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About this book

Just as class is a key term for understanding modern Europe, so hierarchy and order are the key terms for the earlier period. These exceptional essays by some of the leading historians in the field are designed to allow students to get a better grasp on this critical subject. Life in the late medieval and early modern periods was simply organized in a very different way to that of the industrial or post-industrial society we are accustomed to. Each essay tackles a different aspect of this European-wide experience - whether looking at the nobility, the gentry, the commons or the religious castes, the contributors greatly increase our ability to understand the complex and fascinating phenomenon of how society ticks and how it is perceived by its members to tick.

Table of Contents


While this is no orthodox textbook, it is nonetheless a coursebook. Its theme is the social structure of Western Europe between c. 1300 and c.1600. Its aim is not to provide a comprehensive survey, but to give perspective to the subject and to shed light upon a few different approaches. It is interdisciplinary because an important challenge, still too rarely taken up, of learning about past social development lies in the connected study of various activities and attainments, whether political, literary, artistic or scholastic. It is also essential to achieve understanding of the methodologies of those trained in the separate, perhaps all too separate, disciplines of history, social science, political theory, literary criticism and history of art. The book is introductory in that it opens the door on the work of experts in these fields. In introducing students to the research of leading scholars, in the context of a book concerned with a general theme, the intention is to demonstrate that the world of teaching and learning may not be best served by the preservation of hierarchical notions that set the results of research at the highest end of the educational spectrum and books for courses at the lowest.
Jeffrey Denton

1. Approaches to Pre-Industrial Social Structure

It is often the case that practical, empirically-minded historians who believe themselves to be quite exempt from the influence of any abstract social theory are, in reality, the unwitting slave of some defunct sociologist. The two sociological ghosts which haunt all attempts by historians to make sense of late medieval and early modern societies are Marxism and functionalism. This chapter briefly considers these approaches and argues that the strengths of each are synthesised in the neo-Weberian ‘closure theory’ developed by writers such as Parkin and Murphy. It considers, with the help of evidence drawn mainly from medieval England, the advantages of closure theory for historians and concludes by examining some of the criticisms which can be made of this approach.
Stephen Rigby

2. European and Middle Eastern Views of Hierarchy and Order in the Middle Ages: A Comparison

A comparison between the different views about hierarchy and order of Europe and the Middle East may throw into clearer relief the characteristics of each set of ideas. Religiously inspired ideas of equality were present in both Islam and Christianity but with different meanings and outcomes. In Islamic law, ethics and theology – that is the Sharia (religious code) and its exposition in fiqh (jurisprudence) – all Muslims are supposed to be equal regarding the rules they must follow and the rights they have in the sight of God. There is one Islamic community (‘umma) and differentiations within it are not important. In certain legal contexts, however, women have a position inferior to men.2.
Antony Black

3. Dante: Order, Justice and the society of orders

Dante Alighieri, as any reader of the Divina Commedia can attest, was a consummate artist; and like any great artist he offers us in his work a vision, at once personal and universal, of the life of his times. The purpose of this chapter is to look behind this truism with a view to discerning how Dante perceived the society with which he was familiar and also what he made of – both what he thought about and, in his poetry and prose, created out of – the facts of social and political life in the period (1265–1321) through which he lived. Dante was no neutral observer of these social and political realities, but a poet who wrote in full consciousness of the intellectual, social, political, and religious affiliations and commitments which gave form and meaning to his life as he lived it and (even more important) relived it, in memory and imagination, in his verse. It might be as well to begin, therefore, by setting Dante in his social and cultural context and declaring his interests; for these naturally shaped the vision of contemporary society which he presents in his work and also the vision for that society which he develops, publicises, and promotes: the ideal against which he measures and finds wanting the civil and ecclesiastical polity of his day.
Spencer Pearce

4. Froissardian Perspectives on Late-Fourteenth-Century Society

Jean Froissart (c.1337-c.1404) was the author of one of the great historical enterprises of the later Middle Ages. His Chronicles2 span almost the whole of the fourteenth century, concluding with the accession of Henry IV. Selective in viewpoint and emphasis as they undoubtedly are, they embrace many of the major political and military events of that period, and address at least some of its more serious social disturbances. This chapter3 focuses on the principal ways in which the discourse of the chronicle – as Froissart practised it – presents to the reader a lively but selective vision of social order, structure and hierarchy. A second aim is to show how Froissart’s text sometimes takes us one stage further forwards by subverting – momentarily, but no less unforgettably for that – the very image of social order that it purports to uphold. This important feature is explored through close analysis of an episode from Book II depicting a key moment in the struggle between Louis, count of Flanders, and the people of Ghent, under their leader Philip van Artevelde.
Peter Ainsworth

