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9-08-2015, 16:58

The social body: orders and classes

Leviathan portrays the social body as a collection of individuals, but it was also thought of – and functioned – as a collection of groups. As we saw in chapter 1 , medieval Europeans had conceptualized society in three basic groups: those who pray (the clergy), those who fi ght (the nobility), and those who work (everyone else). These groups were termed “orders” or “Estates,” and many medieval representative assemblies, including those of France and the Low Countries, were organized into three houses by Estate. In England, the higher-level clergy joined the nobility in the House of Lords, with the House of Commons the rough equivalent of the Third Estate elsewhere. Both the House of Commons and assemblies of the Third Estate primarily represented the interests of towns, not the majority of the population who were peasants. Only in Sweden did the peasants have a special fourth house in the national assembly with their own representatives. The society of orders was a system of social differentiation based on function – or at least theoretical function – in society. It worked fairly well in setting out sociolegal categories for membership in representative bodies, and highlighted the most important social distinction in both medieval and early modern Europe: that between noble and commoner. Status as a noble generally brought freedom from direct taxation and rights of jurisdiction over a piece of property and the people who lived on it. Even in the Middle Ages, however, and more strikingly by the seventeenth century, the more fi xed and inherited hierarchy of orders was interwoven with a more changeable hierarchy based on wealth: what would later come to be termed social class. Within each order there were vast differences in status, power, and wealth. The clergy included prince-bishops who lived in opulent palaces and poor parish priests who farmed their own fi elds, while the nobility ranged from wealthy counts with vast estates to poor gentlemen with a single run-down house or knights with no land at all. In England, distinctions were made between true nobles with heritable titles, represented in the House of Lords, and gentry, who paid taxes, had no clear set of privileges, and sent representatives to the House of Commons. Everywhere in Europe the Third Estate consisted of very diverse individuals, from affl uent merchant-bankers and powerful judges to poverty-stricken artisans. Wealth allowed some male commoners to buy or gain noble titles, and female commoners to marry into noble families, so that these categories were not static; in the English county of Lancashire between 1600 and 1642, for example, more than one-third of the gentry families died out, but their numbers were replaced by wealthy socialclimbing commoners. Monarchs sometimes attempted to restrict entrance into the nobility to avoid erosion of the tax base, but the temptation to gain cash quickly by selling titles massively outweighed concerns about long-term revenue streams. The steady infl ux of newcomers with no military function meant that the old basis for noble status was increasingly anachronistic, but commoners’ willingness to spend vast sums of money for a noble title also indicates the continuing privileges and social cachet of noble rank. The nobility maintained its status in most parts of Europe by taking in and integrating competing social elites; where wealthy commoners did not bother acquiring noble titles, such as the Dutch province of Holland, nobles lost their social and political role. Wealth and ability also allowed lower-level nobles to climb higher, especially once monarchs recognized that selling infl ated noble titles was an excellent way to make money. James I invented the title of “baronet” in 1611, while Spain had fi fty-fi ve titled nobles in 1520, and nearly ten times that number in 1700. In England, a noble title brought prestige and certain legal privileges, while in Spain and France it brought freedom from many taxes, so that the long-term fi nancial implications of such sales for the royal treasury were signifi cant. The most common way to gain a noble title was to buy one, but the fastest way to climb in terms of title, status, and actual power was through gaining royal or princely favor at court. Courts were cultural, political, and economic centers in which rulers dispensed favors, offi ces, gifts, and rewards. At Louis XIV’s court at Versailles, the palace built by the king outside Paris in 1660, nobles vied with each other to carry out tasks associated with the physical needs of the monarch – bringing in breakfast, handing napkins, emptying the royal chamber-pot. Though we may view these activities as demeaning or disgusting, they offered great opportunities for personal access to the ruler, as did attendance at card-parties, festivities, and entertainments. French nobles hoping to gain positions moved to Versailles, where they lived in cramped rooms and ate high-priced cold food bought from vendors, rather than the more lavish fare they would have been served on their own estates. English and Austrian nobles were more fortunate, for their rulers continued to live much of the time in London and Vienna; though nobles had to move to be near them, London and Vienna offered far more in terms of food, housing, entertainment, and other amenities than Versailles. Nobles themselves attended to the needs of the monarch, and they also sought positions at court for their adolescent children, especially if the young men or women were physically attractive, intelligent, and talented in music, conversation, or dance. Their function was largely to serve as decorative objects and high-status servants, and – as the name lady- or gentleman-in-waiting implies – wait for and wait on the ruler. Success at court for either an adult or adolescent called for deference, understanding of ceremony and protocol, discretion, charm, skill, and luck. For women – and for men with a few monarchs – sexual attraction could also be a powerful tool, with royal mistresses and male favorites gaining wealth, infl uence, and the power to dispense favors of their own. Those