Equality and Inequality

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EQUALITY AND INEQUALITY. "Triple is the house of God which is thought to be one: on Earth, some pray, others fight, still others work. . . . On the function of each the works of the others rest, each in turn assisting all." So wrote the eleventh-century French bishop, Adalbero, as he formulated a representation of the social order that would deeply influence early modern social thought. According to this medieval Christian taxonomy, divine providence divided earthly society into three unequal orders, each of which was defined and ranked on the basis of its function. The clergy, who served God, occupied the first estate. The nobility, who defended the church and provided military protection for the community, constituted the second estate. Last (and certainly least), laborers, who toiled to feed and support the two superior orders, comprised the third estate. For society to function harmoniously, those born into the nobility and third estate and those who entered the priesthood were obligated to recognize their place in the social order and fulfill their prescribed duties.

The feudal paradigm of the three orders informed the social imagination of Europeans down to the eighteenth century, but other modes of social classification became equally important during the early modern period. Although early modern Europeans had little conception of social class in the modern sense of the term, they certainly understood wealth to be a determinant of social rank. The possession of land helped to fix the social position of much of the population, from the poorest peasant to the greatest aristocrat. Second, social difference was conceived in terms of status. In this case, the hierarchy was composed of multiple gradations in rank, each of which enjoyed a certain degree of honor or public esteem. Honor pervaded all levels of early modern society, but it was generally taken for granted that those who occupied certain ranks and professions enjoyed more of it than others. Finally, it was imagined that the social order was organized on the basis of privilege. The word "privilege" referred to special legal rights (literally 'private laws') that entitled particular groups of individuals to advantages that other groups did not possess. Privilege added a legal dimension to conceptions of early modern hierarchy, as various corporate groups were marked juridically by the privileges they enjoyed.


In practice, wealth, status, and privilege were intimately related. Wealth could generate status, just as status could elicit privilege, and privilege, in turn, could produce wealth. There was no simple formula by which these three forms of inequality combined to determine social rank, but a brief tour of the early modern social hierarchy, starting with the nobility and working downward, will show how they worked together to stratify society.

While the clergy was granted pride of place in Adalbero's tripartite conception of the temporal order, the nobility in fact dominated European society throughout the early modern period. This dominant position stemmed in large part from noble wealth. Although they comprised a small fraction of the European population, nobles possessed a grossly disproportionate share of the land. To take a particularly dramatic example, the English peerage, which numbered between sixty and two hundred individuals over the early modern period, owned approximately one-fourth of England's territory. At the local level, nobles stood out like landed giants. Their economic superiority also allowed them to build extensive patronage networks through which they exercised influence at the regional and national level.

Land ownership alone, however, cannot fully explain the dominance of the nobility. Status also mattered. Nobles sat atop a steep hierarchy of status and expected to be treated with the respect that was their due. They were addressed deferentially, granted special roles in public ceremonies and processions, and given the highest positions in army, church, and government. High-ranking nobles also attended court, where a culture of civilized elegance enhanced their status and further distinguished them from lesser nobles and commoners. Although in urbanized areas of Europe such as Italy and the Netherlands, court culture may not have taken such highly distinctive forms, nobles everywhere were afforded a great deal of public esteem.

Finally, historians emphasize that privilege reinforced noble wealth and status. Certain privileges, such as the rights of lordship, were feudal in origin. Many nobles were not merely landowners but lords as well, meaning they possessed rights to judge local disputes, exploit seigneurial monopolies, and, increasingly in early modern eastern Europe, bind serfs to the land and exact labor services from them. Lordship was on the decline in early modern western Europe, but other privileges remained intact or were even newly created. Honorific privileges, such as the right to wear a sword or display certain articles of luxury, gave symbolic expression to the superiority of noble status. Political privileges assured nobles a strong voice in Estates and other corporate bodies through which they defended their liberties. Fiscal privileges protected noble wealth. As state finance expanded to redistribute resources on a massive scale over the course of the early modern era, the privilege of tax exemption shielded nobles from ever-growing fiscal demands and became essential to the order's social prominence.

