Uradel (German: [uʁˈaːdl̩], German: "ancient nobility"; adjective uradelig or uradlig) is a genealogical term introduced in late 18th-century Germany to distinguish those families whose noble rank can be traced to the 14th century or earlier. The word stands opposed to Briefadel, a term used for titles of nobility created in the early modern or modern period by letters patent. Since the earliest known such letters were issued in the 14th century, those knightly families in northern European nobility whose noble rank predates these are designated uradel.
Uradel and Briefadel families are generally further divided into the categories adlig (untitled and titled nobility), freiherrlich (baronial), gräflich (comital), and fürstlich (royal, princely and ducal) houses. The latter are also referred to as Hochadel (High Nobility).
Introduction and 19th-century usage
The first use of the word Uradel to designate the oldest nobility dates from 1788 and it had assumed its present-day meaning by no later than 1800. The term is found in the Almanach de Gotha from 1907, in which it is applied to all persons and families known to have carried specific titles of nobility before the year 1400. According to a third more strict definition, described in Der Große Brockhaus in 1928 (vol. 1, s.v. "Adel"), an attestation prior to the year 1350 is required to establish Uradel status.
In contrast, the younger Briefadel are families of the post-medieval nobility, probably originally of bourgeois (Bürger, burgher) or peasant origin, ennobled in the modern era by letters patent issued by a monarch, usually with the award of a coat of arms if they did not already have one. Said to have been modelled on the earlier French practice of raising officials (especially lawyers) to the aristocracy, the earliest letters patent conferring nobility in Germany were issued under Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in the late 14th century.
Hochadel is not a synonym for Uradel. Whereas Uradel (medieval or feudal nobility before AD 1400) is opposed to Briefadel (nobility by letters - or patent - of nobility, mostly from a post-medieval period after AD 1400), Hochadel (high nobility) is opposed to Niederer Adel (lower nobility). The differentiation of Uradel/Briefadel is such age-based whereas the distinction between Hochadel and Niederer Adel is based on the rank of titles, with Hochadel including all royal, princely and ducal houses of Europe.
According to the German genealogical reference work of the nobility (Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels, 1951) the noble houses which count as Uradel are those families whose ancestral lineage can be demonstrated to date at least as far back as the year 1400 (in the Late Middle Ages), belonging at that time to the knightly (German ritterbürtigen) nobility. As a general rule, families of such knightly birth or descent (Ritterbürtigkeit) from the Middle Ages, needed to show at least three generations of knightly life, as well as suitable marriage with social equals, so that even the knightly families documented as dating from the Late Middle Ages (between about 1350 and 1400) are likely to have had already at least a century of possessing that status. Uradel is such closely connected with the system of medieval fiefs, granted by an overlord to a vassal who held it in fealty (or "in fee") in return for a form of feudal allegiance and service, usually given by the personal ceremonies of homage and fealty.
Edelfrei families were members of an ancient, dynastic aristocratic line, free noble families independent of legal obligations of a secondary nature, and they were not subordinated to any other families or dynasties, apart from the king or emperor. In contrast, the ministerialis, meaning originally "servitors" or "agents", were unfree nobles, however trained knights who made up a large majority of what could be described as the German knighthood during that time. These people were raised up from serfdom to be placed in positions of power and responsibility. From about 1200 they gradually accumulated more power and fiefs than the Edelfrei knights, and many of the latter indeed passed into ministerialis service, primarily to be granted new administrative positions and fiefs, as the mostly edelfrei overlords had no interest in raising any competition to their power by sharing it with their pairs, rather attempting to subject these by making them their vassals.
The modern concept of aristocracy (Uradel) must not be confused with the term edelfrei, since the former term's scope is much broader: all families that can prove they belonged to the knightly aristocracy by no later than around 1400 (whether originally edelfrei or ministeriales) are counted today as Uradel, i.e., the aristocracy. In fact, most of the families in the former Uradel volumes of the Gotha are of ministerialis origin, including even some of the later princely (Hochadel) houses.
A similar term used more often than Uradel in Austria is alter Adel ("old nobility").
The 1926 edition of the Swedish Nordisk familjebok also cites 1350 as the required date, because "the oldest known letter patent dates to 1360". The letters patent referred to here is that issued by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV to Wicker Frosch, a burgher of Frankfurt, on 30 September 1360. In Norway, one of the earliest known letters patent is of 1458.
- Godsey 2004, p. 58.
- Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, citing Eichhorn, Einleitung in d. d. Privatrecht (1827) for an early attestation of the term, and Brockhaus 1 (1928) for the definition alle urkundlich vor 1350 als adlig nachweisbaren geschlechter. See also Duden; Meaning of Uradel, in German. 
- William D. Godsey (18 November 2004). Nobles and Nation in Central Europe: Free Imperial Knights in the Age of Revolution, 1750–1850. Cambridge University Press. pp. 57–59. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511496752.004. ISBN 978-1-139-45609-8.
- Jacob Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch erst im 19. jh. gebraucht zur bezeichnung ältesten adels. ("in use only from the 19th c. for the designation of older nobility"), citing Eichhorn (1821, 1827).
- Granichstätten-Czerva, Rudolf von (1947). "Altösterreichisches Adels- und Wappenrecht". Adler. Zeitschrift für Genealogie und Heraldik (in German) (1.4): 49–58.
- Ursula Siems; Kurt Kluxen (1979). "Politik, Gesellschaft, Wirtschaft von 800 bis 1776". In Tenbrock, Kluxen, Grütter. Von Zeiten und Menschen 2. Paderborn. pp. 39–41.
- Karl Bosl: Die Gesellschaft in der Geschichte des Mittelalters. 4. Auflage. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1987, ISBN 3-525-33389-7, p. 56.
- Salmonsens Konversationsleksikon (1915: 169)
- Nordisk familjebok (1926:1120)
- Godsey, William D. (2004). Nobles and Nation in Central Europe: Free Imperial Knights in the Age of Revolution, 1750–1850. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139456098.