You are here:  >>> The Study of Nobility 

The Study of Nobility

In the beginning, the name of a noble person indicated from what area he or she originated as it referred to the ancestral seat of the family. Back then, whenever a change of location or a change of ownership occurred, the individual's name changed accordingly. For example, the Count of Arnstein (Graf von Arnstein) became Count of Barby (Graf von Barby) when he took over Barby Castle. In German, the new acquisition was often added to the name using prepositions such as "zu" or "von" as in "von Stein" or "zum Altenstein". (The English equivalent is "of".) It was not until the early modern period, when the system of modern surnames developed, that "von" turned into a nobiliary particle that was independent of one's property (whereas "zu" remained connected to property).

Some noble families, on the other hand, have quite usual surnames (Fuchs, Frübös, Gross, Gans, Pflugk, Stein, Schwarz), clan names (Beissel, Knuth, Schilling, Landschad) or designations for offices at court (Marshall, Schenk, Seneschal, Droste). To these words, the nobiliary particles "von" and "zu" were added (e.g., Gans zu Putlitz, Marschall von Bieberstein, Schenck zu Schweinsberg, Schenk von Stauffenberg, Droste zu Hülshoff). In some countries including Germany, names of people without noble heritage were sometimes turned into noble names if the individual had accomplished a great achievement (e.g., von Goethe, von Schiller). Other countries like Austria usually used the name of a (pseudo-)place for the nobility title (e.g., Fischer von Erlach).