The domination of the nobility reveals a great deal about inequality in the early modern period, but the same forms of inequality that set the nobility apart molded the rest of the social hierarchy. The bourgeoisie or "middling sort" (merchants, shopkeepers, and professionals) stood well above the laboring majority but did not enjoy nearly the same degree of wealth, status, or privilege as the nobility. Although financiers could accumulate fortunes that rivaled those of great aristocrats, the middling classes in general could not match the wealth of the second order. Nor, in terms of status, could the bourgeoisie command the same degree of social esteem. While the merchant took pride in his respectable education, comfortable home, professional success, and civic standing, all of which distinguished him from the lower orders, his prestige was limited by representations of businesspeople as crass, self-interested, and incapable of noble thoughts and deeds. One need only recall Molière's "bourgeois gentilhomme" (in the 1670 play of the same title), whom the playwright depicted as a crudesocial-climbingbuffoon.Finally, thebourgeoisie enjoyed a mixed bag of privileges. It possessed fewer honorific privileges than the nobility but did enjoy tax exemptions and the privileges of municipal citizenship.

Below the level of the bourgeoisie, there was the vast working population of Europe. In towns, where the world of work was populated mainly by artisans, both wealth and status depended heavily on a single type of privilege, that of guild membership. The master artisans who ran the guilds enjoyed a relatively high degree of status and economic security, whereas apprentices and journeymen were hemmed in by guild regulations concerning hiring, wages, working hours, and workplace discipline. Still, apprentices and journeymen were far better off than the growing population of incompletely trained and transient workers who enjoyed none of the status or security that came with guild membership. Day laborers outside the guilds lived in highly precarious circumstances. An unusually long stretch of unemployment or poor health could easily throw them into the floating (and, after 1650, increasingly numerous) underclass of homeless paupers and beggars.

In the countryside, the peasantry as a whole enjoyed little wealth and esteem and were entitled to few privileges. Yet not all peasants were equal. In sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century central and western Europe, wealthier peasants took advantage of high grain prices and expanded their farms. Called yeomen in English, laboureurs in French, and Vollbauer in German, these peasant farmers formed local rural elites whose economic independence lent them a degree of respectability. The consolidation of land by the nobility and this upper tier of the peasantry spelled disaster for the middle- and lower-level peasants who constituted the majority of the European population. As the ranks of middling peasants thinned, the number of poor peasants who possessed mere scraps of land rose dramatically. Some took up cottage industry, but many smallholders and landless day laborers sank deeper into poverty. Like unskilled day laborers in the towns, the poorest peasants lacked the wealth, status, and privilege to protect them from falling into the out-cast population of beggars and vagrants.


Although inequality in the early modern period stemmed principally from social stratification, research toward the end of the twentieth century began to emphasize that additional lines of inequalitybased on age, gender, ethnicity, race, and religioncut across the social hierarchy. Here too, however, the interplay of wealth, status, and privilege was important. In the patriarchal order of early modern Europe, legal restrictions (anti-privileges, in effect) severely limited women's ability to accumulate and control property. Common women, for example, were increasingly excluded from the privileges of guild membership, making it more difficult for them to earn money. Women were also afforded less esteem than men. Parents gave daughters inferior educations, and religious authorities throughout Reformation Europe enshrined the power of husbands over wives. To be sure, queens ruled a few countries, aristocratic women wielded influence at court, merchant wives helped manage business affairs, and widows carried on with the family craft or farm, but in general women enjoyed far less autonomy than men of the same social rank.

