Uradel (German: [ʔuːɐ̯ˈʔaːdl̩], German: "ancient nobility"; adjective uradelig or uradlig) is a genealogical term introduced in late 18th-century Germany to distinguish those families whose noble rank can be traced to the 14th century or earlier. The word stands opposed to Briefadel, a term used for titles of nobility created in the early modern period or modern history by letters patent. Since the earliest known such letters were issued in the 14th century, those knightly families in northern European nobility whose noble rank predates these are designated uradel.
Uradel and Briefadel families are generally further divided into categories with their ranks of titles: adlig (untitled nobility), freiherrlich (baronial), gräflich (comital), and fürstlich (royal, princely and ducal) houses. The latter are also referred to as Hochadel (High Nobility).
Introduction and usage
The first use of the word Uradel to designate the oldest nobility dates from 1788 and it had assumed its present-day meaning by no later than 1800. The term Uradel was used officially from the 19th century by the Royal Prussian Herald Office (königlich-preußische Heroldsamt). The term is found in the Almanach de Gotha from 1907, in which it is applied to all persons and families known to have been "noble" or "knightly" before 1400. The subsequent German-language publications Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels (GHdA) and since 2015 the Gothaisches Genealogisches Handbuch continue to differentiate between Uradel and Briefadel families.
According to the German genealogical reference work of the nobility (Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels, 1951) the noble houses which count as Uradel are those families whose ancestral lineage can be demonstrated to date at least as far back as the year 1400 (in the Late Middle Ages), belonging at that time to the knightly (German ritterbürtigen) nobility.
The latter includes edelfreie families (free noblemen) as well as ministeriales, a lower and in their origins mostly unfree order which arose rapidly and managed within the 14th century to elevate themselves to the lesser nobility (see: Estates of the realm). The modern concept of aristocracy (Uradel) must not be confused with the term edelfrei, since the former term's scope is much broader: all families that can prove they belonged to the knightly aristocracy by no later than around 1400 (whether originally edelfrei or ministeriales) are counted today as Uradel. In fact, most of the families in the former Uradel volumes of the Gotha are of ministerialis origin, including even some of the later princely houses ("Hochadel", see below).
Edelfrei families were members of an ancient, dynastic aristocratic line, free noble families independent of legal obligations of a secondary nature, and they were not subordinated to any other families or dynasties, apart from the German King or Holy Roman Emperor. In contrast, the ministeriales, meaning originally "servitors" or "agents", were unfree nobles, however trained knights who made up a large majority of what could be described as the German knighthood during that time. These people were raised up from serfdom to be placed in positions of power and responsibility in the service of lords, counts or bishops. From about 1200 they gradually accumulated power and fiefs, at some point more than the Edelfrei knights. Poorer Edelfrei knights passed into ministerialis service, primarily to be granted new administrative positions and fiefs. The powerful overlords, mostly edelfrei themselves, had no interest in raising any competition to their power by sharing it with their peers, rather attempting to subject these by making them their vassals. In the 14th century, the edelfrei and ministerialis classes finally mixed and intermarried. Those ministeriales who directly served the German king or emperor (the "ministeriales of the Empire" or Reichsministerialen) often accumulated large imperial fiefs, later sometimes enabling them to rise to comital or princely rank.
Ministeriales mostly rose by elevation to the knightly status. Knightings were usually granted to squires having bravely fought as armored horsemen in a battle, yet sometimes also to simple men-at-arms. A ministeriales family however was considered a "knightly family" only after three subsequent generations of knights (or at least of leading a "knightly way of life", including equal marriage). Since it is a coincidence from what period of time documents have been received or not, the initially more strict definition, as described in Der Große Brockhaus in 1928 (vol. 1, s.v. "Adel"), which required an attestation prior to the year 1350 to establish Uradel status, has been extended to the year 1400 because even the knightly families documented as dating from the Late Middle Ages (between about 1350 and 1400) are likely to have had already at least a century of possessing that status. Many have in fact risen to noble or knightly status already before 1300.
Uradel is also closely connected with the system of medieval fiefs, granted by an overlord to a vassal who held it in fealty (or "in fee") in return for a form of feudal allegiance and service, usually given by the personal ceremonies of homage and fealty. Therefore feudal deeds are an important source not only for the existence of noble families, but also for their rank and status. Witness lists, for instance, mostly enumerate edelfreie witnesses first, followed by ministeriales witnesses, mostly denoted as eques (knight) or something similar.
