and 18th century Portuguese Nobilities in the European
Context: A historiographical overview
University of Lisbon
As a result of a genuine explosion in historiographical studies on the
subject over the last two decades, the various European nobilities can
now be considered to have been studied in some depth. A general tendency
to be noted in the above-mentioned works relates to the idea highlighted
by various researchers seeking to attenuate the early modernisation
of noble values, who have taken the French case, in particular, as their
benchmark. It should be stressed immediately that none of the descriptions
just quoted can be applied to the kingdom of Portugal, to which almost
no reference is made in these texts. On the one hand, the noble groups
were constantly increasing in number, which seems to have run contrary
to the general trend in eighteenth-century Europe. On the other hand,
the high nobility of the Portuguese court did not grow, instead remaining
extremely stable and crystallising from the mid-seventeenth century
to the end of the eighteenth century, contrary to what was happening
in the neighbouring monarchies. Finally, the central core of family
values, expressed in the discipline of the aristocratic house, an essential
secular aspect of the "ethos" of the fidalgo (nobleman),
was maintained until the end of the eighteenth century. The extremely
closed society of the court of the new Portuguese dynasty of the Braganças
only promoted a very limited spread of a cosmopolitan culture within
Nobility, Aristocracy, Elites, Enlightenment, Family, House, Bragança,
Seventeenth Century, Eighteenth Century, Fidalgo, Nobleman
Some Directions in Recent European Historiography
As a result of a genuine explosion in historiographical studies on the
subject over the last two decades, the various European nobilities, both
in the modern period and in the contemporary period, can now be considered
to have been studied in some depth (see, for the modern period, the syntheses
and collections of Meyer 1973, Labatut 1978, Bush 1988, Scott 1995 and
Dewald 1996). In view of this increased knowledge, it is now much easier,
from a comparative point of view, to establish some of the most prominent
specific boundaries of the Portuguese categories of nobility in the modern
era. Although, naturally enough, this is not true of all of them.
In the various syntheses on European nobilities to which several Anglo-Saxon
historians have dedicated themselves, there frequently appear certain
theses that have come to enjoy fairly widespread validity. As far as the
central question of the groups size and structure are concerned,
it is useful to stress the idea that over the early modern period
nobles became less numerous and on average richer, and that almost
everywhere nobles became dramatically scarcer after 1600 (...) in the
eighteenth century, at least, contemporaries had no doubt that numbers
were declining (Dewald 1996: XVI and 25), whilst, at the same time,
there was a progressive growth in the upper nobiliary categories.
It should also be stressed immediately that none of the descriptions just
quoted can be applied to the kingdom of Portugal, which is in fact almost
completely devoid of any reference in these texts. Generally speaking,
it can be said that the long-term evolution of Portugals nobiliary
stratification, between the early sixteenth century and the triumph of
the liberal revolution in 1832-34, was marked by two simultaneous processes,
admittedly pulling in opposite directions: there was a widening of the
base of the group (accompanied by a progressive restriction of their general
privileges), whilst a court aristocracy was set up, this latter group
being restricted and clearly separated from the other nobiliary categories
and becoming progressively more crystallised. In other words, these tendencies
were directly opposed to the trends that, according to the already mentioned
authors, could be noted in most European political units.
Another general tendency to be noted in the above-mentioned works relates
to the idea highlighted by various researchers seeking to attenuate the
early modernisation of nobiliary values, who have taken the French case,
in particular, as their benchmark. This is most true of those authors
who, contrary to the popular images of tradition and hereditariness, have
detected, even before the Enlightenment, the establishment of an ethical
code of individual merit linked to the idea of royal service
(cf. Dewald 1993, Smith 1996). This change was to be linked to the central
cultural role played by the courts, for, during the seventeenth
century, European culture took on an aristocratic and courtly tone it
had not previously had, the development of courts made the
display of culture valuable, so that across Europe, nobles
adapted with striking success to psychological and cultural change during
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (
) their success was clearest
in the realm of high culture (Dewald 1996: 199, 187 and 186). This
change naturally had a decisive impact on the patterns of family behaviour.
Recently, one of the most prominent French specialists in this area, largely
inspired by the already mentioned Anglo-Saxon historians, did not hesitate,
in the case of the French nobility of the late seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, to put forward the thesis of nobiliary individualism,
the idea that the nobility preferred individual achievement to the
cult of one's ancestors (Burguière 2001: 328). Furthermore,
it can be stated that, although it was formulated from the study of other
problems, the theory of the unified elite of the Enlightenment
(cf. Richet 1969 and Chaussinand-Nogaret, 1976), defended by various French
historians some decades ago, pointed in the same direction.
Now, as was just noted in relation to the previously stated proposition,
none of the ideas sustained here would seem to fit unreservedly to the
Portuguese case. At first glance, even if we just consider the high court
nobility, it does at least seem questionable whether the adoption of the
values and cultural practices of the European cosmopolitan high culture
was so widespread as to change the groups patterns of behaviour.
Most emphatically, it seems impossible to defend the idea that until the
late eighteenth century more value was given to individual merit than
to the cult of ancestry and the nobility of a particular family. For this
very reason, family behaviour was still marked by an immense rigidity
until the mid-eighteenth century. And, even then, although it is certain
that something was beginning to change, it should be stressed that the
changes were restricted almost solely to the decline in the number of
entries to the secular and regular clergy.
2. Size and Hierarchies of Portuguese Nobilities
The first of the above-mentioned developments, or, in other words, the
broadening of the threshold of the nobility, with an ever greater number
of individuals achieving this social rank and a consequent devaluation
of the respective status, was the result not only of legal and institutional
considerations, but also of diversified forms of social logic. The upper
social category in fifteenth-century Portugal was the fidalguia (nobility),
corresponding perhaps to 1% of the population (cf. Marques, 1963-1969).
It is clear that those who belonged to the Braço da Nobreza (representatives of the nobility in parliament) in the Cortes (parliament) were summoned by royal charter (and not elected) and that
only those with titles were called to attend, i.e. landlords with jurisdiction
over their estates, governor-generals and dignitaries with a letter of
council and not the group of noblemen as a whole. Furthermore, it does
not seem that the denomination of the nobility was commonly
used to designate the above-mentioned Braço before the sixteenth
century. However, the legacy of the fifteenth century continued to be
this fidalguia, identified with all their descendants recognised
in the books of mediaeval lineages, although this rank was already clearly
differentiated internally. Over the course of the modern period, the fidalgo identity was to be inexorably destroyed in favour of a plurality of classificatory
features, giving rise to a greater and more complex stratification.
The first factor affecting the evolution of the nobility consisted of
the manner in which the concept of civil or political nobility was
adopted in legal literature and in the everyday practice of institutions
(in contrast to natural nobility) (cf. Monteiro 1987, 15-51), arising,
it would seem, from the singular and somewhat belated manner in which
Portuguese jurists integrated the category of "nobility" from
European common law (cf. Hespanha 1993: 27-42). António Rodrigues,
D. Manuels King of Arms, refers expressly to this category of the
civil or political nobility, explaining that this status could be acquired
in two ways, either by giving someone an office of such a kind that
it brings dignity with it or by words that state how the prince considers
the person to be reputable (Rodrigues 1931:43). Already in the first
half of the seventeenth century, one of the greatest Portuguese jurists
of his time stated that fidalgos is the word, and more general
title, by which we refer to the nobility, but he then added that
there are, however, other people of greater, equal and lesser status,
who enjoy greater and equal privileges (...) [paying heed] only to the
dignity, position or occupation in which they are involved (Ribeiro
1730: 122, 141-142). The adoption of this concept could not avoid coming
up against certain restrictions, but gradually it was to become established
in the practice of many institutions in a process that reached its peak
at the end of the eighteenth century, not only contributing to the distinction
between the nobility and the fidalguia (a more restricted concept),
but also leading to the effective banalisation of the frontiers
of the Portuguese nobility, which became the most blurred in Europe.
This broadening of the threshold of the nobility, established by the legislation
of the monarchy, was also effectively adopted by the social actors. From
the end of the sixteenth century, the homens-bons ('good men')
who governed the municipalities, for example, became entitled as the
local nobility (Coelho and Magalhães 1986: 43), although
they did, however, elect others to act as their representatives in the Braço do Povo in parliament. As part of a process of group
mobility, the wholesale traders were expressly ennobled by the legislation
introduced by the Marquês de Pombal (1770). At the end of the Old
Regime, nobility was recognised as a tacit condition that was acquired
by living nobly or through the law of nobility
by performing ennobling functions (such as belonging to the group of high-ranking
army officers or orderly officers, the magistracy, or simply to a municipal
council, etc.) or, in a negative sense, by not performing mechanical tasks.
The previously described category was effectively to be found expressed
in many different institutional practices in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. One of these was to gain access to the habits of a knight of
the military orders of Avis, Christ or St. James (cf. Olival 1988, Olival
2001, Pedreira 1992 and Pedreira 1996), the profusion of whose members
were frequently referred to with some irony over the centuries. The Order
of Malta, on the contrary, escaped such a situation, for in this order
what was required was to be a member of the fidalguia de linhagem
e armas (fidalguia of lineage and arms) and not just of the
simple nobility (cf. Versos 1997).
It should be added that the broadening of the nobility was
further favoured by other circumstances. One of these was the way in which
access to the royal charters granting coats of arms was processed (Cf.
Franco 1989). There was also the fact that, under Portuguese law, simple
nobility and fidalguia were transmitted by both the male and female
side of the family, as well as there being no control over the use of
surnames, both of which situations were predisposed to an expansion of
the nobility. Even the registers that afforded access to the different
categories of fidalgos in the royal household showed a considerable
openness in the final phase of the Old Regime, and the point was reached
whereby the status was attributed to anyone who contributed to public
Overall, the dimensions mentioned earlier in a very summary form conferred
a clear singularity on the Portuguese hierarchy of nobles, which may now
be briefly described in the final phase of the Old Regime. At the base
was a vast and imprecise category of simple nobility and the
knights who wore habits, which included all those who had licentiateships
and bachelors degrees, high-ranking army officers, militias and
orderlies, wholesale traders, judges and councillors from an indeterminate
number of towns and cities, and a large section of the restricted group
of public servants. In short, all those who lived nobly. They
enjoyed a fluid status, only invoked for certain effects and perhaps covering
between 6% and 8% of male adults, and for which reason considered themselves
to be socially disqualified, leading to a huge demand for other distinctions,
namely for the habits of the knights of the military orders (for which
proof of nobility was required, but not of fidalguia). Above this
was an intermediate category of several thousand fidalgos, comprising
a majority of fidalgos with coats of arms and fidalgos with lineage (whose ancestors had received the royal charter
granting the coat of arms that was displayed on the front of their houses),
with a very unequal geographical distribution, as well as several hundred fidalgos from the royal household and high-court judges. Finally,
there was the prime nobility of the realm, almost all of whom
were resident at the court, consisting of roughly a hundred and fifty
lords, commanders and holders of positions at the palace, at the apex
of which category were to be found the fifty or so houses of the grandees
(titles of count, marquis and duke) of the realm.
