The terms COMMON PEOPLE, COMMON MAN, COMMONERS, or the MASSES denote
a broad social division referring to ordinary people who are members
of neither royalty nor nobility nor the priesthood . Since the 20th
century, the term common people has been used in a more general sense
to refer to typical members of society in contrast to highly
privileged (in either wealth or influence).
* 1 History
* 2 Breakdown of the trifold division
* 3 Social divisions in non-Western civilisations
* 4 See also
* 5 Notes and references
* 6 Further reading
* 7 External links
In Europe, a distinct concept analogous to common people arose in the
Classical civilization of ancient Rome around the 6th century BC, with
the social division into patricians (nobles) and plebeians
(commoners). The division may have been instituted by Servius Tullius
, as an alternative to the previous clan based divisions that had been
responsible for internecine conflict. The ancient Greeks generally
had no concept of class and their leading social divisions were simply
non-Greeks, free-Greeks and slaves. The early organisation of Ancient
Athens was something of an exception with certain official roles like
archons , magistrates and treasurers being reserved for only the
wealthiest citizens – these class-like divisions were weakened by
the democratic reforms of
Cleisthenes who created new vertical social
divisions in contrasting fashion to the horizontal ones thought to
have been created by Tullius. A Medieval French manuscript
illustration depicting the three estates: clergy (oratores), nobles
(bellatores), and commoners (laboratores).
With the growth of Christianity in the 4th century AD, a new world
view arose that would underpin European thinking on social division
until at least early modern times. Saint Augustine postulated that
social division was a result of the
Fall of Man
Fall of Man . The three leading
divisions were considered to be the priesthood (clergy ), the
nobility, and the common people. Sometimes this would be expressed as
"those who prayed", "those who fought" and "those who worked". The
Latin terms for the three classes – oratores, bellatores and
laboratores – are often found even in modern textbooks, and have
been used in sources since the 9th century. This threefold division
was formalised in the estate system of social stratification , where
again commoners were the bulk of the population who are neither
members of the nobility nor of the clergy . They were the third of
Three Estates of the Realm in medieval Europe , consisting of
peasants and artisans .
Social mobility for commoners was limited throughout the Middle Ages
. Generally, the serfs were unable to enter the group of the
bellatores. Commoners could sometimes secure entry for their children
into the oratores class; usually they would serve as rural parish
priests. In some cases they received education from the clergy and
ascended to senior administrative positions; in some cases nobles
welcomed such advancement as former commoners were more likely to be
neutral in dynastic feuds. There were cases of serfs becoming clerics
Holy Roman Empire
Holy Roman Empire , though from the
Carolingian era , clergy
were generally recruited from the nobility. Of the two thousand
bishops serving from the 8th to the 15th century, just five came from
the peasantry .
Up until the late 15th-century European social order was relatively
stable. There were periods where the common people felt oppressed in
certain regions, but often they were content with their lot. In
12th-century England for example, while the common people would
sometimes complain about the "Norman yoke" there was almost no
unemployment and the average commoner only had to work only about 20
hours per week. Though incidents of savage brutality still occurred
in Europe, especially when one set of nobles displaced another, in
general nobles were seen as just protectors of the common people, as
was encouraged by Christian teaching. With early medieval times being
a period of close to absolute faith, the clergy were also highly
valued by the common people, bringing much happiness as at the time
there was close to universal belief that through sacraments such as
confession, the priest had the ability to ensure salvation.
The social and political order of medieval Europe was shaken by the
development of the mobile cannon in the 15th century. Up until that
time a noble with a small force could hold their castle or walled town
for years even against large armies - and so they were rarely
disposed. Once effective cannons were available, walls were of far
less defensive value and rulers needed expensive field armies to keep
control of a territory. This encouraged the formation of princely and
kingly states, which needed to tax the common people much more heavily
to pay for the expensive weapons and armies required to provide
security in the new age. Up until the late 15th century, surviving
medieval treaties on government were concerned with advising rulers on
how to serve the common good: Assize of Bread is an example of
medieval law specifically drawn up in the interests of the common
people. But then works by
Philippe de Commines , Niccolò Machiavelli
Cardinal Richelieu began advising rulers to consider their
own interests and that of the state ahead of what was "good", with
Richelieu explicitly saying the state is above morality in doctrines
such as Raison d\'Etat . This change of orientation among the nobles
left the common people less content with their place in society. A
similar trend occurred regarding the clergy, where many priests began
to abuse the great power they had due to the sacrament of contrition.