who were legally noble generally made up about 1 or 2 percent of the population, although in Spain and Poland nearly one out of every ten people was technically noble. In western Europe, nobles owned about one-half to two-thirds of the land, and in eastern Europe almost all of it. Most nobles did not own very much, however, and some, such as the impoverished hidalgos of Spain, owned nothing at all, surviving by payments for mercenary service. Middle-level nobles owned enough land to live comfortably, and often served as royal judges, commanders in princely armies, or bishops of smaller bishoprics. At the top were aristocratic families whose vast tracts of land might provide them with an income of more than a hundred times that of a country gentleman. The Mendoza family in Spain controlled more than eight hundred villages, and the Radziwills in Lithuania more than ten thousand. Inheritance systems shaped the fortunes of noble families over generations, and they varied throughout Europe. In areas with partible inheritance, which included parts of France, the Holy Roman Empire, and eastern Europe, land and other property was divided among sons (and occasionally among all children), diminishing the family fortune over time. In areas such as England with a tradition of primogeniture, in which the eldest son inherited all land and the noble title, family wealth remained more concentrated. The advantages of this system were increasingly clear to nobles throughout Europe, who pushed for the introduction of primogeniture or other forms of inheritance, termed strict settlement or entail, that prohibited the sale or division of family lands. Younger sons generally received stipends of cash, but were expected to augment this with income from a government offi ce or position in the church or military. Daughters received dowries, the size of which determined the young woman’s value in the marriage market; a larger dowry would attract higherstatus suitors, though social-climbing lower nobles or wealthy urban merchants might be willing to accept a lower dowry in return for the prestige and access to power that marrying into a noble family could bring. Daughters who were sole heirs sometimes inherited the family lands and the right to a title (which they passed to their husbands) and sometimes not. Gaining this inheritance might involve a protracted legal battle with uncles or male cousins, however, who argued that gender should be more important than degree of familial relationship in determining access to land and position. In the sixteenth century, nobles and gentry in most of Europe lived in the countryside, although in northern and central Italy, and southern France and Spain, they often lived in large households in town, where they might attend the court of the pope or a ruling duke or count. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nobles who could afford it built sumptuous houses in national and regional capitals, where they sought royal princely patronage and joined in the cultural activities of the court. They also maintained a steady round of their own social activities, especially during the “season,” the winter months when life on country estates would have been uncomfortable and boring. By the eighteenth century, nobles in western Europe did not have the independent power or vast wealth that many of their counterparts in eastern Europe did, but they maintained their privileged position. Though nobles were increasingly attracted to city life, cities were also where the hierarchy of orders met the hierarchy of wealth most dramatically. By 1500, and much earlier in cities in Italy and the Netherlands, a number of urban merchants and bankers were wealthier than all but the highest level of nobility. Over the next centuries, some of these men climbed into the nobility through marriage, service to a monarch, or purchasing a title. More of them heightened social and political distinctions within cities themselves, often beginning this process by limiting membership in the city councils they controlled to a small circle of families. They might hope to marry into nobility, but, as in the German city of Nuremberg, they also prohibited men who married the daughters of city councilors from joining the council themselves. The most signifi cant distinction within cities was that between citizen and noncitizen, as we discussed in chapter 3 . Urban citizenship, described in England as having the “freedom” of a city, made one a member of a corporate group with legal privileges and claims on public assistance; it also brought responsibilities, including serving in or providing troops for the city militia, and paying local taxes. Like noble titles, the status of citizen was heritable. Cities also allowed people to purchase citizenship, especially after demographic catastrophes, and sometimes granted citizenship free of charge for special services to the city or if applicants for citizenship practiced an occupation deemed desirable, such as midwifery or surgery. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, though national capitals continued to expand and fl ourish economically, many smaller cities stagnated. They responded not by making it easier to immigrate, but by increasing the standard fees for citizenship to bring in more money, and granting citizenship free of charge less often. In 1599, for example, the entrance fees for citizenship in the Swiss city of Basel were raised from 10 gulden to 30, beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest immigrants. Cities often tolerated outsiders who performed needed manual labor, and sometimes developed an in-between category for permanent residents too poor to obtain citizenship, but the native-born still had distinct advantages. In many cities, sumptuary laws attempted to create easily visible distinctions between social groups. Nobles were set off by their fi ne silk clothing, university-educated physicians and lawyers by their velvet- or fur-trimmed robes, servants by their rough dark clothes and aprons. Individuals tried to evade these laws by wearing the clothing restricted to the group above them, though there were fi nes prescribed for doing so. Wearing a disguise or attempting