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Class categorization, capitalism, and the problem of "gentle" identity in The Royall King and the Loyall Subject and Eastward Ho!


THOMAS Heywood's often strangely named, definitely oddly plotted plays clearly call attention to themselves, but often because they seem so generically uncontainable. Yet whether we call some of them romances, others history plays, and still others city comedies, the fact remains that they all address the complex class issues present within early modern English society as a result of economic shifts from a feudal to a precapitalist, precolonialist society. The Royall King and the Loyall Subject (ca. 1603) is no exception. The play's main plot involves an examination of the nobility of the Lord Martiall (Marshal) of England. After his return from waging a successful war in which he personally saves his monarch's life, the Martiall is shown to be a character who is totally devoted to the king and absolutely aware of the services he must provide his monarch, even if such service means putting himself in grave danger. Such devotion naturally produces jealousy within court circles, and the other nobles poison Martiall's reputation with the king. Consequently, the loyal soldier must endure a series of humiliating setbacks until his true nobility--and the nobles' plots--are revealed. The subplot involves a Captain Bonvile who returns from the same war seemingly impoverished. Profligate in his youth, the captain uses the war to "show" that he is now completely poor in an attempt to discover who among his friends values him for his personal qualities and who solely for his money. While these two plots seem completely unrelated to the economic shifts in early modern English society, I argue that they are both implicated in issues of class identity exacerbated by movement toward a capitalist/colonialist economy. Indeed, I will argue that The Royall King and the Loyall Subject--along with Eastward Ho!--engage with, as well as reflect upon, contemporary arguments/discussions of changing class roles in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England.

The Royall King and the Loyall Subject raises a number of issues I particularly want to examine. In it Heywood seems to be redefining the concepts of "nobility" and "gentry" at least partially within the context of the marketplace. Such a redefinition could suggest that the playwright is flattering his middle-class, primarily non-noble audience by demonstrating that the hierarchichal wielders of political power may be less capable than his hardworking audience members. I would go even further and argue that Heywood's plays often demonstrate that, in contrast to "received wisdom," successful occupation of any class position is not simply a question of birth, but a result of economic prowess or the possession of a specific talent. Since money is revealed as necessary both to appear at court and to marry well, nobles and gentlemen can be viewed as "tradesmen" consistently engaged in economic transactions by "selling" themselves--through self-fashioning--or "buying" the regard of their overlords. (1) The laws of the marketplace, therefore, do not only govern the dealings of the London merchant. Heywood suggests they also govern the operations of court life and the very nature of nobility in the early modern precapitalist state.


"Class" in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not mean exactly the same thing it does in the early twenty-first century. Our understanding of "class" has been highly influenced by Marx's presentations of the nature of classes under and produced by capitalism and highly mediated by how those understandings were employed by other Marxist/socialist or capitalist theorists. For us today, "class" is not a simple notion. The highly mediated term carries such vast freight that it is almost impossible to move it out of its primarily economic sphere, much less out of its eighteenth- to nineteenth-century capitalist origins. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, "class" was more category than concept. Medieval philosophers and theorists strove to make sense out of their world by ordering it into various categories. While we may question both the legitimacy and the efficacy of E. M. W. Tillyard's "Great Chain of Being," the fact remains that such ordering systems did exist in the Middle Ages and did carry forward into the early modern period. We can argue as to the reasons why and the degree to which such systems developed, but I want to focus here on the fact that they did develop and to stress/suggest that they developed as a way to try to make order out of chaos. I don't want to suggest that medieval or early modern society was necessarily disordered. I do want to suggest, however, that trying to make order out of chaos is a way of trying to control cultural, social, or even personal upheavals that appear to be uncontrollable.

William Harrison's The Description of England (1577, 1587) and Sir Thomas Smith's De Republica Anglorum (1583) are two of many early modern works that model this "Great Chain of Being" preoccupation with ordering. What I am particularly interested in examining in these texts is their practice of organizing society into hierarchical rankings. These authors have no problems when it comes to ranking the nobility, the landed gentry, merchants, and serfs (villeins). As a result, the sections of their works dealing with these classes are predictable and repetitious. Where they become confused--and where the works in consequence become very interesting--is in dealing with the "new" classes that developed in the late sixteenth century as a result of changes in the English economy resulting from the beginnings of capitalism and colonialism and the creation of the great trading companies. Suddenly, a "gentleman" was not always a man whose birth was "gentle." And there were huge categories of professions--barristers, agents and factors, merchant adventurers, traders, moneylenders, ship owners and leasers, and so on--that were impossible to categorize within existing, primarily feudal structures. As a result, works that recorded the social order also recorded the fears and exasperations of writers who were trying to chronicle the actual lived experience of a society in almost constant flux. Playwrights like Thomas Heywood recorded the traumas attached to these transitional times with a humor that almost covered over social fear. Perhaps authors of class manuals, like Harrison and Smith, were less successful in doing this and more clearly replicated the confusion they saw within their societies. While such confusion is fearful and traumatic, examinations of the crux of the transition, the place where the "rubber" of an ordered feudal class system meets "the road" of a burgeoning precapitalist empire that is in the process of creating its own class structure allows us not only a sharper insight into Heywood's plays and the society they represent, but a justification for the use of more twentieth-/twenty-first-century concepts of class as a modality of analysis for the precapitalist, precolonialist plays of the early modern period.

