Ideas about Society

views updated

Ideas about Society



Society of Orders. During both the Renaissance and Reformation, people did not usually use wealth or occupation as the main determinants of social stratification. The most common social model, which embodied the underlying assumptions about human nature, was that society was made up of “Orders,” or “Estates.” These Orders were determined not by wealth, but by social function. People assumed that society was divided into Three Orders: the clergy, the nobility, and the populace. The clergy was the First Estate because its function brought it closest to God. It was responsible for teaching the other two orders about truth and morality. The nobility was considered the Second Estate, even though it held most of the real power in society. Its primary function was to protect the other two orders and ensure that laws were made and enforced. The Third Estate produced everything that was needed to keep themselves and the other two orders supplied.

Public Function. There were several assumptions about society that went along with this three-part division of society. First of all, social inequality was assumed to be a natural part of society. It was acceptable, or even desirable, to have distinctions between rich and poor. Inequality was derived from a sharp distinction between the “public” and “private” realms of activity. People did not define public and private exactly as they are known today. Public activity was activity that affected how government was run, while private activity was dedicated only to improving oneself and one’s family. All forms of business were considered “private” in this sense. The modern word economy is derived from the ancient Greek word for “household,” which underscores the idea that the economy was a private matter. Nobles were a higher Estate than merchants because their role was public, not private. They had no choice but to participate in government because of their obligation to protect society. At least, that is what the ideal of the society of orders implied.

Society of Privileges. The other side of the obligations that went with the public/private distinction is that one’s social position entailed privileges. During the Renaissance and Reformation, privilege did not just mean having an advantage; it was an almost legal term designating things just because of the social group one belonged to. A privilege could be an exemption from an obligation that other people in society had; for example, nobles were usually exempt from taxation. On the other hand, a privilege could

be a right to do something that other people in society could not; for example, nobles were permitted to carry swords at all times, while members of the Third Estate were not.


One Fourth of a cloth factory . . . Bartolomeo Corbmelli operated this shop and paid a rent of 42 florins, but he didn’t want to pay that much and he left on March 6, 1425. Since then, the shop has been closed.

Taxable value 150 florins.

One half of a cottage, which I inhabit, with . . . orchard in the parish of San Michele a Castello.

Taxable value 0.

An adjoining vineyard in the same parish. The vineyard is cultivated by Fede di Domenico . . .

Taxable value 64 florins.

One house with vineyard in the same parish . . . I receive a rent of 9 florins.

Taxable value 128 florins 11 soldi.

One peasants’ cottage in the same parish with vineyard . . .

Taxable value 163 florins 8 soldi.

In Tunis, I commissioned Piero de Ser Naddo to arrange for the shipment of 204 bales of wool to Pisa on the ship owned by Giovanni Uzzino. But this wool was never loaded and it remained at the port. It was a total loss, and was valued at 600 florins or more. I have not yet been able to investigate the cause of this loss . . . . Since my return from Tunis, I have been unable to pursue this matter on account of the litigation in which I have been involved . . .

Taxable value 0.

Also, this Piero de Ser Naddo received 150 florins from Bernardo di Caccione which he was obligated to give me in Tunis but did not. I believe that Bernardo paid him that money without any letter or instruction from me. I have not yet legally demanded the return of the money but have only made an oral request . . . . I don’t know how this will end. When this business is settled, I will inform the authorities.

Taxable value 0,

Also, Marco di Messer Forese Salviati and company owe me 100 florins or thereabouts, the price of leather which I sent him from Tunis. . . . This debt is not yet settled, but I fear that I will not be repaid, and I don’t expect to win a lawsuit against them since they are very influential.

Taxable value 0.

Holdings in the Monte di Pieta.

Taxable value 65 florins.

Commercial and personal debts.

Taxable value 115 florins.

Personal exemptions:

Francesco, aged 56 200 florins

Monna Ginevra, his wife, aged 50 200 florins

Antonio, his son, aged 27 200 florins

Bernardo, his son, aged 24 200 florins

Michele, his son, aged 21 200 florins

Gabriello, his son, aged 7 200 florins

Total estimated value of Giovanni’s taxable assets 572 florins 7 soldi

Total debts and exemptions 1315 florins.

Source: Gene A. Brucker, ed., The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 8-10.

