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1. a socially or politically privileged class whose titles are conferred by descent or by royal decree
2. (in the British Isles) the class of people holding the title of dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, or barons and their feminine equivalents collectively; peerage
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the estate of secular landowners who had hereditary privileges. The nobility and the clergy were the ruling classes in feudal society. In a number of countries the nobility retained its privileges, to one degree or another, even under capitalism. The original meanings of the Russian term dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry) and the corresponding Western European terms were not identical. Originally, the dvorianstvo in Rus’ was a military service class, in contrast to the boyars. The Russian word zhat’, or aristocracy, was the equivalent of the French noblesse, the English term “nobility,” and the German A del. As all the secular feudal lords were united into one estate, these distinctions in terminology disappeared.

In feudal society, direct political supremacy belonged to the nobility. The basis of their economic and political power was feudal landed property. The nobility and the leading members of the clergy, who, as a rule, were descended from the nobility, stood in opposition to the exploited class of feudally dependent peasantry. A significant part of the product of the peasant’s labor was appropriated by the nobility in the form of feudal rents. The nobility was distinguished from the other estates by its status, privileges, education, way of life, and a particular moral code, under which the nobleman was the master in relation to any representative of the lower estates. Even in its clothing and hair styles the nobility differed from the other estates.

Western Europe. Formed gradually as the other feudal estates took shape, the Western European nobility became a unified estate of secular feudal lords only with the elimination of feudal fragmentation in estate and especially absolute monarchies. The estate had a definite hierarchy—a division into a higher and lower nobility. The higher nobility was usually composed of old aristocratic families. (Evidence of high birth and of one’s ancient origins was always considered very important among the nobility; hence, the cultivation of genealogy and heraldry.) The nobility also included royal officials and warrior-vassals, who usually made up the lower nobility. Numerous noble titles were established, reflecting to a certain extent the hierarchy in the nobility. (Among the titles were duke, marquis, count, and baron.)

The degree of the nobility’s differentiation from other estates and the extent of its privileges varied with the country. In France, where the estate privileges of the nobility were most clearly formulated, the nobility was exempt from most taxes (a privilege of the nobility in other countries as well). The French nobleman had to live off his rent and serve in the army or at court, and he could not condescend to occupations that were considered “unworthy” of him (physical labor, business, and commerce).

The higher nobility usually supported separatist tendencies that favored feudal fragmentation, whereas the small and middle nobility in most countries were the basic supporters of royal authority in its policy of centralization. In addition to seignorial feudal rents, the so-called centralized rent became to a greater and greater degree the source of livelihood for the nobility. The royal power collected the centralized rent in the form of taxes on the peasants and townspeople and then distributed the taxes to the nobility as salaries, pensions, and subsidies.

In the period of late feudalism a new hierarchy developed within the nobility in feudal absolutist states. The relative authority and significance of the court aristocracy increased, and the nobility was reinforced by new members from the bourgeoisie. (In France a distinction was drawn between the noblesse de la robe, or new nobility, and the noblesse de l’épée, or old nobility.)

As capitalist relations developed, some members of the nobility succeeded in adapting to the new system and engaged in bourgeois enterprise. For example, the so-called new nobility, or gentry, developed in England. In Germany, a noble-landlord economy was gradually transformed into a Junker-bourgeois economy. Some members of the nobility, who adhered for a longer time to purely feudal forms of exploitation, were gradually ruined.

The destruction of the nobility as a privileged estate and the end of its political supremacy were among the goals of the bourgeois revolution. However, the nobility was usually able to preserve some of its privileges, especially where the consolidation of the capitalist system had occurred without a radical breakdown of the old regime and the bourgeoisie had agreed to a compromise with the old ruling class. This occurred, for example, in Germany, and it was furthered by the merger of part of the nobility with the bourgeoisie during the capitalist period. Privileges of the nobility such as the caste character of the army command, leadership of the state apparatus and the diplomatic corps, and noble titles endured for an especially long time, if not legally, then in practice. In Great Britain’s agrarian system the monopoly in land held by the aristocratic members of the ruling class became the basis for landlordism. Big landowners from the nobility constituted the basic core of the reactionary party of agrarian landlords, who acted everywhere as the support of monarchism, clericalism, and militarism.

Among the countries of the Orient the clearest class differentiation of the nobility took place in Japan (the daimyo and samurai).


