AskDefine | Define gentry

Dictionary Definition

gentry n : the most powerful members of a society [syn: aristocracy]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. Birth; condition; rank by birth.
  2. Courtesy; civility; complaisance.


  1. People of education and good breeding.
  2. In the context of "British": In a restricted sense, those people between the nobility and the yeomanry.

Related terms

Extensive Definition

Gentry generally refers to a social class of people. 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.

By nation

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Gentry is a term now in the United Kingdom particularly associated with the landed gentry. In Europe and 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 Revolution in 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 squire would be a good example of a member of the local county gentry. Unlike yeomen, the gentry did not work the land themselves as farmers; instead, they hired tenant farmers. Women were often gentry.
In English history, landed gentry were 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 War of the seventeenth century. The term is still occasionally employed, for example, by the publishers of Burke's Landed Gentry,
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 family is commonly deemed to be co-terminous with the terms gentry and landed gentry. See Walford's County Families and 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), and be administered by heirs in a line designated freely by the first will's dispositions, the heirs being were none the less 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 dynasty when meritocracy triumphed over the nine-rank system which 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.


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." 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". The Antebellum Southern planters were often younger sons of landed British families and continued the culture of the British gentry in rural Virginia and in such cities as Charleston, South Carolina, where, in addition to tenant farmers and indentured servants, they also employed chattel slavery. 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. Attitudes stemming from the phenomenon of this 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.

See also



  • Burke's Landed Gentry (genealogy book), John Burke family et al., 1826, 1898, United Kingdom.
gentry in German: Gentry
gentry in Spanish: Gentry
gentry in French: Gentry
gentry in Italian: Gentry
gentry in Japanese: ジェントリ
gentry in Polish: Gentry
gentry in Russian: Джентри
gentry in Serbo-Croatian: Džentrija

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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