The German nobility [Adel] embraced both rich and proud magnates and homespun country squires. The dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire after 1803 reduced many previously sovereign rulers of miniscule principalities, along with the multitudinous imperial knights, to specially privileged noble subjects of the thirty-six territorial German states which, together with three urban republics, survived on the post-1815 European map. Apart from these politically unhorsed aristocrats, each territorial principality had possessed for centuries a noble estate assembled from its own landed gentry, often descendants of medieval knights. They were customarily bound by kinship to a military and bureaucratic service nobility, whose ranks swelled over time by the addition of ennobled officials and other princely favorites.
In principle, noble families possessed property in land. Most noble lineages (allied families sharing a common ancestral name) held portfolios of palaces and manor-houses, landed estates with forest and hunting reserves, and incomes from their tenants’ and subject villagers’ feudal dues. But numerous individual nobles banked no incomes from agricultural sales or peasant rents, living instead from salaries, investments, and – sometimes – princely sinecures. In Catholic lands, unmarried nobles held most high church appointments, endowed with ample incomes. In ecclesiastical principalities, favored families among the secular nobility enjoyed remunerative and hereditary Church patronage.
It befitted a nobleman to deal in wholesale trade of his landed estate’s agrarian products, including beer and distilled liquor (schnapps) made from seigneurial cereals. He might also have his alcoholic drinks sold at an inn or a tavern under his lordship, but if he descended into retail trade or urban manufacture he would likely be obliged to forfeit his noble title and the privileges it carried. These encompassed, most prominently, shelter from direct taxation, on the theory that nobles existed to share with the ruling princes the exercise of rule and lordship. The noble seigneur not only wielded local juridical and police powers, requiring him to employ and pay the officials who enforced them. Above all, he or others from his family, notably his sons, stood under the obligation to serve the prince on the battlefield and at court, while his daughters too might be summoned to wait upon their ruling mistresses at the princely residences. During their apprenticeship in these roles, the nobility paid much or all of their own way. For men in military or courtly service, only promotion to higher rank began to yield salaried dividends and other perquisites, allowing them also to marry.
From the late seventeenth to early nineteenth century, the service nobility’s numbers soared on the wings of the ascending military-bureaucratic “absolutist” state. Though market forces and state-funded land reclamation programs enlarged the number of noble-owned large estates, the landed nobility as a class grew only slowly. Few among them were rich enough to measure themselves against the great aristocrats of England, France, Spain, Hungary, Poland, and Russia. Some dozens of such – as they were known – magnate families bejeweled the Habsburg monarchy, but elsewhere most German landed nobles led prosperous or rich but not opulent lives, privileged yet also usually professionally engaged. Many died in battle, or at any rate in uniform. On the eve of the 1789 French Revolution, the number of nobles living in straitened circumstances – bereft of land and good salaries, sunk in debt, sometimes on the run and at daggers drawn with the law, sometimes behind bars – was not inconsiderable.