Social Hierarchies

Authored by: Susan D. Amussen

The Elizabethan World

Print publication date:  September  2010
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415409599
eBook ISBN: 9781315736044
Adobe ISBN: 9781317565796


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Everyone in Elizabethan England agreed on the importance of hierarchy; at the same time, many – like Shakespeare’s Ulysses – were alarmed about the ways in which people failed to respect the established order. While everyone agreed on the importance of social order, not all agreed on exactly what it was, nor did everyone agree on who fit where in it. The social hierarchy was described as one of status, where position depended on birth and role; in practice, it was beginning to include aspects of class, where wealth and property were more important than birth. Because of the growing wealth of some farmers and merchants, the social order was not as neat in practice as in theory. Furthermore, the expectation that the social hierarchy was equivalent to the moral one created many tensions. Finally, the boundaries between levels of the social order were not always clear. The fluidity of social hierarchy contributed not only to the development of the English economy and state but also to tensions within it: what the social hierarchy meant for individuals was frequently negotiated and contested. Different hierarchies – of gender, age and marital status – governed behaviour in different contexts. Social hierarchy was a theory but it was also performed and contested. Each of these dimensions is important to an understanding of social order in Elizabethan England.

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