Disparity and Concord: Relations Between the Social Classes of the 17 th Century A traditional way of thinking about separate and distinct social classes includes the assumption that there will be a strained relationship between the two; in which mutual feelings of mistrust and fear will be present due to the inherent inequality and ignorance that exists between the groups. During the 17 th century, this sense of disparity between the classes was certainly felt and acknowledged, but it was not always accompanied by such strong feelings of suspicion toward the members of the other class. In fact, many cases exemplified the fact that often the upper class and lower class recognized that they depended upon one another for survival, and a mutual acceptance, if not always respect, sprung from that. In some cases, the lords of large houses were portrayed as models of the highest charity and benevolence, whom opened up their houses and lives to those less fortunate than them. However, regardless of this dual relationship, instances in which the lower class was subject to the whims or wants of the upper class still occurred, and this darker side of the affiliation was also depicted in some written works of the time. The harmony of life between the upper and lower classes was a subject that Ben Jonson touched upon in his essay, "To Penshurst." In this work, he delved into the quality of life which those of the upper classes who owned a country house were able to enjoy.
Apparently, the life of the richer sector of society was one of convenience and relative ease once they returned to their home in the country, which was painted as a kind of haven where nothing could go wrong and pain or discomfort were unheard of. The imagery used by Jonson, "Fat, aged carps that run into thy net, ... eels that... leap on land, ... [and] blushing apricot and wooly peach [which] hang on...
walls, that every child may reach," was extremely useful in portraying the beauty and concord which abounded in a country home. These descriptions cemented the idea that the beauty of the country home did not lie within a "roof of gold," or "row of polished pillars." Rather, the worth and magnificence of life at Penshurst stemmed from its natural beauty and the fertility and abundance of the nature that surrounded it. Another country home, similar to Penshurst in it's relative luxury was discussed by Thomas Carew in his poem "To Saxham." Again, this work shows how the animals that are eaten at Saxham were willing to die in order that they might feed the people who lived there. The wildlife, in fact, "[brought itself] to be an offering." This fact highlights how good and worthy the owners of the house must be if the world around them strains to be of use to them and animals are willing to die, thinking their life in itself would not mean as much if they were to continue living as it did when they were used to feed those who lived in the house. In many traditional cultures, "offerings" of animals, or blood sacrifices, were made to gods and supernatural beings. Perhaps this was a subtle hint by Carew of just how high the esteem with which owners of country houses were held.
It seemed in both of these works that the utmost effort was taken by everyone involved so that the upper classes need not have any stresses in their lives or work to do when they returned home to the country. It would seem that such a utopian lifestyle would rouse feelings of jealousy and contempt within other people who were observing this standard of living from the outside looking in. However, Jonson and Carew both pointed out that the owners of the home were able to deter the growth of such feelings in the common people by giving freely the bounty that they had with the same ease and comfort with which they themselves had received it. Carew states that Saxham seems, ."..
to beckon from aloof, the weary pilgrim to thy roof... there's none observes (much less repines) how often this man sups or dines. Thou hast no porter at the door, 'T examine, or keep back the poor; ... ." The straightforwardness with which strangers were welcomed in such a house, combined with the fact that even thieves could not steal from the master of the house because he gave so much that whatever they would have stolen was theirs before they could try to take it, shows that the rich were generous with what they had and did not begrudge it to others.
However, it is important to note that this liberality with one's possessions was not restricted to the rich only. The common people as well were known to give away what they had without resentment, as was demonstrated in Jonson's work. The common people of the society did not harbor ill will toward those who lived in the country houses, because the house was seen as a sort of community gathering place where all were welcome, rather than an imposing symbol of the economic difference between the classes of people. Jonson explained this in "To Penshurst." He stated, of the walls of the home, "There's none that dwell about them wish them down, But all come in...
and no one empty-handed, to salute thy lord and lady, though they have no suit... ." The poorer people who were under the administration of those who lived in the home would go to the house merely to pay their respects and give what the could, and would not merely visit Penshurst when they had an issue or problem that they felt needed to be resolved. People felt welcome in the houses whether or not they had a valid or pressing reason for being present there. A painting by Gillis Van Tilborch also illustrated this fact. The Dole Ceremony at Tickborne House was a painting which depicted a country home in the background and large crowd of people surrounding it and receiving food.
Upon further research, it is discovered that the ceremony was an annual occurrence during which the owners of the home would dole out supplies to the poor people of the region. People came from areas surrounding the house to receive whatever was being given away. The people in the painting all appear to be content and calm; it seems an organized and respected affair rather than a frenzied effort to receive the best handouts first. On the whole, these houses were not seen as what they may at first appear to be; symbols of great wealth and fortune, which is what after all usually create the divide between social classes. On the contrary, the country houses described by Jonson and Carew actually seemed to be places which promoted equality.
