"The Lords and Barons prove their Nobility by hanging their Banners and exposing their Coats-of-arms
at the Windows of the Lodge of the Heralds.—After a Miniature of the Tournaments of King Réné
. of the National Library of Paris."
The nobility represents, or has represented, the higher stratum of a society in which social classes can be distinguished. The most distinctive feature of nobilty is that once acquired, it is passed to descendants, possibly according to some rules.
Initially nobility descended from chivalry (or warrior class) in the feudal stage of the development of a society. Originally, knights or nobles were mounted warriors who swore allegiance to their sovereign and promised to fight for him in exchange for allocation of land (usually together with serfs living there). The invention of the Musket slowly eliminated the privately owned and operated armies of nobles in feudal societies during the time period of The Military Revolution.
The nobility of a person might be either inherited or earned. Nobility in its most general and strict sense is an acknowledged preeminence that is hereditary, i.e., legitimate descendants (or all male descendants, in some societies) of nobles are nobles, unless explicitly stripped of the privilege. In this respect, nobility is distinguished from British peerage: the latter can be passed to only a single member of the family. Another confusion of the term nobility is with aristocracy. The latter term is often used (abused) in an informal way, but in the strict sense it is a political term related to a form of government.
Nobles typically commanded resources, such as food, money, or labor, from common members or nobles of lower rank of their societies, and could exercise religious or political power over them. Also, nobles typically, but not necessarily were entitled to land property, which was reflected in the title. For example, the title Earl of Chesterfield tells about property, while the title Earl Cairns was created for a surname. However all the above is not obligatory; quite often nobility was associated only with social respect and certain social privileges. An example of the latter would be Polish szlachta.
In the modern age, the notion of inherited nobility with special rights has become, in the Western World, increasingly seen as irrelevant to the modern way of life. The founding fathers of the United States rejected anything that may help in recreating a nobility; the French Revolution abolished the nobility and its special rights (though some nobility titles would be recreated by Napoleon I and III, they were mostly honorific).
A list of noble titles for different European countries can be found at Royal and noble ranks. To learn how to properly address holders of these titles, see Royal and noble styles.
Some con artists also sell fake titles of nobility, often with impressive-looking documents to back them up. These may be illegal, depending on local law.
Italian Nobleman of the Fifteenth Century. From a Playing-card engraved on Copper about 1460 (Cabinet des Estampes, National Library of Paris).
Nobility by nation
For full categorized countries, see Category:Nobility by nation; some other follow: