Summer School. Elites and ruling classes: a major issue in European History (16th-21st centuries). Rome, 18th-20th May 2015


The notion of elite has long been used in the field of sociology, but in recent decades it has become a key-subject in historical research. If historians had initially preferred to use more precise terms, such as aristocracy, nobility, bourgeoisie, intelligentsia, which were judged able to offer a dialectic and dynamic interpretation of the historical development, with a specific reference to a privileged class in a dominant position, defender of the values inherited from the past, new historical researches have suggested the use of more wide-ranging and fluid categories. Historians have always studied ruling classes, but mostly through the description of the exploits of great historical figures, the “great men”. The historical reflection on elites, thanks to the insights offered by sociological theory – just think about the works of Max Weber, but also about the so-called “theory of elites” formulated by the Italian school founded by Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels – has allowed us to shed new light on the history of the humbles, the peasants and proletarian classes right through the analysis of the relationships between dominants and dominated. In the search for a “histoire totale”, which was the main objective of the historiography of the “Annales”, a deep study of the elites was necessary for a better understanding of the actual conditions of subordination of the people and for a deciphering of the instruments of dominance. It is easy to understand that even the political history could benefit from these new acquisitions, with a completely new look given to the popular uprisings, the revolutions and all the changes that enabled Europe to move from a society of orders to a society of notables (19th century), up to the democratic regimes of the 20th and 21st centuries. The elites, according to the most widely accepted definition that was given in the social sciences, were formed by the gradual enlargement of an original unit: the nobility founded on birthright was initially replaced by the elite of the land-owners; later democracy has expanded its recruitment to culture and economic and scientific expertise. Although this scheme could seem quite simplistic, considering that nobility does not exclude in principle the merits, and that democracy does not tribute the same esteem to all forms of knowledge, it corresponds to a real historical evolution. In Britain, where trade and industry developed first, the formation of a broader elite was earlier, because the nobility was not so rigidly defined as in Latin and German countries. It was then in eighteenth century France that the transition from a hereditary nobility to an elite based on wealth was accomplished: a principle of distinction consecrated by 1789 and that could develop thanks to the regimes based on census that developed during the first half of the nineteenth century. It was a slow evolution towards a broader definition of the elite that conciliated birth privilege, heritage and talent around two fundamental needs: the support for liberalism and for the set of values on which enlightened nobility, “philosophes” and patriots had found a meeting point. The principle of definition of the elites was totally discriminatory: it was based on the exclusion of people who did not possess certain requisites, of birth or of property of land. In large areas of Europe until the outbreak of World War I property of land constituted the fundamental sign of recognition of the elites, a tool that allowed it to monopolize power, influence and social prestige. But in the nineteenth century, when liberal regimes betrayed the egalitarian aspirations of the French Revolution, the elites had progressively widened their recruiting base, coming to include representatives of new and different social groups. From roughly the 1830s, elites started to define themselves not only on the basis of the ownership of the land, but also of the ownership of other form of capital (equity, industrial assets etc.) and finally, of the acquisition of knowledge, with an important recognition of the intellectual and technical skills. In the 20th century the development of the education, also at university level, extended the opportunities of social mobility; ruling classes became more and more linked to the economic domains – both in private sector (entrepreneurs, managers, technicians) and in the State ranks (grand commis d’Etat, etc.). The Summer School aims at analyzing the issue of the European elites from a wide range of different historical perspectives. Social, economic, political, urban, military and even religious history are all closely concerned by the study of the processes of formation, conservation and changes faced by ruling classes in the early modern and modern period, as well as of the mechanisms of social mobility. The Summer School is based on the Joint Master in European History (MEH), created in the framework of UNICA (Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe) is an interdisciplinary, comparative Master Course offered by a consortium including the following universities: Austria: Universität Wien, Estonia: Tallinn University, France: Université Paris VII – Diderot, Germany: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Ireland: University College Dublin, Italy: Università degli Studi di Roma Tor Vergata, Università degli Studi Roma Tre, Spain: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, United Kingdom: King’s College London. The MEH focuses upon historical processes in Europe and offer a broad comparative perspective on the major issues of European history. In particular students from Italy (Roma), Germany (Berlin), Spain (Madrid) and other universities attached to the MEH will be invited to attend the Summer School. Among its modularized study structure, the MEH aims at organizing Summer Schools focusing on major issues of the European history, in order to supply students a full immersion about approaches, methodologies and sources and to familiarize them with the historiographical debates.


Principal Investigators
Wildt, Michael Prof. Dr. (Details) (German History of the 20th Century)

Duration of Project
Start date: 01/2015
End date: 08/2015

Last updated on 2020-21-03 at 23:19