Where’d You Get That Idea? Class War

Keep Your Place
Keep Your Place

When you listen to conservative pundits, keep your ear tuned for echoes of their nostalgia for the rigid class divisions which existed in England (the motherland!) around 500 years ago.

Class divisions set in concrete were regarded as the only way to peace, prosperity and harmony in society. If you were born into a given class, you died in that class. To attempt to cross the boundary between classes meant you were a troublemaker and a danger to the stability of the commonwealth. This is why certain conservatives rail against the heinous suggestion that all men are created equal.

“No, they aren’t,” Pat Buchanan, for example, absurdly says. “Some are smarter, taller, stronger, etc.” ignoring the fact that Jefferson never said that. He said all men were created in that they were endowed with certain inalienable rights, not that all men are 5’10’ with an IQ of 120. What conservatives really long for is a return to the good old days, when men were men and peasants “kept their place.”

Here is a peek at the good old days to which they want to return. In The Tree of the Commonwealth (1509) Edmund Dudley stated that the three estates consisted of the nobility and the clergy (about 2% of the population) and everybody else. Guess who was at the bottom of this heap?

The commoners had their duty, which was to work, support themselves (and the clergy and nobility) and to avoid “greed, idleness and presumption above their degree.” Nor should they murmur about their lot in life but rather accept that were born “to live in labor and pain…and in the sweat of their face.”

A few decades later in the Homily on Obedience (mandated to be read in all the churches) parishioners were urged to accept the “God-given” order and the lot that has been appointed to them; high or low, kings and subjects, masters and servants, rich and poor. If they failed to accept the proper order “there reigneth all abuse, carnality, enormity, sin, and Babylonian confusion.” This didn’t actually work very well; several significant social protest movements broke out in the decades immediately following.

Ah, but that was so long ago, you say. Moving up to 1848 the lovely little hymn for children “All Things Bright and Beautiful” carries the same message in this stanza:

The rich man at his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high or lowly
And ordered their estate


This didn’t work so well, either. In 1848 revolts spread all across Europe. And if 1848 still seems like a long time ago, listen today to any conservative attacking the notion of equality, defending the obscene and growing wealth gap, or sneering in disdain at the commoners of our own day.

May their rants meet with the same success as the Homily on Obedience did.

Yale Open Courses Early Modern England

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