It can be broadly stated that current concepts of social divisions, along with the specific term ‘social class’, developed over time based on understandings of group relationships to land, trades, military organizations, aristocratic families, religious institutions, and the state. The early modern period, which spans the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, provides key evidence for the study of these developments. The defining characteristics of this transitional period appear in the West around the time of Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas in 1492 and last roughly until the French Revolution in 1789. During this time the relationships between defined groups were shaped by the shift from feudalism to a capitalist economy, the colonisation of regions around the globe, the Atlantic slave trade, a new humanist educational curriculum, a growing market for print works as well as increased literacy, and developments in science and technology. As the period came to end with the onset of industrialisation, a transformed understanding of the modern social classes emerged that was primarily economic and political. Since then, social class has been a central concept in sociological theory, but its definition has also been widely debated and concepts and terminology have continued to evolve.
Social class, or, as some scholars prefer, social stratification has received much attention in fields such as history, literary studies, and cultural anthropology. In Europe, stratification was a pervasive aspect of the early modern world, and, within a class, distinct rules and rewards were established for women and men, marking gendered divisions as well. There is a rich and varied range of source types and methodological approaches that you can use to shed light on such divisions in your own research. In this chapter we will be learning how to select relevant primary sources and analyse them using current lines of questioning from sociology as well as semiotic methods of interpretation that can be used across disciplines in the humanities. We will show how an analysis might be done, using cultural studies based approaches and some very specific examples of primary sources from works of literary fiction, emblem books, and reports of state events as model evidence.
Social class, as a concept for understanding the conflicting economic interests of groups, is a relatively recent term. It began to appear in political philosophy in the eighteenth century. Before that time there were other ways of describing social stratification. Common terms used in documents from the medieval period were estates, orders, and ranks. For example, in the French three-estate definition, feudal society consisted of three orders: the clergy comprised the first estate, the hereditary nobility the second estate, and commoners made up the third estate, as seen in images of the tripartite social order of the middle ages.
Lineage, kinship ties, ethnicity, occupation, and local social networks all informed the ways people were grouped and ranked. Within each group there were a myriad of gradations and distinctions that varied by region and context (Bloch, 1961). There was no explicit rhetoric of social equality or critiques of exploitation and categories were rigid, that is, hereditary. The monarchy, the Church, aristocratic landlords, and peasants who worked the land formed an interdependent structure regarded as immutable and justified by Christian doctrine (Grusky, 2001, p.2808).
The three estates remained a dominant way of thinking about social stratification throughout the early modern period until the French Revolution spurred a widespread shift away from the paradigms of the old feudal regimes, as seen in cartoons from the time such as ‘The Awakening of the Third Estate’. As revolution as a concept spread, political theorists of the nineteenth century following David Ricardo, such as William Thompson and Thomas Hodgskin, began to use the term ‘class’ to conceptualise the importance of income and wealth for understanding social divisions, and to indicate the decreasing significance of inherited rank (Bauman, 2004, p.111).
These discussions, which took place in the West mainly between the French Revolution and the 1848 ‘Spring of Nations’, formed a common understanding of social classes as political actors that were either conservative or revolutionary (Bauman, 2004, p.114). Karl Marx’s highly influential social theory of human history was the culmination of this view. Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto of 1848 defined social classes as groups that share common economic interests, have a common consciousness, and engage in collective action to advance those interests. Marx divided society into two major, mutually antagonistic classes according to their relationships to property ownership. Capitalists, or the bourgeoisie, own the material means of production. Workers, or the proletariat, own almost nothing and survive by selling their labour power to the bourgeoisie. This division was famously visualized in a 1911 image of the pyramid of the capitalist system, which shows workers holding up capitalists. Marx sometimes mentioned other transitional classes or fragments of larger groups in his works, such as the lumpenproletariat, the petty bourgeoisie, financiers, and intellectuals, but all of these were subsumed by the main conflict between capitalists and workers (Saunders, 2001, p.1934). Marx posited that all history is a history of class struggle. The classes, in relation to each other, are actors of social change, which will progress towards socialism through revolution (Bauman, 2004, p.111).
