Sub-Project D03: The Nobility and the Middle Classes: Impoverished Nobles between Competing Social Orders, 1700 - 1900


Project D 03 analyses the competition over social order between the nobility and the bourgeoisie by looking at the phenomenon of “impoverished nobles.” The project consists of three sub-projects that examine the lower nobility in the Eastern Elbe region of Prussia and those in Southwest Germany in different historical periods within a comparative perspective. The key focal point for the overall project is the phase from 1800–1830. Two of the three individual projects are situated before and after this period, namely from 1720-1760 (with a concentration on the Southwest) and 1880-1914.

The project as a whole sets out to question the relevance of the sense of mutual threat between the nobility and the middle classes originating from their divergent concepts of social order and visions for the future of society. To do so, it defines the chronological and temporal boundaries for comparison in a new way, so as to better contextualise the historical break around 1800 and potentially develop new conclusions as to the significance of this transitional period.

Project Team

Project Leaders:

Prof. Dr. Franz Brendle

Prof. Dr. Ewald Frie

Ph.D. Students:

Chelion Begass, M.A.

Jacek Klimek, M. A.

Johanna Singer

Student Assistant:

Jan Ruhkopf

Academic Disciplines and Orientation

Modern History

Project Description

Project D03 examines the competition over social order between the nobility as representatives of an estate-based social order and the middle classes as proponents of a post-estate social order by looking at the case of the impoverished nobility. The notions of social order and visions for the future of society proposed by these two social groups seemed to be incompatible and, at least for the period around 1800, this lead to a mutual perception of an existential threat on both sides.

By examining the so-called “impoverished nobility,” the project aims to re-conceptualise the question as to the relevance of this mutual threat constellation between the nobility and the middle classes by resetting the boundaries used for chronological and temporal comparison. Moreover, the project hopes to shed new light on the yet unanswered research question as to whether the nobility and the middle classes were in fact diametrically opposed or rather began to merge together.

To do so, it examines the phenomenon of “impoverished nobility” in three phases in more detail: 1720-1760, 1800-1830 and 1880-1914. These periods correspond with an estate-based society, a society in transition, and a middle-class society, respectively. In terms of geography, the project focuses on nobles in two distinct regions, namely Prussian territory to the east of the Elbe River and Southwest Germany.

The analytical framework of the project employs a social history perspective to examine the impoverished nobility itself as a phenomenon and investigate its size and various manifestations as well as the various strategies that emerged to deal with the situation. A second layer within the project looks at how impoverished nobility was perceived and dealt with in the concepts of society and its future associated with the nobility and the middle classes, respectively.

Overall, the project is structured around the main axis of “circa 1800”. One can safely say that during this period, traditional concepts of social order and visions of the future of society faced a fundamental challenge. By looking at periods before and after this transitional phase, in which the nobility faced an increased danger of impoverishment – whether it would be through war or agrarian depressions or through the economic, social and cultural challenges of the “Hochmoderne” or “high modernity” (Ulrich Herbert) – the project aims to re-examine this historical break around 1800 to question and potentially revise Koselleck's concept of the “Sattelzeit” (saddle period).

The Individual Projects:


The thematic focus for this period lies on impoverished nobility from the lower imperial estates and the lower ranks of the imperial knighthood as well as on the imperial “debt relief instrument” that could be used by the imperial debit commissions. The geographic focus lies in Southwest Germany.

In addition to identifying the causes, extent, and implications of debt, the project looks specifically at questions related to the self-perception and “external” perceptions of impoverished lower nobility, the collision of a limited ability to rule with an “elite” self-image, and the use of poverty by the middle classes (not only in an argumentative sense) as a “weapon” against the nobility.

Indeed, given the close reciprocal relationship between minor counts and knights on the one hand and the empire and its emperor on the other hand, it is also easy to surmise that indebtedness caused problems for the functioning of the Ancien Régime. In order to stabilise this political system and social order in general, it was thus necessary to absolve affected noble families from their debts. This is where the emperor's so-called imperial debit commissions came into play. They appointed debt managers who took charge of the affected nobles' finances and introduced measures to repay debts and increase liquidity. The goal was to secure these nobles' ability to rule. In general, these debit commissions favoured the debtors (nobles) over their creditors (mostly middle class). Did this approach merely treat the symptoms of the problem rather than trying to root out the structural factors contributing to such indebtedness?