In fact, the other aspect of the equation in which the Portuguese case
seems to contradict the European tendency is in the shrinking and later
redefinition of the top of the nobiliary pyramid. Several factors contributed
quite closely to this outcome, but the decisive event was the definitive
establishment of the court of the new Bragança dynasty in Lisbon
after 1640. At the end of the seventeenth century, in general, when one
speaks of the fidalguia as a group, one first of all refers to
the high court nobility, which to a large extent was already confused
with the group of titled persons (just as in the Spanish monarchy; cf.
Dominguez Ortiz 1973: 73, Dominguez Ortiz 1976: 349, Atienza 1987: 1-70).
The fundamental moment in the definitive formation of the titled elite
in the modern age was to be found in the last decades of the dual monarchy
(1580-1640), when Portugal was ruled by Spanish Habsburg kings, during
which period roughly forty titled houses were created. The total number
of houses reached at that time, increasing from roughly twenty to more
than fifty, remained practically stable until the last decade of the eighteenth
century, even though roughly 40% of the Portuguese noble houses disappeared
with the Restoration of Portuguese independence. In fact, these were quickly
replaced, and the frequency of the annual granting of titles reached at
that time was only (and greatly) exceeded during the regency of D. João
(1792-1816) and his subsequent reign as king. The remarkable stability
achieved over a period of roughly a hundred and thirty years after the
end of the War of Restoration (1668) finds no parallel in any other period
in Portuguese history, and rarely has it been equalled by other European
aristocracies. For more than a century, very few noble houses were created
or suppressed. The following table therefore suggests to us a very clear
chronology: in the somewhat agitated decades of the reign of Filipe IV
and the War of Restoration, the extended group of grandees was formed
(for until 1790 almost all the titles conferred the status of grandee),
followed by a long period of stability. It should also be added that the
central core of this group remained extremely stable. At the peak of its
crystallisation, in 1750, of the 50 titled houses existing in Portugal,
34 had been ennobled more than 100 years before and 7 dated from as far
back as the fifteenth century. In
part, these indicators stand in contrast with those known for the other
monarchies closest to Portugal. In Spain, titles rose from 144 in 1621
to 528 in 1700 and then to 654 in 1787, passing the one thousand mark
in 1800; the growth in the number of grandees was even greater, rising
from only 41 in 1627 to 119 in 1787. The English peers, in their turn,
rose from 55 in 1603 to 173 in 1700, reaching a figure of 267 in 1800.
In Naples, titles rose from 165 in 1599 to 446 in 1672 and 649 in 1750.
Generally speaking, the major growth took place mainly in the seventeenth
century, just as it did in Portugal; yet, in none of the cases mentioned
does one note the crystallisation, closing of ranks and stability that
was noted amongst the Portuguese titled nobility between 1668 and 1790
(based on Dewald 1996: 27, Dominguez Ortiz 1973: 73, Dominguez Ortiz 1976:
349, Atienza 1987: 1-70; Cannon 1984: 15).
This process corresponded to a concentration of the royal graces and favours
and important offices in the hands of the high court nobility. In fact,
the best indicator that can express the evolution duly noted is provided
to us by the commanderies. In the early seventeenth century, the commanders
of the military orders amounted to a quite numerous social category, numbering
more than four hundred individuals and houses, even though the few commanders
with titles to nobility (counts, marquises and dukes) already accounted
for a sizeable part of the aggregate income of the commanderies that were
administrated by them. A century and a half later (1755), the number of
commanders was reduced to well below a half of this number, and 50 titled
houses accounted for roughly two-thirds of the overall income. Up to the
final triumph of the liberal revolution (1832-34), the number of commanders
only increased slightly, but the commanders entitled to nobility then
represented more than half of the total number and now received more than
four-fifths of the income (cf. Monteiro 1998). The distribution of the
income of the commanderies therefore provides us with an impressive picture
of the evolution of the top of the nobiliary pyramid: from the beginning
of the seventeenth century onwards, the size of the group declined in
quite spectacular fashion, with the longstanding titled houses (almost
all of them in the hands of grandees) absorbing most of this income.
This unusual result derives from a combination of two types of factors.
On the one hand, the Crown made a significant contribution towards the
stabilisation of the titled elite, not only restricting the new concessions
of titles, but also accepting the rules of succession that were being
imposed. The consolidation of the Bragança dynasty therefore largely
serves to explain the stabilisation of the group and the almost complete
absence of any new admissions to the nobility for more than a century.
But this is not in itself a sufficient explanation for everything. In
particular, it does not explain the small number of houses that were either
suppressed or united until the start of the new boom in the awarding of
titles in the 1790s. In fact, within the limits set by the monarchy, the
reproduction of the titled elite depended on strategies that were actively
developed by the houses composing this elite. More precisely, it depended
on the strict discipline of the behaviour followed within the house, which
will be discussed in the following section.
3. Models of Family Behaviour and Value Systems
The recent evolution in social sciences, in general, and social history,
in particular, has resulted in a growing distrust about the reified use
of traditional categories of historical analysis and rigid models of behaviour.
Even for those who distance themselves from the post-modern defence of
the dissolution of the social bounds, the alternatives almost
always involve paying renewed heed to the language of documents and even
giving special attention to individuals, their experiences and the ways
in which they form their social identities. In this way, we can understand
the peculiar difficulties that arise when attempting, somewhat against
the trends that have become re-established in European historiography,
to accentuate the rigidity of a model and the amazing regularity with
which the actors involved therein reproduced the clearly asymmetrical
social roles that were their destiny by birth, as in the case under analysis.
A very general observation must be made about what has been stated above.