In the early twentieth century, sociologist Max Weber proposed a class theory that contradicted most aspects of Marx’s approach. Weber defined classes as multidimensional categories to which people belong. As participants in each group, they share a common position in the market. People can have many ‘cross-cutting affiliations producing a complex patchwork of internal class cleavages’ (Grusky, 2001, p.2816). In his view, the power and prestige of different social roles determine the ways people are unequally rewarded with valued resources. Weber shared Marx’s Enlightenment belief in human moral equality, but rather than define classes through their conflicts with each other, Weber was concerned with precise classification and measurement. This makes Weberian theory better able to account for key intersecting identity factors experienced by members of contemporary societies, such as constructions of race, ethnicity, and gender. However, Weber’s lack of a causal explanation for collective human action is seen as a weakness by some, because his theory does not transmit an explicit strategy for ending oppression and exploitation (Saunders, 2001, p.1935).
Throughout the twentieth century, researchers of social class were generally viewed as falling into two camps: Marxists/Post-Marxists, and Weberians/Post-Weberians, but there was mutual influence between the two (Grusky, 2001, pp.2814-16). Today, most of the competing theories of social class are based on a three-tier model of working class, middle class, and upper class. This model uses factors such as wealth, income, occupation, education, and membership in social networks to define boundaries between groups. Because these factors can conflict in how they categorise the same individual, and because other axes of identity such as colour, gender, sexual orientation, cultural origin, and citizenship status currently can have higher explanatory value, some sociologists have advocated abandoning the concept of class altogether, arguing that it is no longer useful (Saunders, 2001, p.1933).
The debate about ‘social class’ has also been influenced by major contributions to class theory from scholars of race, ethnicity, feminist, and gender studies. Scholars in these fields, while rejecting essentialist definitions of people into biological or natural categories, maintain that class cannot be separated from race and gender constructs, which have real discriminatory effects on real bodies. Sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois, with his theory of the ‘double consciousness’ of black Americans, was the first to caution in 1903 that using class as the overarching category of social hierarchy has the effect of reinstating the centrality of the white male as universal and rendering other subject positions marginal. The term ‘intersectionality’, introduced by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), is now increasingly used across disciplines as a tool to understand how multiple factors of identity interact within the human experience of an individual or group. The concept of intersectionality to understand social stratification has been visualized in varied diagrams, for example showing multiple aspects of identity intersecting through a human subject.
Thus, while the term social class is widely used today to indicate both sociocultural background and socioeconomic status, its explanatory value continues to be disputed. In your own work you will have to take a position among these perspectives and explain the justifications for your choices. Just as you will have to choose an approach, define your terms, and be consistent in your use of them, you will have to choose a primary source or sources to examine.
As I will show in more detail below, you can choose from a diverse array of sources available that can speak about social stratification and class experience: buildings and architectural constructions; artefacts from museum collections such as works of visual art or other material objects, like weapons and clothing; and written items housed in libraries and archives. This last category of written items comprises a wide variety of valuable materials: printed books and pamphlets; manuscript letters, diaries, official records, and documents like institutional charters, contracts, and legal codes. Literary works can also be tapped for evidence, including works of fiction and those with a popular dimension of oral folk memory, like songs and fables. While there are occasional discoveries of previously unknown sources created during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, as well as new editions or translations of understudied sources, the types of primary sources available as evidence for the study of social class in the early modern period has remained stable over time.
How are sources such as these analysed? Through the mid twentieth century, Marxist theory was the dominant one used to discuss class in all types of textual sources. Marx’s training as a philosopher and political theorist was wide-ranging, and ideology and consciousness were key aspects of his thought, so his work was influential across humanities disciplines. According to Marx, the material ‘base’ of a culture is economic. Out of this base, its law, religion, art, politics, ethics, and conceptual systems form a ‘superstructure’, which is the culture’s ideology, or consciousness of itself. This ideology, on the whole, is created in the image of the interests of the dominant class. Historically, Marxist class analysis combined empirical methods of analysis, based on measurable and quantifiable social data, with speculative conjecture about the relationships between ideology, class consciousness, and culture.