Sumptuary Laws. From the modern perspective, some privileges were obviously more important than others. It made more difference to the well-being of a nobleman that he was exempt from paying taxes than that he was allowed to wear a sword. Yet, in the process of social definition, all of the different privileges were taken into account. People would actively defend any given privilege because to lose it might indicate a loss of the social status to which the privilege pertained. The most visible sign of this commitment to the symbolic side of privilege can be seen in the sumptuary laws passed in major cities. Sumptuary laws were laws that prohibited people of a certain class from wearing clothing or jewelry that was reserved for people of higher status. As commoners became wealthier, they had access to fine fabrics. They began to engage in conspicuous consumption, which threatened the status and economic well-being of noblemen who came to the towns. The enforcement of noble privileges reduced that threat.

Political Power. The prominence of the idea of the Three Estates as an organizing principle for society was reinforced by political institutions. In many territories in the late Middle Ages, princes turned to consulting bodies called Estates to help them in governing. The most famous of these bodies were the Estates General of France, which met several times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but stopped meeting after 1614 until the French Revolution in 1789. The three Estates were the three main interest groups in any territory. Each Estate would first meet together to deliberate their own needs, then the three Estates would meet together with the prince’s representatives to offer support and negotiate concessions. In almost all territories, the Second Estate, the nobility, had the commanding role in the meetings of the Estates. Nobles came to view participation in the meetings of Estates as a kind of substitute for their medieval obligation to raise troops to defend the territory.

Problems with the Theory. There were obvious limitations to the society of orders as a system of social classification that even people at the time recognized. First, anywhere from three-quarters to 95 percent of the population belonged to the Third Estate. The model was discriminating at one end of the scale and quite indiscriminate at the other end of the scale. However, equally troubling was the fact that each of the three Estates had tremendous variations of wealth and power of individuals within them. This situation was most obvious in the Third Estate, which included merchants and lawyers with close ties to kings and princes throughout Europe. In regard to lifestyle, some of them were better off than others, but the most prominent nobles had to fear that a sudden reversal of fortune would ruin them and they would not have status to fall back on. There was also a large middle strata of members of the Third Estate in the towns, and an even larger number of peasants. The Third Estate theoretically included the urban and rural poor, though those people rarely had any kind of political representation for their own interests.

Strata. Social stratification was also noticeable within the First and Second Estates. At the beginning of the Renaissance, all of the First Estate was Catholic, which meant legally that they were celibate. Every member of the Estate had to be recruited from either the Second or Third Estate because it was impossible to be “born into” the Estate. Thus, the social attitudes of the First Estate were shaped by the Estates from which members were recruited. The Pope, Cardinals, archbishops, and bishops were at the top of the First Estate. These people lived lives much like those of the most prominent nobles. Most of the staffing of the church, on the other hand, was by members of the Third Estate. In remote rural corners of Europe, the life-styles of parish priests were not much different from those of the peasants they served on Sundays and religious holi-days. In Protestant Europe after 1520, clergy could marry and have their sons join the clergy, too (for only males were allowed to become pastors). Noblemen generally were less attracted to the clerical lifestyle of Protestantism than they were to the upper echelons of the Catholic Church hierarchy, so the Protestant clergy adopted a social role more like other professions under the banner of the Third Estate.

Nobles. The nobility was perhaps the most unified social group within the society of orders model, but even it was subject to wide variation. In remote corners of Europe there were people who were technically noble, but whose lifestyle was scarcely different from that of the peasants who lived around them. Often this segment of the nobility was most vocal in emphasizing the social distinction between nobility and Third Estate. They strained to maintain the outward privileges of nobility despite their poverty. At the other extreme, the rulers of the most powerful states in Europe were nobles. They possessed vast wealth and power. Within the wealthiest countries, such as France, some nonroyal nobles had personal estates as large as the independent states in Germany or Italy. They lived in an entirely different social environment from the rural nobleman.

Alternate Models. Though the society of orders model was the most widespread ideal of social organization, most people also had a more pragmatic view of society that fit more closely with day to day reality. The social distinction between nobility and commoners was maintained in almost all models, but most models made more explicit gradations in status within the Third Estate, and dropped the clergy as a distinct social group. The Englishman William Harrison, for example, in 1577 divided the population into four categories: gentlemen, citizens, yeomen, and laborers. The first group corresponded roughly to the nobility; the second, to the politically active urban groups; the third, to the leading figures in the rural community who were not noble; and the fourth, to the poor farmers and ordinary workers in both town and countryside. In alternate models of social organization there was a greater willingness to recognize that different social groups some-times had conflicting interests and society was not just a harmonious whole. For every social group there were books and pamphlets that both extolled the virtues and complained about the vices of the group.


Jonathan Dewald, The European Nobility, 1400-1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

George Huppert, Les Bourgeois Gentilhommes: An Essay on the Definitions of Elites in Early Renaissance France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

Peter Kriedte, Peasants, Landlords, and Merchant Captialists: Europe and the World Economy, 1500-1800 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).