The Reformation was a movement that aimed to correct this, but even
afterward the common people's trust in the clergy would continue to
decline – priests were often seen as greedy and lacking in true
faith. An early major social upheaval driven in part by the common
people's mistrust of both the nobility and clergy occurred in Great
Britain with the English Revolution of 1642. After the forces of
Oliver Cromwell triumphed, movements like the
Levellers rose to
prominence demanding equality for all. When the general council of
Cromwell's army met to decide on a new order at the
Putney Debates of
1647, one of the commanders, Colonel
Thomas Rainsborough , requested
that political power be given to the common people. According to
historian Roger Osbourne, the Colonel's speech was the first time a
prominent person spoke in favour of universal male suffrage, but it
was not to be granted until 1918. After much debate it was decided
that only those with considerable property would be allowed to vote,
and so after the revolution political power in England remained
largely controlled by the nobles, with at first only a few of the most
wealthy or well-connected common people sitting in Parliament.
The rise of the bourgeoisie during the Late
Middle Ages , had seen an
intermediate class of wealthy commoners develop, which ultimately gave
rise to the modern middle classes . Middle-class people could still be
called commoners however, for example in England
Pitt the Elder was
often called the Great Commoner, and this appellation was later used
for the 20th-century American anti-elitist campaigner William Jennings
Bryan . The interests of the middle class were not always aligned with
their fellow commoners of the working class.
Karl Polanyi wrote that in 19th-century Britain, the
new middle class turned against their fellow commoners by seizing
political power from the upper classes via the
Reform Act 1832
Reform Act 1832 . Early
industrialisation had been causing economic distress to large numbers
of working class commoners, leaving them unable to earn a living. The
upper classes had provided protection such as workhouses where inmates
could happily "doss" about and also a system of "outdoor" relief
both for the unemployed and those on low income. Though early middle
class opposition to the
Poor Law reform of William Pitt the Younger
had prevented the emergence of a coherent and generous nationwide
provision, the resulting
Speenhamland system did generally save
working class commoners from starvation. In 1834 outdoor relief was
abolished , and workhouses were deliberately made into places so
dehumanising that folk would often prefer to starve rather than enter
them. For Polanyi this related to the economic doctrine prevalent at
the time which held that only the spur of hunger could make workers
flexible enough for the proper functioning of the free market. Later
Laissez-faire free market doctrine led to British officials
turning a blind eye to the suffering in the Irish potato famine and
various Indian famines and acts of exploitation in colonial
adventures. By the late 19th century, at least in mainland Britain,
economic progress has been sufficient that even the working class were
generally able to earn a good living, so working and middle class
interests began to converge, lessening the division within the ranks
of common people. Polanyi writes that on continental Europe middle and
working class interests did not diverge anywhere near as markedly as
they had in Britain.
BREAKDOWN OF THE TRIFOLD DIVISION
US Vice President
Henry A. Wallace
Henry A. Wallace proclaimed the "arrival of
the century of the common man" in a 1942 speech broadcast nationwide
in the United States.
French Revolution , the
Napoleonic wars and with
industrialization , the division in three estates - nobility, clergy
and commoners - had become somewhat outdated. The term "common people"
continued to be used, but now in a more general sense to refer to
regular people as opposed to the privileged elite.
Communist theory divided society into capitalists on one hand, and
the proletariat or the masses on the other. In
Marxism , the people
are considered to be the creator of history. By using the word
"people", Marx did not gloss over the class differences, but united
certain elements, capable of completing the revolution. The
Intelligentsia's sympathy for the common people gained strength in the
19th century in many countries. For example, in Imperial Russia a big
part of the intelligentsia was striving for its emancipation. Several
great writers (Nekrasov, Herzen, Tolstoy etc.) wrote about sufferings
of the common people. Organizations, parties and movements arose,
proclaiming the liberation of the people. These included among others:
"People\'s Reprisal ", "People’s Will ", "Party of Popular Freedom "
and the "People's Socialist Party".
In the United States, a famous 1942 speech by vice president Henry A.
Wallace proclaimed the arrival of the "century of the common man"
saying that all over the world the "common people" were on the march,
specifically referring to Chinese, Indians, Russians, and as well as
Americans. Wallace's speech would later inspire the widely reproduced
Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland. In 1948,
Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman made a speech saying there needs to be
a government "that will work in the interests of the common people and
not in the interests of the men who have all the money."
