Idleness is an appendix to nobility - Robert Burton

 

William Harrison, from his Description Of Elizabethan England


Written: c. 1577


Of Degrees Of People In The Commonwealth Of Elizabethan England:
We in England, divide our people commonly into four sorts, as gentlemen, citizens or burgesses, yeomen, and artificers or laborers. Of gentlemen the first and chief (next the king) be the prince, dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons; and these are called gentlemen of the greater sort, or (as our common usage of speech is) lords and noblemen: and next unto them be knights, esquires, and, last of all, they that are simply called gentlemen. So that in effect our gentlemen are divided into their conditions, whereof in this chapter I will make particular rehearsal.


The title of prince doth peculiarly belong with us to the king's eldest son, who is called Prince of Wales, and is the heir-apparent to the crown; as in France the king's eldest son hath the title of Dauphin, and is named peculiarly Monsieur. So that the prince is so termed of the Latin word princeps, since he is (as I may call him) the chief or principal next the king.

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Unto this place I also refer our bishops, who are accounted honorable, called lords, and hold the same room in the Parliament house with the barons, albeit for honor sake the right hand of the prince is given unto them, and whose countenances in time past were much more glorious than at this present it is, because those lusty prelates sought after earthly estimation and authority with far more diligence than after the lost sheep of Christ, of which they had small regard, as men being otherwise occupied and void of leisure to attend upon the same. Howbeit in these days their estate remaineth no less reverend than before, and the more virtuous they are that be of this calling the better are they esteemed with high and low. They retain also the ancient name ("lord") still, although it be not a little impugned by such as love either to hear of change of all things or can abide no superiors...

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Knights be not born, neither is any man a knight by succession, no, not the king or prince: but they are made either before the battle, to encourage them the more to adventure and try their manhood; or after the battle ended, as an advancement for their courage and prowess already showed, and then are they called Milites; or out of the wars for some great service done, or for the singular virtues which do appear in them, and then are they named Equites Aurati, as common custom intendeth. They are made either by the king himself, or by his commission and royal authority given for the same purpose, or by his lieutenant in the wars.

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Citizens and burgesses have next place to gentlemen, who be those that are free within the cities, and are of some likely substance to bear office in the same. But these citizens or burgesses are to serve the commonwealth in their cities and boroughs, or in corporate towns where they dwell, and in the common assembly of the realm wherein our laws are made (for in the counties they bear but little sway), which assembly is called the High Court of Parliament: the ancient cities appoint four and the borough two burgesses to have voices in it, and give their consent or dissent unto such things as pass, to stay there in the name of the city or borough for which they are appointed.

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Yeomen are those which by our law are called Legales homines, free men born English, and may dispend of their own free land in yearly revenue to the sum of forty shillings sterling, or six pounds as money goeth in our times. Some are of the opinion ... that they are same which the Frenchmen call varlets, but, as the phrase is used in my time, it is very unlikely to be so. The truth is that the word is derived from the Saxon term Zeoman, or Geoman, which signifieth (as I have read) a settled or staid man, such I mean as, being married and of some years, betaketh himself to stay in the place of his abode for the better maintenance of himself and his family, whereof the single sort have no regard, but are likely to be still fleeting now hither now thither, which argueth want of stability in determination and resolution of judgment, for the execution of things of any importance. This sort of people have a certain pre-eminence, and more estimation that laborers and the common sort of artificers, and these commonly live wealthily, keep good houses, and travel to get riches. They are also for the most part farmers to gentlemen (in old time called Pagani, et opponuntur militibus, ...), or at the leastwise artificers, and with grazing, frequenting of markets, and keeping of servants (not idle servants, as the gentlemen do, but such as get both their own and part of their masters' living), do come to great wealth, insomuch that many of them are able and do buy the lands of unthrifty gentlemen, and often setting their sons to the schools, to the universities, and to the Inns of the Court, or, otherwise leaving them sufficient lands whereupon they may live without labor, do make them by those means to become gentlemen. These were they that in times past made all France afraid. And albeit they be not called "Master," as gentlemen are, or "Sir," as to knights appertaineth, but only "John" and "Thomas," etc., yet have they been found to have done very good service. ...

Whereto I add that they may not be called masters and gentlemen, but goodmen, as Goodman Smith, Goodman Coot, Goodman Cornell, Goodman Mascall, Goodman Cockswet, etc., and in matters of law these and the like are called thus, Giles Jewd, yeoman; Edward Mountford, yeoman; James Cocke, yeoman; Harry Butcher, yeoman, etc.; by which addition they are exempt from the vulgar and common sorts.

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The fourth and last sort of people in England are day-laborers, poor husbandmen, and some retailers (which have no free land) copyholders, and all artificers, as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, brick-makers, masons, etc.


As for slaves and bondmen, we have none; nay, such is the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God and bounty of our princes, that if any come hither from other realms, so soon as they set foot on land they become so free of condition as their masters, whereby all note of servile bondage is utterly removed from them, wherein we resemble (not the Germans, who had slaves also, though such as in respect of the slaves of other countries might well be reputed free, but) the old Indians and the Taprobanes, who supposed it a great injury to Nature to make or suffer them to be bond, whom she in her wonted course doth product and bring forth free. This fourth and last sort of people therefore have neither voice nor authority in the commonwealth, but are to be ruled and not to rule other: yet they are not altogether neglected, for in cities and corporate towns, for default of yeomen, they are fain to make up their inquests of such manner of people. And in villages they are commonly made churchwardens , sidesmen, aleconners, now and then constables, and many times enjoy the name of head boroughs. Unto this sort also may our great swarms of idle serving-men be referred, of whom there runneth a proverb, "Young serving-men, old beggars," because service is none heritage. These men are profitable to none; for, if their condition be well perused, they are enemies to their masters, to their friends, and to themselves: for by them oftentimes their masters are encouraged unto unlawful exactions of their tenants, their friends brought unto poverty by their rents enhanced, and they themselves brought to confusion by their own prodigality and errors, as men that, having not wherewith of their own to maintain their excesses, do search in highways, budgets, coffers, mails, and stables, which way to supply their wants. How divers of them also, coveting to bear an high sail, do insinuate themselves with young gentlemen and noblemen newly come to their lands, the case is too much apparent, whereby the good natures of the parties are not only a little impaired, but also their livelihoods and revenues so wasted and consumed that, if at all, yet not in many years, they shall be able to recover themselves. It were very good therefore that the superfluous heaps of them were in part diminished. And since necessity enforceth to have some, yet let wisdom moderate their numbers, so shall their masters be rid of unnecessary charge, and the commonwealth of many thieves. No nation cherisheth such store of them as we do here in England, in hope of which maintenance many give themselves to idleness that otherwise would be brought to labor, and live in order like subjects. Of their whoredoms I will not speak anything at all, more than of their swearing; yet is it found that some of them do make the first a chief pillar of their building, consuming not only the goods but also the health and welfare of many honest gentlemen, citizens, wealthy yeomen, etc., by such unlawful dealings. But how far have I waded in this point, or how far may I sail in such a large sea? I will therefore now stay to speak any more of those kind of men. In returning therefore to my matter, this furthermore among other things I have to say of our husbandmen and artificers, that they were never so excellent in their trades as at this present. But as the workmanship of the latter sort was newer, more fine, and curious to the eye, so was it never less strong and substantial for continuance and benefit of the buyers. Neither is there anything that hurteth the common sort of our artificers more than haste, and a barbarous or slavish desire to turn the penny, and, by ridding their work, to make speedy utterance of their wares: which enforceth them to bungle up and dispatch many things they care not how so they be out of their hands, whereby the buyer is often sore defrauded, and findeth to his cost that haste maketh waste, according to the proverb.