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Patricianship, the quality of belonging to a patriciate, began in the ancient world, where cities such as Ancient Rome had a class of patrician families whose members were initially the only people allowed to exercise many political functions. In the rise of European towns in the 12th and 13th century, the patriciate, a limited group of families with a special constitutional position, in Henri Pirenne's view,[3] was the motive force. In 19th century central Europe, the term had become synonymous with the upper Bourgeoisie and can't be compared with the medieval patriciate in Central Europe. In the German-speaking parts of Europe as well as in the maritime republics of Italy, the patricians were as a matter of fact the ruling body of the medieval town and particularly in Italy part of the nobility.

With the establishment of the medieval towns, Italian city-states and maritime republics, the patriciate was a formally defined class of governing wealthy families. They were found in the Italian city states and maritime republics such as Venice, Pisa, Genoa and Amalfi and but also in many of the Free imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire such as Nuremberg, Ravensburg, Augsburg, Konstanz, Lindau, Bern, Basel, Zurich and many more.

As in Ancient Rome, patrician status could generally only be inherited.

In any case, only male patricians could hold, or participate in elections for, most political offices.

In the modern era the term "patrician" is also used broadly for the higher bourgeoisie (not to be equated with aristocracy) in many countries; in some countries it vaguely refers to the non-noble upper class, especially before the 20th century.[5]

The patricius in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

There was an intermediate period under the Late Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire when the title was given to governors in the Western parts of the Empire, such as SicilyStilicho, Aetius and other 5th-century magistri militari usefully exemplify the role and scope of the patricius at this point. Later the role, like that of the Giudicati of Sardinia, acquired a judicial overtone, and was used by rulers who were often de facto independent of Imperial control, like Alberic II of Spoleto, "Patrician of Rome" from 932 to 954.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Byzantine emperors strategically used the title of patrikios to gain the support of the native princes of southern Italy in the contest with the Carolingian Empire for control of the region. The allegiance of the Principality of Salerno was bought in 887 by investing Prince Guaimar I, and again in 955 from Gisulf I. In 909 the Prince of Benevento, Landulf I, personally sought and received the title in Constantinople for both himself and his brother, Atenulf II. In forging the alliance that won the Battle of the Garigliano in 915, the Byzantine strategos Nicholas Picingli granted the title to John I and Docibilis II of Gaeta and Gregory IV and John II of Naples.

At this time there was usually only one "Patrician" for a particular city or territory at a time; in several cities in Sicily, like Catania and Messina, a one-man office of patrician was part of municipal government for much longer. Amalfi was ruled by a series of Patricians, the last of whom was elected Duke.

Formation of the European patriciates

Though often mistakenly so described, patrician families of Italian cities were not in their origins members of the territorial nobility, but members of the minor landowners, the bailiffs and stewards of the lords and bishops, against whose residual powers they led the struggles in establishing the urban communes. At Genoa the earliest records of trading partnerships are in documents of the early 11th century; there the typical sleeping partner is a member of the local petty nobility with some capital to invest, and in the expansion of trade leading roles were taken by men who already held profitable positions in the feudal order, who received revenues from rents or customs tolls or market dues. Then in the 12th and 13th centuries, to this first patrician class were added the families who had risen through trade, the Doria, Cigala and Lercari[6] In Milan, the earliest consuls were chosen from among the valvasores, capitanei and cives. H. Sapori found the first patriaciates of Italian towns to usurp the public and financial functions of the overlord to have been drawn from such petty vassals, holders of heritable tenancies and rentiers who farmed out the agricultural labours of their holdings.[7]

At a certain point it was necessary to obtain recognition of the independence of the city, and often its constitution, from either the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor - "free" cities in the Empire continued to owe allegiance to the Emperor, but without any intermediate rulers.

In the late Middle Ages and early modern period patricians also acquired noble titles, sometimes simply by acquiring domains in the surrounding contado that carried a heritable fief. However, in practice the status and wealth of the patrician families of the great republics was higher than that of most nobles, as money economy spread and the profitability and prerogatives of land-holding eroded, and they were accepted as of similar status. The Republic of Genoa had a separate class, much smaller, of nobility, originating with rural magnates who joined their interests with the fledgling city-state. Some cities, such as Naples and Rome, which had never been republics in post-Classical times, also had patrician classes, though most holders also had noble titles. The Republic of Ragusa was ruled by a strict patriciate that was formally established in 1332, which was subsequently modified only once, following the 1667 Dubrovnik earthquake.

Subsequently, "patrician" became a vaguer term used for aristocrats and elite bourgeoisie in many countries.

Transformations within patriciates

In some Italian cities an early patriciate drawn from the minor nobles and feudal officials took a direct interest in trade, notably the textile trade and the long-distance trade in spices and luxuries as it expanded, and were transformed in the process.

Of the major republics, only Venice managed to retain an exclusively patrician government, which survived until Napoleon. In Venice, where the exclusive patriciate reserved to itself all power of directing the Serenissima Repubblica and erected legal barriers to protect the state increased its scrutiny over the composition of its patriciate in the generation after the Battle of Chioggia. Venetians with a disputed claim to the patriciate were required to present to the avogadori di commun established to adjudicate such claims a genealogy called a prova di nobiltà, a "test of nobility". This was particularly required of Venetian colonial elite in outlying regions of the Venetian thalassocracy, as in Crete, a key Venetian colony 1211–1669, and a frontier between Venetian and Byzantine, then Ottoman, zones of power. For Venetians in Venice, the prova di nobiltà was simply a pro forma rite of passage to adulthood, attested by family and neighbors; for the colonial Venetian elite in Crete the political and economic privileges weighed with the social ones, and for the Republic, a local patriciate in Crete with loyalty ties to Venice expressed through connective lineages was of paramount importance.[9]

Recruitment to patriciates

Active recruitment of rich new blood was also a character of some more flexible patriciates, which drew in members of the mercantile elite, through ad hoc partnerships in ventures, which became more permanently cemented by marriage alliances. "In such cases an upper group, part feudal-aristocratic, part mercantile would arise, a group of mixed nature like the 'magnates' of Bologna, formed of nobles made bourgeois by business, and bourgeois ennobled by city decree, both fused together in law."[10] Others, like Venice, tightly restricted membership, which was closed in 1297, though some families, the "case nuove" or "new houses" were allowed to join in the 14th century, after which membership was frozen.

German cities of the Holy Roman Empire

Beginning in the 11th century, a privileged class which much later came to be called Patrizier [11] formed in the German-speaking free imperial cities. Besides wealthy merchant Grand Burghers (German: Großbürger), they were recruited from the ranks of imperial knights, administrators and ministeriales; the latter two groups were accepted even when they were not freemen.

Members of a patrician society entered into oaths of loyalty to one another and directly with respect to the Holy Roman Emperor.

German medieval patricians, Patrician (post-Roman Europe) did not refer to themselves as such.

The Patrizier filled the seats of town councils and appropriated other important civic offices to themselves. For this purpose they assembled in patrician societies and asserted a hereditary claim to the coveted offices. In Frankfurt the Patrizier societies began to bar admittance of new families in the second half of the 16th century. The industrious Calvinist refugees from the southern Netherlands made substantial contributions to the city's commerce. But their advancement was largely limited to the material sphere. At the time this was summed up as,

Jews were in any case never even considered for membership in patricians societies. Unlike non-Lutheran Christians and until their partial emancipation brought on by Napoleonic occupation, however, other avenues to advancement in society were also closed to them.

As in the Italian republics, this was opposed by the craftsmen who were organized in guilds of their own (Zünfte). In the 13th century they began to challenge the prerogatives of the patricians and their guilds. Most of the time the guilds succeeded in achieving representation on a town's council. However, these gains were reversed in most Imperial Free Cities through the reforms in 1551–1553 by Emperor Charles V (of the Holy Roman Empire, 1519–1556) and patricians consolidated their exclusive right to city counsel seats and associated offices, making the patriciate the only families eligible for election to the city council.

During the formative years of a patrician junker, it was common to pursue international apprenticeships and academic qualification. During their careers patricians often achieved high military and civil service positions in the service of their cities and the emperor. It was also common for patricians to gain wealth as shareholders of corporations which traded commodities across Europe.

In the territories of the former Holy Roman Empire, patricians were considered the equal of the feudal nobility (the "landed gentry").[13] Indeed, many patrician societies such as the Suenfzen of Lindau, referred to their members as "noble" and themselves as a "noble" or even "high noble" societies.

Notwithstanding that membership in a patrician society (or eligibility there for, i.e., "Ratsfähigkeit") was per se evidence of belonging to the highest of social classes of the Holy Roman Empire, patricians always had the option to have their noble status confirmed by a patent of nobility from the Holy Roman Emperor which was granted as a matter course upon the payment of fee.[15] In any case, when travelling to other parts of Europe for example to the court of Louis XIV, members of the patrician societies of imperial free cities were recognized as noble courtiers as documented in the autobiography of Lindau Suenfzenjunker Rudolf Curtabatt.[16]

The Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist in 1806.

In any case, in the Netherlands (see below) and many Hanseatic cities such as Hamburg, patricians scoffed at the notion of ennoblement. Indeed, Johann Christian Senckenberg, the famous naturalist, commented, "An honest man is worth more than all the nobility and all the Barons. If anyone were to make me a Baron, I would call him a [female canine organ] or equally well a Baron. This is how much I care for any title."[18]

In 1816, Frankfurt's new constitution abolished the privilege of heritable office for the patricians.[19] In Nuremberg, successive reforms first curtailed the patricians privileges (1794) and then effectively abolished them (1808), although they retained some vestiges of power until 1848.

Patricianship in the Netherlands

The Netherlands also has a patriciate. These are registered in Nederland's Patriciaat, colloquially called The Blue Book (sList of Dutch patrician families). To be eligible for entry, families must have played an active and important role in Dutch society, fulfilling high positions in the government, in prestigious commissions and in other prominent public posts for over six generations or 150 years.

The longer a family has been listed in the Blue Book, the higher its esteem.

There are "regentenfamilies", whose forefathers were active in the administration of town councils, counties or the country itself during the Dutch Republic. Some of these families declined ennoblement because they did not keep a title in such high regard. At the end of the 19th century, they still proudly called themselves "patriciërs". Other families belong to the patriciate because they are held in the same regard and respect as the nobility but for certain reasons never were ennobled. Even within the same important families there can be branches with and without noble titles.


In Denmark and Norway, the term "patriciate" came to denote, mainly from the 19th century, the non-noble upper class, including the bourgeoisie, the clergy, the civil servants and generally members of elite professions such as lawyers. The Danish series Danske Patriciske Slægter (later Patriciske Slægter and Danske patricierslægter) was published in six volumes between 1891 and 1979 and extensively described Danish patrician families.[20][21][22]Danske%20patriciersl%C3%A6gter%3A]]%2C%20Museumsforlaget%2C%202]][23] The bourgeoisie frequently intermarried with the families of higher civil servants and the nobility; the boundaries between the groups were not sharp.

See also

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