SOCIAL DIVISIONS IN NON-WESTERN CIVILISATIONS
Oswald Spengler found the social separation
into nobility, priests and commoners to occur again and again in the
various civilisations that he surveyed (although the division may not
exist for pre-civilised society). As an example, in the Babylonian
The Code of Hammurabi made provision for punishments to
be harsher for harming a noble than a commoner.
The Common Man
Tyranny of the majority
Tyranny of the majority
NOTES AND REFERENCES
* ^ A B C Gary Day (2001). Class.
Routledge . pp. 2–10. ISBN
* ^ Though
Plato did recognise a fundamental division into rich and
poor – "Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one
the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these two cities are at
The Republic (Plato)
The Republic (Plato) , Part I, book IV.
* ^ A B Roger Osborne (2006). Civilization: A New History of the
Western World. Jonathan Cape Ltd;. pp. 52–56, 292–297. ISBN
* ^ "The Three Orders".
Boise State University . Retrieved
* ^ See for example:
* McCord, William; McCord, Arline (2000). "
Social stratification in
agrarian societies". In Stephen K. Sanderson. Sociological worlds:
comparative and historical readings on society. Taylor & Francis. pp.
180–182. ISBN 1-57958-284-2 . Referred to as the "common folk", the
"common people" and "Serfs" in the description. CS1 maint: Uses
editors parameter (link )
* Nutini, Hugo G.; Isaac, Barry L. (2009). "Estates and Classes".
Social stratification in central Mexico, 1500-2000. University of
Texas Press. pp. 20–23. ISBN 0-292-71944-2 .
* ^ DEVAILLY, Le Berry du X siècle au milieu du XIII siècle, p.
201; CHEDEVILLE, Chartres et ses campagnes, p.336.
* ^ PERROY, E., Le Monde carolingien, Paris, SEDES, 2.ª ed., 1975,
* ^ BRETT, M., Middle Ages, Encyclopædia Britannica, 15.ª ed.,
1979, 12, p.1965.
* ^ Even as late as the 17th century the English common people
would still complain about the Normans, as they felt they had enjoyed
more privileges before the Norman conquest had replaced the previous
Anglo Saxon nobility with Normans– see Civilisation (2006) Roger
Osbour p 293
* ^ David Boyle (2009). "Why do Modern Britons Work Harder than
Medieval Peasants?". The New Economics: A Bigger Picture. EarthScan.
pp. 77–95. ISBN 1-84407-675-X .
* ^ Michael Howard (1976). War in European history. Oxford
Paperbacks. p. 5. ISBN 0-19-289095-6 . Knighthood was a way of life,
sanctioned and civilised by the ceremonies of the Church until it was
almost indistinguishable from ecclesiastical order of the monasteries:
equally dedicated, equally holy, the ideal to which medieval
Christendom aspired. This remarkable blend of Germanic warrior and
Latin sacerdos lay at the root of all medieval culture
* ^ A B Spengler, Oswald (1922). The Decline of the west(An
abridged edition). Vintage Books, 2006. pp. passim , see esp
335–337. ISBN 1-4000-9700-2 .
* ^ A B C
Philip Bobbitt (2003). The Shield of Achilles: War,
Peace, and the Course of History . Penguin. pp. 80 , 108, 486. ISBN
* ^ Outdoor relief means monetary or other assistance given to the
poor without them needing to enter a workhouse to receive it.
* ^ Though some Lords, Ladys and well to do church people continued
to offer it, in defiance of the Law.
Karl Polanyi (2002). The Great Transformation . Beacon Press.
ISBN 978-0-8070-5643-1 .
* ^ Henry Wallace (February 1942). "The Century of the Common Man".
Winrock International. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29.
* ^ Byron Almnn; Edward Pearsall (2006). Approaches to meaning in
Indiana University Press
Indiana University Press . p. 88. ISBN 978-0-253-34792-3 .
Robert Reich (2012-11-09). "The real lesson from Obama’s
Financial Times . Retrieved 2012-11-09. (registration
* ^ Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society By Marvin
Perry, Myrna Chase, Margaret C. Jacob, James R. Jacob, page 13
* The common people: a history from the Norman Conquest to the
J. F. C. Harrison Fontana Press (1989)
* The concept of class: a historical introduction Peter Calvert
Palgrave Macmillan (1985)