Ah, aristocracy. It would be the best form of government . . . if only it were humanly possible to implement as originally conceived, instead of what we got in reality.
“Aristocracy” is, etymologically, “the rule of the best.” The idea was that you would carefully sift your population to find the best candidates for rulership and give them the job. When they died, became unable, or stepped down, you’d start the hiring search over again — because of course there was no guarantee their children would be nearly as capable.
. . . yeah, it didn’t work out like that. In actual practice, aristocracies have tended to be hereditary status groups, their privileges and authority passed down in the family line. The term is a somewhat flexible one, and not always distinct from “nobility;” I’d say “aristocracy” is the more neutral, cross-cultural designation, applying to the ruling population regardless of the basis on which that population lays claim to authority. (Witness the fact that in modern times it sometimes gets applied to social elites, even when there’s no legal difference of status between the rich movers and shakers vs. everyone else.)
The basis for that authority can vary, as we talked about last week. But in addition to a priestly aristocracy vs. a warrior one and so forth, the often hereditary nature of aristocracy lends itself to an ideology where such people are seen as just different from the common rabble. Some times that difference is a matter of mythology, attributing separate origins to the elites; the nobility in Heian Japan justified their status on the basis of descent from the imperial family, which in turn claimed sacred origin. In cases of conquest, it might rest on a very identifiable ethnic foundation — in fact, idiom “blue bloods” has its roots in just such soil. While generally speaking it refers to the way the superficial veins of European elites, who spent little of their time laboring in the sun, appeared blue through their pale skin, apparently the phrase originated in Spain and the wars against the darker-skinned Moors there.
Because aristocracy is usually a matter of law as well as (or sometimes instead of) economic class or social influence, such status tends to be marked out by, as the academic phrase has it, “the rights and privileges thereto appertaining.” There may be differences in where an artisan and a farmer are permitted to live and what they’re permitted to wear, but it’s really the top echelon that such laws seek to separate from the rabble. In fact, the dynamic can often be summed up as “in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect” — an online comment about conservatism often erroneously attributed to the political scientist Francis M. Wilhoit, but very apt as a way of thinking about the (highly conservative) institution of aristocracy. At the extreme, a noble murdering commoners might be shrugged off with a disapproving tut-tut, while a commoner talking back to a noble merited immediate physical punishment. It wasn’t always that extreme, whatever grimdark fantasy would have you believe, but the underlying notion of who’s protect and who’s bound is all too valid.
It doesn’t end at “noble vs. commoner,” though. Within the aristocracy there is often further gradation, sometimes quite jealously defended.
If you know anything whatsoever about European nobility, you’ve probably run into the basic hierarchy of dukes outranking counts, counts outranking barons, and barons outranking knights. Depending on the country and the time period, all kinds of other titles might be tossed into the mix: marquesses, viscounts, baronets, earls replacing counts in the United Kingdom, and so forth. But even in Europe, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The basic principle here is that a duchy is bigger and/or wealthier (or wealthier because bigger) than a county, so a duke is a more important noble than a count. Japan lacked the same formal tiers, but it also used wealth for stratification; during the Edo Period, a daimyō (“great name”) was a lord who administered a domain worth more than ten thousand koku. Europe’s version also holds a tinge of the military order of command, where a count might hold his lands in vassalage to a duke, but it will never be the other way around — though it could well leapfrog over a rank, with a baron being that duke’s direct vassal.
This, however, is far from the only way to slice up the aristocracy. Even in the European system, seniority might come into play, especially within a particular rank: if you hold a barony that’s been in existence for six hundred years and mine is only two hundred years old, then you might take formal precedence over me, as the holder of the more venerable title. (This can be weaponized against the elites of an assimilated territory, as you treat their titles as “new” starting with you taking them over — thereby putting them below everyone in your existing hierarchy.) Or a society might decide it’s the family instead of the title whose seniority matters, so that I take precedence because your family received that six-hundred-year-old barony only fifty years ago, while mine has had ours the whole two centuries. At my karate dojo, individual seniority of practice matters; within a belt rank, whoever started at the dojo first stands farther up the line at the beginning and end of class — or a society could prioritize respect for elders above all other considerations, such that it’s the oldest members of the aristocracy who come first. (I swear I’ve seen that in my historical reading somewhere, though I can’t recall where.)
Other systems are possible, especially in a speculative world. Going back to that notion of being descended from the ruling family, you could instead base the aristocratic hierarchy on a “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”-style genealogical game, bestowing elevation according to closeness of relation — an approach that would probably lead to truly heinous quantities of inbreeding. For a method more closely akin to the original notion of “aristocracy,” rank might be pegged to the performance of certain services, like the winning of military victories; this certainly bolstered the prestige of the ancient Roman elite, and increased the odds of them receiving appointment to particular offices. Divine favor, magical gifts . . . each option has interesting ramifications for how the politics play out.
Such considerations are relevant not only for matters of etiquette like who walks in what position in a procession or sits where during a banquet, but for the question of mobility within — or into and out of — the aristocracy. During the Sengoku Period and early Edo Period in Japan, the leader of the moment regularly shuffled warlords between different domains, rewarding a loyal follower by giving him a more prosperous territory and punishing a disappointment by exiling him to some impoverished hinterland. It’s much harder to imagine that happening in Europe: a sovereign might create a new title as a reward, but quite a few of these had no actual land associated with them, just the prestige of the rank. Uprooting a family from the estate their ancestors had held for centuries and moving them to someone else’s territory would have been terribly disruptive — though in fairness I should acknowledge that the Sengoku Period was one of profound, country-wide disruption and upheaval, so it wasn’t like that statement was untrue in Japan.
How do you demote someone, or kick them out entirely? If titles are granted by the people you’ve sworn oaths to, then they can probably revoke those grants. But if hierarchy within the elite is based on seniority, you can’t really make somebody younger or declare their title is newer than it is; you might be limited to freezing them out socially and politically, with no official change to their status (unless you strip them of status entirely). And what do you do when genealogy matters? Especially if you don’t want to establish a precedent where insults or violence against people of sacred lineage is okay? Is there a ritual for severing that link, freeing you up to treat your third cousin as an outsider to the elite, or are you stuck with the relatives you have?
Answering those questions is the stuff of aristocratic intrigue . . .