Unlike unilineal notions of change and evolution, the case studied here
does not show any passage from group solidarities to the individualisation
of behaviour and destiny. On the contrary, in the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, the individualisation of behaviour in the upper categories
of Portuguese society was much more accentuated than in the two subsequent
centuries. On the one hand, the destinies of individuals were far less
conditioned by the status attributed to them at birth. And, on the other
hand, the constraints of kinship groups proved to be much less rigid.
The strengthening of the discipline of the aristocratic house, with the
prior imposition of the status that was to be enjoyed by each member of
the family, both preceded and closely accompanied the crystallisation
of the courtly aristocracy as a closed and almost inaccessible social
category from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. Only at the end of
the eighteenth century was this rigidity of family behaviour
to be disturbed in any way, anticipating, albeit briefly, the first signs
of a more open access to the top of the nobiliary hierarchy. In short,
the case studied here does not seem to fit the picture initially painted
by recent European historiography.
Despite everything, there was a common heritage, not between all the Portuguese
nobiliary groups, but among those who regarded themselves indisputably
as fidalgos. This heritage was one expressed as a set of shared
values in which the notion of what constituted an aristocratic house and
specific ways of ensuring its transmission played an essential role. After
reaching a certain level of nobility, the custom was to adopt what can
be called the reproductive model of entailment, or, in other words, from
the mid-sixteenth century onwards, the institution of an aristocratic
house and the birth of a first-born son represented the goal of the processes
of upward social mobility. It was not just a way of amortising and passing
on an estate, but also a model of family organisation, characterised by
the rigidity and vitality of the underlying values and a complementarity
between civil service and ecclesiastical careers.
Although the vast amount of available information is very fragmentary
and systematic monographic studies are almost completely lacking, it is
possible to suggest some general features of what can be termed the reproductive
model of entailment, taking as a paradigm or ideal type the behavioural
patterns at the top of the nobiliary pyramid, or, in other words, of the
Portuguese grandees of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who in
this period clearly distanced themselves from the remainder of the fidalguia,
including the most important provincial nobility. I shall concern myself
with them first of all, so that, afterwards, I can attempt to identify
at what levels of the social space this model tended to be adopted. This
is necessitated by the fact that the acceptance of this model and its
underlying values did not take place from one day to the next (it did
not even coincide chronologically with the beginning of the spread of
the institution of entailment), nor did it affect all the social elites
in the same way. Finally, I shall highlight how, in the second half of
the eighteenth century, the model began to be called into question, on
this occasion with a not inconsiderable intervention on the part of the
The genealogy of the Portuguese institution of entailment has been the
subject of an extremely vast legal literature. Briefly, we can say that
it directly reproduced the model of succession adopted by the monarchy
and had been closely inspired by the Spanish, or more precisely, the Castilian
law of entailment. In fact, the Portuguese law of entailment was the one
that most closely resembled the Castilian law. Although linked to a remote
feudal inheritance, paradigmatically illustrated by the famous words of
St. Bernard, the Castilian system of primogeniture displayed to some extent
a certain resistance to the general trend. It represented a reaffirmation
of its principles in a doctrinaire climate in which the reception of Roman
Law, the European jus commune, tended to favour the sharing of
an estate between heirs. In most European countries, from the sixteenth
century onwards, the trend was towards a weakening of the doctrine of
entailments and primogeniture (cf. Clavero 1989a), which either continued
in a somewhat mitigated form or else gave rise to less restrictive solutions
(such as the notion of strict settlement in England), at least at the
level of the law (cf. Cooper 1976). On the contrary, supported by a wealth
of treatises written on the subject, the law of entailment in the Iberian
Peninsula was perpetuated as the extreme legal form of nobiliary primogeniture,
recognised as such in the legal literature of the period. Bartolomé
Clavero wrote on this subject that the Castilian primogeniture was
to be (...) the European model of a nobiliary anthropology (Clavero
1989b: 588). The law of entailment thus represented a mechanism of exclusion
for privileged groups in a context where the rule of sharing between brothers,
arising from Roman Law, tended to impose itself as a general norm. As
a belated legal construction, going against the various European trends
and a characteristically Iberian concept, the morgadio system was
based on the principles of perpetuity, indivisibility and primogeniture.
Masculinity and the right of representation can be considered very general
characteristics, but the fact of the matter is that the specific form
of succession was defined by the institutor. In the Portuguese case, until
the legislation introduced by the Marquês de Pombal in 1769-70,
which imposed the Castilian model of regular morgados (the first-born
son being the heir to an entailed estate) as the sole model, there was
in fact a wide diversity of rules of succession. However, it is important
to underline that entailments based on primogeniture and masculinity were
always the most common form of succession.
If we move from the legal history to the social history of the institution,
the chronology becomes very diversified. Although the first Portuguese morgados had been instituted by the Portuguese fidalgo population
as early as the Low Middle Ages (cf. Rosa 1995), the fact is that it was
not until the sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century that
most of the entailments of the various branches of Portuguese noble lineages
were founded. Very general aspects of this spread of the model of entailment
are: the central notion of the house (1); the extremely strict family
discipline that was imposed on all legitimate and illegitimate filiation
and which tended to be exercised by the pater familias(2);
the complementarity between this model and the availability of ecclesiastical
careers that were indispensable for its application (3); and, finally,
its adoption not only as a model of inheritance, but also as a vocabulary
that codified the natural status of each member within the
house (4). The extraordinary banality that this vocabulary has acquired
in everyday language is an aspect that should also be stressed.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Portuguese crown encouraged
the spread of this model in different forms amongst the main aristocracy
of the kingdom in various ways: first of all, allowing for the foundation
of morgados almost without restriction; next, allowing for the
annexation of the crowns assets by morgados and bringing
succession in these forms of nobility closer to the rules applied under
the monarchy in all cases (1641); finally (and this is a decisive aspect),
because what mattered most of all, both in the appointment of people to
major offices and in the remuneration of great services, was the house
and not the individual, and this conception of things still prevailed
in the second half of the eighteenth century: let the honours and
graces bestowed in the satisfaction of great services performed in the
battle field be continued in those houses into which they enter in order
to preserve the memory of those who deserve them and to stimulate imitation.