One of Marx’s most radical ideas in the context of nineteenth century European thought was the theory that the material base of a society produced its ideological superstructure. This was in direct opposition to long-standing and commonly held notions that a culture’s shared values produced its lived conditions. Marx proposed that, rather than a rational or spiritual realm of ideas from above shaping material reality below, the flow of influence moves in the other direction – upward from the physical and economic base. This idea led to a major debate in studies of social class over the course of the twentieth century: how can people with a collective consciousness of their class identity change material conditions? If we change material relationships among people, for example through legal means, will changes in the ideological superstructure follow, or must we change imaginative consciousness first?
Since then, Marxist and Post-Marxist theorists have refined their understandings of the flow of cause and effect in society between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. Literary critic Georg Lukács proposed the term ‘false consciousness’ in the 1920s to describe how people are easily ‘misguided and misled’ by their experiences and so form worldviews that oppose their own economic interests, rather than a rational class consciousness that can critically examine how the class system works to exploit them. Later, in the 1970s, philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s concept of ‘cultural hegemony’ began to be used to theorise how ruling classes manipulate cultural practices, through means such as communications media, to ensure their worldview remains dominant and naturalised, as if it were common sense.
A major question across academic fields is how power works in shaping class experiences, and particularly how human imaginative consciousness might exercise power and ‘agency’ in changing social reality, for example through language and artistic practices. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984) proposed the useful concept of ‘cultural and social capital’, or non-financial assets, to describe immaterial attributes such as taste and abilities that underpin a person’s status and prestige. Also in the 1980s, materialist feminist Monique Wittig (1992) argued that individuals limited by heterosexism, or other forms of oppression, must often break the social contract of their class identity to win liberation for themselves and others.
Selecting and interpreting sources
Raymond Williams (1977) evaluated these developments in the field of literary criticism, after which he encouraged the conversation about class to continue in the more interdisciplinary realm of cultural studies. Currently, semiotic studies of class view material and ideological forces as moving through a circuit of mutual influence. As cultural theorist Stuart Hall (2003) has explained, cultural artefacts are produced and encoded using a common conceptual framework, and then are decoded either with the same code, or with a consciously oppositional one. The ‘circuit of culture’ is a useful theoretical model that describes five major spheres of interaction: representation, identity, production, consumption, and regulation. Each sphere impacts, and is impacted by, the others in complex flows between the material world and the mental world of values and ideas (du Gay, 1997). A class group’s conceptual frameworks for interpretation are key to how it participates in the circuit as producers, consumers, or regulators. Cultural products, in addition to the language, codes, and systems of signs involved in them, are tied to the market. As primary sources for study, these products—which of course include written texts—are all permeated by differences in wealth, prestige, and power, and thus by social class.
Modern pop or mass culture and media, like film or television, have often been the focus of cultural studies. However, the early modern period also produced cultural artefacts with elite, popular, mass, and technological aspects that lend themselves to this sort of approach. For example the ‘circuit of culture’ can be a useful way into analysing any of these: a building’s materials, features, and purpose; a painting in the context of its commissioning and display; an everyday object important to agricultural labour, such as a plough; or a spectacle for the masses financed by the state.
The first step in starting to investigate social class is to choose a delimited aspect of the phenomena on which to focus, and then to select a primary source or sources as objects of study. These two activities tend to happen in conjunction and dialogue with each other as a project progresses. A good way to begin the process is to define a preliminary question. The broadest contemporary research questions on social class can be adapted to the study of any period: What are the major forms of class inequality during this time? How many social classes were there and what were their features? What are the principal ‘fault lines’ or social cleavages that defined the class structure? Experienced scholars often study these foundational questions comparatively across time or regions. Students and intermediate scholars should avoid wide scopes that enumerate all the classes or give an overall picture of a complex society, and instead choose a tight focus. Fascinating studies can be created from a precise question, with clear limits, applied to a single place at a brief moment in time.
Some interesting and manageable questions are the following: Is there evidence of class-consciousness here? What class antagonisms were involved in this specific exchange? What were the outcomes for a member of this distinct class at this place and time? How were class boundaries maintained in this specific context? Why was this cultural practice associated with members of a certain class? What factors were involved when this individual attempted to cross class boundaries? What other divisions or aspects of identity, such as gender, were intersecting with class here?