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The dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry) in Russia. The dvorianstvo as the lower stratum of the feudal military service estate that made up the court of a prince or big boyar arose in the 12th and 13th centuries. In contrast to dependent servitors, who were engaged in the feudal economy, the members of the dvorianstvo were known as vol’nye slugi(free servitors). Beginning in the 14th century the feudal lord granted land to the vol’nye slugi for their services. (This was the embryo of the pomest’e [fief] system.) As the unification of northeastern Rus’ under the authority of the grand prince of Moscow progressed, feudal vassalage developed, with most of the sluzhilye liudi(military service class) under the direct supremacy of the grand prince. The dvorianstvo, which was interested in ending feudal strife and the boyars’ arbitrary power, was the most important social support of the grand prince’s power in unifying Russian territory as a centralized state. The chronicles report that under Ivan III Vasil’evich a large army was raised from among the sluzhilye liudi, to whom land confiscated from the Novgorodian boyars was distributed. The Code of 1497 mentioned for the first time the “pomestnik who received land from the grand prince.” The consolidation of the dvorianstvo was accompanied by the absorption of contiguous social categories of the ruling class, including the deti boiarskie(second-rank nobility) and pos-luzhil’tsy(retainers).
The mid-16th century was characterized by a particularly rapid consolidation of the dvorianstvo and a strengthening of its role. The Code of Service (1555–56) officially transferred service into the hands of the dvorianstvo and defined the method of transfer by establishing standards of payment in pomest’ia and producing the lists of deti boiarskie and of dvoriane. The review of charters of immunity (tarkhany) for boyar landed estates and the extension of immunity to owners of pomest’ia were initial steps in the drawing together of the votchina (patrimonial estate) and pomest’e. At the same time, the political rights of the dvorianstvo and its role in state administration developed. The dvorianstvo was organized as a special rank in the Zemskii sobor (National Assembly). With the abolition of the kormlenie system between 1555 and 1556, the heads of local administration were drawn from the dvorianstvo.
At the end of the 16th century and in the first half of the 17th century the dvorianstvo secured from the autocracy the complete enserfment of the peasantry. This process was legalized by the Ulozhenie (code) of 1649. The development of the dvorianstvo as an estate was accompanied by a rapid increase in its ownership of land. According to the census of 1678, secular feudal lords owned 595,000 (67 percent) of serf households, of which the dvorianstvo owned 507,000 (85 percent).
In the 17th century the dvorianstvo was registered in special razriadnye spiski(rank lists), and the high-born members of the dvorianstvo were registered in the Gosudarstvennyi rodoslovets (State Genealogical Directory) and the Barkhat-naia kniga (Velvet Book). Different ranks were distinguished within the membership of the dvorianstvo. The upper stratum was composed of the Moscow dvorianstvo, who were closer to the central administration, and the lower ranks were filled by the provincial town dvorianstvo. The general consolidation of the dvorianstvo was accompanied by the abolition of the mestnichestvo system in 1682, which actually eliminated the service privileges of the well-born boyars and prepared for their absorption by the dvorianstvo in the 18th century. Pomest’ia were gradually transformed into hereditary holdings.
The triumph of absolute monarchy under Peter I was accompanied by the transformation of the state into a monarchy of the bureaucracy and dvorianstvo. The decree on primogeniture of 1714 gave legal confirmation to the elimination in fact of the differences between pomest’ia and vo-tchiny. The Table of Ranks (1722) defined the bureaucratic hierarchy of ranks in the army, navy, and civil administration. Even the very lowest rank conferred the right of personal nobility, and the higher ranks bestowed the right of hereditary nobility. The acquisition of noble rank by the Table of Ranks contributed to the entry into the dvorianstvo of members of other estates, who were ennobled as a result of promotion in the state service. New members of the nobility were also created by the granting of nobility at the personal discretion of the tsar.
The rights and privileges of the dvorianstvo were expanded during the 18th century. In 1736 a decree was issued limiting to 25 years the term of the dvorianstvo’s compulsory state service. The Manifesto on the Freedom of the Nobility (1762) liberated the dvorianstvo from compulsory state service and established its monopoly on the right to own land. The General Land Survey promoted the further expansion of landowning by the dvorianstvo. The strengthening of the rights of the dvorianstvo to own land was accompanied by increased landownership by the dvorianstvo, which was the result of grants from court lands and chernye zemli (state lands), colonization of free lands in the border regions, and forcible seizure of land from chernososhnye krest’ian(tax-paying state peasants) and people who paid the iasak (tribute).
The Statute on the Provinces of 1775 and the Charter to the Nobility of 1785, which were issued during the reign of Catherine II, defined the estate rights and privileges of the dvorianstvo and completed the legal formulation of the corporate organization of the dvorianstvo. In the 18th century the exploitation of the peasantry assumed particularly ugly forms. In legal terms the peasants found themselves completely without rights: the noble landlords had the right to buy and sell serfs, exile them for penal servitude, and send them to serve as soldiers. While preserving its economic power and taking advantage of its political supremacy, in the 18th century the dvorianstvo began to adapt to developing bourgeois relations and turned to industry (patrimonial industry), commerce, and the organization of the production of grain and other agricultural products for sale.
