Two fascinating books show what nobility still means ★★★★☆


Statue Martyn F. Overweel

The nobility is a remnant of old times, good or bad. A charming anachronism. Certainly in the Netherlands, where already during the Republic he ceased to be a significant power factor. The offspring of noble families have therefore become adept at putting themselves in perspective. As a rule, they pronounce their surname randomly, or – if it is a double surname – they leave out part of it. If their origins are mentioned anyway, they shrug. Perhaps it is often a pose for the stage, and the nobility feel quite comfortable in the privacy of their own milieu. But outwardly, modesty is shown – often in connection with service to society.

In the Netherlands, the nobility – 325 families with 10-11 thousand members – make up only a fraction of the population. The Quote 500 is not their domain. And the nobility has long since stopped setting standards – a development increasingly lamented because the once reviled ‘old boys’ network’, unlike today’s crypto-penoze, was also a community of values. In 2002, experience experts Yvo van Regteren Altena and Binnert de Beaufort were accompanied by then Quote– editor-in-chief Jort Kelder: ‘Old money represents a culture that has nothing directly or often nothing to do with money. It’s a lifestyle dominated by convention.’

Stay alive

This quote is included in good names, historian Kees Bruin’s book about nobility and patriciate in post-war Holland. Even more than in the 1960s and 1970s, when the article of faith ‘levelling’ became fashionable, their place in society has changed under the influence of the new (money) elite, who no longer aim to ‘lead with a good example’. . Nevertheless, the ‘remarkable elite’ has managed to hold on reasonably well in Zuidas’ meritocracy, and the process of extinction, long thought to kill the nobility, has been halted.

It is not even the result of a sophisticated survival strategy. In the revision of the nobility law that came into force in 1994, all things considered there were only three future scenarios: abolish, do nothing or modernize – which, for example, could mean that noble titles could also be passed on to posterity through the female line. . The legislator chose the second option. This means that the nobility can only be refreshed by recognizing old families that previously did not want to make their status visible (‘did not need to’), or by incorporating families bearing a title of nobility abroad.

In total, in the past eighty years, 39 requests to be included in the nobility register have been granted. Not enough to be able to speak of great social mobility, but enough to keep the size of the nobility in the Netherlands stable.

Still water

‘You can say’, writes Kees Bruin: ‘In the Netherlands, nobility is stagnant water that is still fairly clear.’ In other words: it is clear who does and who does not belong to this small minority. It is different with the Dutch patriciate, the other branch of the notable elite, to which families of some social importance may seek affiliation. A claim to a place in the so-called Blue Book – a variation of the Red Book of noble families – is indeed tested and weighed, but the criteria are so arbitrary and volatile that, according to Bruin, the patriciate ‘floats more (than the nobility, red.) but is more cloudy’. Where the nobility and the patriciate were still closely intertwined in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the patriciate has been shown to be less valuable.

For both branches of the notable elite, the family crest has traditionally been the most important feature of the given name. A so-called motto has been added to more than 400 Dutch coats of arms: a succinct piece of wisdom, an exhortation, an allusion to the family name or the coat of arms itself. The reference book Coat of arms of Dutch families contains a ‘reasoned summary’ of coats of arms in use (also of families which have since become extinct), their origin and significance. For example, the authors counted 310 coats of arms in Latin – not always error-free. Of the Roman authors quoted, Horace, Virgil, Cicero and Ovid are the most beloved. Frequently used Latin words are virtue (virtue or bravery), labor (hard work), fides (trust) and pietas (duty or piety). After Latin, French is the most used language in the coat of arms, followed by Dutch, English/Scottish, German, Frisian and other languages.

At one time, appointments were confirmed with a lacquer print of a family coat of arms. Gradually, the family coat of arms—adorned by helmets, feathers, and resistant animals—expressed family pride, historical awareness, or vulgar splendour. In this connection, the authors of Coat of arms of Dutch families to the third edition of Hildebrands Camera obscura (1851), where the ‘bourgeois man’ (and former planter) Kegge considers the purchase of a carriage where ‘the great Hanseatic and noble gentlemen (can) suck a point. I would like to have a coat of arms painted on it with a gold wedge on a silver field and a large planter’s crown of sugar cane and coffee beans on top.’

Kees Bruin: Good names – Nobility and patriciate in the post-war Netherlands. W Books; 271 pages; €24.95. ★★★★ clean

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Christoph EG ten Houte de Lange, Alle Diderik de Jonge, Jan Spoelder: Spells of Dutch Lineages. W Books; 211 pages; €29.95. ★★★★ clean

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