Outside of the home perhaps the lords and common people would be conscious of their differences, but inside of the walls the disparities seemed to melt away. Everyone was a lord within the country home. Jonson confirmed this idea when he stated that Penshurst made it possible that .".. the same beer and bread and self-same wine that is his lordship's shall also be mine." Kings stopped in at country houses on their way home from expeditions and ate with whomever happened to be there. Everyone ate the same things and there was no differentiation between the social classes that could be detected through simple observation of how people were treated and what they were served.
Thus far, the concentration has been on the good relations between the people of the 17 th century. It does have to be stated, though, that not all relations were of the harmonious type that were described by Jonson and Carew. While the two men may have been giving a vivid portrait of what went on in those homes, one cannot help but wonder exactly how truthful they were being. After all, the authors did owe their livelihoods to their patrons, who happened to be the people who lived in the houses which were written about. It is only fair to be objective and include views which portray different relations between social classes. Francis Bacon was perhaps more willing to show the less glorified version of a country house.
In his essay, entitled "Of Plantations," he discussed the things that people should have when they went to a plantation to start a life, and the precautions that they should take. He did not idealize the lifestyle, and did not make it seem as though people who lived there would have nothing to do for themselves. He also showed the underside of the social situation in his statement, "It is a shameful and unblessed thing to take the scum of people, and wicked condemned men, to be the people with whom you plant... they will ever live like rogues... The people wherewith you plant ought to be gardeners, ploughmen, laborers... (43)." Although he did say that some laborers (common people) were good people and would be acceptable company in such a situation, he also stated that there were a sect of people who were "the scum." In a truly equal society where everyone was welcome in a place, there could not be a class which was looked down upon in such a way, since at that point there would have to be allowed some sort of censorship as to which people were allowed in the houses.
The fact that there was a classification of people who were deemed not acceptably civilized shows that the upper classes may have been generous to the people below them on the social pyramid, but this may have been done out of somewhat of a sense of pity in some cases, or with slight reservation and distrust. In examining the class distinctions and the consequences that came of them, John Webster's play, "The Duchess of Mali," is a useful tool. This play depicted the loyalty of the lower classes toward their richer counterparts, but it also showed instances where the poorer people were more instruments toward the will of their masters. The characters within the play who were used to portray the lower classes were the Duchess' waiting woman, Cariola, and Bosola, the man whom Ferdinand hired as a spy. Bosola played a role in the play as the man who was unsatisfied with his position in life and desired to better it.
He was referred to early on in the play as a man who .".. would be as lecherous, covetous, or proud... as any man, if he had means to be so." He saw himself as worthy of being in the upper classes, and was bitter at not being a member of the higher ranks of society. He told of his poor past when talking to the cardinal. He stated, " I have done you better service than to be slighted... I fell into the galleys of your service...
I wore two towels instead of a shirt." He bemoans the "miserable age" in which he lives, where the only reward for good service is the fact of having done it. He wants more validation for his service, and to be appreciated. He does not receive any such recognition, though, and in fact continues to be used by his superiors toward their own ends. During the play, Ferdinand orders Bosola to kill the Duchess, because she has married and had children without his knowledge. Once she and her children are killed, Bosola goes back to Ferdinand for the reward he is sure he is going to finally get. He is shocked when Ferdinand states, "I'll give thee a pardon for this murder," as his reward, rather than the more magnificent reward he was expecting.
The fact that Ferdinand could order Bosola to carry out a deed like that for him and then turn around and blame the man for having listened to him and followed his orders shows the hypocrisy that the upper classes were allowed. Bosola had no way of complaining against Ferdinand because the other man had so much more power than he did; the injustice would have to go uncorrected simply because of their different stations in life. A man of the upper class could have a crime carried out on his behalf and never see repercussions for it. Bosola ultimately realizes that he will never avoid repression from the higher social classes; they will always use him to their own ends. The only way out for Bosola in the end of the play, his only means of escaping the tyranny of the men above him, is finally to kill them. Cariola was also an example of a person in a lower position socially.
When the Duchess was ordered to be killed, her children and waiting-woman were included in the death sentence because of the relationship that they had with her. Although Cariola had not done anything worthy of being killed, she was seen as a connection to the Duchess, almost a piece of property, rather than as a person with her own life. She protests being killed, saying, "I will first come to my answer, and know how I have offended." The men do not take any heed of her protests, though, and she is killed regardless of the fact that she purports to have a man whom she is contracted to marry. The insignificance with which Cariola is viewed is a sharp contrast to how the common people of the country homes were supposedly treated. There were distinctly different social classes in the 17 th century, just as there were different ways of viewing and / or treating them. Some authors depicted the common people as being well-treated and appreciated, even necessary in the society in which they lived.
However, other authors also depicted similar societies in which the common people were viewed as almost instrumental; they could be used to one's own end and then discarded. With these conflicting accounts it becomes difficult to pinpoint one solid attitude toward the lower classes in that time period, and it becomes necessary to state that the way the people were treated differed depending on how the people in the social class above them chose to treat them.