Social Structure

To give a brief outline of the social order that prevailed in England for over 250 years is not an easy task. It is not only change over time that makes this effort hard. Historians offer several approaches, ranging from models based on social consensus to those on conflict, and it is not easy to make a choice (e.g. Burke 1992a: 1-21).9 Another basic question involves the perspective. Shall we aim at an objective 'outsider's' survey or try to capture a more subjective contemporary self-identification? The latter, more difficult to grasp though it is, might better correlate with people's linguistic behaviour. Furthermore, as Barry notes, irrespective of the method, the reconstruction of past societies varies according to social layer.

As each specific measure of social differentiation has proved unreliable, historians have come to view social identity as an amalgam of factors - strongest when a number of different measures work together, but often less clearcut. The complete correlation of such indicators as occupation, wealth, birth, life-style and political power is only found at the very top and bottom of society. (Barry 1994: 17)

This section introduces a hierarchical model of social orders, which more or less represents the consensus analysis, supplemented by a tripartite division and a conflict-oriented bipolar view of society. In line with what seems to be the majority view among social historians, instead of the controversial issue of class in a preindustrial society, we have chosen to use contemporary concepts, such as rank, estate, order, degree and sort (Wrightson 1991; Burke 1992b; Cannadine 1998).

Section 4 in Table 3.1., our starting point, presents the medieval view of society as consisting of three estates: clergy, i.e. those who prayed, nobility, i.e. those who fought, and labourers, i.e. those who worked. This division was understood as a divine intention, and it was both static and anti-egalitarian (e.g. Keen 1990: 1-3).

The tripartite estates view gradually gave way to a more complex social structure. According to Wrightson (1991: 32-34), Tudor and early Stuart writers recognized a multiplicity of estates instead of three. Social divisions were not only seen in functional but also in hierarchical terms, in a similar manner to our scheme in Table 3.2. (p. 36).

As Barry's quotation above points out, the top and the bottom of the scale are rather clear, while an analysis of the middle section is less straightforward. The nobility and upper reaches of the gentry proper formed the absolute elite, comprising only a couple of per cent of the population. The upper clergy, the archbishops and bishops, have been placed among the nobility on the basis of their influential position, signalled, for instance, by the title 'Lord'. At the other end, there is no difficulty in placing labourers, cottagers and paupers at the lowest rungs of the social ladder.

Although the main dividing line was usually drawn between the gentry and non-gentry, this was not a rigid division. Besides a specific lifestyle, gentility involved landownership and no need to work for a living, but the borderline could be crossed by people from the middle ranks. The middle section consisted of independent trading households, including people in legal and medical professions, merchants and craftsmen. Upward social mobility was also possible for wealthy yeomen, who were usually substantial freeholders (Stone 1966; Barry 1994).

One of the signs of upward mobility was the self-identification as gentleman that occurred among middle-ranking people. With time, the titles of the lower gentry, Master and Mistress, spread among the professionals and wealthy merchants. This is what happened in the Johnson family we met in Chapter 1. Example (3.1) is Sabine's hesitating reaction to her husband John's jokingly addressing her as 'Mistris Sabyne'.10

(3.1) In moest loving wise, welbeloved husbond (master I shold saye, because yet doyth becom me baetter to call you master than you to call me mystres), your letter of 15 of this present I have receyved this day. (Sabine Johnson 1545; Johnson 515)

Besides intragenerational social mobility, i.e. people themselves advancing socially during their lifetimes, intergenerational mobility was at least as common. The offspring of wealthy middle-ranking families could advance socially by acquiring land and adopting a gentleman's lifestyle, or, as was often the case, by making a good marriage. On the other hand, downward social mobility was also common. Estates could be lost for economic reasons. The usual method of inheritance, primogeniture, according to which the eldest son received the estate and the title, often compelled the younger sons of gentry families to find their fortunes elsewhere, especially in the professions and trades (Heal & Holmes 1994: 257; Brooks 1994a).

The social structure in towns differed from the countryside. There wealthy merchants and craftsmen, freemen of a town, formed the topmost layer of society (Rigby & Ewan 2000: 300-301). Many professionals also lived in towns. Below the urban elite were lesser traders, craftsmen, journeymen and servants. Gentlemen also had their town houses.

Before 1558

After 1558

1. Demography

Gradual recovery after the catastrophic loss of population in the Black Death (1348-1349):

Rapid growth of population, with a decline after 1650:

1500 over 2 million

1575 3.41 million

1540 2.77 million

1600 4.11 million

1556 3.16 million

1650 5.23 million 1680 4.93 million

Internal migration common though regionally varied.

Apart from internal migration, substantial emigration to America and Ireland.

The vast majority of the population lives in the countryside. Urbanization on the increase, but the fortunes of provincial towns vary.

Continued urbanization. The growth of London remarkable.

Mortality crises common: dearth, endemic and epidemic disease.

Continued mortality crises (disease, less dearth at the end of the period).

2. Political life

Weak monarchy in the fifteenth century. Powerful great magnates. Central government strengthened during the first Tudors, with a diminishing influence of the great lords. Occasional uprisings curbed with a firm hand.

Relative stability under Elizabeth and James I.

Political influence of the clergy diminishes with the Reformation. Increase in the influence of the merchant community on English politics.

Hundred Years' War 1337-1453 Wars of the Roses 1455-1487

A series of disruptions: Civil War 1642-1646, Execution of Charles I 1649, Interregnum 1646-1660, Restoration of the Stuarts 1660.

