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DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405189224.2011.x


Derived from Greek aristokratia (“power of the best”), this term evolved into a definition of government by the nobly born, and later became used still more often to identify the highest class within certain societies. This second sense is the one chiefly encountered in histories of modern Europe. There it typically describes holders of hereditary titles, and sometimes of hereditary offices too, whose authority was normally entwined with the maintenance of monarchism and the promotion of conservatism in general. Towards the end of the ancien regime the size of the aristocratic order varied widely between different countries, though everywhere its members formed a minority of the population. At one extreme were Genoa and Denmark, with 128 and 215 noble families respectively. Standing in the middle were France, where nobles comprised perhaps 1 in every 255 inhabitants, and Britain where some members of the non-titled gentry should be added to the 220 peers. Broadly similar ratios existed in Prussia and the Italian states, as well as in Russia (where, however, difficulties of nomenclature complicate the situation). On the other hand, as much as 6 percent of the population in Hungary and the Iberian peninsula, and perhaps 10 percent of Poles (see szlachta ), claimed noble status. In practice, aristocratic power depended upon three things: social distinction, exercise of political ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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