The multinational expansion of the nobility took place in the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. The Finnish knights were included in the Russian dvorianstvo in 1723, and after 1710 the annexation of the Baltic provinces was accompanied by the formation of an Ostsee nobility. The Decree of 1783 extended the rights of the Russian dvorianstvo to the nobility of three Ukrainian provinces, and in 1784 the rights of Russian nobles were extended to Tatar princes and gentry. The official registration of the nobility of the Don region began in the last quarter of the 18th century. The rights of the Bessarabian nobility were formulated in the early 19th century and those of the Georgian nobility in the 1840’s. The personal rights of the nobility of the Polish Kingdom had been made equal to those of the Russian dvorianstvo by the mid-19th century.
The further development of the capitalist structure and the beginning of the decay of the feudal system in the first half of the 19th century gave rise to revolutionary sentiments among the dvorianstvo in public life, which were aimed at the abolition of the feudal system and the consolidation of the new bourgeois system. In the history of the Russian revolutionary movement, Lenin distinguished a stage dominated by the dvorianstvo and first manifested by the Decembrist movement. Later, the dvorianstvo as a whole became increasingly reactionary, although individual representatives participated in the revolutionary movement in the stages dominated by the raznochintsy(intellectuals from various classes) and the proletariat. Leading figures from the dvorianstvo made significant contributions to the development of the national culture of the peoples of Russia.
Government policy in the first half of the 19th century was characterized by a strengthening of estate principles: the nobility became a more exclusive estate, the classes of ranks conferring the right of personal or hereditary nobility were raised, and the qualifications for participation in assemblies of the nobility were sharply raised.
The abolition of serfdom on Feb. 19, 1861, signified the downfall of the feudal system, which was the basis of the social and political power of the dvorianstvo. Nevertheless, significant vestiges of the feudal system—above all, ownership of land by the dvorianstvo—were preserved in the period of consolidation of capitalist relations. As a result of the reforms, the dvorianstvo owned 80 million desiatins(87.2 million hectares [ha]). In 1877 they owned 73.1 million desiatins(79.8 million ha) and in 1905, 53.2 million desiatins(57.9 million ha). In 1877 the dvorianstvo held approximately 80 percent of all privately owned land and in 1905, 62 percent. At the same time, the total amount of land held by the dvorianstvo decreased by 41 percent in the 40-year period after the reforms. However, in European Russia in 1877, 30,000 landlord families (approximately 150,000 persons) owned 70 million desiatins(76.3 million ha) of land, while 10.5 million small peasant households (approximately 50 million persons) owned 75 million desiatins(81.8 million ha).
In postreform Russia the dvorianstvo maintained its corporate organization as well as its dominant position in the administration of the country, particularly local self-government. The marshal of the nobility was the head of the district office on peasant affairs, the assembly of the nobility elected a permanent member of the provincial office, and members of the dvorianstvo headed the school councils, occupied the most important positions in military offices, and appointed the justices of the peace. The dvorianstvo was assigned the predominant role in the zemstvos(district and provincial assemblies), which were created in 1864. The so-called counterreforms further strengthened the role of the dvorianstvo in local self-government. A law of 1889 transferred local judicial and administrative power to the zemskie nachal’niki(land captains), who were chosen only from among the hereditary nobility. The zemstvo counterreform of 1890 confirmed the dvorianstvo’ s primacy in the zemstvos. At the same time, the government took measures to support the economic condition of the dvorianstvo(for example, the establishment of the State Nobles’ Land Bank in 1885). However, as a result of Russia’s economic development, some members of the dvorianstvo became members of the bourgeoisie.
The dvorianstvo’ s political activity and its counterrevolutionary role increased in the beginning of the 20th century. During the Revolution of 1905–07 the dvorianstvo was the chief support of the autocracy in its struggle against the revolutionary movement. The Council of the United Nobility was founded in 1906 and became the center of reaction, exerting an enormous influence on the government. Faced with the threat of a new revolution, a counterrevolutionary bloc of the dvorianstvo and leaders of the bourgeoisie was formed. After the February Revolution of 1917 the chairman of the dvorianstvo’s Zemstvo Union, Prince G. E. L’vov, became head of the Provisional Government.
With the Decree on Land of October 26 (November 7), the October Revolution abolished landowning by the dvorianstvo, thus eliminating it as a privileged estate. The decree of the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars on the Abolition of Estates and Civil Ranks was adopted on Nov. 10 (23), 1917. During the Civil War (1918–20) a significant part of the dvorianstvo openly participated in anti-Soviet activity. The dvorianstvo supplied officer cadres for the counterrevolutionary White armies. Some members of the dvorianstvo emigrated from Russia, but later, some of its more progressive representatives returned to the USSR.


