The Three Estates of Medieval Anglo-European Culture: Nobility, Clergy, and Peasants
By long-standing tradition dating from the late days of the Western Roman Empire, Christian cultures were divided into three estates or social groupings based on what each did for society. Christians read Genesis carefully as a kind of "constitutional document" establishing the basic conditions of human life, and among the commands issued to Adam and Eve upon their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, few were taken so seriously as the command to work: "And to Adam he said: Because thou hast hearkened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat, cursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herbs of the earth. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return." Applying this reasoning to the Roman social system helped to rationalize, if not put an end to, the contention for power among people of different occupations and ancestries.
Roman culture had long been divided into the class-like groupings of rich and poor, and among the rich, claims of high-status ancestors generated a division between nobles and commoners. To this unstable social system, the addition of the Church's powerful hierarchy of priests and bishops added a third way of looking at the culture, namely how your work served the world of this life and the world to come. Which was greater, one who served the emperor or one who served God? Were church's officers and nobles, who did no physical labor, automatically superior to those who worked the fields to feed them? Genesis's God appeared to say that the laborers were the true descendents of Adam, but the nobles and bishops invented a solution. The doctrine of "the three estates" resolved the problem by locating all three kinds of people within a triangular relationship which held earthly culture together and preserved its hopes for salvation.
The nobles fought to defend all, including the Church and the poor laborers. The Church prayed for the salvation of all, including the nobles at war and the peasants in their fields. The peasants worked to feed all, maintaining the strengths of their protectors from earthly and theological perils. The covers of most recent hardbound copies of the Riverside Chaucer are illustrated with a manuscript illumination of a capital "A" inhabited by representatives of the three estates. As you might expect, women's estate status was treated differently than that of men. Women could be virgins, wives, and widows, as well as associated members of the three work-defined estates. If you think about those three "female estates" as "work descriptions," it will become clearer. (Deborah B. Schwartz (U. Cal. Polytech.) has a more complete discussion of women's estates and the estate system in general at her web site.)
Skeptics of all stripes will find fault with the "three estate" explanation for how a stable and godly society ought to function, but the fact is that some version of it can be found in all the ex-Roman colonies. Indeed, medieval skeptics abounded, and even within the cultures which generally accepted the "Three Estates" doctrine. Think of it as a culture-constructing "mythology" in the way Roland Barthes used the term. The actual social status of the members of any group could be finely divided to allow one person authority over another in a given situation, perhaps inverting the presumed precedence of the Nobles or Clergy over the Peasants. Click here for the Canterbury Pilgrims arranged in order of social status, as revealed by the narrator's ordering of their portraits in the General Prologue. Nobles schemed against papal power until Henry VIII and other Protestant princes took control of both religious and secular authority. The Pope and local bishops similarly fought the nobles for the right to determine the legitimacy of rulers' claims, and they could excommunicate those who fought them. Even peasants revolted against both Church and nobility in the "jacqueries" of France and the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381, when mobs attacked and burned palaces and monasteries, chanting "When Adam delved [dug] and Eve span [spun thread], who was then a gentleman?" Until the end of the Middle ages, the skeptics were not the majority of the population which, as usual, sought whatever doctrine promised the most cultural stability. If this makes medieval people seem gullible or incurious about the social order in which they lived, let it increase your appreciation for the effort it cost us to invent history, philosophy, sociology, and the doctrine of human rights. Whatever inequities those doctrines currently ignore or disguise might possibly seem just as bizarre to people a thousand years from now.