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How secure was the political and social position of the nobility in early modern Europe?

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Introduction

How secure was the political and social position of the nobility in early modern Europe? The nobility of early modern Europe were descended on the whole from the mounted knights of medieval armies who had been granted land along with social and political privileges and had subsequently formed a higher social class. Between 1500-1789 the status of the aristocracy came under threat both politically and socially. The rise of 'absolutism' within the monarchies of Europe led to the desire of governments to reduce noble power and bypass several of their privileges in order to increase state revenue and centralise governmental control. The growth of the middle classes and the destruction of the feudal system meant that the aristocracy had to dramatically adapt to new social and economic situations. A great difference can be seen between the survival of the nobility in Western Europe and Eastern Europe, the latter maintaining great political control and a substantial section of society. Western Europe saw the decline of the nobility but also its movement towards a new role in society. Scott describes the "three interlocking developments"1 that constituted the problems of the nobility in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first was economic as many families experienced difficulties and drew closer in wealth to the aspiring middle classes. ...read more.

Middle

Although the crown aimed to reduce the privileges held by the nobility, it realised that out of practical necessity it would not be possible to entirely remove the nobility from government. The "battering"7 which parliamentary privileges received under an absolutist monarchy, was assuaged by the crown's respect for reserved office and the noble's right to represent their tenants in parliament. However eighteenth century administrators realised that the burden the nobility placed on the peasants reduced their ability to support the state through taxation and took such actions as the abolishment of serfdom, led on the continent by Savoy in 1772. The French Kings even refused to convene their estates in 1615 and ruled without them for 175 years, imposing significant taxes on the nobles in 1695. This lack of observance of the nobility's fiscal privileges served to widen the gap between the monarchy and the aristocracy. From 1500 onwards the nobility in central and Eastern Europe managed to secure a series of important legal changes, all of which led to the growth of the nobles' power. They increasingly dominated local administration and justice with the result that the peasants under their dominion could not escape or find justice from their rule. The governments in this area of Europe were generally weak and therefore granted the demands of the nobility in order to ensure their cooperation. ...read more.

Conclusion

The decay of feudalism was not the death warrant of the aristocracy. However it did decrease the traditional loyalty shown to the Lords in their country seats, as the "centre of the community"11 as feudal tenures disappeared and tenants became less dependant on their lords"12the tenants became less dependent on them. The nobility as it was in 1500 did not survive the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Instead they adapted to the social, economic and political changes during that period to emerge as a more modern and stable class. The aristocracy had become less dependant on feudal tenures as they were gradually abolished and instead derived its wealth from the land. The social gap between the upper and lower classes decreased. The nobility began to be judged by the same standards as commoners, in behaviour and ideology. Their political privileges within the state system were eroded, although the monarchies of Europe accepted that social hierarchy must be maintained and did not exempt them entirely. There was a marked difference between the power of the nobility in Eastern Europe and Western Europe, due mostly to the greater strength of the monarchies in the west. By 1789 there was no question of the death of the nobility; they had survived situations which could have led to their collapse and while their social and political positions were somewhat diminished, they were still a secure class in Europe. ...read more.

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