Aristocrats: Definition & Examples

Aristocrats: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:02 Definition &…
  • 3:24 Social Status
  • 5:53 Aristocrats in France
  • 7:28 Aristocrats in China
  • 8:27 Aristocrats in Japan
  • 9:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Julich

Daniel has taught college/university courses in European history, World history, and the history of science and has a PhD in history.

Societies have often been controlled by a small group of families known as aristocrats. Read this lesson to learn some key ideas and read about some examples throughout history.

Definition and Historical Background

The word 'aristocrat' may cause you to think of a rich, snobbish individual, who thinks that he or she is better than everyone else. You probably picture someone well dressed, maybe in a costume from the 1800s. They are persons who might have several or many servants. Because of the movies or television series that you may have seen, you probably think of them as having a British accent. Not all of these images are mistaken, but they are not complete.

The word 'aristocrat' comes from two Greek words. The first is aristos, which means 'best,' and the second is krateîn, which means 'to rule.' So an aristocracy is a system in which those who are considered somehow superior to other people (the aristocrats) have the ruling authority (rule by the best). You can compare this with the idea of democracy, which is rule by the people (demos). In short, the idea of aristocracy is that not everyone is fit to rule. Instead, only the aristocrats should be the decision-makers.

The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle both supported aristocracy as a good approach to government. Especially with Aristotle (384-322 BCE), the idea was that a group of people defined by both wealth and virtue would make for the best rulers. Why is wealth important? Wealth, especially the ownership of property or land, means that the person can stay free of doing things in government just to get financial rewards.

On the one hand, it might be said that virtue enabled those who are aristocrats to gain their property. Regarding property, it could be said that people who own land can keep their virtue because they do not rely on someone else for their livelihood. Aristocrats were not slaves - they were their own people making their own choices. And they were not tenants living on other people's land - if they were, they would probably feel pressured to make decisions that would benefit their landlords.

So the key points about aristocrats are:

  • They own land.
  • They are seen as virtuous.

And, as a result of these two things:

  • They are entrusted with authority.

It seems pretty simple to be an aristocrat, then. All it takes is to gain enough money to buy some property. That was easier said than done, though. Instead, then, in most places, a small number of families began to control a large amount of land. And ownership of this land was handed down by inheritance from father to son or sons.

Because the high-ranking status of aristocrats was hereditary, there was a common belief that these families somehow naturally had the kind of admirable qualities, like courage, justice, wisdom, that are necessary for the ruling class. These were the 'noble' qualities that came from having 'noble blood' in one's veins. So, in addition, aristocrats were often also called the nobility, or noblemen. They were also called gentlemen, because of their 'gentle' (we would say 'genteel') qualities. They were also usually considered the warrior class, because they supplied mounted cavalry for wars, and this military strength was a part of their influential position. Kings needed these noblemen to maintain knights to fight for them.

Social Status

The relationship between royalty and aristocrats was an interesting one. Of course, the idea of 'rule by the best' suggested that somehow the aristocrats were in control. But in most cases, there was also a king. So how did that work?

In the first place, legitimate kings always came from aristocratic families. Technically, kings were supposed to be elected or approved by the aristocrats. But if there was a family in place with a clear heir to the throne, a lot of times this went off without a hitch.

Sometimes, though, there was a dispute about who should be king. Maybe there was not a clear heir to the throne. Maybe there were several people who thought they should be heir. Whatever the case, the word of the nobility was important, because it was the nobles who ultimately had the military might to back up the power of the king. So they could also lobby the king for particular rights, which would ultimately lead to charters, or statements, of rights, such as the Magna Carta.

Since the status of being an aristocrat was inherited, the aristocracy or nobility usually stayed closed as a group. Sometimes, though, people did rise up in the ranks and become new aristocrats. But these families of new nobility were considered to be at a lower level than the others. So even though they were technically aristocrats, they did not have all the same privileges as the higher nobility.

One of the big issues in studying times and places in the past is the question of social status. What group or groups are at the top of the 'food chain' of society? This is the idea of social hierarchy - a kind of pyramid of power. One of the most basic common characteristics of culture is the high status of landowning aristocrats. These elite members of society had to be spoken to and treated in particular, formal ways.

There were also many laws in place that restricted certain types of clothing, food and transportation to the nobility. This was a way of setting the noble classes apart as something special. For example, in 17th-century England, only certain ranks of the aristocracy were allowed to wear velvet and silk. And in 17th-century Japan, only those with aristocratic status could ride in a palanquin, a fancy chair carried by attendants.

The details of each social situation are as unique as each individual time and place. Let's take a look at three examples to provide a sense of the variations of the notion of aristocrats throughout history and the world.

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