The great aristocratic houses underwent major changes throughout the seventeenth
century: from being highly territorialised institutions, from the point
of view of power, property and clienteles, they changed into houses belonging
to the court nobility with property scattered all over the country, but
with an increasingly limited administrative and jurisdictional presence.
This great change accompanied the implantation of the new Bragança
dynasty in 1640. There was also a significant change in the nobiliary
hierarchy. A high court nobility was established, consisting
of titled nobles and other holders of positions at the royal palace. The
end of the war and the consolidation of the dynasty (1668) led to an extreme
stability in the composition of the nobility. This fundamental change
was to be reflected in the behaviour of the aristocratic elite. The titles
and other distinctions awarded by the dynasty of Bragança were
few in number and signalled unquestionable social prominence. In fact,
these titles seem to have been capable of providing a sufficiently strong
identity to the lords of the houses that held them, so that they would
be in a position to accept the possibility of their disappearing or being
taken over by other titled houses. The code of entailment, which had long
since been incorporated, was to take on new and more restrictive forms
in this new context. Or, in other words, these changes did not affect
the internal discipline of the aristocratic houses.
The fundamental unit for the study of aristocratic behaviour in the period
under analysis is therefore the house, understood as being a coherent
set of symbolic and material assets whose extended reproduction was the
responsibility of all those born therein or dependent thereon. In the
historical period to which we are referring, the house represented a fundamental
value for (almost) all social elites. The family, in the sense of a noble
lineage of remote origin, embodied in the surname (and/or male line),
was only one element in the identity of each house. As has been said,
although the nobiliary house generally had a territorial reference in
its origin, bestowed by the morgado, seigniory, or even commanderies,
and although attempts were made to perpetuate this territorial reference
in the titles, the fact remains that this element only existed as a remote
allusion and its possession could even disappear without the title being
One of the most decisive implications of the already mentioned notion
of a house was the destiny given to the children. The dominant concepts
were still perfectly clear. The status that was chosen for
the heirs, daughters and second sons was seen as a function of the house
into which they had been born. Those that were destined for marriage,
beginning with the heirs presumptive, obeyed the logic of the policy of
the houses alliances, based on various criteria. The others, in
their turn, were expected, when unmarried, to seek to ennoble the house
that had given them their existence.
The fate of unmarried daughters had long been the life of a convent. As
the agitated navigations to the East began to have increasingly uncertain
results, an ecclesiastical career also began to be seen as the normal
destiny for second-born sons, who were channelled into this activity in
childhood and then attended the two royal colleges in Coimbra (São
Pedro and São Paulo), where, since the mid-seventeenth century,
most of the portionists had been the second-born sons of grandees and
all of them had been descendants of the prime nobility of the realm.
The clergy, particularly when they had risen to high positions and performed
important services for the monarchy (bishops and cardinals), were expected
to bestow upon the houses of their brothers or nephews, if not all their
«free assets», at least those services (after all, their most
valuable capital), so that they could increase their royal endowments
in the form of pensions and benefices; and this was, in fact, how the
majority behaved. Many houses were elevated by this means and thus enjoyed
greater income and distinctions. Furthermore, the houses did not only
capitalise on the services of their second-born sons and the respective
remuneration. They also sought to capture, by all means at their disposal,
the prestige that went with these positions.
The aristocratic houses also owed their daughters and second-born sons
alimony or, alternatively, either the dowry that was necessary for them
to be able to marry or the endowment required for them to enter into a
religious institution. One of the distinguishing marks of the period under
analysis was in fact the stabilisation of the amount of aristocratic dowries,
which resulted in a fall in the respective amount to much lower values.
A detailed analysis of the practices of succession adopted by the aristocratic
elite of the dynasty of Bragança between 1600 and 1830 shows that
the total number of titled houses reached in 1640 remained practically
unchanged until the last decade of the eighteenth century, although there
was a significant period of renewal between 1640 and 1668, with slightly
less than half of them disappearing after the Restoration and being replaced
by others. The remarkable stability achieved in the roughly one hundred
and thirty years after the end of the War of Restoration (1668) was rarely
matched by other European aristocracies. It should be stressed that between
1670 and 1832 no titled house disappeared, or was kept away from the life
of the court, as a result of the economic decline of the holders of the
respective titles. Nor was any house suppressed as a result of having
only a direct legitimate female heir. Whenever there was direct succession,
male or female, the titles were always renewed. Furthermore, between 1600
and 1830, an average of 70% of the houses enjoyed direct male succession,
although this number showed a certain tendency to fall. The results are
undoubtedly uncommonly high, going against what is normally believed to
be the trend. There were many houses that, over more than two hundred
years, always managed to enjoy male succession. However, even when this
didnt happen, the capacity for survival was quite remarkable: more
than half of the houses studied managed to last as they were for more
than two hundred years. And it should be pointed out that, in several
cases, they were suppressed for political reasons (high treason) and not
because of a lack of biological heirs.
Such an unusual stability resulted from a combination of two types of
factors: the options taken by the crown in regard to this matter, namely
by facilitating succession to the crowns titles and estates (exemptions
from the mental law); and the strategies pursued by the aristocratic
houses in an attempt to ensure their perpetuation and enlargement. We
shall concern ourselves with these questions now.