"Class" has always been a problematic term to employ when discussing social hierarchies in England either before or during the early modern period. Some may object to using the term to refer to social groupings in early modern England because the country was not fully capitalist. While I would argue that England's protocapitalist economic situation--irrevocably moving toward a full-fledged capitalist/imperialist formation--allows one to begin considering social groups by the term "class," I also acknowledge that there are some problems to using such a designation. According to Stephen Edgell, for example, "[t]he modern vocabulary of class is inextricably associated with the total reorganization of society that followed the industrial revolution" (1). Consequently, class as a social/economic category was not thought to exist prior to the eighteenth century. Additionally, many twentieth-century notions of class are closely tied to Marxist analysis, which is based on nineteenth-century social formations. Thus, those of us in early modern studies who have been studying those social formations that are known in the twenty-first century as "classes" have often been forced to use vague, only partially helpful terms--like "gentry," "middling sort," "commoners," "artisans," and so on--to discuss groups that, in later centuries, would more easily be analyzed in class terms. In this essay I want to argue for the use of class as a legitimate modality of analysis in the early modern period. Specifically, I want to consider how classical Marxist analysis, as well as later twentieth-century expansions of this analysis, can be helpful for understanding the social/economic conditions in the early modern period. To do this, I want first to explore some problems attendant upon the use of existing terms for social organization and proceed to consider that the beginnings of "class identity" and "class characteristics"--as reflected in the drama of the period--justify the use of class as a modality of analysis. However, since I do realize the problems inherent in the use of "class" to refer to early modern social formations, I will also gesture toward these in the course of this essay.


In classical Marxist analysis, as Richard Breen and David B. Rottman indicate, an individual's class is determined by his/her relationship to the means of production, especially when the relationship is exploitive (27, 24). (2) While Barry Hindess does not deny this observation (15), his analysis of class encompasses broader social/economic/political relations: "classes are regarded as major social forces that arise out of fundamental structural features of society and they are supposed to have significant and wide-ranging social and political consequences.... In Marx's view, classes are the main contending forces in society and they provide the key to the understanding of politics and to the identification of the forces promoting or resisting social change" (1, 3). Further, groups become classes "only as a consequence of the members' growing awareness of a community of interests" (22). Hindess's expansion of Marx's initial concept of class is characteristic of the work of many late twentieth-century Marxist theorists who use Marx as a springboard from which to proceed to an analysis of social formations never conceived of by the nineteenth-century theorist. In taking Marxist theory forward and modifying it for use as a means to explore late twentieth-century social formations, these current thinkers grant Marxism both a power and a flexibility that classical Marxist theorists shy away from. I am particularly interested in Christine Delphy's modifications of Marx because I want to use a method similar to hers to read Marxism back to the early modern period in an attempt to open up difficult late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century social formations for deeper consideration.

But before I proceed to Delphy, I want briefly to consider how Jack L. Amariglio, Stephen A. Resnick, and Richard D. Wolff expand upon the definition(s) of class posited by Hindess and Breen and Rottman. The former group states that "class functions in the social totality, neither as the determinant 'in the last instance' of the processes that make up a central concept of Marxist theory from which all other concepts are derived or to which they must always defer" (488). They also indicate that, in Marxist theory, "the concept of class serves as an initial position or thesis," yet "its meaning changes as its political, economic, and cultural conditions change.... The ceaseless and mutual interaction between the concepts of class and nonclass processes is precisely how Marxist discourse develops" (488). (3) I want to call attention to the critics' contention that the concept of class changes and that its meaning is constructed through discussion and interactions between various concepts of class. Further, Amariglio, Resnick, and Wolff maintain that "Class position does not refer to always already contested class agents. Rather, agents participate and are located in class processes in contradictory ways;... class struggles refer, then, to struggles over fundamental and subsumed class processes by agents who occupy different class and nonclass positions; they do not refer to 'classes of individuals' struggling" (491). Thus the concept of class is not only always contested, but individuals may hold many, even contradictory, class positions.