Similar forms of inequality resulted from distinctions in religion. Jews, where they had not been expelled, were subject to laws that narrowed their economic opportunities and political rights. In many areas, Jews could not own land or practice particular trades. In Italy, Germany, and eastern Europe, they were denied the rights of municipal citizenship and forced to live in isolated, often walledoff communities. In terms of status, they were seen as complete outsiders. Just as sumptuary laws attempted to create public signs of class distinction, municipal regulations in many towns forced Jews to wear marks of their religious identity on their clothing. Even Jews who became wealthy merchants or financiers could not rise above their inferior status, since they were often accused of being parasites who preyed on Christian communities. In this case, inequality based on religious identity limited the social advantages provided by wealth.

Religious and racial distinctions also fueled European slavery. In the sixteenth century, in the Iberian peninsula and throughout the Mediterranean, Christians enslaved Muslims and forced them into domestic service. As the Atlantic slave trade grew in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Europeans enslaved black Africans in numbers that far exceeded previous practices and forced them to work in the American colonies. In the colonial Atlantic, racism and proto-industrial production combined to produce the profound inequalities of plantation society.


The rigid inequalities of the early modern social order and the assumptions about hierarchy that underpinned it did not go unchallenged. Indeed, for all their wealth, prestige, and privilege, early modern elites presided over periods of great instability in which subversive movements and ideas arose.

The Protestant Reformation provided one context in which radical ideas developed. In the German Peasants' War of 15241525, the greatest popular revolt before 1789, tens of thousands of peasants in central and southern Germany rose up against their lords to attack the feudal order. In the "Twelve Articles of the Upper Swabian Peasants," a famous list of grievances adopted by the peasants' parliament of Memmingen in March of 1525, peasants demanded the abolition of serfdom, lower feudal dues, freedom to hunt and fish, and a broad extension of communal rights. Although the immediate causes of the revolt were economic, the ideas of the Reformation played an important role in shaping peasants' demands. Claiming that the political and social order should conform to "godly law," the peasants not only justified concrete grievances but attempted to institute a more egalitarian order in which "the common man" would receive economic relief and enjoy the same political and legal rights as nobles and prelates. The revolutionary implications of this attack on feudalism were clear to contemporaries: "If God so desires it," reflected Elector Frederick III the Wise of Saxony (ruled 14861525), "then so it will come to pass that the common man will reign." Other princes were less passive in the face of rebellion. With the support of Protestant theologians, they unified their armies to crush the popular insurrection.

Radical religious ideas also gave rise to egalitarian movements in seventeenth-century England, where Puritanism helped to fuel a constitutional conflict between king and Parliament. During the turmoil of the English Civil War (16421649), many radical groups emerged to call for sweeping political and social changes. From 1647 to 1649, a loose coalition of radical activists and journalists, known derisively as the Levellers, attempted to persuade Parliament and the New Model Army to pursue a program of democratic political reform. While the Levellers pressed for a range of constitutional, legal, and fiscal reforms, their most extraordinary demand involved the electoral franchise of Parliament. In a document entitled An Agreement of the People (October 1647), the Levellers advocated popular sovereignty and demanded that Parliamentary elections be held on the basis of universal manhood suffrage. Although the Levellers conceded, in the Putney debates that followed, that paupers and domestic servants might be excluded from the franchise, their claim that all male heads of household should possess the right to vote was truly revolutionary. The notion that, as Thomas Rainborough put it, "the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he" and was therefore entitled to basic political rights constituted a direct challenge to the political predominance of the English landed gentry. Having failed to gain the support of the army, the Levellers did not realize their agenda, but simply formulating the idea of universal manhood suffrage and agitating for its incorporation into the English constitution represented a remarkable moment in the history of political equality.

After the Levellers pressed for political equality, another radical group, the Diggers or True Levellers, demanded economic equality. In 1649 Gerrard Winstanley and his followers began to dig and cultivate crops on the common wasteland of St. George's Hill in Surrey, outside London. For the Diggers, this and similar acts in other towns symbolized the idea that the Earth was a "common treasury" to be shared by all. "The poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man," Winstanley wrote, extending the political democracy of the Levellers to the economic realm. Private property and the inequalities that resulted from it, he argued, violated the egalitarian intentions of the creator. For historian Christopher Hill, the Diggers' commitment to social equality made them the true revolutionaries of the English Civil War.

