Pre-requisite 2: Social Class


Today’s post will be the second in a series on pre-requisite knowledge. (See the first article here.) These are concepts that will make it easier to understand many of the later discussions that we will have here at I saw a statistic recently that indicated that American knowledge of history was at an all time low. The problem with history is not only that one must memorize names, dates, and places, but also that it is important to understand the world in which history took place. It is not enough to know that someone who offended the Roman Emperor was imprisoned. It is equally relevant that the Emperor was considered a god on Earth and that by offending him the criminal had brought divine wrath down upon himself. Without understanding this, it is impossible to appreciate the magnitude of the crime in its cultural context. In this post I hope to reveal some of the cultural context of Western Europe so that we can understand historical and musicological discussion more readily. We will discuss class division in Europe, specifically the Aristocracy, the Middle Class, and the Servant Class (sometimes also called the Working Class or Labor Class).

The Aristocracy refers to titled people or nobles in Europe. A king, prince, duke, baron, etc. would have been an aristocrat. I cannot stress the importance of this class division enough. If you were an aristocrat it meant you were considered better by virtue of your birth. It didn’t necessarily mean that you were wealthy (although most aristocrats were) but it meant that you had political and social advantage that members of the lower classes would not have. Firstly, you had the ear of the king and could request certain laws that would benefit you. You could marry into the king’s family if you were fortunate. If you went to trial against a member of the lower classes you were guaranteed a win based on your social status. In addition to this, your family likely owned land.

The Middle Class is a term used to describe people who are not aristocrats but who A) own land, B) own a business, C) have money despite not working for a living. The Middle Class was rare until the middle of the eighteenth century. By the 1800s they were quickly becoming the most powerful class in Europe. An example of a middle-class person was someone who owned a factory and hired numerous employees. Many were quite wealthy. Their middle-class status came from the fact that they did not have to labor for a living, but rather commanded others to work.

Finally, those who belonged to the Servant Class (also called Working Class) were the workers in society. Examples would include maids, butlers, musicians, construction workers, and anyone else who had to come in to work daily. Historically these people were treated quite poorly. Their wages were low and they had almost no chance of increasing their social standing in any meaningful way.

There are a couple of important details to remember. You were born into your class; you did not choose it. Also, class had little to do with wealth and more to do with what one’s occupation was. In America today we misuse the terms upper class, middle class, and low class. To most people today, poor behavior is a sign of “low class.” Or perhaps rich people are called “high class.” This is not the proper way of talking about affluence. For example, Bill Gates is actually a middle-class person. He is not an aristocrat or “high class” because he does not have a title. Along these lines, many Americans describe themselves as middle class because they have a certain comfortable lifestyle and have money for leisure. Most of these people however are not middle class because they still work for a living. If you get up on Monday morning to go to work, you are working class, not middle class. Let us try to reclaim the true meaning of these words.

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