Delphy's basic notion of class as coming about specifically through the relationships between classes is very Marxist: "The concept of class ... implies that each group cannot be considered separately from the other because they are bound together by a relationship of domination;... Groups are no longer sui generis, constituted before coming into relationships with one another. On the contrary, it is their relationship that constitutes them as such" (266). Yet her use of Marxist theory represents a clear example of the flexibility employed by late twentieth-century Marxists. In her article "Patriarchy, Domestic Mode of Production, Gender, and Class," Delphy makes two important points I wish to acknowledge. The first is her reflection upon the way definitions and understandings of social formations vary and differ over time: "Many people think that when they have found the point of origin of an institution in the past, they hold the key to its present existence. But they have, in fact, explained neither its present existence nor even its birth (its first appearance), for one must explain its existence at each and every moment by the context prevailing at the time; and its persistence today (if it really is persistence) must be explained by the present context" (261). The second is her acknowledgment of the problem(s) implied in trying to analyze late twentieth-century women's relationships to the patriarchal society of which they are members but usually not beneficiaries. She justifies her use of the term "class" to refer to women in her analysis of their place within the patriarchal hierarchy because it "works" in terms of allowing the analysis to proceed in an understandable, if not absolutely perfect, way. She defends her very untraditional use of "class" in the following way: "Thus one of the objections that has been made to my use of the concepts 'mode of production' and 'class' has been that these concepts were created to describe other situations and that in using them I deny the specificity of our [women's] oppression. But analysis proceeds by a kind of logical 'butchery.' To understand a phenomenon, one begins by breaking it down into bits, which are later reassembled" (263). In the course of this essay, I will be "butchering" classical Marxist notions of class in order to make sense of the extremely complex class hierarchy of early modern England. I will also take hold of Delphy's important suggestion that definitions of social formations must be understood over time. Her point that examining only the definition at "point of origin" gives a false sense of what the term means now--or between origin and now--is very important, I believe, for the analysis of class I want to make. I want to stress not only that definitions of class can change and modify over time, but that concepts of what class means can similarly vary. Her point is reinforced by Amariglio, Resnick, and Wolff, who state that "it is only possible to designate specific class processes at a given historical moment" (491 and note 3). Thus the various classes of early modern England must not simply be defined in relationship to the means of production, but in relationship to each other. The latter comparison provides a way for each class to create or (re)negotiate its own class identity, not simply in purely Marxist terms, but in socially "relative" ones as well.


Various treatises on the social organization of England appeared from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. While certainly not as many as treatises or sermons on marriage or the family, there were still a good enough number of such works to suggest the importance of hierarchical social organization, especially the importance of trying to understand those emerging social groups that were not easily able to be described. These texts as a body tried to answer at least three main questions: first, what constituted "true nobility"; second, how was society organized according to the feudal/agricultural pattern; and third, how were the new urban classes, resulting primarily from the development of capitalism, to be understood both on their own terms as well as in conjunction with the older feudal categories. But while answering these "overt" questions was the goal of the tracts, there seems to have been a "covert" question that was examined, if not always answered, by some texts: how was society to deal with that most fluid of groups, the "gentry," especially since its "definition" allowed it to be considered both in "feudal" as well as "capitalist" terms? I would like to consider the first three purposes listed above before focusing on the "covert"--and much more important--question of how to "read" the category of "gentry" during this period.

The question of what constitutes true nobility can be traced back at least as far as Buonaccorso da Montemagno's (d. 1429) De vera nobilitate. (4) In this debate, the Roman Fulgeus's daughter Lucresse must choose between two suitors: the wealthy and nobly born Publius Cornelius, who is morally degenerate personally, and Gaius Flaminius, a man of lower birth who is morally upright. Although the winning suitor is never named, Gaius Flaminius's final sentences serve to focus the issues of the debate and suggest that he is, indeed, the winner: "nevertheless, the issue of this controversy is this: this day honesty striveth with unshamefacedness, continence with lust, Magnanimity with Cowardice, lecture with Inscience and virtue with negligence. And whether of these parties is the better, I leave it to your doom and sentence" (Buonaccorso, 241). Setting the debate in ancient Rome where class distinctions among the freeborn were perhaps less noticed by fifteenth-century Europeans allowed the focus to be on personal virtue rather than on birth. This question was still important at the end of the fifteenth century when Henry Medwall used it as the subject of his interlude Fulgens and Lucres (ca. 1497) presented at the home of John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury and Henry VII's lord chancellor. By allowing Lucres to choose Gaius Flaminius, a lower-born scholar who is a servant of the state, Medwall's play validates personal accomplishment--and personal virtue--as a means for acquiring nobility, or at least the status of "gentleman." At the time the play was written, much of the "born" nobility and gentry of England had been decimated by the Wars of the Roses. In order to be filled, the "courtier class" had to contain men, like Gaius Flaminius, who had useful qualities that were not necessarily tied to their birth. The clergy had always provided a means whereby talented men--like John Morton or Thomas Wolsey, the reputed butcher's son who became cardinal, papal legate, and ultimately lord chancellor to Henry VIII--could rise to positions of power in the secular world. But Medwall's play suggests that men who were not members of the clergy might similarly possess traits that would make them useful servants of the state. In fact, two of Henry VIII's lords chancellor--Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell--represented this new, non-nobly born courtier class. Both men achieved their "gentility" through university attendance and the practice of law. But while More was the son of a barrister and followed a fairly "traditional" educational pattern, entering Oxford at about sixteen years of age and Lincoln's Inn at eighteen, Cromwell's antecedents were less "professional." While his father seems to have had ample investments in trade--being a blacksmith, fuller, and cloth shearer and also keeping a hostelry and brew house--the son was at times a common soldier, a merchant's clerk, a wool dealer, and a moneylender before he became a lawyer and set on the road to his career in politics. Elizabeth I seems to have followed her father's example in choosing a certain class of men to serve her. Neither William Cecil, Lord Burghley, nor Francis Walsingham came from old, established families, though Burghley's father had been constable of Warwick Castle and high sheriff of Rutland. The founder of the Walsingham family was a cordwainer and his son a vintner. Elizabeth's lord treasurer and her spymaster both attended university and, like More and Cromwell, moved into government from the study of law. Given the backgrounds of the men who received royal preferment in Henry VIII's and Elizabeth's reigns, it is not surprising that the definition of "nobility" or "gentleman" had become somewhat flexible by the middle of the sixteenth century.

