1. 23 Social Orders and Divisions

The Balance of Power

The Nobility

In most countries, the nobility maintained an almost complete monopoly of political power. The higher ranks of the clergy were drawn from noble families, so the Church did not represent any kind of check or balance of power. The king, while now generally standing head-and-shoulders above the aristocracy individually, was still fundamentally the first among equals, “merely” the richest and most powerful person of the richest and most powerful family: the royal dynasty of the kingdom.

Despite the social and political changes of the preceding centuries, European nobles continued to enjoy tremendous legal and social privileges. Nobles owned a disproportionate amount of land, and in some kingdoms like Russia, only nobles could own land. Only nobles could serve as officers in the army, reaping the spoils of war and generous salaries in the process. Only nobles had political representation in various parliamentary bodies, with the notable caveat that cities still held privileges of their own (the Parlement of Paris, for example, wielded a great deal of meaningful power in French politics). Nobles had their own courts, were tried by their peers, and would subject to more humane treatment than were commoners. Perhaps most importantly, nobles everywhere paid few taxes, especially in comparison to the taxes, fees, and rents that beleaguered the peasantry.

A whole system of status symbols was maintained by both law and custom as well – to cite just a few, only members of the aristocracy could wear masks at masquerade balls, nobles led processions in towns and had special places to sit at operas and churches alike, and only nobles could wear swords during peacetime. Some of these legal separations were not trivial; only nobles could hunt game, and the legal systems of Europe viciously persecuted poachers even if the poachers were motivated by famine. Non-nobles were constantly reminded of their inferior status thanks to both the legal privileges enjoyed by nobles and the array of visible status symbols.

By the eighteenth century, the nobility actively cultivated learning and social grace, hearkening back to the glory days of the Renaissance courtier and bypassing the relatively uncouth period of the religious wars. Education, music, and art became fashionable in Europe in the eighteenth century, and being witty, well-dressed, musically talented, and well read became a status symbol almost as important as owning a lavish estate. The eighteenth century was the height of so-called “polite society” among the nobility: a legally-reinforced elite that fancied themselves possessed of true “good taste.”

The Common People

The nobility also exercised considerable power over the (mostly rural) common people: peasants in the West and serfs in the East. Landowning lords had the right to extract financial dues, fees, and rents on peasants in the West. In the East, they had almost total control over the lives and movements of their serfs, including the requirement for serfs to perform lengthy periods of unpaid labor on behalf of their lords. In its most extreme manifestations, serfdom was essentially the same thing as slavery. Russian estates were even sold according to the number of serfs (“souls”) they contained rather than the physical size of the plot.

Starting in the late seventeenth century and culminating in the eighteenth, many kingdoms saw the gradual elimination of the common lands that had been an essential economic safety net for the peasantry in the earlier centuries. The nobility proved astute at reorganizing agriculture along more capitalistic lines, and in turn their land-hunger prompted laws of “enclosure,” especially in Britain. The result was ongoing, sometimes debilitating, pressure on the peasants. Many peasant families who had once owned small plots of their own had to sell them to rich nobles and became landless agricultural laborers, only one step up from the truly destitute who fled to the cities in search of either work or church charity.

Peasants often fought back, especially when the nobility tried to impose new fees or tried to cut them off from the commons. There were cases of rural revolts, of peasants hiring lawyers and taking their lords to royal courts, and other forms of resistance. There were also truly enormous uprisings in the East – in both the Austrian Empire and Russia, giant peasant uprisings succeeded in killing thousands of nobles, only to be eventually put down by brutal government suppression. Thus, the nobility were in increasing conflict with the peasantry, largely because the former were trying to extract more wealth from the latter.

Another new factor was the rise of the bourgeoisie, the non-noble urban mercantile class. The bourgeoisie became a very important class in terms of the economies of the kingdoms of Europe, especially in the West, yet it did not “fit” into the society of orders. While wealthy members of the bourgeoisie blended in with and sometimes married into the nobility, others thought of themselves as being distinct, celebrating a life of productive work and serious education over what they saw as the foppery and excess of the aristocracy. It was this latter self-conscious bourgeoisie that would play an important role in the revolutions of the end of the century. The (literate and urban) bourgeois class were also among those most keenly interested in Enlightenment ideas.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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