In addition to contemporary journalistic materials, the key sources for this project include the records of the imperial debit commissions (HHStA Vienna) as well as the proclamations of the knights' circles and documents from the knight cantons (i.e. GLA Karlsruhe).


In many respects, the period around 1800 represented one of the greatest challenges to the nobility in all of their history. Due to the upheaval surrounding the French Revolution and the late Enlightenment critique of the nobility, as well as the problems left in the wake of an agrarian depression and the Napoleonic Wars, the nobility fell into a deep crisis of legitimacy around 1800. The political, economic and social upheavals during the Napoleonic era hit the lower nobility especially hard and demanded an enormous amount of adaptation and adjustment on their part. Not all of the nobles managed to come to terms with the new situation. In the worst cases, the livelihoods of individual nobles or even entire families were seriously endangered, as they could no longer ensure for their basic needs.

In scholarship, however, the impoverishment of the nobility has received scant attention. Using contemporary sources and a regional comparison, this project aims to shed new light on this historical phenomenon. By looking at the nobility in two regions with very different structures – Prussia and the German Southwest – it seeks to determine typologies of noble impoverishment and identify risk factors as well as strategies adopted to overcome the situation. Fundamental questions about the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of impoverishment from a social history perspective are a crucial part of the project.

Going a step further, this study also examines the phenomenon of impoverished nobility in light of the increasing importance of the up-and-coming middle classes around 1800 and the social competition that ensued. How was impoverishment among the nobility assessed from both internal (i.e. self-reflexive)and external perspectives? Did contemporaries attach any socio-structural significance to this problem? How was the concept of “poor nobles” connected with the mutual perceptions of threat between the nobility and the middle classes?

Using printed and unpublished sources, this study assesses the socio-historical significance of impoverishment among the nobility and analyses the social discourses concerning these poor nobles. With its chronological focus on the key transitional period around 1800, this project functions as a "hinge" for the entire sub-project D03. The direct comparison of the three individual case studies within the sub-project can be used to re-evaluate the applicability of the “Sattelzeit” (saddle period) concept, as well as to reach conclusions about functional mechanisms involved in rapid social change. In doing so, it can make a fundamental contribution to the CRC as a whole.


This individual case study focusing on the period from 1880-1914 uses its thematic focus on impoverished women from among the lower nobility as a prism, through which the phenomenon of impoverished nobility in general can be examined. It compares the situation of such women in Prussia with those in Southwest Germany within the context of the competition over social order between the nobility and the middle classes. In doing so, it questions to what degree the nobility persisted in using traditional methods to secure its position in bourgeois society. On the reverse side of the coin, it looks at whether the nobility was open to using new strategies emerging with the rise of a middle class society in order to maintain its status.

To go about answering these overarching questions, this project focuses on the case of poor female nobles. The project consists of three parts, the first one being a socio-historical examination of the extent and manifestations of impoverished female nobility around 1900, followed by an analysis of strategies used to deal with poverty among noble women. Building on these first two steps, it will then analyse how impoverished nobles dealt with the general competition with the middle classes.

Key sources include the “Präbendengesuche” (applications for admission to noble ladies' convents) as well as applications for support from private foundations. An examination of the records of different associations and societies should also prove fruitful. Relevant journalistic articles in contemporary newspapers will also be used to evaluate the nobility's perception of its competition with the bourgeoisie as well as their ways of dealing with this situation.

Sub-Project D03 in the CRC

Project D 03 is part of Project Area D “Competing Social Orders” that deals with threat scenarios in which two systems of social order with claims to hegemony and exclusivity confront each other.

Within the framework of the CRC as a whole, D03 looks at the paradigmatic interplay of socio-economic structures and structural breaks with systems of social order. Moreover, the three distinct chronological periods of the individual case studies allow for an investigation of the relationship between short-term threat scenarios and long-term structural changes.

Project-related Lectures and Publications

Begass, Chelion

Brendle, Franz

Frie, Ewald

Klimek, Jacek

Singer, Johanna

Congresses, Workshops, and Conferences

Project-relevant courses

Singer, Johanna