Heywood's The Royall King and the Loyall Subject can be seen as a later incarnation of Medwall's Fulgens and Lucrece. It is also a much more complex play as it examines two very different notions of true nobility. The main plot involving the Lord Martiall bears a closer resemblance to Medwall's dialectic between nobility of character vs. nobility of birth. There is no doubt that Heywood's Martiall is nobly born; he would not have been named Lord Martiall in the just concluded war against the infidel had he not been. Yet the nobility we are confronted with as the play begins is purely of the personal variety. In the course of one battle, the king was unhorsed twice. At each time, he recalls,
 My noble Martiall,
 Did ... bestride me, and beneath his Targe
 Methought that infant did I lie as safe
 As in my best and strongest Cittadell;...
 (1, p. 6) (5)

So exceptional was the Martiall's service in the battle that the king indicates that "although my Subject, / Yet in this ... thou hast prov'd my Lord" (1, p. 6). Lest we worry that the Martiall overreact to such high praise, his immediate response to his ruler shows us his view of his place in his country's hierarchy:
 I am your vassal, and ten thousand lives
 Of equall ranke with mine, subjects and servants,
 Be over-rated if compar'd with yours.
 (1, p. 6).

This short interchange serves to present the character of the Lord Martiall as completely noble. Not only has he risked his life twice to protect his king in battle, but he diplomatically corrects his monarch's inappropriate compliment that inverts the correct lord/subject relationship. Using feudal terms, the Lord Martiall stresses that he is the vassal, duty bound to serve his lord. Whatever amazing feats he may have accomplished on the battlefield are simply manifestations of his duty to his lord.

The king, however, is determined to reward the Martiall and creates him "Next to our selfe in power," and "our friend" (1, p. 6). Luckily the king's dutiful son agrees with his father's estimation of the Martiall. Not so some of the other nobles. The very extensive rewards showered on the Martiall incite a number of nobles to excessive jealousy, especially since the Martiall's exemplary deeds as a loyal servant continue. The jealous nobles' only recourse is to try to stain the Martiall's reputation. They carry to the king untrue tales of the Martiall's nonsubjective behavior. Having so excessively praised his Martiall and elevated him almost above himself, the king has created his own reasons for doubting the Martiall's probity. But despite the campaign to discredit him--waged initally by the nobles and later, to a greater degree, by the king himself--the Martiall accepts everything meted out by the king as a truly noble subject should. In the course of the play, the Martiall takes on the character of a male "Patient Griselda," loyally serving his lord (the king) as Griselda loyally serves hers (her husband). Eventually, of course, the king is made to see his error, and the Martiall is restored to his positon as chief among nobles.