First of all, one should consider the demographic factors. Practically
all male and female heirs (on average, always more than 92%) entered into
marriage. Only with very rare exceptions, those who failed to marry did
not do so because they died while still very young. Although there was
a tendency for the figure to increase, the percentage of titled nobles
without surviving heirs ranged between a minimum of 13% and a maximum
of 26.1%. Furthermore, the percentage of those who had male heirs was
always higher than 61%, and in the more distant period (1600-1650) this
figure amounted to more than 80%. The titled nobles with surviving descendants
had on average between 4.2 and 5 children to find places for, although
the trend was for their number to decrease slowly. This remarkable result
basically arose from three immediate factors: an extremely young average
age for women to first get married (rising from a minimum age of 17.5
in the seventeenth century to a maximum of 21.7 at the beginning of the
nineteenth century); the complete absence of any contraceptive practices;
and the absence of maternal breast-feeding, a task that was almost always
entrusted to wet nurses.
However, whenever there was no succession, other factors in the aristocratic
model of reproduction may have affected the desired continuity of the
houses. This was most immediately the fate of the non-inheriting sons
and daughters. Until the dramatic decline in the number of entries into
ecclesiastical orders in Portugal, just as in other European Catholic
countries in the second half of the eighteenth century, somewhere between
a third and more than half of the aristocratic daughters remained unmarried.
And, until 1760, more than two-thirds, and at certain periods more than
four-fifths of the non-inheriting sons did not marry.
It should also be added that inbreeding was a fundamental part of the
groups reproductive model. Until the end of the eighteenth century,
in more than 95% of cases, both the heirs and the daughters married within
the high court nobility, most of whom had titled estates. This option
was fundamental for preserving the groups social identity, thus
helping to guarantee the monopoly of the main offices of the monarchy
and the respective remuneration in the form of royal endowments. Furthermore,
it was this logic that led to the preference for sending the second-born
sons and some of the daughters into religious orders rather than marrying
them beneath their station, quite possibly without a dowry
and without any major expenses. But the above-mentioned social homogamy
had a potentially negative effect: it increased the risks of some houses
being taken over by others.
To offset these risks, aristocratic houses adopted a set of perfectly
standardised and widely divulged behavioural patterns. First of all, when
the lord of the house had no descendants or no prospects of having any
in the future, attempts were made to rapidly marry off his immediate successor.
Sometimes, this was only known when they were already advanced in age.
It was quite frequent to hear stories of clergymen who renounced their
vows in order to marry in the sometimes desperate attempt to produce descendants
for the house of their brothers. Secondly, in those cases where the succession
fell upon women, almost without exception they would marry a second son.
This was preferably an uncle, in order to maintain the male line with
the surname of the house. Even when there was no uncle available and marriage
had to be sought after in another lineage and house, the rule was to maintain
the surname, although there were several exceptions. In any case, to almost
all intensive purposes and effects, the husbands of female heirs were
adopted by the houses that received them. In particular, their
economic status (alimony, etc.) was absolutely identical to that of most
married women in the aristocracy. Finally, whenever there was presumed
to be a potential risk of a union between houses, it was established in
the marriage and dowry settlements how the separation would be effected
in the following generation. These clauses were almost never respected
but, in any case, they reveal the aim of preserving the individual identity
of each house.
The discussion of the above-mentioned point, namely the idea of the fundamental
importance of the reproductive model of entailment as standard behaviour
for the group of social elites, most perfectly illustrated by the study
of the grandees, is inexorably faced with the limitations of the data
that have so far been discovered and studied. We know much more about
the grandees/high court nobility than we do about provincial nobilities,
and we know much more about the eighteenth century than we do about previous
periods. The considerations made in the following paragraphs are therefore
based on scattered and fragmentary information. The question that needs
to be asked is clear: what was the chronology and, above all, what were
the contexts in which this model tended to be adopted?
As far as the chronology is concerned, it has already been clearly stated
that it was above all during the sixteenth century that the model of entailment
became widespread amongst the main lineages of the realm. The same thing
seems to have happened with the main provincial elites. The case of Oporto
is certainly paradigmatic. Most of the families that made up the municipal
elite of Oporto, until then given over to mercantile practices, only gained
access to the nobility and fidalguia during the sixteenth century:
we are left with the impression of a radical evolution of these
families (...) during the sixteenth century. Having begun the century
involved in the commerce of the city of Oporto, without any great concern
for the creation of houses, which allowed second sons to become
involved in business on an equal footing with first-born sons (...). As
the century advanced, morgados, which were set up at the expense
of the prospects of the second sons, became widespread. All that was left
for these sons was India or religion, and, for the daughters, all told,
just religion (Brito 1997: 302).
The second question is that of knowing what were the social trajectories
within the framework of which the reproductive model of entailment tended
to be adopted. In fact, particularly in the processes of upward social
mobility, there were always alternative models. One of them was the investment
made in the daughters. This is the direction suggested by the known indicators
for the lower levels of the fidalguia in the sixteenth century
(cf. Boone 1986), as well as in other social categories, at least in the
first generation after having achieved a higher social status. A recent
study on the client networks of the house of Bragança between 1560
and 1640 clearly suggests that upwardly mobile family groups preferred
to invest in their daughters (cf. Cunha 2000: 498-546), providing them
with dowries for their marriage, unlike the upper categories of the servants
of the royal house (fidalgos), who adopted the model that we have
been discussing. A similar model to the former one was also adopted by
the elites of São Paulo in colonial Brazil in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries (cf. Metcalf 1995), in what was an area of heavy
migration. As it happens, in the studies of the upper echelons of the
Portuguese rural world of the eighteenth and even the nineteenth centuries,
not only were great differences detected between the areas and groups
that followed a model of equal sharing of inheritances and others where
the inheritance was organised on the basis of preserving the house, but
also in some of these latter cases (in certain areas of the Minho) it
was in fact the daughters who received most privileges (cf. the synthesis
by Durães 1995).
