the simplest considerations for your culture’s upper class is, “How did they get their power?” There are a few common routes to nobility.
  • The first way is military conquest. Naturally, an area’s conquerors tend to become the nobles of the new society. Because of this, aristocrats in general tend to have a very pro-war and militaristic attitude. Military triumphs will often come with significant social rewards, earning the respect of noble peers. These warrior values can trickle down to the common folk, reinforcing a general culture of warfare. In general, the aristocrats of every culture have a military base; other nobles have to find their way into this preexisting group using other methods.
  • Another road is simple wealth. Prominent merchants can sometimes enter the ranks of nobility simply by being too rich to ignore. Traditional aristocrats almost universally dislike these upstarts, and sometimes pass laws to limit the power of wealthy merchants. If kept out of the traditional nobility, merchants may create a middle class with power that rivals the aristocracy.
  • A final method is political manipulation. On its own, this tactic is pretty ineffective. An aspiring noble usually has to have an additional source of power to rely on. One sometimes-successful idea is to become a member of a noble’s household—the higher-ranking, the better—and endear yourself to them in the hope that you’ll be granted a minor title.
  • Once a family is official nobility, another factor becomes relevant: inheritance. In the first section of the “Power and International Relations” article, we looked at the idea that everyone in power relies on a group of people called the “coalition” to stay in power. These coalition members expect benefits for their support. In order to keep the coalition loyal, the leader needs to be able to guarantee that these rewards will keep flowing. This includes planning for what will happen after the leader leaves, either as part of the system (e.g. a different president being elected) or through death. If the coalition thinks that their position is in jeopardy because a leader may be leaving soon—for example, if the leader starts looking old and/or sick—they might back a different claimant to keep their benefits going.
  • One way to keep the coalition loyal by ensuring smooth succession is to develop clear inheritance customs. If members know exactly who will be coming next, they’ll get less worried if the current leader starts to look ill. Keeping power in the family is best, since the leader can teach the heir from birth about their obligations. Awarding ruling positions based on parentage instead of skill is less effective, but far more predictable, which is what the coalition values.
  • In practice, this can get difficult. While we’re most familiar with the inheritance system called male primogeniture—the firstborn man gets everything—it hasn’t always been this way. Primogeniture makes the heir’s siblings very unhappy, and can lead to conflict at best and succession wars at worst. If the central government isn’t strong enough to handle these tensions, other inheritance systems might be used that split up the parent’s lands and titles more evenly among the children (unfortunately usually leaving the daughters out of it).
  • Splitting things up makes the kids happy, but makes the coalition nervous. Even if they know who they’ll be reporting to and are sure that their benefits will be coming, there will be fewer rewards coming their way because the properties get split up. This makes a tough balancing act. More division keeps the kids happy, more consolidation keeps the coalition happy.
  • In general, less developed cultures err on the side of greater division and happier heirs. Once things get more organized, simpler systems like primogeniture become more common.