The issues revealed by the main plot of The Royall King and the Loyall Subject are neither unusual nor particularly interesting. The king's initial impulses are correct: the Martiall is an exceptional subject and should be greatly rewarded. However, the excessive reward and regard provided by the king angers his other subjects and forces them into a jealous reaction that serves temporarily to poison the king's assessment of the Martiall. Clinton and Chester are clearly examples of bad subjects/vassals, those who poison their monarch's opinions for their own gain. Yet we can argue that their initial reactions are justified; no monarch should refer to a vassal as his lord. But while the Martiall himself tries to make the king see his errors of judgment, Clinton and Chester do not join the Martiall in his justified challenge of the king's rhetoric. In acting against the Martiall behind his back--and by articulating their own jealousy at his good fortune--they represent both the ignobility and poor advice often found at court among a monarch's advisors. Heywood has taken the question of what constitutes true nobility and moved it into a more contemporary situation raising the kinds of issues of integrity discussed by Castiglione in The Courtier (1528). The main plot of The Royall King and the Loyall Subject asks the following questions: To what extent can/should/must a monarch/lord reward a subject/vassal? Can/should the reward challenge the existing hierarchichal order of society? What obligations do noble subjects/vassals have to point out errors in their monarch's thinking? Are noble subjects/vassals obliged to act primarily for their lord's good or for their own? To what extent must noble subjects/vassals submit themselves completely to their lord? All of these questions comment on the characteristics of true nobility laid out by Buonaccorso and Medwall except birth and wealth. In the Lord Martiall's case, neither of these factors are at issue since his birth is clearly noble and his wealth enormous. These latter two factors do attain primary importance in the secondary plot of The Royall King and the Loyall Subject, which I will examine later.

The treatises written in England from the mid-sixteenth century on were very aware of the role of birth in determining nobility. Lawrence Humfrey, in The Nobles or of Nobilitye (1563), points out that there are "thre sortes" of nobility:
 First, truly and properly those which are noble through their house &
 au[n]cestors.... An other sorte of nobility there is, begonne of it
 selfe: famous throughe no commendacion of house or [coat of] armes,
 but nobled by her owne dedes and industry.... The third and noblest
 sorte, is not semple, but compounde of eyther, con sistyinge of suche,
 as with theyr owne trauayle, giftes, and ornaments, amply-fie, and
 encrease thenheritaunce, of the receiued name from theyr auncestours.
 So, as they be not onely parteners of theyr nobilitie, but resemble
 them also, in imitacion of their dedes: Not only evening but euen
 surmounting them. (d5v, e4v, e6)

Humfrey's explanation rescues us from the either/or binary of Buonaccorso and Medwall. The question remains, though, as to why it is necessary to expand the options of nobility? Ideally, of course, those of noble birth were to behave nobly and perform these noble actions for the honor of their family, their overlord, and their realm. But ideal situations rarely exist, and nobly born men may often have been less than noble in their behavior. Similarly, men of noble action may technically have not been of noble birth. This situation seems to have been prevalent under the Tudors, especially after the depletion of so much of the ancient landed aristocracy during the Wars of the Roses. But while Humfrey, like Buonaccorso and Medwall, acknowledges the possibility of nobility of action, he seems uneasy setting such behavior up against nobility of birth. Thus his third category, the "noblest sorte" of nobility, is that which combines the ideal condition of noble birth with nobility of character. That Humfrey needed to place these kinds of nobles in their own category reinforces the fact that, by the mid-sixteenth century, nobility of birth did not guarantee nobility of action or virtuous behavior. While Humfrey seems to allow the possibility that those of noble character can be deemed noble--option 2--they are still not as noble as those who can combine nobility of birth with virtuous action. This notion of three types of nobility is also found in John Ferne's The Blazon of Gentrie (1586), (6) which stresses in a side note that "Noblenes of blood only, without vertue or merit, is the meanest nobilitie" (Bviii). Similarly, Richard Johnson, in The Nine Worthies of London (1592), indicates that nobles are not necessarily "kinges and mightie potentates," but those whose "vertues made them great, and whose renowne sprung not of the noblenes of their birth, but of the notable toowardnesse of their well qualified mindes; advaunced not with loftie titles, but praysed for the triall of their heroycal truthes" (439). By the time Henry Peacham's The Compleat Gentleman appeared in 1627, nobility of character seems to have outstripped birth as the preeminent characteristic of the estate:
 Nobilitie then ... is nothing else then a certaine emenency, or notice
 taken of someone aboue the rest, for some notable act performed, be it
 good or ill;... Neither must we Honor or esteeme those ennobled, or
 made Gentle in blood, who by mechanicke and base meanes, haue raked
 vp a masse of wealth, or because they follow some great man,... since
 Nobilitie hangeth not vpon the aiery esteeme of vulgar opinion, but is
 indeed of itselfe essentiall and absolute .... whether Poverty
 im-peacheth or staineth Nobilitie. I answere, Riches are an ornament,
 not the cause of Nobilitie;... Beside, Nobilitie stirreth up emulation
 in great Spirits, not onely of equalling others, but excelling
 them;... (B3v, B4, C3v, Dv)

Here we begin to see an elision between the terms nobility and gentry. Those of noble birth are members of the gentry, but earlier authors usually made a distinction between nobility and gentry within the social hierarchy, using nobility of birth to refer primarily to those born with titles. But Peacham also raises the question of money, which had not been previously considered. For this author, "Riches" bear no relationship to nobility. This divorcing of income or personal substance from nobility suggests that at this time titles could be, or were being, purchased. (7)

