For millennia, some version of an aristocracy or noble hierarchy has been a core component of many societies around the globe. While many of the most famous noble lines and aristocratic eras emerged from medieval Europe, many ancient civilisations around the world also had some kind of nobility, albeit in varying forms and specifics. 

Times have changed since the ancient societies and the medieval way of life, however, and contemporary society is virtually unrecognisable from more recent epochs such as The Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Florence, birthplace of the European Renaissance – Sailko, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the modern world, there is a tendency toward a culture of more social equality, inclusivity and democratic governance. The revolutions, social uprisings, and political unrest of recent centuries have seen many systems of nobility completely abolished – at least in an official capacity. 

Even in countries that managed to maintain their aristocratic hierarchy, it generally plays a much more diminished role in society, with the old rights and privileges of nobles diplomatically played down in order to align with modern-day sensibilities. 

So it might be tempting to wonder if there is still a place for a noble class in a 21st-century world. With the increasing egalitarian shifts in modern cultures, and a pervasive inclination for a more just and equal society, do the ancient noble lines that played such key roles in history still have a part to play in today’s world? Do those complex and highly-nuanced aristocratic ranks still matter? 

Despite the undoubted evolution of society along more democratic lines, there is still a valid role for modern aristocrats. And not only do these enduring classes occupy a unique status within society, what may seem like archaic rules and restorations are very much alive and well in the 21st century. While the power and privilege of the noble classes may not be what it once was, the strict hierarchy of ranks and titles is very much alive and well in many countries of the world. 

Why Do Aristocratic Ranks Still Matter? 

Many aspects of society have moved on from the age-old rules and restrictions of the aristocratic hierarchies, with all their nuances and complexities. Yet there are some areas of the modern world where the noble ranks and status details play an important role that has not only endured the turbulent centuries of civil unrest, they show no signs of disappearing any time soon. 

Here are just a few of the places in modern society where aristocratic ranks still matter. 

• Modern Etiquette

Perhaps one of the most enduring aspects of a modern nobility relates to the very roots of its existence – its position within society. 

While modern cultures have largely moved away from the strict social etiquettes and restrictions that governed society much more powerfully in the past, there are still places and occasions where the status of a noble is highly relevant, and their aristocratic ranking is of great importance. 

One such place would be a royal event. The link between the aristocracy and royalty has been a strong and enduring one throughout the history of the nobility’s evolution. So it’s not surprising that one place where the recognition of aristocratic ranks would endure is within the realm of royal etiquette and protocol. 

While some royal ceremonies and protocols may seem curious or even baffling to modern minds, they are rich with history and symbolic meaning. To many, they are treasured remnants of a beloved tradition that spans generations of devoted nobles and their royal patrons. 

Within the fascinating world of royal traditions, the ranks of nobles and aristocrats are still highly relevant. 

• Heritage Laws

If you are lucky enough to be the next in line to an ancient noble title, you’d likely be very keen for the old laws of inheritance and primogeniture to be relevant and recognised in your country. 

In such cases, the aristocratic ranks inherited by the family would matter very much indeed. For example, from the top of the noble hierarchy, if the owner of a Dukedom were to die, and the various titles were hereditary, i.e. able to be passed on to future generations, there would likely be some kind of ranking of the titles of the old Duke’s offspring. If he had a number of sons, the title of Duke would likely pass to the eldest, and there may be secondary titles that would be passed onto the younger sons, such as Lord or Viscount. 

In this instance, the ancient aristocratic hierarchy still plays a very relevant role in the legalities of inheritance, as well as the rights and powers of any descendants. 

• Social Cachet

The aristocracy may not possess the official powers and rights that they once did, but this endlessly fascinating social class still has considerable appeal within modern society. 

When it comes to charity events, social gatherings, public relations exercises or even business deals, having a genuine Duke, Countess or Lady on the guest list carries a kind of cachet that few are immune to. 

Given the rarity of the noble ranks at the top of this esteemed hierarchy, the higher up the aristocratic scale the esteemed guest belongs, the more impressive and influential their aristocratic rank can be. 

Few people would argue that the heyday of the aristocracy has come and gone – the heights of opulence, privilege and power that the late medieval and Renaissance nobles would have enjoyed are a dim memory for much of modern society. 

Yet, there is no doubt that the innate human needs for aspiration and inspiration have ensured that today’s world maintains its own modernised version of an elite class. For some cultures, this may be the nation’s large royal families and their extended relations, for others they may take the form of superstar sportsmen and women, pop stars, TV celebrities or Hollywood royalty

Among all the modernisations of society, however, and despite all the wars and revolutions, the noble ranks of aristocrats have quietly endured. They may operate in a different sphere to their ancestors and forebears, yet our modern world still holds a place for the hierarchy of nobility that has been such a source of inspiration, fascination and entertainment over the centuries.