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9-08-2015, 14:45

Individuals in society

It is easy to see the limitations of making generalizations about any large group of people, yet we do it all the time. Fifteenth-century Europeans were no different. They arranged their society into three groups, according to a model made popular by church offi cials in the tenth and eleventh centuries: those who fought (nobles), those who prayed (members of the clergy), and those who worked (peasants). Like all models, this tripartite division oversimplifi es the situation, particularly the situation by the fi fteenth century. Yes, if we take Europe as a whole, the most powerful group in society was the nobility, but nobles themselves varied from wealthy monarchs who were the ultimate political authority in vast areas to impoverished knights who hired themselves out as mercenaries and controlled only a tiny piece of land or none at all. Clergy in Europe were similarly differentiated; bishops of large dioceses and abbots or abbesses of major monasteries often came from noble families and lived in splendor like their secular relatives, while village priests and nuns in small convents had barely enough to eat and engaged in manual as well as spiritual labor. Peasants ranged from wealthy landowners who were free of all labor obligations and employed others to assist them, to landless migrants who hired themselves out by the day or week. The traditional tripartite division had been developed to describe western Christian Europe, so not surprisingly it left out Jews and Muslims. In the middle of the fi fteenth century, there were large Jewish communities in many cities in Italy and Spain and in some cities of central and eastern Europe. Jews were prohibited from owning land in some parts of Europe, which meant they generally made their living in cities, congregating in neighborhoods that later became legally defi ned ghettos. In a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment, they had been expelled from some parts of Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, including England and (temporarily) France. Expulsions would start up again in the later fi fteenth century, including in Bavaria in the 1480s and Castile and Aragon in 1492. The Ottoman Turks controlled most of Greece and the Balkans in 1450, ruling a population that was mixed in terms of religion, language, and ethnicity. Less than half the population of the Ottoman Empire was Muslim, and Jews and Christians were largely free to practice their own religion, educate their children, and control such matters as marriage. Non-Muslims paid substantial extra taxes to the government, so there were advantages in converting, though the Ottoman government, with an eye toward its treasury, did not actively encourage such conversions. The traditional conceptualization of society also overlooked people who lived in towns and cities, who by 1450 numbered perhaps one-quarter of the population in the Low Countries, one-fi fth of the population of Italy, and one-sixth of the population of Spain and Portugal. Towns began to grow in Europe during the eleventh century around a variety of cores – military camps, crossroads of trade, cathedrals, seaports – and gradually won some legal and political rights, often codifi ed in a town charter. They developed institutions of self-government, regulated trade and production, and attracted migrants from the countryside. They were often hard hit by the fi rst and subsequent outbreaks of the bubonic plague, though a few, such as Nuremberg in Germany, developed strict rules of quarantine that kept the plague outside the city walls. Like nobles, clergy, and peasants, urban dwellers ranged across a broad socioeconomic spectrum, from wealthy merchants who oversaw vast trading empires and lived in splendor that rivaled the richest noble to impoverished widows and orphans who depended on private, church, and – by 1450 in some towns – municipal charity to survive. The middle of this spectrum included artisans, shop-keepers, lawyers and other professionals, government offi cers, journeymen, and providers of the services that drew people to towns, such as tavern-owners, barber-surgeons, and money-changers. Though the medieval tripartite model was thus quite out of date by the mid-fi fteenth century, it still serves to highlight one signifi cant way in which society was divided: by social rank, or what came to be called “estate” or “order.” This division was based to a large degree on family of birth and function in society, though government service, talent, astute marriages, and occasionally money could help individuals – and sometimes their descendants – rise in rank. The concept of “estate” or “order” was also used to talk about other divisions of society: women were divided into virginal, married, and widowed “estates,” and spouses of both sexes were described as part of the marital “order.” The hierarchy of orders overlapped the hierarchy of wealth, but they were not exactly the same; those in the fi rst estate were far more likely to be wealthy than those in the third, but even if they were poorer, they had a higher status. If this had not been the case, wealthy Italian merchants would not have bothered to buy noble titles and country villas as they began doing in the fi fteenth century, and wealthy English merchants would not have been eager to marry their daughters and sons into – often impoverished – gentry families. Status was also tied in with considerations of honor. Among the nobility, for example, certain weapons and battle tactics were favored because they were viewed as more honorable, while among urban dwellers certain occupations, such as city executioner or manager of the municipal brothel, might actually be quite well paid, but were understood to be “dishonorable” and so of low status. While estate, wealth, and honor established hierarchies that to some degree overlapped, gender created a different hierarchy. Europeans in the fi fteenth century uniformly understood men to be superior to women, but disagreed about the degree to which rank could or should outweigh gender. Could a woman’s being born into a royal family, for example, allow her to overcome the normal limitations of her sex? At a less exalted level, should the wife of a master craftsman have complete control of what went on in a shop and household in his absence, or should some of the decisions be left to the eldest journeyman? Social, economic, and gender hierarchies thus intersected in complex ways in society as a whole in the fi fteenth century, and their impact on any single individual was similarly complex. For example, poverty lessened the differences between men and women in terms of opportunities and life experiences, creating an “equality of misery” for the poorest rural or urban dwellers. Poor women probably did not view this equality as a positive thing, however. Many women did recognize the liberation that came when they were widowed, and chose to remain unmarried; in making a decision about remarriage, women of middling ranks could be more independent than those of higher rank, whose marriages were a matter of family politics. Social and gender hierarchies did not operate in the abstract on individuals, but through many intermediate groups – families, guilds, neighborhoods, friendship networks, communities, villages – which will be explored in more depth in chapter 2 .

 

 

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