This long-term debate regarding what constituted "true" nobility--birth or personal virtue--can in some sense be regarded as a romantic reaction to a more cynical desire to know just where a person fit within the nation's social hierarchy. Sylvia Thrupp has argued that specific class affiliations began to be used regularly in 1414 as the result of a 1413 statute (1H.V, c.5) that required that "in all original writs and appeals concerning personal actions and in all indictments in which process of outlawry lay, the defendant's place of residence and his 'estate, degree or mystery' be given; this tended to bring about similarly precise identification of individuals named in other types of records, including quasi-legal documents such as wills" (236). Thus determing whether a man was "noble"--or in the case of this statute "gentle"--was a strictly legal matter perhaps tied to a redefinition of the system of inherited gentility. According to K. B. McFarlane, "in 1300 there was only one heritable rank in England, that of earl; by 1500 there were five" (123). By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the term "gentleman" described a man belonging "to the lowest stratum of the armigerous, below that of esquire, in its turn below that of knight" (122). The term "lord" was more broadly defined as anyone "above a knight bachelor.... By the beginning of the sixteenth century a small and graded upper class of 'lords' numbering between fifty and sixty had emerged in possession of rank and privilege which marked them off from lesser men" (123, 268).

Thrupp sees the knights, esquires, and "gentils" as "an extension of the baronage, which was directly rooted in the land system of the age [and g]entility was associated with the four military ranks of knight, banneret, esquire, and man-at-armes,..." (237, 239). That judges were often made knights caused a rethinking of the social rank of those associated with the law, and by the end of the fifteenth century "attorneys were being recognized as gentlemen, a distinction of rank being drawn between qualified professional men and those who hung about the courts in less reputable capacities,..." (Thrupp 242). (8) Thus by the late medieval period, the concept of "gentility" was no longer strictly viewed as a conditon of birth, nor tied to a specific economic criterion, nor to the ownership of land. According to Thrupp, "gentility was [seen as] a matter of secure employment, of power and influence and of the attributes that flowed therefrom;... gentility could be derived solely from the function exercised on the lord's behalf. It could be bestowed simply by promotion ..." (245). And, more importantly, according to 1448 and 1450 legal opinions, the temporary gentility bestowed by position "could be lost on dismissal from the office" (245).

Even though gentle status, like ambassadorial rank in England today, could be lost if one vacated the position that granted such status, the presumption apparently was that those acquiring gentle status through positions at court or in government would be of the born gentry or, at least, of the legal profession. However, like lawyers and members of the minor gentry, merchants could also be considered gentlemen if they had "a household appointment that carried the pay and rank of a gentleman or esquire ..." (Thrupp, 269-70). They could also lose the rank once the appointment terminated, but such an appointment suggested that there was, at least in some cases, a direct correlation between earnings/money and class rank. Some merchants possessed coats-of-arms, a mark of the gentry, which could be obtained in several ways: by inheritance from relatives born to gentle rank; by royal grant; by "purchase of an official patent from a herald ..." (251). Such possession raises the possibility that the lowest rank of the gentry was, to some degree at least, permeable, penetrable, and purchasable. Fears of entry by men whose birth made them "unqualified" for such rank--though their talents and wealth may have made them "overqualified"--might have contributed to the various definitions of nobility/gentility as residing in birth and/or behavior.

The secondary plot of The Royall King and the Loyall Subject involves the returning soldier, Captain Bonvile. Although his cousin is the courtier Lord Bonvile, we are often unsure as to the captain's exact rank, even though his actions throughout the play are "noble" in the sense of "morally upright." The captain's own self-description is more ironic than direct. Early on he claims to be "descended nobly; for I am descended so low, that all the cloaths of my back are scarce worth a Noble" (1, p. 14). Similarly, he advises Lord Clinton that "the Kings favour hath made you a Baron, and the Kings warres have made me a bare one" (1, p. 17). Does his poverty deny the captain nobility, as his puns would suggest, or do they simply point out that noble birth may, at times, have no connection to wealth? In discussion with Lord Bonvile, the captain acknowledges him as kinsman, but indicates that "My Grandsir[e] was the first that rais'd the name / Of Bonvile to this height" (1, p. 18). Do these lines mean that the grandfather raised the Bonvile clan from lesser to greater nobility--thus allowing the captain's cousin a place at court--or does it mean that, like the ancestors of Cecil or Walsingham, he raised his family from the "middle class" to the courtier class? Heywood's text is not entirely clear on this point, though the latter provocative possibility is one I will consider in general terms in due course.