A major obstacle to researching and writing about social class in the early modern period is that the way groups are categorized today is not the same as in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The major division in European feudalism between the hereditary nobility and commoners (with clergy belonging to both) does not correspond to the major divisions used currently between upper class, middle class, and workers. Also, regions that were colonised or at war with Europeans during the early modern period saw complex, often violent exchanges between differently stratified societies. These included diverse groups of Amerindian, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern people with distinct cultural histories. So, you must be conscious of the problem of choosing terms and aware of the subjective perspectives you privilege in your research and why.
Primary sources themselves, especially textual ones, will often provide the appropriate vocabulary to name groups in the ways that they self-identified or were identified by others during the period, which will help you navigate terminology. Commoners came from a wide variety of stations and conditions with varying degrees of visibility: rural labourers, trades and craftspeople, merchants, servants, soldiers, slaves, bandits, clerks, prostitutes. Members of the nobility and the Church also held a range of specialised positions and titles with differing degrees of prestige. A study of social class could focus solely on any one of these groups, or a representative member of a group. Also, there are some coalescing historical factors that unite this complexity, such as the transition to modern nations and modern forms of trade, and one can pick out evidence of the shifts taking place over the centuries. For example, out of European colonialism there is an eventual emergence of a powerful, bourgeois capitalist class, hints of which may appear in tiny fragments or increments in a particular source.
After deciding upon an initial research question and focus, the next step is to select from among the primary sources. Let us take a closer look at three types of primary sources available in libraries and archives that can be used with the above research questions: (1) literary fiction, such as novels, plays, and poems; (2) emblem books, which were comprised of symbolic pictures and accompanying texts; and (3) reports of state events, celebrations, or other public acts. Particular examples from each type are offered below as models for analysis.
Keep in mind that a researcher’s choice of a specific primary source often depends as much on the conventions of an academic field as on the research question. In the case of experienced scholars, for example, an historian may look for a significant body of legal contracts in regional archives, and collect enough data to create an accurate, synthetic description of class struggles over property rights during a fifty-year period. Meanwhile, a literary critic may search out and analyse a handful of female-authored plays for how women writers publicly represented conflicts over property rights during that same time. Their findings, developed independently, may be combined later and used as evidence by a third researcher to create an anthropology of property rights in the region.
When selecting sources, it is good to be aware of one’s own identity and experiences, as well as the dominant cultural role of the institution in which one works, and to reflect on any subjective or practical factors that might cause particular sources to be privileged and others overlooked. As a rule of thumb, when choosing a source make sure it speaks to the initial research question and is credible. It is best to use primary sources that are unlikely to be forged or corrupted, and to always consider how the source was constructed. What was the source’s original form and what was the likely cost of producing it? When was the source produced, where, by whom, and for what purpose? Enumerate and evaluate possible motivations for bias on the part of the source’s creators by considering their interests, as well as the interests of their intended audience. Answers to any of these questions make good introductory remarks.
If a source is a report of events, be aware that the closer it is to the event, the more likely it is to be a reliable description. In cases when a work has many editions and a modern edition or a translation is used, be aware that the source does not appear exactly as it did when it was created. Consider looking at a first edition, or an early modern translation, as a way to understand how the source first appeared and circulated as a material object in the period. It is also important to ask what pre-existing cultural frameworks were used to encode the source with meaning. In the case of literary fiction, keep in mind that literary composition is an aesthetic construct and does not simply ‘reflect reality’ objectively. In fact, early modern writers often portrayed social others according to stock types found in the literary tradition, like the braggart soldier, the conniving servant, or the ageing king. Likewise, in the early modern period, the verbal or visual representations of a material item, like an image of a ship in this emblem, ‘Easily deflected from the right course’ [A], or a snake in this emblem, ‘Insignia of the Duke of Milan’ [B], may appear ‘realistic’ to a modern reader, but these refer to concepts that early modern readers recognised as metaphors with encoded meanings.
Another issue to be aware of is access. Learning how to locate and initiate conversations about research with librarians in charge of unfamiliar resources, such as archives of rare books or special collections, is key to ensuring one is choosing from the best sources available, rather than just the most comfortable, common, and quickest to find. Using a rare, early modern source, rather than a modern edition or translation, and examining it in person for its physical dimensions, materials, and expense of production is an excellent way of gaining direct insights that cannot be discovered any other way.
