Estates, Degrees and Sorts in Tudor and Stuart England

'Take but degree away... and hark what discord follows' was a Tudor and Stuart commonplace but the neatness and fixity of what we think of as their social order is a creation of historians.

The transition from a society of 'estates' or 'orders' to a 'class society' is one of the commonplaces of historical sociology. Medieval people, we are assured, conceived of society as being composed of three functionally separated but interdependent 'estates' or 'orders': those who pray; those who fight; those who work. John Wyclif, for example, wrote of the 'thre statis: prestis, lordis, laborers'. William Caxton described the three estates of 'clerkes, knyghtes, and laborers'. Each estate had its God-appointed duties and each also had its all-too-human failings or 'defections'. Social harmony and divine favour depended upon the proper performance of their duties by the members of each estate. As Caxton put it in the Mirrour of the World (1480):

The labourers ought to pourveye for the clerkes and knyghtes suche thinges as were nedeful for them to lyve by in the world honestly; and the knyghtes ought to defende the clerkis and the labourers, that ther were no wronge don to them; and the clerkis ought to enseigne and teche these ii maner of people and to adresse them in their werkis in such wise that none doo thinge by whiche he sholde displese God ne lese his grace.

From the eighteenth century, in contrast, there emerged a radically different perception of the structure of society which was to achieve dominance in the early nineteenth century. Society was conceived of now not in terms of 'estates' or 'orders' differentiated by social function, but in terms of 'classes' distinguished and evaluated primarily on economic criteria. These were sometimes perceived as many in number, sometimes reduced to two or three; sometimes regarded as firmly ordered in a pattern of authority and subordination, sometimes described as embodying the fundamental alignments of social conflict, 'one class of society united to oppose another class', as William Cobbett put it in 1825.

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