It should be added that we know little about the reproductive models of
magistrates and bureaucrats and that, in the second half of the eighteenth
century, only the top of the pyramid of Lisbon merchants (a large number
of whom, as it happens, originated from neighbouring areas in the Minho)
adopted strategies of systematic entailment of property (cf. Pedreira
1995: 269-293). Although the restrictions imposed by the Marquês
de Pombal may have had some influence, the fact remains that towards the
end of the Old Regime the overwhelming majority of Lisbon traders did
not set up entails, but only the small group of the richest. Was this
a symptom of the gradual erosion of the model?
In fact, the importance of the limitations imposed on the foundation of morgados, or entailed estates, by the legislation of the Marquês
de Pombal (1769-70) must not be overlooked. In short, it began to be required
that their founders should be fidalgos, or persons of distinguished
nobility, that the estate to be entailed should reach certain levels
of income, varying from some provinces to others, and finally that the
central court (Mesa do Desembargo do Paço the Supreme
Royal Court) should be consulted upon the matter. Furthermore, besides
the fact that the institution was generally condemned and was only preserved
because it was considered a condition for the survival of the nobility
within a monarchy, small entails were also being suppressed (cf. Serrão
Although there is no lack of systematic studies upon the matter, it seems
undeniable that the legislation introduced by the Marquês de Pombal
did away with many morgados with low levels of income and placed
serious restrictions on their foundation by groups that did not reach
reasonably high levels of wealth and nobiliary status. The spread of entailed
estates in the provinces, still very frequent in the first three quarters
of the eighteenth century, began to be subject to serious restrictions.
However, from the North (Minho) to the extreme South (Algarve) of Portugal,
even passing occasionally through colonial Brazil (cf. Silva 1990), the
most successful provincial elites did not cease to make use of the institution.
Generally, this option was materialised at the end of one or two generations,
with the voluntary contributions of brothers or uncles frequently being
a decisive factor, particularly when they had risen to the level of a
good ecclesiastical benefice. And the crisis in the number of people entering
the clergy, which could be perfectly easily identified in Lisbon from
the 1760s onwards, as we have already said, seems to have been slower
to spread to the provinces, although it was still a little known reality.
In any case, the reproductive model of entailment should not be confused
with the foundation of morgados. This model, the true stereotype
of the elites of the Portuguese Old Regime, always implied high rates
of celibacy and ecclesiastical careers amongst second-born sons and meant
that ever greater value was attached to the idea of the house, although
it did not require the foundation of entailed estates. As far as the forms
of inheritance were concerned, emphyteusis produced analogous effects.
In fact, many houses of fidalgos, such as those of the well-to-do
farmers of the North of Portugal, were based on emphyteutic estates and
not just on entailed estates (cf. Macedo 1996: 102-130). The codes and
the systems of reference which we have been discussing were able to operate
in different institutional contexts and with some autonomy in relation
to the legal framework of inheritance. For all purposes and effects, it
was the standard pattern of aristocratic behaviour and represented as
such at the time.
In the provinces, therefore, it is quite likely that individual destinies
did not follow that incredible regularity and predictability that we saw
in the case of the high court nobility. However, it can still be said
that until the beginning of the nineteenth century the reproductive model
of entailment was perpetuated as the standard model for the group of social
elites as a whole. This was not only because it fitted in with the perpetuation
of estates which was indispensable for the preservation of income levels
that were compatible with the satisfactory sustaining of elites, but also
for the greater symbolic value that was attributed to the imitation of
aristocratic behavioural patterns.
4. The Paradigm of Nobility Modernisation
and its Limits
For the prime nobility of the realm, the first signs of the crisis in
the model of traditional behaviour were to be found in the dwindling number
of entries into the clergy, on the part of both men and women, which began
to be noted from the 1850s onwards (cf. Monteiro 1998: 165-196). This
change, which was not related to any early spread of contraception (not
in fact practised) and had dramatic effects on the social composition
of the episcopacy (cf. Olival and Monteiro 2003: 1233-1238), would not
be matched by an increase in the marriages of younger non-inheriting sons
and daughters until at least a generation later. Or, in other words, it
did not immediately result in an individualisation of behaviour. Various
studies have made it possible to widen the crisis in the number of entries
into the clergy to include other groups (cf. Araújo 1997: 122 and
ff., Sousa and Gomes 1998, 101-125).
In any case, there is no doubt that there was a crisis amongst the elites
in terms of the social importance attached to the pursuit of ecclesiastical
careers in the second half of the eighteenth century. The explanations
for this are not obvious. Most immediately, this is because although there
are some studies that highlight the spread amongst the Portuguese aristocratic
elites of certain aspects of eighteenth-century European culture (in the
fields of literature, science and the arts (cf., amongst others, Delaforce
2002, Araújo 2003)), the limits that were imposed upon these aspects
seem indisputable. Contemporary witnesses from the mid-eighteenth century
testify to the surprise felt, on encountering our barbaric customs,
by those arriving from outside, such as the young third Count of Assumar,
who had recently returned from France. And his comments were not restricted
to noting the parsimony and insipidness of life at the Portuguese court,
a subject that is very frequently referred to in eighteenth-century sources.
