The nobility1 are the hereditary ruling class of any culture which holds with such things. The term is generally considered more restrictive than aristocracy (which could theoretically include the gentry and possibly "commoners" of high status as well) and is allegedly based on good breeding and the retention of positive character traits2 (hence the use of "noble" as a positive adjective). The nobility are also referred to in some senses as the peerage - that is, those who are "peers of the realm" (meaning the king), and thus those whose social status approximates to that of the Monarch.
Anglo-European Titles of Nobility (in rough order of precedence) are as follows:
- Emperor / Emperess.
- King / Queen.
- Prince / Princess
- Arch Duke or Grand Duke / *Duchess
- Duke / Duchess
- Marquis or Marquess / Marchioness or Marquesa
- Count or Earl / Countess
- Viscount / Viscountess
- Baron / Baroness (although in earlier periods this could be a very non-specific degree indeed)
- Baronet / Barontess (often considered gentry rather than peerage)
- Landed Knight / Lady or Dame (almost always considered gentry rather than peerage)
Nobility generally exact their wealth and status from holding land and fighting - other professions and means of raising income are likely to be severely restricted or blocked for them, either by law or custom.
Even the Romans - known for being staunchly Republican and hostile to ideas of monarchy and related things, not to mention quite egalitarian (or at least plutocratic) about whom they admitted to their governing class - had a concept of nobility. In the Roman case, membership of the nobiles was determined by direct male-line descent from someone who had been elected to the office of Consul.
Game and Story Use
- These people are likely to serve as employers, patrons, major villains and other big hitters in most campaigns.
- They can also serve as something of a joke in a nation where they have outgrown their usefullness and consist mostly of inbred idiots with too much wealth and power for anyone's good.
- Some might deliberately cultivate such a reputation, in order to dodge responsibility or avoid suspicion.
- In more primitive societies however, anyone in their position is likely to be obliged to be ruthless and good in a fight.
- Historic - and fantastical - nobility may trace their descent from divine or otherwise supernatural beings or from a group of cultural founders and/or culture heroes. A peerage in particular might count their descent from the same founder figure as the King (e.g. from a character like Romulus ) with the royal line being the senior branch and the others being from lesser lines. Such a monarch might well justly address his dukes and counts as "cousin".
- More prosaic cultures might simply grade a noble on the number and quality of his retinue.
- Where "The King's Two Bodies" or similar "Fisher King" like tropes are in effect, noblemen may have similar pathetic connections to their own estates. This will ensure that, even if the kingdom is in ruins, the good Duke will still have bustling farmlands and cheerful peasants and even in a thriving kingdom, the wicked Baron will usually lair on some blasted heath or in a sordid, thorn choked forest.