Gentry generally refers to people of high
social class, especially in the past. The term derives from the Latin " gens", meaning a clan or extended family. It has often referred to the class of people who owned land, but its precise meaning has varied both throughout history as well as according to which nation it is located within.
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Gentry is a term now in the
United Kingdomparticularly associated with the landed gentry. In Europeand the United States, gentry retains a wider meaning, ranging from those of noble background to those of good family (i.e. "gentle" birth). Before the Industrial Revolutionin Britain, the gentry were located between the yeomanry and the Peerage, and were traditionally considered lesser aristocracy if they did not bear a coat of arms, or as the lesser nobility if the family was armigerous. A squirewould be a good example of a member of the local countygentry. Unlike yeomen, the gentry did not work the land themselves as farmers; instead, they rented out land to tenant farmers. Women were often gentry.
English historythe landed gentrywere the smaller landowners, and generally had no titles apart from Knighthoods and Baronetcies. Baronets are something of an exception, since they had hereditary titles but, not being members of the Peerage, were also considered of the gentry or lesser nobility. The landed gentry played an important role in the English Civil Warof the seventeenth century. The term is still occasionally employed, for example, by the publishers of " Burke's Landed Gentry", [ "The History of "Burke's Landed Gentry" ( genealogybook), Burke's Peerage & Gentry, 2005, Scotland, United Kingdom, webpage: [http://www.burkes-peerage.net/sites/scotland/sitepages/page15.asp Burkes-Peerage-Scot15] .] though they explain that their continued use of that term is elastic and stems, in part, from the adoption of that short title for a series first entitled "Burke's Commoners" (as opposed to Burke's Peerage and Baronetage). The term county familyis commonly deemed to be co-terminous with the terms gentry and landed gentry. See Walford's County Familiesand gentleman.
In Poland gentry never grew strong, mainly because of competition from the omnipotent and numerous hereditary nobility. The King deprived commoners of the right to buy land-estates. However, some landed burghers or hereditary advocati and sculteti who kept land in royal, noble or Church estates can be still classified as gentry as they had their own tenants. As political and economic pressure from the peerage increased, many such families were forced to sell their titles to the nobles. Some managed to climb up into nobility but others remained commoners and with the arrival of 'second serfdom' can hardly be called 'gentry' anymore as they were bound to the land and subject to their lord's jurisdiction, and obliged to provide labour to the manor. Many commoner families that grew in wealth and importance were soon officially peered and thus cannot be called 'gentry' either. The Partitions of the Commonwealth mark the re-emergence of Polish gentry, as non-nobles were allowed to buy land-estates and, before this was later abolished, exercised manorial monopolies, electoral privileges and jurisdiction over their subjects. But they never grew in high numbers, still suffering economic and social competition from the nobles. Many of those commoners who succeeded in becoming gentry integrated socially with the nobles, camouflaging their humble origins, and thus never developed their separate group identity. The lower nobility (Knights and lower) created in the Partition period may also be classified as 'gentry' although they were 'officially' nobles but these were rather honorary titles having little in common with the vast privileges of old Polish peerage.
In Portugal, there was no gentry, as there the Law distinguished only nobility, which had several relative degrees.
Owners of land in Portugal, Brazil, and other Portuguese former colonies, were granted the power to partially establish it in indivisible domains (up to one third of one's property, the so called "terça"), administered by heirs in a line designated freely by the first will's dispositions, the heirs being constrained by that first will to specific and unique dispositions. These administrating heirs had no power to sell the property or to change the first will. They were in fact not full owners of the land. They could be male, female, mixed, widows, celibate daughters, etc. These properties could have family ("morgadio") or religious ("capela") purposes, and were frequent till 1834 in all categories of the Portuguese nobility and clergy, from the king down to the least important priest of the kingdom.
The Chinese gentry has a specific meaning and refers to the "shen-shi" or the class of landowners that had passed the bureaucratic examinations. They rose to power during the
Tang dynastywhen meritocracy triumphed over the nine-rank systemwhich favoured the Chinese nobility. The gentry were retired scholar-officials, and their descendants, who lived in large landed estates due to Confucianism's affinity to and advocacy of the worthiness of agriculture and hostility to commerce and mercantile pursuits. Chinese scholars who were not in the government but were well off and owned land were also considered gentry.
India had a well established gentry system in the southern state of
Kerala. Nairs were the gentry class, owned all land and often had tenants cultivate the land. Nairs were banned from bearing arms after the British invaded India and eventually lost control of the land. To this day, they are addressed as "thampran" (owners) by local people.
United States of America
Colonial American definitions reflected the British concept of "
landed gentry." Prior to the Antebellumperiod, southern planters were often younger sons of landed British families. They continued the culture of the British gentry in rural Virginia and in such cities as Charleston, South Carolina where, in addition to tenant farmersand indentured servants, they also employed chattelslavery. In the north, the gentry included those offshoots of gentry families (many of them British) that helped provide leadership for the establishment of such cities as Boston, Massachusetts, as well as institutions such as Harvard and Yale Universities.
In more modern American
society, "gentry" is often used to refer loosely to the highly educated professional upper-middle class, this use of the terminology is inconsistent with the British use of the same term as the American use would include those without confirmed aristocratic roots (as is required under the British definition). This sense of the term is often pejoratively used in the term " gentrification", a term that could alternatively be called " bourgeois-ification". Attitudes stemming from the phenomenon of the historic American gentry help clarify the current use of the term in U.S. society, and it is still loosely applied to people from old-monied and landed families in the United States, though the use of the term "gentry" is very rarely used in America for cultural and historical reasons.
Korea, where aristocrats held power and wealth, the idea of a gentry was likely well-known, especially due to the numerous cultural exchanges with China, which was famed for its gentry. However, gentry was never an official class in the Korean hierarchy.
Joseon Dynasty, the word gentry referred very loosely to the semi-powerful local functionaries. Local functionaries were the highest ranking people of the chunginclass. The chunginwere a small middle class in Joseon Korea which consisted of government employees, professionals, and literati. The local funtionaries were at the top of this class. They were often de factorulers of small remote areas and had some power but weren't rich. Local functionaries were also the oppressive link between the upper class yangbanand lower class sangmin.
There were also other semi-wealthy chungin who were not local functionaries but did own land.
Upper middle class
Polish landed gentry
* Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, gentry [http://dictionary.cambridge.org/define.asp?key=32548&dict=CALD]
* "Burke's Landed Gentry" (genealogy book), John Burke family "et al.", 1826, 1898,
Peter Coss, "The Origins of the English Gentry". Past and Present Publications. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (2003). ISBN 052182673X
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