chapter  1
12 Pages

SOCIAL CLASSES

CLASS distinctions were far more real and important in the Middle Ages than they are to-day, and the distance between the upper and lower classes was far greater. Although poverty debars some persons from utilizing some privileges nominally open to all, preferential treatment is not now accorded to any class, but then the Aristocracy enjoyed many advantages. Great deference was paid to them by those who were lower in the social scale, and men sued to them for their favour. They possessed much political influence both in Parliament and outside it. We learn from the Paston Letters, that in 1472, the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk decided who should be Knights of the Shire for those counties, and that it was impossible for anyone else to be elected. They were so powerful that very often their misdeeds went unpunished, because they could not be brought to justice. If a poor man break his oath, says the poet Hoccleve, he is sent to prison, but no one dares openly to accuse a rich man, and great folks take the law into their own hands. The Liber Niger, which contains ordinances for the regulation of Edward IV's household, decrees that anyone under the rank of a baron swearing by God's body-..shall have nQwine at meals, but, ~l?PBtf·

ently, the higher nobles could do as they pleased. A proclamation announcing a performance of the Corpus Christi play at York orders that no man shall go armed, saving knights and squires of worship who ought to have their swords borne after them. At banquets the order of precedence was very strictly ,observed, and many cookery books give one recipe for preparing a dish " for a lorde " and another when it was intended for" commyn peple." Privileges such as these may seem rather trivial, but they illustrate the Medieval point of view.