Once a source is selected, it should be thoroughly examined and carefully read, noting its major features and writing down all evidence that speaks to the focus of research. Balanced judgement of a source comes from careful re-reading, an effort that requires considerable time and reflection. Interpretations and evaluations can always be double-checked by consulting the opinions of secondary source authors, but the best students do their own close readings first, so as not to be distracted by ‘expert’ opinions before they have had a chance to consider the source themselves. If authoritative secondary sources offer conflicting interpretations, a thorough reading of the most recently published research on the primary source can reveal the status of the conflict. However, in most cases taking a justifiable position and defending it logically with evidence is the best course of action because it shows intellectual integrity, autonomy, and confidence in reason.
Returning to our exemplary source types of literary fiction, emblem books, and reports of state events, I will offer three model strategies for writing about social stratification that can be employed with success: (1) to select a famous source that has a well-known and dominant interpretation today, such as an admired novel or play, and offer a fresh, even unexpected, analysis of its relationship to a narrowly defined facet of social class; (2) choose to do a ‘close-up’ explication of a seemingly modest material source, such as a single visual emblem, to illuminate nuanced features of historical terms like rank, poverty, labour, etc.; (3) search for reports of a state event to analyse the display of power and how members of a group experienced it sensorially and emotionally. These strategies work well using methods that account for both the material and ideological aspects of these sources.
Because every object of analysis is produced under specific material and cultural circumstances, any study of social class must be aware of the circumstances of the people involved in the production, consumption, and regulation of the source. Issues of the power and identity of the author as authority, his or her privilege and status, social networks, honour or reputation, and education are worth considering and commenting upon. However, elements of an author’s biography should be referred to only when essential. It is much more crucial to be able to describe and analyse the messages encoded in each source and speculate on how it may have been received by various audiences: royal courts and aristocratic patrons, formally educated groups, and the unlettered populace. And, while there was an intended audience for which these messages were produced, be conscious that readers from other groups may also have decoded them with oppositional, critical perspectives. Sources will often be dedicated to a specific patron, who can be researched for class status, and they will also give other clues as to the identity of their intended audience.
The first major source type is literary fiction. Literary works, such as narrative fiction, plays, and poems, have long been used as a rich source for examining representations of social class and social identity. Their portrayals of characters as social types in settings of the period circulated and were collectively consumed. These portrayals can offer insight into how audiences conceptualised the value of social roles and the justice of unequal rewards. Innovative literary genres such as the novel – or subgenres like picaresque novels that feature orphans and beggars – were new vehicles for representing protagonists from social strata that were previously unexplored by the old, medieval genres of epic poetry and chivalric tales. Plays and poems often include monologues, in which a single character reflects on or sings about his or her thoughts and feelings regarding conflicts and desires. The language and expression used varies according to these characters’ social status, and it can be examined along with other aspects of character representation, such as prestige and economic wealth.
Fictional representations, although subjective constructions, are encoded with and disseminate shared cultural concepts and frameworks. For example Miguel de Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote, published in two parts (1605 and 1615), is often analysed for the class relationship it represents between the two well-known protagonists. Don Quixote is the alter ego of the minor noble Alonso Quijano, who has gone mad from reading too many tales of knights’ adventures. His unlettered peasant squire, Sancho Panza, is a font of oral folk wisdom who consistently complains of receiving no wages for his work. Any one of these details can be cited to exemplify a point about the class consciousness of the work, or to build an argument based on the antagonisms between the two characters.
However, when we turn to less studied relationships between secondary characters in the novel, Don Quixote provides even more abundant and nuanced evidence regarding social class in Spain when it was written. For example, Sancho Panza’s illiterate and impoverished wife exchanges letters and gifts across a social chasm with the character of the wealthy Duchess who hosts and torments Sancho in the second part of the novel of 1615. The two women have very different motives and relationships to him. The naive Teresa Panza seeks protection and social advantage, while the Duchess merely seeks amusement by lightly engaging with Teresa’s and her husband’s fears and ambitions. Here the material and emotional worlds of the two female characters can be compared, perhaps to show that women, in this context, did not form a ‘class’ based on gender with a shared consciousness.
Another possibility would be to develop an argument related to early modern social class by tracking a character, a character type, or a specific relationship throughout the work for their social outcomes. Alternatively, it can be very telling to track similar events, for example instances of punishment and the enforcement of social boundaries, regardless of which characters are involved. How many times and in what contexts, do shackles and whips appear in the novel? What does this signify? Identify where class conflict appears around punishment and how/if it is resolved. In Don Quixote conflict appears, for example, in the critical comments by the prisoners destined to be galley slaves, or in the silences and betrayals among various young couples who cross boundaries of station and ethnicity in their relationships, sometimes violently and unwillingly. Another approach is to look for evidence of the intersectionality of class with race, gender, or religion. This can be used to revise one-dimensional readings of characters. Explain why, for example, the usually likeable Sancho, when planning his own ambitions for wealth, considers with no qualms becoming a trader in African slaves.
In addition to famed literary works, lesser-known print works of more modest literary quality are very interesting to observe for intersectionality and how they create concepts and consciousness that become widely shared, perhaps contributing to the cultural hegemony of dominant groups or raising critical awareness. The smaller the book, the fewer the pages, and the cheaper the binding, the more likely it was sold at a reasonable price and read more widely. One example of works for mass audiences were those published by Hannah More through the Cheap Repository in London in the late eighteenth century. As a member of the emerging bourgeois class, More wished to influence the morals and views of people of lesser wealth and education. So she published tracts, some with lyrics for singing in one-page broadsides, like the one reproduced by the Abolition Project, Hannah More. The Sorrows of Yamba, or, the Negro Woman’s Lamentation [F]. Or, for the patron with a little more to spend she published longer, better-illustrated pamphlets with the same title, such as the one reproduced here by the Northwestern University Library, Hannah More. The Sorrows of Yamba, or, the Negro Woman’s Lamentation [G].
In the various formats of ‘The Sorrows of Yamba’, for example, More uses the fictional voice of an enslaved West African woman to construct an abolitionist moral message that justifies the spiritual colonisation of Africa by European Christians. The technology of print allowed More to use her cultural capital and social networks to shape the opinions of people who shared her national identity and religion, but not her class position in the market. Meanwhile, the representation of Yamba contributes to a stereotype of the Black woman ‘saved’ by the English missionary. Yamba’s rejection of suicide in the poem obscures more radical abolitionist discourses of the period that used suicide poetry to communicate the intensity of despair and injustice caused by the economics of slavery.
The category of literary works as a source also includes life writing. It is a good practice to search out personal narratives found in the form of letters, autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, and personal essays to compare to fictional representations. These autobiographical sources, unlike literary fiction, make a claim to historical, not just abstract or universal, accuracy. They serve as examples of individual identity construction, sometimes in direct opposition to the imposition of culturally dominant roles. Based on the subjective recording of memories and experiences, they can be analysed with the same methods as those applied to literature. They provide more authentic representations of the perspectives of their writers and so can be used effectively to examine how groups write about themselves, versus how they are written about by their ‘social others.’
Emblem books, another early modern source type, were a highly visual kind of educational print item that contained symbolic woodcuts or engravings on every page. These images were accompanied by two texts, a short motto, and an explanatory paragraph in verse or prose. Image, motto, and explanation were meant to be carefully contemplated by the reader, in a meditative reading exercise. The written texts were usually in a vernacular language while the mottos were often in Latin to give the text a learned flair, but even the illiterate could enjoy the illustrations, so these works had wide appeal.
The Glasgow University Emblem Website is a comprehensive resource for learning about and viewing a wide variety of emblem books, which were highly popular throughout the European world in the 200 years after the first emblem book, by Andrea Alciato, appeared in 1531. Using the Alciato at Glasgow site, it is possible to read the many editions of Alciato’s emblems translated into English. These span decades and have hundreds of illustrations that differ depending on the edition.
Using search terms common to the period, such as order, rank, estate, wealth, poverty, labour, or sovereign, appropriate single page emblems can be located and viewed, some of which have been studied very little for issues of social class. For example, the 1531 Augsburg edition of Alciato’s emblems depicts a prince wringing out a sponge, ‘What Christ does not receive, the exchequer seizes’ [C] to explain that clever monarchs promote rich thieves in their administrations in order to eventually squeeze them of their ill-gotten gains. ‘Poverty prevents the advancement of the best of abilities’ [D] from the 1615 Najera edition shows a young pauper reaching to the sky while tied to a rock that, representing poverty, holds him down when his intelligence should give him wings. ‘On the avaricious’ [E] from the 1621 Padua edition compares miserly rich men to ignorant asses, with an emblem featuring a donkey loaded with delicious food, but eating only weeds.