Whether or not he is actually noble, it is clear that the captain is not a courtier in Milton's sense of one who "only stand[s] and wait[s]," but a man of action, a soldier who works for his monarch. The obviousness of a soldier's labor clearly contrasts with the "work" of a courtier. In a culture that lacks the concept of a "service economy," how can the labor of the courtier be measured? He neither produces articles like the craftsman, sells them like the merchant, nor engages in actions like war that have clear beginnings and ends and clear outcomes--win or lose. Thus compared to other more obvious kinds of labor, a courtier can be considered not to labor at all. Yet the punning line from Milton's sonnet "When I consider ..." that I quoted above does give some insight into the courtier's "job." It is "labor-less," since all the courtier does is "wait" in the monarch's presence and look decorative. However, this same courtier provides labor in the form of "service" by "waiting on" the monarch or his foreign guests or ambassadors. Finally, the position of the courtier--his physical and decorative presence--is necessary to show the monarch's power; he can compel any number of talented and qualified men to sit around and waste their time (and perhaps imperil their estates!) when they can be doing tasks much more profitable to themselves. Yet the supreme irony of this situation is that courtiers are usually chosen from only the highest ranks of the nobility.

So while Captain Bonvile's cousin waits on their monarch, the soldier goes off to war. Upon his return, he decides to test the loyalty of his friends and his betrothed, and does so by claiming to have lost all his money in the war. As a result, few people have anything to do with him, and only one of his three servants agrees to share his poverty. His ragged dress renders him almost literally invisible to the courtiers he encounters, thus demonstrating that appearance is more valued at court than virtues, substance, or talent. It would seem a similar attitude prevails in the commercial world, for a bawd initially denies the captain entry to her whorehouse because his appearance would seem to indicate poverty. However, she does let in two well-dressed members of the gentry only to discover they really have no money, whereupon her whores throw them out. When Captain Bonvile reveals that he does have money, the whores rethink their decision and let him in, claiming that his money can rectify all their previous objections. Money can buy him a new shirt, a bath, clean linen, and remedies for his bruises and lice. Unlike the courtiers, for whom appearance seems to be more important than wealth, the whores are willing to accept a man's bedraggled appearance as long as he has money. They are, after all, in business. The following interchange indicates why money is necessary to them:
 Second Whore. They [the customers] thinke belike, dyet, lodging,
 ruffes, cloaths, and holland-smocks can all be had without money, and
 a disease, if we should catch it, Heaven blesse us, can be cur'd
 without money.
 Bawd .... if my beds be shaken out of their joynts, or my cords
 broken, must not the Ioyner and the Rope-maker both have money? if my
 rugges be rub'd out with [their] toes, can they be repair'd without
 money? if my linnen be foul'd, can I pay my laundresse without money?
 Besides, we must have something to maintaine our broken windows I
 hope; the Glazier wil not mend them without mony. (3, p. 48)

This interchange not only reminds the audience that prostitution is a commercial transaction--and not an exchange of pleasure--but also sets the tone for the bawd's commercial definition of "gentleman": "They be Rascalls that have no money; those be Gentlemen that have Crownes" (3, p. 49). While this definition may at first seem too strongly grounded in the marketplace, it is actually the definition that operates at court as regards the captain. His (supposed) lack of money makes the courtiers treat him as though he is a "rascal." Yet, "traditonally," it is a man's birth that renders him noble or gentle, not his money or clothing. While the whores--operating in the marketplace with expenses to meet as well as hopes of profit--understandably equate money with "gentility" or "nobility"--or, at least, desirability as a paying customer--there is no economic reason for the actual nobility to make a similar equation with the captain, especially since, unlike the whores or the captain, they never seem to work or to comprehend the necessity of labor. Lord Audley fears the "poor" captain only wishes to marry his sister for her money. Yet marriage to a wealthy woman was a common--and appropriate--way for impoverished nobles to reestablish themselves in virtually any century, and especially the sixteenth or seventeenth. While this play would seem to condemn the economic basis of the courtiers' scorn for Captain Bonvile, the fact that he cannot marry Lady Mary Audley until his wealth is revealed really reifies the necessity of wealth rather than talent or labor for existence at court. Lady Mary's faith and "true love," then, is of little importance. While these qualities may convince the captain of her virtue--and her ability to spot virtue in others--neither they nor she can reinstate him as an acceptable member of the nobility. Only money can do that.


Analysis of the various degrees within the feudal/agricultural hierarchy allows for much less flexibility of personal opinion than does the idea of what constitutes true nobility. Consequently, the texts I will be examining in this section virtually repeat each other when it comes to discussing these ranks. William Harrison's The Description of England (1577, 1587) seems to have been the first early modern text to set forth these rankings and Sir Thomas Smith's De republica Anglorum (1583) closely follows Harrison. (9) Subsequent texts borrow heavily from these two. Harrison indicates that "we in England divide our people commonly into four sorts, as gentlemen, citizens or burgesses, yeomen, and artificers or laborers" (94). (10) He states that the "first and chief" of gentlemen are princes, "dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons" who are called "gentlemen of the greater sort, or (as our common usage of speech is) lords and noblemen" (94). The second group of gentlemen consists of "knights, esquires, and ... they that are simple called gentlemen" (94). Smith divides the broad category of "gentry" into two groups: nobilitas maior and nobilitas minor. (11) In the former group belong the higher ranks of the nobility--dukes, earls, marquesses, viscounts, barons--and in the latter the lower ranks as well as those without rank--knights, esquires, gentlemen, "with citizens, burgesses and yeomen" (32, 34). Smith seems to group citizens, burgesses, and yeomen with gentlemen because they may sit in the House of Commons, though he later indicates that there are two categories of gentlemen, as indicated above, and "the third and last sort of persons is named the yeomanrie ..." (46).