to pass oneself off as someone else was taken much more seriously, and could warrant the death penalty. Doing so successfully was diffi cult, for it meant not only acquiring different clothes, but also different speech patterns, gestures, eating habits, and mannerisms. As they set themselves off visually with fancier clothing and more elaborate gestures, middle- and upper-class urban people also attempted to set themselves apart spatially from the lower classes. Historians have noted an increase in the desire for privacy in the eighteenth century among middle- and upper-class families, both privacy for the family as a unit and privacy from others within the household. Thus, for households that could afford it, servants increasingly had separate quarters, and rooms within houses were more compartmentalized, with doors that could be closed. Privacy did not extend to lower-class families in either theory or practice. Poor people in cities lived in very crowded quarters, often renting a tiny attic or cellar room for an entire family, and

METHODS AND ANALYSIS 8 The “civilizing process”

In 1939, a close analysis of books of manners and conduct designed for middle-class readers led the German sociologist Norbert Elias to assert that the early modern period saw a “civilizing process” in western Europe. Manners books increasingly taught that basic bodily functions, such as blowing one’s nose, eating, defecating, and sleeping, should be done in specifi c ways: nose-blowing should be done on a specially made item, the handkerchief, not on the tablecloth, one’s bare hand, or a sleeve; eating should be done with a fork, not with one’s hand or knife; urinating and defecating should be done in private, not on the street or while chatting with others; sleeping should be done in special clothing, not naked, and beds should not be shared with strangers. Children learned “proper” behavior from their parents long before they could read books of manners, so that by the time they were adults they regarded controlled behavior as “natural,” as coming from their own inner selves rather than from externally imposed social convention. This “reformation of manners” was, in Elias’s opinion, related to political, social, and economic changes. As power was increasingly centralized, the state claimed a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, and people had to settle confl icts in non-violent ways. Nobles demonstrated their superiority through “courtliness” or “courtesy” (common terms for good manners), rather than through military prowess. Middle-class urban residents sought to learn and imitate courtly manners as a demonstration of their improving economic status and increasing political infl uence, providing a wide market for conduct books such as Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier. Self-restraint became a marker of class status, with the “lower orders” those who still spat, fought, or drank in public. Class distinctions became increasingly elaborate. Using a fork and an individual plate for eating was initially a marker of status, but as common people came to use forks, elites developed complex table settings with specialized utensils and dishes that poorer folk could neither afford nor use properly. Studies of the “civilizing process” since Elias have been based on many other types of sources along with books of conduct, including personal documents, public sources such as court records, and visual evidence. Many scholars have supported Elias’s contention that self-restraint, formality, and discipline were becoming widespread ideals, policed by external agents such as courts and clergy and by internalized feelings of shame and guilt. There is disagreement about how fully or quickly these ideals were becoming reality, however, and whether the consequences of these changes were positive or negative. The French philosopher Michel Foucault, for example, has highlighted the negative effects of the “civilizing process,” pointing to the establishment of workhouses for the poor and vagrants, and mental institutions for those judged insane or deviant as examples of what he calls the “Great Confi nement,” in which those who upset notions of the proper social order were removed from public view. Other critics have pointed out that notions about what was civilized and what uncivilized shaped European ideas about race as well as social class. As they created empires, Europeans came to view themselves as “civilized” and superior to the “savages” in areas being colonized, not only because they were Christian, but also because of their “gentility” and more restrained deportment. Elias’s harshest critics have accused him of sharing these ideas of European superiority, and argued that many other cultures also have strong restraints on public behavior. continuing to share beds and eating utensils. Local communities sometimes refused to allow poor people to marry, as they worried that poor families would require public support. (This control of marriage became state law in some of the territories within the Holy Roman Empire in the early nineteenth century, with political authorities describing marriage as a privilege available only to those who were economically solvent; such restrictions were not lifted until after World War I.) Refusal to honor distinctions of status was a sign of rebellion in early modern society, whether it was German peasants disobeying their landlords in 1525 or non-noble deputies in the French Estates General keeping their hats on in the presence of the king in 1789. A healthy state depended, in the eyes of most observers, on each group performing its allotted function without, in the words of the English writer Robert Burton, “discontents, common grievances, complaints … rebellions, seditions, mutinies, idleness, riot … That kingdom, that country” where such things did occur was “melancholy, hath a sick body, and needs to be reformed.” 3 For many writers, maintaining the health of the body politic was best accomplished by measures similar to those physicians used to treat illness: execute rebellious subjects as one would amputate a gangrenous limb, or banish them as one would quarantine a family infected with the plague.