3. Economy

Agricultural society: peasant farming.

Agricultural society: emergence of commercial farming with improved productivity.

Diversification of economic activity.

Continued diversification within the

Cloth replaces wool as main export commodity.

established industries. Introduction and increase in consumer goods production.

After a stable price level, inflation sets in in the sixteenth century.

High inflation continuing until the 1660s favours the upper ranks and adversely affects wage earners: polarization of society. General economic progress means welfare for all except the poor.

Scarcity of labour. High wage level with relatively good standard of living in the fifteenth century.

Dissolution of the monasteries leads to far-reaching changes in land-ownership.

Before 1558

After 1558

Preponderantly regional economies striving for self-sufficiency.

Integrated national economy emerging. Improved communication networks.

England a peripheral country in international trade.

Central position in international trade. London's role crucial.

4. Social order

Medieval feudal system with three estates (clergy, warriors, labourers) gradually gives way to a more complex social hierarchy.

Society highly stratified, with the main difference being between the gentry and the non-gentry. Landownership the basis for the position of the gentry.

Beside traditional military service, administration becomes a path to social advancement.

Upward social mobility via the professions, marriage or acquisition of land; paths open especially before the 1640s. Inflation of honours and multiplication of the gentry during the early Stuarts. Consolidation of the middle ranks.

5. Family and kinship

Nuclear family with paternal authority.

Different marriage patterns in different social groups: the upper ranks marry younger and their marriages are often arranged, the lower ranks marry later and have a freer choice.

Marriages preferred between people of equal status.

More intermarriage between the gentry and professional families.

Upper ranks have larger families.

The importance of kinship ties outside the nuclear family varies: kinship often used as a basis for economic and other assistance, patronage, etc. Kinship ties break social boundaries.

6. Culture

Catholic Church, with Reformation at the end of the period.

Church of England well established; Catholic threat and Puritan opposition.

From court culture to a widening cultural market.

'Popular' culture established.

Clergy lose their monopoly on literacy, but illiteracy a characteristic of the common people. An oral society.

Illiteracy becomes a special characteristic of the poor. A semi-literate society.

Introduction of the printing press in England in 1476.

Schools mainly under church authority.

Increase in educational opportunity at all levels, enjoyed by higher ranks and upper levels of the middling sort. Interest in higher education decreases from 1650 onwards.

English used in several genres of writing; the role of Latin significant.

English accepted as the national language suitable for most purposes.

Widening world view and heightened role of national identity.

Table 3.2. Rank and status in Tudor and Stuart England
















Baronet 1611- Knight Esquire Gentleman

Lord, Lady

Sir, Dame Mr, Mrs


Army Officer (Captain, etc.), Government Official (Secretary of State, etc.), Lawyer, Medical Doctor (Doctor), Merchant, Clergyman, Teacher, etc.











Goodman, Goodwife

(Name of Craft: Carpenter, etc.)

(^occupational titles given in brackets) After Laslett (1983).

The social position of women was mainly derivative: unmarried women were categorized according to their fathers' social position and the married ones followed their husbands. Some women could engage themselves in economic activity, e.g. widows occasionally had the opportunity of continuing their husbands' trade. Social mobility also existed among women, mostly taking place through marriage.

As mentioned above, the fine-grained hierarchical model is only one way of describing the social structure of early modern England. Society could also be seen as consisting of only two groups. The division into the gentry and non-gentry represents this view. Wrightson (1991, 1994) has documented this bipolar view in contemporary social comments from the latter part of the sixteenth century onwards. Contemporary comments only refer to two groups, the 'poorer sort', 'common sort', 'simpler sort', as opposed to the 'better sort', 'richer sort', etc. This language, no doubt, contained seeds for actual or potential conflict. It was only after the 1620s that the terms 'middle' or 'middling sort' were introduced, apparently reflecting a novel view of social divisions.

Returning to the question of how men and women identified themselves in social terms, we should probably not overestimate their understanding of abstract social structures (see Nevalainen 1994). Neither should we forget that the models introduced in the contemporary comments usually represent an elite view, possibly written for the purpose of justifying the existing social inequality (Burke 1992a: 45, 62). It is probable that people developed multiple identities, defining their own positions in terms of different models at the same time (Rosser 1997: 8). There is no reason to forget that a common way of looking at the world in the past as well as today is to divide people into 'us' and 'them' (Cannadine 1998: 20).

Owing to profound social, economic and political changes, new evaluations and social alignments were called for in early modern England, while older models of social order still persisted in modified forms. The incoming language of 'sorts' could

lump together the distinguishable estates and degrees of inherited social theory into broad groupings which anticipated the social classes of the nineteenth century. It could imply alternative conceptions of the fundamental nature of social differentiation, express conflicts of interests, and edge perceptive contemporaries along the path towards a thoroughgoing reappraisal of the structures of society, the basis of social inequality, and the dynamics of social process. (Wrightson 1994: 50-51)

In Chapter 7 we make use of both the hierarchical model and the tripartite approach in a modified form. Linguistically sensitive upwardly mobile middle-ranking people, whom we call social aspirers, will play a significant role in our analysis. In singling them out, we can have the benefit of hindsight at its best: on the basis of personal histories it is known to us who advanced socially and who did not (see also Nevala 1998; Nurmi 1999a: 99-109).

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