From the ranks of knights or esquires on upward, there is virtually no disagreement among any of the authors I will be considering. All follow the same pattern or ranking of the titled. Below the rank of esquire are placed "gentlemen" and then "yeomen," both of which terms need some clarification. Within the feudal system, gentlemen would be primarily those second or subsequent sons who would not inherit a title but did inherit noble blood. Harrison clarifies this situation somewhat by suggesting that a "gentleman of blood ... is defined to descend of three descents [generations] of nobleness, that is to say, of name and of arms both by father and mother" (110, brackets in original). (12) Harrison defines yeomen as "freemen born English, and may depend of their own free land in yearly revenue to the sum of 40 s sterling, or [pounds sterling]6 as money goeth in our times.... This sort of people have a certain preeminence and more estimation than laborers, and the common sort of artificers, and these commonly live wealthily, keep good houses, and travail to get riches" (117). Smith defines yeomen in a similar manner, (13) though he adds: "This sort of people confesse themselves to be no gentlemen, but give the honour to al which be or take upon them to be gentlemen,... These be not called masters,... But to their surnames, men adde goodman:..." (42).

According to Mildred Campbell, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries "yeoman" generally was "a term of service"; the person in question was not a menial or servile person, but one who gave "honorable service" (389). (14) The term "franklin," prior to the fourteenth century, referred to "the upstanding freeman of creditable position and substance who ranked next below the knights and esquires" (391). In the early fourteenth century, "franklin" as a term was beginning to be replaced by "gentleman" and "yeoman," as Campbell indicates, "neither previously used to denote status" (391). From the early fifteenth century on, "gentleman" was "used increasingly to designate the group next below the knights and esquires, comprising often their sons or other younger sons of the nobility as well as many scions of old 'franklin' families who could claim a coat of arms and otherwise maintain themselves as a more or less leisured rural class" (391). Those franklins who owned less land and were not eligible for a coat-of-arms but "maintained a positon of wealth and independence in the countryside" were known as "yeomen" as the fifteenth century wore on (391). (15) As Wallace Notestein points out, the country gentleman was considered to be one "to whom or to whose ancestors the Heralds' College had granted the right to gentility" (46). This right was based on the possession of a significant amount of property and a significant rent role. He might even be acknowledged a "gentleman" by his peers even without arms from the College of Heralds.

A contrary hierarchical list of ranks exists for those people who are outside the feudal/agricultural scheme. This ranking is based on a distinctly urban hierarchy and certainly existed to some degree during the feudal period. However, this hierarchy's relationship to the specifically feudal hierarchy of duke to yeoman is not always clear. Harrison indicates that the "Citizens and burgesses have next place to gentlemen, who be those that are free within the cities and are of some likely substance to bear office in the same. But these citizens or burgesses are to serve the commonwealth in their cities and boroughs, or in corporate towns where they dwell" (115). (16) Citizens and burgesses who are "free within the cities" are dues-paying members of guilds. Ferne includes merchants (mercatores) and burgesses (burgenses) among that group of people he considers "unnoble and ungentle." His mixed group of rural and urban ranks also includes villani (yeomen and franklins) and servi/nativi (villeins) (Ferne, Biiii). He does not describe the urban ranks of merchant and burgess according to their work or their position within the urban hierarchy, but in terms of how they differ negatively from the gentry. Merchants are considered "ungentle": "for that the practise [of selling] thereof consisteth of most vngentle parts, as doublenes of toong, violation of faith, with the rest of their tromperies and disceites they must be content,... to stand included vnder ths base and vnnoble state of people, yea, and bicause their trade is neither of that honestie, ne yet ministering the like necessities to mans life, as doth the plow-man, we haue arraunged them behind those which we call villani" (Biiii). Burgesses, defined as those who "practise mechanicall and handy-crafts," cannot be considered gentle because they must serve an apprenticeship to learn their craft, and "during the time wherein they are bound to seruice for the apprehending of that craft, they seeme as bound and of seruile estate, little better in qualitie and condition, thyen those which our Lawyers call natiui, bondmen, so great an authoritie of commaund hath the maister ouer them, during the yeeres of their seruitude" (Ferne, Biiii). