Commoners, what is that?


The usual history lessons - at least the ones I had to go through - tend to leave the victim with the impression that until at least the end of the 18th century society cosisted of three classes: the nobility, the clergy and the rest, also known as "the commoners". Do you think that an estimated 90% of the population, i.e. "the rest", all had the same way of life? No way.

The longer I have studied the everyday life of the 18th century, the more obvious it became that history teachers have no secret knowledge, either*, and are taken by the same clichés as most people, which are, e.g.: The nobility wallowed in luxury (but never in water), while commoners hungered. Actually there were nobles who had to borrow money in order to keep up the way of life their station demanded, and rich commoners who could easily afford to lend that money to impoverished nobles.

So let's look at the social strata "below" the nobility and clergy. In the cities there were the patricians, i.e. the leading functionaries of the artinans' guilds and rich merchants, judges and other university graduates. Followed by holders of higher public offices, priests, masters of higly-regarded crafts (e.g. goldsmith, watchmaker, wig maker, silk weaver, barber-surgeon) and of course wealthy merchants. Actually it seems that merchants were ranked mainly by their monetary wealth, whereas other non-academic professions were ranked by some intangible idea of respectability. Merchants are found in every social class, from the international businessman to the wandering salesman. Next in line are masters of the more common arts, such as barrelmaker or blacksmith, policemen, clerks, the better kind of innkeeper. Then non-master artisans, barkeepers, wandering merchants, free peasants, civic servants, servants in privaste households and day labourers, in that order.

So the so-called commoners were, by social regard and economic power, as differentiated as today's unemployed up to top managers. Even the class of peasants, who are made to look like the lowest, poorest rank by history teachers, contains anything from quite wealthy landowners who could easily out-earn city artisans, through those who could just about get by, to families who had to have a trade on the side, such as weaving or selling wine.

It is wrong to only look at the dress fashions of the nobility as most fashion history books do, leaving aside the clothing of the majority of the population which is thought to wear sackcloth and ashes. The 18th century is known as the age that gave rise to the burghers who accumulated as much wealth as the nobility and therefore dealt with the nobles eye-to-eye.** Contemporaries and modern critics alike demonize the nobility's pomp and display of and splendour as a waste of wealth, but in fact it was one huge wealth-circulation pump: All that speldour had to be created by someone, and that someone was the artisans. The alleged waste fed goldsmiths, gilders, gem carvers, porcelain painters, watch makers, spinners, weavers, dyers, seamstresses, milliners, perfumers, ivory carvers, lacemakers, tapestry and carpet makers and many others, who often moved to where the money was, i.e. to the cities. The proximity to the upper class didn't only fill the purses but also rubbed off on the artisans' self-esteem. Whole towns became wealthy thanks to the luxury industry, such as Dieppe (ivory carving), Lyon and Spitalfields (silk weaving), Alençon and Argentan (lace) etc. The luxury industry also fed the merchants who dealt with such goods and, ultimately, the sailors on the ships that carried silk, cotton, ivory and porcelain around the world.

It is only natural that the commoners who became wealthy that way also started to show off that wealth, buying luxury goods and employing servants themselves, thus further distributing it.

Two main groups of commoners can be made out: Townsfolk and country dwellers. It should be obvious that, in a time without mass media and public transport, the country folk didn't really notice current political or fashion developments. Like most people, they were largely restricted to places they could reach on foot, and since they usually had to spend the better part of six days a week on earning a living, there was no time for a one-day hike to a place 30 kilometres away unless it was on businness. Therefore, news as well as lucrative business harldy reached the contryside. The information flow was kept up by travelling salesmen and those who went to the market towns to sell goods.

City folk, on the other hand, had the advantage of having both local and travelling members of the upper crust close by, both as customers and source of news and inspiration, as well as international merchants and mail service. If they could afford to wear silk, they usually got it from centres of silk weaving such as Lyon; only everyday goods such as linenware were bought locally***. So the "rise of the middle class" refers almost exclusively to townsfolk, while the country folk were disconnected from political, cultural, social and fashion developments.




*) It's not their own fault. They're expected to have a wide range of knowledge, not a deep one.
**) See the memoirs of Casanova, son of an actor and an artisan's daughter
***) see e.g. "Die junge Häushälterinn", 1787-1807



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