Lenin, V. I. “Goniteli zemstva i Annibaly liberalizma.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 5.
Lenin, V. I. “Krepostniki za rabotoi.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Agrarnyi vopros ν Rossii k kontsu XIX v.” Ibid., vol. 17.
Lenin, V. I. “Piatidesiatiletie padeniia krepostnogo prava.” Ibid., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. “Po povodu iubileia.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Politicheskie partii ν Rossii.” Ibid., vol. 21.
Lenin, V. I. “Liberal’noe podkrashivanie krepostnichestva.” Ibid., vol. 23.
Lenin, V. I. “Krepostnoe khoziaistvo ν derevne.” Ibid., vol. 25.
Romanov, B. A. Liudi i nravy Drevnei Rusi. Leningrad, 1947.
Iablochkov, M. Istoriia dvorianskogo sosloviia ν Rossii. St. Petersburg, 1876.
Romanovich-Slavatinskii, A. Dvorianstvo ν Rossii ot nachala XVIII v. do otmeny krepostnogo prava. Kiev, 1912.
Kliuchevskii, V. O. Istoriia soslovii ν Rossii: Soch., vol. 6. Moscow, 1959.
Pavlov-Sil’vanskii, N. P. Gosudarevy sluzhilye liudi, 2nd ed. St. Petersburg, 1909.
Beliavskii, M. T. Krest’ianskii vopros ν Rossii nakanune vosstaniia E. I. Pugacheva. Moscow, 1965.
Vnutrenniaia politika tsarizma (seredina XVI-nachalo XX v.). Sb. st. Leningrad, 1967.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
At a time when written communication was a necessary attribute of the educated nobility in Russia, correspondence represented for the noblewoman a privileged means to express themselves both as individuals and as social entities.
It's up to a beautiful French noblewoman to train him --if he can resist her magic and love, in the process.
In their hands, the question of whether Raymonda, a young noblewoman, will choose a dependable, handsome knight (Jean de Brienne) of a menacing-yet-sexy Saracen warrior (Abderakman) as a fiance is even less interesting than it might be, since the outcome is never in doubt.
My eyes shifted to the reflection of a circular 'moon gate' window that hovered beyond the etched image of the ancient noblewoman.
Convicted of killing the king's hangman, Hreggvidsson is freed by a noblewoman named Snaefridur and then travels to Copenhagen in an attempt to have his case tried again.
Dorothy Osborne: Letters to Sir William Temple, 1652-54, the letters of the noblewoman Dorothy Osborne (1627-95) to her lover and eventual husband Sir William Temple (1628-99), certainly the most baroque of the three editions, for me had the most revelations.
In chapter three, "'Gentildame et honeste matrone': Representing the Bolognese Noblewoman," Murphy's goal is to present Fontana as an artist whose "presence prompted the ladies of her city to think visually in terms of recording their own lives, and to believe in the power of images to convey their histories, or at least a part of them" (p.
Charles Erickson had captured actress Francesca Faridany--in the role of Silvia, a noblewoman disguised as a maidservant--in a moment of extravagant despair over the vagaries of love.
Underhill's new biography of the fourteenth-century English noblewoman offers a portrait of an intelligent, courageous, politically astute, philanthropic, and captivating woman, able to create a significant place for herself in her society by adroitly managing the gender conventions of her day.
Such love places the alba couple in a timeless and idyllic world that allows them to escape from the reality of their respective social positions as unhappily married noblewoman and landless, itinerant knight.
In Newark, New Jersey in April, a Pennsylvania man pled guilty to smuggling three monstrances, one of them containing bone fragments of Saint Maxellendis, a seventh-century Frank noblewoman. The objects, valued at $130,000, had been stolen from a small rural church in northern France.
He worked a miracle cure on the son of a local noblewoman earning his canonisation, and in her gratitude she gave him the land where he founded a religious settlement in AD 310.