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Subject History

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405189224.2011.x


The historian of modern Europe most regularly encounters or uses this concept as a means of positioning people within a hierarchy chiefly according to their perceived economic position, though sometimes with reference to other markers of social status as well. At the end of the ancien regime , commentators discussing the structure of society still made reference to its medieval division into three principal functional groupings: those who prayed (the first estate or clergy), those who fought (the second estate or aristocracy ), and those who worked (the third estate). Although privilege pervaded old-regime society, the first two orders enjoyed substantially more of it than the third, with the most significant manifestation being tax exemptions whose precise extent varied across Europe. While observers had long acknowledged differences of prestige and rank both between and within the various orders, by the late eighteenth century it had become clear that this tripartite structuring no longer accorded with the more complex social and economic realities which had now developed. Even if nobles continued largely to monopolize officerships and senior commands in the military, most of them no longer pursued the profession of arms that formed the supposed basis for their privileges. Similarly, lumping together all those who worked simply into a single category was to ignore obvious diversities. ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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