The atmosphere of crisis created by the English Civil War allowed groups like the Levellers and the Diggers to voice radically egalitarian ideas. Although such voices were silenced when political authority was restored in 1660, some of the Levellers' political propositions were revived by John Locke after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, while the social egalitarianism of the Diggers would resurface in a secularized form in the nineteenth century.


The first great secular challenge to early modern inequality occurred during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. In the wake of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, Enlightenment thinkers, known in France as philosophes, defied religious orthodoxy and began to develop a modern science of man and society. The philosophes were hardly radical egalitarians: most did not challenge the idea of private property or include women, common people, or non-Europeans in their discussions of the "rights of man." But they did formulate a utilitarian philosophy that challenged the foundations of early modern inequality and ushered in a period of social reform.

First, the utilitarian thrust of the Enlightenment had important implications for privilege. Many Enlightenment writers saw little justification for privilege. Why, for example, were the French clergy and nobility entitled to tax exemptions when the state desperately needed revenue? Reason dictated that all citizens of a nation should be taxed equally, according to a uniform rate. Economic writers, meanwhile, attacked the monopolistic privileges of guilds and trading companies, suggesting that free trade would produce a more prosperous economy without such extremes of wealth and poverty. A freer economy, they argued, would engender a more fluid society in which articles of luxury and convenience would spread beyond the narrow circle of elites.

The philosophes also reconceptualized the problem of status. Status, they suggested, should not stem from the accident of birth but from social utility and personal merit. Those who contributed to society were to be esteemed, while those who selfishly took from it ought to be shunned. Such a utilitarian approach may not have led many philosophes to champion the cause of the working class, but it did encourage some to attack the idleness and arrogance of the aristocracy. In his novel Candide(1759), Voltaire described one lord as addressing people "with the most noble disdain, tilting his nose so high in the air, raising his voice so mercilessly, adopting so imperious a tone, affecting so haughty a bearing, that everyone who met him wanted to beat him up." Jean-Jacques Rousseau's republican emphasis on simplicity and civic virtue also cast doubt on the moral condition of the high nobility.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, Enlightenment calls for reform and increasingly heated political conflicts between the French monarchy and various representative bodies prepared the way for the French Revolution. In 1789, the actions of revolutionary leaders in the National Assembly combined with popular insurrection to set the stage for landmark legislation that would establish equality before the law. On 4 August 1789 the National Assembly attacked the regime of privilege, abolishing feudal dues, tax exemptions, and church tithes and throwing open access to careers in the church, government, and military. Weeks later, on 27 August 1789, the Assembly issued the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen," which proclaimed in its first article: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights." While this liberal period of the Revolution (17891791) witnessed the promotion of legal and political equality, revolutionaries during the radical phase known as the Terror (17931794) attempted to introduce greater economic equality. Hoping to quell urban unrest, legislators imposed price controls to make goods more accessible to workers and requisitioned grain from farmers in the countryside to feed the less fortunate. Although revolutionaries could not finally agree on how far the state should go to construct a society of equals, the French Revolution launched a debate on the relationship between political and social equality that would rage for the next two centuries.

See also Aristocracy and Gentry ; Artisans ; Bourgeoisie ; Class, Status, and Order ; Clergy ; Enclosure ; English Civil War Radicalism ; Enlightenment ; Feudalism ; Gender ; Guilds ; Honor ; Jews, Attitudes toward ; Laborers ; Mobility, Social ; Peasantry ; Peasants' War, German ; Race, Theories of ; Reformation, Protestant ; Revolutions, Age of ; Serfdom ; Slavery and the Slave Trade ; Sumptuary Laws .


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Michael Kwass