With the establishment of the medieval Italian republics, the patriciate was a formally defined class of governing elite burgher families of many medieval republics, such as Venice, Florence and Genoa, and also in many of the Free imperial cities of Germany and Switzerland.
As in Ancient Rome, the status was inherited (sometimes through the female line as well as the male), and only male patricians could hold, or participate in elections for, most political offices. Often, as in Venice, non-patricians had next to no political rights. Lists were maintained of who had the status, of which the most famous is the Libro d'Oro (Golden Book) of the Venetian Republic. From the fall of Hohenstaufen (1268)city-republics increasingly became principalities, like Milan and Verona, and the smaller ones were swallowed up by monarchical states or sometimes other republics, like Pisa and Siena by Florence, and any special role for the local patricians was restricted to municipal affairs. The few remaining patrician constitutions, notably that of Venice and Genoa, were swept away by the conquering French armies of the period after the French Revolution, though many patrician families remained socially and politically important, as some do to this day.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Byzantine emperors strategically used the title of patricius, the highest honour they could award, to gain the support of the native princes of southern Italy in the contest with the Carolingian Empire for control of the region. The allegiance of the Principality of Salerno was bought in 887 by investing Prince Guaimar I, and again in 955 from Gisulf I. In 909 the Prince of Benevento, Landulf I, personally sought and received the title in Constantinople for both himself and his brother, Atenulf II. In forging the alliance that won the Battle of the Garigliano in 915, the Byzantine strategos Nicholas Picingli granted the title to John I and Docibilis II of Gaeta and Gregory IV and John II of Naples.
At this time there was usually only one "Patrician" for a particular city or territory at a time; in several cities in Sicily, like Catania and Messina, a one-man office of patrician was part of municipal government for much longer. Amalfi was ruled by a series of Patricians, the last of whom was elected Duke.
At a certain point it was necessary to obtain recognition of the independence of the city, and often its constitution, from either the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor - "free" cities in the Empire continued to owe alliegance to the Emperor, but without any intermediate rulers.
In the late Middle Ages and early modern period patricians also acquired noble titles, sometimes simply by acquiring domains in the surrounding contado that carried a heritable fief. However in practice the status and wealth of the patrician families of the great republics was higher than that of most nobles, as money economy spread and the profitability and prerogatives of land-holding eroded, and they were accepted as of similar status. The Republic of Genoa had a separate class, much smaller, of nobility, originating with rural magnates who joined their interests with the fledgling city-state. Some cities, such as Naples and Rome, which had never been republics, also had patrician classes, though most holders also had noble titles.
Of the major republics, only Venice managed to retain an exclusively patrician government, which survived until Napoleon. In Venice, where the exclusive patritiate reserved to itself all power of directing the Serenissima Repubblica and erected legal barriers to protect the state increased its scrutiny over the composition of its patriciate in the generation after the Battle of Chioggia. Venetians with a disputed claim to the patriciate were required to present to the avogadori di commun established to adjudicate such claims a genealogy called a prova di nobiltà, a "test of nobility". This was patricularly required of Venetian colonial elite in outlying regions of the Venetian thalassocracy, as in Crete, a key Venetian colony 1211-1669, and a frontier between Venetian and Byzantine, then Ottoman, zones of power. For Venetians in Venice, the prova di nobiltà was simply a pro forma rite of passage to adulthood, attested by family and neighbors; for the colonial Venetian elite in Crete the politicial and economic privileges weighed with the social ones, and for the Republic, a local patriciate in Crete with loyalty ties to Venice expressed through connective lineages was of paramount importance.
Beginning in the 11th century, a privileged class which much later came to be called Patrizier formed in the German-speaking imperial cities. Besides wealthy merchant burghers, they were recruited from the ranks of imperial knights, administrators and ministeriales; the latter two groups were accepted even when they were not freemen. German medieval patricians did not refer to themselves as such. Instead, they would point to their belonging to certain families or "houses", as documented for Cologne, Frankfurt am Main and Nuremberg, among other cities. The use of the word Patrizier to refer to the most privileged segment of urban society dates back not to the Middle Ages but to the Renaissance. In 1516 the Nuremberg councillor and jurist Dr. Christoph Scheuerl (1481–1542) was commissioned by Dr. Johann Staupitz, the vicar general of the order of St. Augustine, to draft a précis of the Nuremberg constitution, presented on 15 December 1516 in the form of a letter. Because the letter was composed in Latin, Scheuerl referred to the Nuremberg "houses" as "patricii", making ready use of the obvious analogy to the constitution of ancient Rome. His contemporaries soon turned this into the loan words Patriziat and Patrizier for patricianship and patricians. However, this usage did not become common until the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Patrizier filled the seats of town councils and appropriated other important civic offices to themselves. They tried to establish their exclusive right to these offices, making the Patrizier the only families eligible for election to the town council. For this purpose they assembled in guilds and asserted a hereditary claim to the coveted offices. In Frankfurt the Patrizier societies began to bar admittance of new families in the second half of the 16th century. The industrious Calvinist refugees from the southern Netherlands made substantial contributions to the city's commerce. But their advancement was largely limited to the material sphere. At the time this was summed up as,
The Roman Catholics have the churches, the Lutherans have the power, and the Calvinists have the money.Jews were in any case never even considered for membership in Patrizier societies. Unlike non-Lutheran Christians and until their partial emancipation brought on by Napoleonic occupation, however, other avenues to advancement in society were also closed to them.
As in the Italian republics, this was opposed by the craftsmen who were organized in guilds of their own (Zünfte). In the 13th century they began to challenge the prerogatives of the Patrizier and their guilds. Most of the time the Zünfte succeeded in achieving representation on a town's council. In Cologne, the city's entire administration was adapted to the constitution of the Zünfte. In contrast, the Patriziat managed to preserve its dominance in Augsburg, Nuremberg, Frankfurt and in most Hanseatic cities.
Patrizier were considered the equal of feudal nobility (the "landed gentry"). Hence the Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels (= Genealogical Handbook of Nobility) has always included families even without a title of nobility if there is proof that their progenitors belonged to hereditary "council houses" in German imperial cities by the 14th century. As in the Netherlands (see below), many Patrizier scoffed at the notion of ennoblement.
Johann Christian Senckenberg, the famous naturalist, commented, "An honest man is worth more than all the nobility and all the Barons. If anyone were to make me a Baron, I would call him a [female canine organ] or equally well a Baron. This is how much I care for any title.
In 1816, Frankfurt's new constitution abolished the privilege of heritable office for the Patrizier. In Nuremberg, successive reforms first curtailed the Patrizier privileges (1794) and then effectively abolished them (1808), although they retained some vestiges of power until 1848.
The longer a family has been listed in the Blue Book the higher its esteem. The earliest entries are often families seen as coequal to the high nobility (barons and counts), because they are the younger branches of the same family or have continuously married members of the Dutch nobility over a long period of time.
These are 'regentenfamilies' whose forefathers were active in the administration of town councils, counties or the country itself during the Dutch Republic. Some of these families declined enoblement because they did not keep a title in such high regard. At the end of the 19th century they still proudly called themselves "patriciers". Other families belong to the patriciate because they are held in the same regard and respect as the nobility but for certain reasons never where ennobled. Even within the same important families there can be branches with and without noble titles.
The noble position of the lowest rank of the Dutch nobility; jonkheer, untitled nobility, could be seen as coequal to the average non-noble patrician family because the lower nobility in the Netherlands is becoming more common and less noble and is taking the form of the bourgeois, upper middleclass instead of the upper-class.
Patrician families in the Netherlands include