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 . . .
9 thoughts on “New Worlds: Blue Bloods”
““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.”
There’s one more aspect to that, which I guess didn’t fit in your essay: the children of the aristocrats are the ones who get the best education. So even without positing that aristocrats are inherently superior, you’re going to have a lot of cases where the children of the aristocracy really are more capable. What they’re being educated to do varies widely – it could be passing the exams for the Chinese civil service, or it could be illiterate early-medieval European nobility serving an extremely practical apprenticeship in military command – but the people with that education probably will do a better job of governing a Chinese prefecture or running an army than an uneducated peasant-farmer (and that category probably covers c80% of the population.)
Of course, some aristocrats will be so dumb or have such serious character flaws that the average uneducated person could do better; and some non-aristocrats will have natural talent and somehow learn necessary skills and be a more competent choice for the elite position than the educated aristocrat. I guess another axis on which systems vary is how flexible they are in practice at a) putting useless aristocrats somewhere they can’t do any harm and b) admitting talented commoners. (My sense is that systems are usually better at b than a.)
Also, the Chinese civil service exam system seems to be at least an attempt to operate an aristocracy by the original etymological definition? I know in practice that most places went to the children of prestigious families, since they got the best education, and that personal connections often meant that spectacularly incompetent people got senior positions, but as I understand it, bright people from lower-status families sometimes did pass the exams and get official posts.
I wonder if anyone has ever done a comparison of how the Chinese system compared with more formally-hereditary aristocracies? On the one hand, China has had some extraordinary examples of misgovernance and elite incompetence. (The 1081 invasion of Xia where a Song army somehow forgot to bring its siege engines being one example – yes, I got that one from Guy Gabriel Kay.) On the other hand, so have the possible comparator systems.. And China has survived as a more-or-less continuous state for a lot longer than pretty much anywhere else.
That’s actually a very fair point — two of ’em, the benefits of education and the extent to which the Chinese system was kinda sorta trying to hit that target — and I’ll make a note to add it into the book version of the essay!
I know from my reading about the imperial examinations that part of the issue there was, what you learned for the exams was not necessarily all that useful for governance. In terms of learning philosophy, sure, and it teaches you effective argumentation when the people you’re arguing with were trained in the same system, but there were significant gaps. If you could actually implement the examination system with an evolving set of texts that address the cultural, economic, military, etc. changes over the centuries, you might wind up with something pretty damn good. As for “how it compared,” though, I’m not even sure what metric I would use to answer that question.
Happy to hear I can make some small contribution to the book version! I agree the Chinese system didn’t quite hit the mark – being able to discuss philosophy and write beautiful poetry in the classical style aren’t the best prep for governing in general and especially not for running a military campaign. I suspect the fundamental mistake the Chinese made was focusing on whether the candidate knew prestigious things, as opposed to whether they knew useful things. Like you say, that seems inherently fixable, at least partly, and I don’t quite get why that didn’t happen.
I also have no idea how you could compare the results of Chinese-style exams vs hereditary aristocracy, but if I ever meet someone who needs an idea for a history/anthropology/sociology PhD I’ll suggest it 🙂
[ “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.” ]
So plausible, as are so many platitudes, which examined within reality’s context, tend to evaporate when scutinized as opposed to unexamined acceptance.
Warriors, particularly, out of which the elite and aristocracy tended to emerge — were beat up and weathered and dark. Shoot, this was true even for the much later elite of the Normans who came from Scandinavia. All that time at sea and facing the elements on campaigns, whether on land or by sea, plays havoc with the complexion, particularly without Murad skin-renewing serums and such.
Particularly this is true for Spain. Already in Roman times, long before the Gothic arrivals in the 6th + centuries, the Iberian Peninsula was famous back home in the Empire’s Metropole, not only in Hispania Baetica (Andalusia), for being populated by those who were of ‘swarthy’ complexion in comparison with the blue bloods of the Italian peninsula. And even ‘at home’, even senators spent time in the sun — and they too, being from the Mediterranean region, a constant melting pot of populations, were considered dark in comparison by those from more northern climes. Hard to avoid in the days prior to a/c. Always there was a lot of population going to and coming in from Africa — already at least from the from the long eras of the Phoenician — and Greek — dominance. In Roman writing the Celtiberian ‘indigenous’ population was described as short and dark compared with, say, Julius Caesar, who was notoriously (much) taller than the majority of Roman citizens (and more handsome too, of course!).
Also, even by 16th century, at least 15% of the Iberian population were directly from Africa, and, as with the long centuries of Muslim rule, even as that dominance retreated slowly and concentrated in the South, that constantly refreshed population straight out of Africa, were NOT blonde, blue-eyed, white skinned. You see that is the case, even today.
There were Taifa kingdoms ruled by families who were light skinned. So much intermingling, shall we say. There were indeed marriages made between xtian and Muslim rulers — and not only in Iberia, but all through the ever shifting, porous borders between Iberia and Gaul-Frankia, going on even in the age of Charlemagne.
Myself, considering everything, am fairly sure ‘blue veins in white skins’ for the aristocracy originated in the UK, and emerged much later than the long centuries of the Iberian reconquista wars. It is definitely the Anglo-sphere that has been since days of continental African enslavement that has been obsessed with skin color as signifying right to rule and to oppress.
And then there were marcher lords/marquises/margraves. Who lived on the border. As the front line of defense, they had higher status because of this position of trust, and also they couldn’t send as much to your wars because they needed forces to defend in case of attack.
In the Middle Ages, you could really get status from being — an edge lord.
Things get even more fun when the aristocracy is in two or three parallel paradigms. Consider the Holy Roman Empire, particularly visible after the fall of Constantinople; the “aristocracy” in any land subject to HRE rule included the various principalities/kingdoms and their constituent territories, titles, etc.; the imperial nobility whose territories may have been inside those principalities/kingdoms, but who held from the emperor; and the church hierarchy, with its own forms of aristocratic hierarchy and privilege (and, particularly regarding discipline of unruly protoscientists, yet another binds/protects distinction). The entry means into each of these aristocracies was also distinct and largely incompatible.
If I were writing this I would have looked more at the actual origins of artistocracies, as far as we can tell. Like French counts coming from the king’s companions (‘comes’) getting appointed to various roles, evolving into heredity because fathers want to pass privilege on to sons, and the edge lords (hah, Mary) getting more power and prestige out of defensive necessity, etc.
Blue blood: Wikipedia ‘Nobility’ has “Blue blood is an English idiom recorded since 1811 in the Annual Register  and in 1834  for noble birth or descent; it is also known as a translation of the Spanish phrase sangre azul, which described the Spanish royal family and high nobility who claimed to be of Visigothic descent, in contrast to the Moors.”
I’ve read that later Japan had two big classes of nobility: the old Heian nobility around Kyoto, weak and possibly poor but somehow prestigious from their connection to the (also weak) emperor, and an ‘inferior’ nobility of the Shogun and daimyo etc who actually had the military power and money. Lois Bujold echoes this in the haut and ghem of Cetaganda, though the haut have real wealth and ultimate power.
I would call the exam-gated civil service an attempt at meritocracy, though I suppose meritocracy could be called a subset of “rule of the best”. But in common English, ‘aristocracy’ is assumed to be hereditary and meritocracy an attempt to get around that, though as mentioned educational opportunity can be de facto hereditary anyway.
One advantage of a system like the ancient Chinese (and later the British Empire outposts being ruled by a tight knit class) is that, although communication was slow, you had a common background and had a sense of how your neighboring rulers would react to a given situation.