Class Difference in the Renaissance and As You Like It
Notions about class distinctions during the Renaissance became more ambiguous than at any other period of time. "Many countries moved from a feudal to a capitalist economy, leading to some of the worst peasants' revolts in the history of Europe."(Aston) During the last quarter of the 1500's the conditions for social status and position were going through radical changes, as "the boundaries between the upper elite and the gentry as well as those between these groups and the wealthier professional classes below them were particularly ambiguous." (Bailey)
There came about a term called sorts, which essentially split the population into two roughly defined classes. There were the better sorts, which included the noblemen, gentlemen, and yeomen. The meaner sorts included the husbandmen, artisans, and laborers. The citizens or merchants could go into either category depending upon income, rank in society, local reputation, profession, and age. Citizens rose in the ranks due to an economic boom in "national trading, service industries, manufacturing businesses, and government posts." (Bailey) The laboring classes saw an increased number of skilled workers and the availability of printed literature provided educational advances. The traditional gauges of status such as "birth, wealth, occupation, political allegiance, and life style, as well as regional, religious, and professional affiliation," (Bailey) were beginning to fade.
To maintain some order, Queen Elizabeth declared a clothing proclamation in 1562. In summary, apparel was one of the primary means through which royalty and the upper class could proclaim their authority and power. One could only wear the outlined styles for the assigned class level. Upper classes had the option of wearing apparel assigned to any of the social classes below. In fact many nobles are said to have dressed in shepherd's garb or peasant clothing for entertainment. For the nobility, the life of a peasant or shepherd was romanticized. "Pastoral poetry and paintings of peasants at work were made for rich patrons and rarely showed any hint of hardship." (Aston) These works of art showed peasants in the field with shoes on their feet, well fed bodies, and brightly colored clothing. Ironically, peasant life was far different.
There were also men who moved downward from nobility into the newly empowered level of the merchant class due to the institution of primogeniture. Primogeniture can be described as, "the feudal rule of inheritance by which the whole of the real estate of an intestate passes to the eldest son. Introduced into England at the Norman Conquest, and still prevailing in most places in a modified form." (OED)
By the beginning of the 17th Century sons of merchants and yeomen shared their studies, work-lives, homes and perhaps beds with the sons of nobility. A lack of inheritance led many non-first...