In contrast, the younger Briefadel are families of the post-medieval nobility, probably originally of bourgeois (Bürger, burgher) or peasant origin, ennobled in the modern era by letters patent issued by a monarch, usually with the award of a coat of arms if they did not already have one. Said to have been modelled on the earlier French practice of raising officials (especially lawyers) to the aristocracy, the earliest letters patent conferring nobility in Germany were issued under Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in the late 14th century.
The term Uradel can be found in Scandinavian genealogy from the early 20th century. The contrasting term Briefadel was calqued as brevadel.
The 1926 edition of the Swedish Nordisk familjebok also cites 1350 as the required date, because "the oldest known letter patent dates to 1360". The letters patent referred to here is that issued by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV to Wicker Frosch, a burgher of Frankfurt, on 30 September 1360. Svenska Akademiens ordbok mentions "circa 1420" as the threshold date. In Norway, one of the earliest known letters patent is of 1458.
Hochadel (High Nobility)
Hochadel is not a synonym for Uradel. Whereas Uradel (medieval or feudal nobility before AD 1400) is opposed to Briefadel (nobility by letters – or patent – of nobility, mostly from a post-medieval period after AD 1400), Hochadel (high nobility) is opposed to Niederer Adel (lower nobility). The differentiation of Uradel/Briefadel is such age-based whereas the distinction between Hochadel and Niederer Adel is based on the rank of titles, with Hochadel including all royal, princely and ducal houses of Europe, as well as the former German Imperial Counts, as far as they ruled an Imperial State with a seat on one of the four "benches of counts" in the Imperial Diet until 1806.
The Almanach de Gotha (followed by subsequent series) differentiates between three sections of Hochadel: The first section listed Europe's sovereign houses, whether they reign(ed) as emperor, king, grand duke, duke or prince. The second section contain the Mediatized Houses of Germany which lost their semi-sovereignty within the Holy Roman Empire during the period of German mediatization between 1803 and 1815. The third section includes the titular princely and ducal houses of Europe that never ruled as sovereigns.
Only very few German Hochadel families belong to the Briefadel, instead of Uradel, such as the Fugger, Eggenberg, Biron or Wrede families that rose to the rank of Fürst (prince). On a European level, there are some more examples for royal or princely families who only rose to nobility after the middle age, such as the House of Bonaparte (and other Napoleonic families like the House of Bernadotte, the Ney, Murat, Fouché d'Otrante, Berthier of Wagram etc.), the Italian princes Torlonia or the Russian princes Demidov.
- Godsey 2004, p. 58.
- Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, citing Eichhorn, Einleitung in d. d. Privatrecht (1827) for an early attestation of the term, and Brockhaus 1 (1928) for the definition alle urkundlich vor 1350 als adlig nachweisbaren geschlechter. See also Duden; Meaning of Uradel, in German.
- William D. Godsey (18 November 2004). Nobles and Nation in Central Europe: Free Imperial Knights in the Age of Revolution, 1750–1850. Cambridge University Press. pp. 57–59. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511496752.004. ISBN 978-1-139-45609-8.
- Jacob Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch erst im 19. jh. gebraucht zur bezeichnung ältesten adels. ("in use only from the 19th c. for the designation of older nobility"), citing Eichhorn (1821, 1827).
- Granichstätten-Czerva, Rudolf von (1947). "Altösterreichisches Adels- und Wappenrecht". Adler. Zeitschrift für Genealogie und Heraldik (in German). 1 (4): 49–58.
- Karl Bosl: Die Gesellschaft in der Geschichte des Mittelalters. 4. Auflage. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1987, ISBN 3-525-33389-7, p. 56.
- Ursula Siems; Kurt Kluxen (1979). "Politik, Gesellschaft, Wirtschaft von 800 bis 1776". In Tenbrock; Kluxen; Grütter (eds.). Von Zeiten und Menschen. 2. Paderborn. pp. 39–41.
- Salmonsens Konversationsleksikon (1915: 169)
- Nordisk familjebok (1926:1120)
- "Ur-adel". Svenska Akademiens ordbok. Swedish Academy.
i sht hist. om adel(ssläkt) som erhållit adelskap före ca 1420 (o. därmed hör till de äldsta i landet); motsatt: sköldebrevsadel.
- Godsey, William D. (2004). Nobles and Nation in Central Europe: Free Imperial Knights in the Age of Revolution, 1750–1850. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139456098.