Doing a close, analytical reading of all the elements of one emblem, its motto, the illustration, and the explanatory text, can yield information about how social roles were conceptualised by producers and readers of these works. The earliest examples of emblem books were, like novels, innovative in form. They were made by a growing group of humanist thinkers who were challenging dominant values and providing an attractive new vehicle for mass education. However, after 1600, the production of emblem books became increasingly market-driven and the ruling classes began to use the form to reinforce messages of their cultural dominance. They can be used as evidence for describing groups and the social boundaries that existed, in addition to how forms and genres of sources reflected the classes that produced them and how they changed over time.
Reports of state events
Lastly, the third major source type are reports of state events. These are useful for understanding how groups of men holding state or religious institutional power publicly performed their authority. Using ritual, rhetoric, and technology, these events had material and ideological impacts on their audiences. Records often take the form of eyewitness narrative accounts. They may appear in letters or diaries, but the best sources are print books or pamphlets that publicise events. These can be festivals, ceremonies, or, as in the case of the work recording the 1680 Auto de fe sponsored by King Carlos II of Spain in Madrid, executions. This book from 1820, [H] José del Olmo, Relacion histórica del Auto general de Fé que se celebró en Madrid en el año de 1680 con asistencia del Rey don Carlos II, officially commemorates a series of events that centred on a day of public punishment of scores of people.
Despite being penned by minor or ‘bad’ writers, such works can offer overlooked pieces of evidence that address blind spots in our understanding of social class. This author, José del Olmo, praises aspects of an event that are chilling to modern readers. He relates how authorities informed the condemned the night before they were to be burned at the stake, and how the condemned were paraded through the streets the next day to the Plaza Mayor wearing robes painted with flames so that no onlooker could remain in doubt as to their fate. One could use this evidence to speculate on how a seventeenth century commoner observing an acquaintance paraded through the streets was expected to react. Or, one could interpret this local show of power and display of wealth in the context of the decline of the Spanish crown’s global importance.
While Olmo’s narrative text, like many textual works that are not admired, has no translation, it is possible for everyone to appreciate the expensive feature of the whole folio fold-out visual the work contains [I], which was labelled with a key. With the key, readers of Spanish can decode the impressive spectacle of the Plaza Mayor filled with richly dressed nobles in the boxes around the King’s balcony at the centre, and the General Inquisitor’s position, high centre left, surrounded by his administrators – all male, all Spanish, all Christian. Facing these Church authorities on the right side are the accused, dressed to symbolise their ‘crimes’ and punishments. Members of the clergy appear to accompany and sometimes to harangue them.
Ironically, records of brutal events such as this can offer us access to the voices of people who otherwise left behind no textual evidence of their lives. The book includes a small biography of each of the accused that offers their age, sometimes a physical description, and fascinating details of their lives, cases, and sentences. These could be systematically studied for data. They were all commoners, a mixture of men and women, some children and some in their old age, many of Portuguese origin, and many relapsed converts from Judaism or Islam. Their punishments ranged from execution, imprisonment, life as a galley slave, exile, confiscation of goods, and fines. These details provide evidence for demonstrating how class boundaries and economic relationships were materially and symbolically enforced using religious doctrine. In this case, the event was purposefully designed to provoke awe and respect for ‘divine’ authority. According to Olmos the staging of the event intentionally evoked the Biblical Last Judgement.
The fact that scholars in humanities and social sciences fields continue to grapple with concepts of class demonstrates that issues of social divisions and inequality are critical for judging the legitimacy of social systems. Being able to describe and interpret the social stratification of the early modern western world better equips us to evaluate current cultural practices, and to place them in a historical and comparative global conversation. In the future, it is likely that fruitful new questions to pose about class and social stratification will continue to emerge out of contemporary trends in sociological theory, theories of representation and power, and studies of aesthetics and human consciousness. As shown in this chapter, literary works, emblem books, and records of state events are three types of primary sources that can be used to research such questions. Libraries, archives, museums, and historical sites offer many more sources that you can investigate and use in your research and writing.
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