5. Hierarchies and Orders in English Royal Images of Power

The relationship of the academic disciplines of history and art history has long been one of polite antagonism, founded (and I write as one who trained initially as an historian before turning to art history, and who is thus culpable on both fronts) on the eminently unreasonable assumption that history is in some way concerned with the real, and art history with the merely epiphenomenal, that is the marginal or subsidiary. I think few historians would seriously subscribe to this view now, though it should be said that the positivistic (essentially untheoretical) leanings of most art historians until the last decade or so, coupled with their inclination to practise connoisseurship, has undoubtedly opened them to the charge of lacking a genuinely historical method. On the face of it the rise of interdisciplinarity might be said to have subverted this hierarchy of subjects within the academy (and this is where an essay on hierarchies should perhaps begin). But here art historians cannot overplay their hand. In the field of medieval imagery it can fairly be said that our work has scarcely begun. The ideological structuring of medieval art has only become an object of serious enquiry very recently, though such studies as have appeared have very rightly gone to the heart of the matter in challenging glib assumptions about the nexus of social ‘reality’ and representation, and the notion that art – and medieval art especially – is transparently illustrative of prior or given social conditions..
Paul Binski

6. Heraldry and Hierarchy: Esquires and Gentlemen

Francis Thynne, Lancaster herald, wrote in 1605 that ‘in ancient time’ heraldic arms were ‘the peculiar reward and honour of military service’. If one looks back to those beautiful products of heraldic art, the English rolls of arms of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, they offer eloquent confirmation of this statement. A high proportion of them are occasional rolls – rolls, that is to say, recording the arms of warriors who mustered for particular hosts, or took part in particular and known tournaments. Thus we have the Falkirk Roll, blazoning the arms of English knights and bannerets present at the battle of Falkirk, 22 July 1298; the Galloway Roll, blazoning the arms of 259 knights who were with King Edward I on his Scottish campaign of 1300; the Stirling Roll blazoning the arms of knights present at the siege of Stirling in 1304; and the first and second Dunstable Rolls, blazoning the arms of those who engaged in two tournaments at Dunstable, a traditional tourneying site, in 1308 and 1334.2 This is by no means an inclusive list of the ‘occasional’ rolls of this period. Taken all together, they emphasise vividly and visually the strong association of heraldic insignia with battle and tournament in this age, and the martial quality of secular aristocratic culture.
Maurice Keen

7. The Risings of the Commons in England, 1381–1549

The Pilgrimage of Grace broke out in October 1536, affecting most of the north and raising nine armies manned by 50,000 men. Its threat to march on London extracted from the government a pardon for every rebel and the promise of a parliament at York to consider its grievances. It saw itself as a rising of the commons. Each army was the commons militant; its leaders were called captains of the commons; its manifestos were issued with ‘the consent of the commons’; its oath was ‘to be true to God, the king and the commons’; its cause was seen as ‘the business of the commons’; its complaints were described as ‘the griefs of the commons’; the 24 articles it submitted to the government were referred to as ‘the commons’ petition’; and those resisting the uprising were regarded as ‘traitors to the commons’. ‘Commons’ was the cry to raise revolt: not ‘Dacre, a Dacre’, not comrades, goodfellows, neighbours, brothers, liegemen. The term meant commonalty, not community, and designated that level of society below the gentlemen and the clergy.2.
Michael Bush

8. Tidy Structures and Messy practice: ideologies of order and the practicalities of office-holding in ragusa

The Mediterranean city-states of the late medieval/early Renaissance present a paradox. On the one hand they show a vibrant, somewhat chaotic, dynamism in commerce, politics and urban life. In Florence and Venice, for example, different factions of the elite battled for supremacy. These struggles were so sharply contested that defeat might mean banishment. Yet these same struggles took place within a framework of government and office that appeared so stable and ordered that it could, like the structure of government in Venice, be described in geometric metaphors. What was the reality? Political life might be portrayed in terms of a strong ideology of order, hierarchy and structure, but were offices and councils of government neatly arranged? Did office-holders move through them in a regular fashion? It is clear that people living at the time tended to think so. But what was their actual experience of politics and government and how did it relate to the images and ideals which they held?
David Rheubottom

9. ‘Three Orders of inhabitants’: social Hierarchies in the Republic of Venice

Many scholars would agree without difficulty on the abstract characteristics of an ideal society of orders. But they would debate other questions more fiercely. Did any actual society bear a close relation to the stark outlines of this model or pattern? Does the simple notion of a society of orders throw light on the historical reality, or does it merely distort and obfuscate it? A society of orders is generally conceived as one which is hierarchically arranged, consisting of large social groupings which are charged with performing quite different functions for the benefit of society and the body politic, and hence are treated in distinctive ways by the law, the fisc and the representative system. The upper orders – usually identified as the nobility and the clergy – are not (at least not primarily) social classes, because their social position does not derive principally from their material wealth, their roles in the production of material goods, or their shared life-chances. Rather, it springs from the value attributed by some kind of social consensus (how this arises is seldom clear) to the duties they perform – by praying for the common weal, by administering the sacraments, by fighting for king and country, by dispensing justice. It would be foolish to suppose that their status has nothing to do with their material possessions or with the rents and dues they derive from their property, but it is possible to argue that these things are secondary to the functions which they carry out, for which their wealth merely provides support.
Brian Pullan
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