In fact, his comments were explicitly extended to include the family
behaviour of the Portuguese aristocracy. He stated that he was their
supreme friend and to all my brothers I wish the greatest possible happiness
and I find the general custom of giving so much preference to first-born
sons in the inheritance of the estates of the Houses unfair, particularly
in Portugal where the greatest portion is that of substitution,
and, later, addressing his father on the subject of maternal inheritance,
he insisted that I have never been of the opinion that the eldest
son, besides being always the most privileged one, should have beyond
this everything that was possessed by his parents and that the others
who were no less your children should remain forever dependent and be
obliged to work themselves to death just to be able to live (Monteiro
As another essential aspect, attention should also be drawn to the characteristics
of the educational patterns afforded to the high court nobility of the
dynasty of Bragança. The education of the first-born sons of the
houses did not undergo any drastic evolution during this period, despite
the creation by the Marquês de Pombal of the College of Nobles in
1759, which the majority did not attend. The essential pattern was continued:
an education administered at home, followed by entry into the military
institution at an early age, in most cases. This happened at a time when,
in the main monarchies of Enlightened Europe, the majority of the heirs
of the respective prime nobilities were increasingly subject to the socialisation
of colleges, military schools or academies. And, in the particular case
of England, they predominantly began to attend university, a practice
that was reserved in Portugal only for second-born sons, who, because
in principle they were destined for ecclesiastical careers, were generally
sent to royal colleges and the University of Coimbra (cf. Monteiro 1998:
What is known about aristocratic libraries clearly suggests that access
to, and the spread of, the culture of the Enlightenment was more the exception
than the rule. In short, there are no really evident signs of any cultural
modernisation in the aristocratic circles of the court. The
parallel, for example, with the much discussed French case only tends
to highlight the differences. And yet, however, one of the indicators
of change already begins to be quite clearly noted in the second half
of the eighteenth century.
Without wishing to exhaust the possible explanations for such a complex
phenomenon, it seems fundamental to insist on the possibly unforeseen
effects of the interventions of the monarchy, especially in the period
of the government of the Marquês de Pombal (1750-1777). Amongst
other measures that were put forward at that time, stress should be laid
on the recognition of the crisis in the monastic life and the restrictions
placed by Pombal on people entering the ecclesiastical career, the defence
of marriage to be found in some legislation of this period and the legislation
on morgados which made their institution much more difficult and
dependent on the permission of the central court. Finally, there is no
denying that, despite the limits on its spread pointed out earlier, the
culture of the Enlightenment certainly contributed to the
first and almost only indicator of change in the patterns of behaviour
of fidalgos, or, in other words, the fall in the number of entries
into ecclesiastical life. This does not mean that we are saying that there
was a secularisation of the dominant values in the aristocracy (something
that it would be difficult to demonstrate), rather we are suggesting that
there was an indirect effect of the culture of the Enlightenment,
brought about by the impact of the changes introduced by the Marquês
de Pombal, which took away some of the appeal of ecclesiastical careers
amongst the more enlightened elites of the time.
Furthermore, we are well aware that the phenomenon that we have just mentioned
also occurred in other European Catholic countries, such as Italy and
France (cf. Litchfield 1969, Zanetti 1972, Forster 1971, Cooper 1976)
(we know less about Spain), although the concept of de-Christianisation
used in France seems somewhat inadequate for dealing with this phenomenon.
In conclusion, it can be said that until the end of the eighteenth century
the only indicator of change in respect of one essential aspect of the
social identity of the fidalgo groups, or, in other words, the
discipline of the house, was related to the crisis in the number of entries
into ecclesiastical life, which began amongst the high court nobility,
but gradually spread to the provinces. In 1786, the richest and most well
related fidalgo in Funchal had no problems in asserting that he
did not intend to coerce any of his daughters into accepting the
status of a nun, although this was a normal destiny in his and previous
generations for daughters born into the house of which he was the administrator.
In conclusion, it can be said that the Portuguese case, which we have
dealt with here only in respect of some of its multiple components, does
not seem entirely to corroborate the images recently provided of the evolution
of noble houses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On the one
hand, the nobiliary groups were constantly increasing in number, which
seems to have run contrary to the general trend in eighteenth-century
Europe. On the other hand, the high nobility of the Portuguese court did
not grow, instead remaining extremely stable and crystallising from the
mid-seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, contrary
to what was happening in the neighbouring monarchies. Finally the central
core of family values, expressed in the discipline of the aristocratic
house, an essential secular aspect of the fidalgo ethos,
was maintained until the end of the eighteenth century. This last aspect
cannot be dissociated from the spread of culture or the forms used for
the construction of nobiliary identities in Portugal in the period of
the dynasty of Bragança, which began with the rebellion of 1640.
Contrary to the well-known models based on Norbert Elias and the French
case, but which has been questioned by the historiography (cf. especially
Duindam 1995, Adamson 1999), the extremely closed society of the court
of the new Portuguese dynasty only promoted the spread of a cosmopolitan
culture within its circles in a very limited fashion. Even in this select
and restricted universe, it was the traditional standards of family behaviour,
linked to the institution of entailed estates, which continued to prevail.
And this is the meaning that must be given to the words of various critical
observers coming from the outside, who said of the Portuguese society
of the early eighteenth century that in our land, there was no magnificence,
no court and no great Lords, which arose from the short upbringing
given to children, who were reared in poverty and narrow-mindedness, more
through ignorance and erroneous economy than through necessity (Brochado
Finally, the case studied here raises a problem that is recurrently mentioned
in studies of comparative history. To what extent is it legitimate to
use as a term of comparison the political and cultural centres of seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Europe (namely France and England)? Or can it be
that some of the aspects that have been suggested by the authors mentioned
initially to be widespread throughout the old continent are more of an
exception than a rule?
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