Courts

  • In my search for aristocratic elements that are common across premodern cultures, I found one that surprised me: courts. One definition that I liked was that a court was “when a ruler’s household (family) and bureaucracy blend personnel.” In other words, it’s when a ruler’s son manages the treasury and their butler is considered part of the family, and everyone lives in the same house. (Simplified, obviously.)
  • The stereotypical image of a court is a monarch sitting on their throne, watching sycophants mingle and listening to their concerns. This is accurate in some ways and inaccurate in others. Courts were usually centered on the highest authority in the government, like the king—lower nobles might have small courts, but they weren’t very important. However, these people wouldn’t be just in the throne room muttering to each other. All these people have jobs, and will be working around the palace (generic term for governmental residence) most of the day. This includes the monarch, who will go to offices, churches, and other areas to do their work. The throne room is reserved for special occasions and ceremonies, such as coronations or receiving an important visitor.
  • Monarchs would frequently expect important nobles to live at their palace as a courtier. The noble would leave someone in charge of their estate—lots of titles for this position, such as chamberlain or seneschal—and join the royal court. The largest courts in history, such as that of the Byzantine Empire, could reach over a thousand members.
  • The court was an important cultural focus for the region. The monarch and their courtiers would set the standard that everyone else aspired to. One element that had strong political importance was fashion. The ability of aristocrats throughout the area to mimic the attire, customs, and values of the royal court was an viewed as a measure of how politically savvy they were. If a new practice emerged among the courtiers, it would spread quickly among the nobility.
  • In some special cases, the court itself would form the center of government, and not a capital city. These itinerant courts would essentially take the government with them as they traveled. The Holy Roman Empire had an itinerant court that traveled to cities in its member states to help them feel included, while the Mongolian court was itinerant because the society itself was nomadic, making a capital settlement impractical.
  • In a few cultures, the harem or concubines were also considered to be part of the royal court. Frequently, male courtiers and workers who worked in these areas were eunuchs to ensure that no “relations” would lead to illegitimate heirs (complicating the all-important inheritance system).
  • Some court offices were hereditary, passing from parent to child. This served to ensure that rewards would continue to flow to the courtier’s coalition—this system continues all the way down.
  • In general, a courtier’s prestige was often tied to how physically close they were to the monarch. The highest positions in Middle Ages Europe would sleep in the same room as the monarch. The term “privy council”—“privy” being another word for private chambers—still refers to important officials in several countries. In Tudor England, there was even an office called the Groom of the Stool that would actually help the king go to the bathroom—disgusting for us, highly sought-after for them.
  • One common misconception is that the relationship between courtier and ruler was one-sided. Remember, the leader needs the coalition’s (here meaning the court’s) support in order to be effective. As such, courtiers frequently received gifts and favors to ensure their loyalty.
  • Some cultures rewarded loyal nobles with “sinecures”—titles with great benefits but few responsibilities. Imagine if the US president rewarded a key supporter with the job of “Head Manager of the Kitchen Light Bulbs” with a salary of $300k. The term “sinecure” comes from religious positions, but can refer to secular ones as well. In some cases, sinecures came with a position at court.
  • The last thing to cover is the variety of court appointments. The French system, the Maison du Roi, had an effective division of offices between domestic, military, and religious courtiers. I’ll add administrative positions to this list, since they were present in several courts (though absent in the Maison du Roi).
  • Domestic courtiers were in charge of the maintenance of the palace (or, in the case of itinerant courts, whatever other domestic needs were relevant). These included duties like the butler, cupbearer, head chef, etc. It might be surprising to consider that these appointments could have just as much power in court as other positions, but remember that what was truly important was proximity to the ruler. Managing the palace could be both lucrative and important. Domestic court appointments were sometimes given to non-nobles, which was one way to get on the ruler’s good side and potentially earn a noble title in time.
  • Military appointments had significant weight in the warlike cultures of most aristocracies. There’s little to discuss here, since we already have a fairly clear picture of what generals, admirals, and other high-ranking military officers do.
  • Religious courtiers served as both advisors and managers. They could be liaisons between the ruler and church bureaucracy, if there was a central religious authority. Alternatively, they could be central religious authorities themselves if there was a strong blending of church and state. Note that even when religious courtiers report to an external church authority, they are often more loyal to their liege than their religious manager. King Henry IV protested the Pope’s reforms with the support of “all [his] bishops.” Examples of religious positions include chaplains, seeing to the courtiers’ spiritual needs, and almoners, which manage the monarch’s charitable efforts. There were also territorial (in charge of religious activities within a geographic area) and departmental (in charge of specific areas of church activities, like temple maintenance).
  • I add administrative appointments to the list of categories. These positions are in control of various executive functions. In some societies, the administrative courtiers formed a special group of advisors called the “cabinet”—another reference to how access to the ruler’s private chambers was a symbol of status. Like some religious positions, could be territorial or departmental. Departmental administrators could include some very interesting duties, such as managing national industries (the Russian court included a position that was in charge of the federal pottery factory).
  • I said that most nobles don’t have a court; that’s technically true. Every noble has a sort of “court lite” called a “household.” The household comprises the noble’s family and retinue (important servants or lower nobles). Things usually aren’t nearly as formal as an official court. There really isn’t much to say here—I just wanted to mention that households are something to keep in mind.

Wealth Displays

  • Putting on a show was very important for nobles. Potential claimants looking for your titles were always looking for weakness, and we’ve already talked about how willing coalition members are to support opposition if the ruler seems like a risky bet. Even the noble’s followers might be unwilling to follow orders if it seems the noble doesn’t have the ability to deal out punishments or rewards.
  • Obvious displays of wealth were invaluable for signaling economic strength. We tend to think that all aristocrats were pompous, spoiled idiots for wearing fancy clothes, investing in art, and engaging in exotic meals and pastimes. Often, this was true. However, even if a noble wanted to be frugal and didn’t care for these sorts of things, they usually needed to do them anyways. If they didn’t, others might wonder if the treasury had secretly run dry, or that the noble wasn’t willing to spend on loyal followers either. In the same way that fashion was an important sign of social and political aptitude, wealth was a sign of financial strength.
  • There was an interesting institution that emerged in various forms among several cultures as a way to create these displays: patronage. Patronage was the practice of nobles sponsoring artists or other specialists in exchange for a degree of control over what was created.
  • The technical term for someone sponsored by a patron is a “client,” and the patron-client relationship can be a powerful dynamic shaping the culture of an area. Patronage encourages art, literature, and other creative works to reflect the aristocracy’s values and preferences.
  • The level of control a patron had over a client varied between cultures and patronages, with some offering only slight direction while leaving most decisions up to the artist, and others making the artist work only for the patron. In some cases, the client actually moved in with the patron as a member of the noble’s household.
  • Another way to display wealth was a little more productive for society: public works. Often, if a ruler noble wanted not only to prove that they were rich, but also that they cared for their subjects, they would invest in something big. This could be as small as a chapel or as large as a city-wide sewage system.
  • Naturally, there were often catches to these projects. One catch is that they usually benefitted the noble in a practical way. Improved roads would encourage trade, the sewage system leads to a healthier workforce, the chapel earns support from the clergy, etc.
  • Another catch is that often, access to these resources is restricted to members of the upper class—though perhaps not directly. A new theater might require proof of nobility to attend, or it might be priced well above what a commoner could pay. These not-so-public works still serve to improve the noble’s reputation, though society at large doesn’t benefit as much.
  • There are plenty of other ways to show your wealth. Lavish events are a classic way. Giving one of your supporters an extravagant party for a special occasion can go a long way. Wear fine apparel whenever possible, show off art and other riches, and do whatever you can to prove you’re not broke, and people will be more willing to stay on your side.

There we go! Let me know if you have thoughts on this article or future ones.

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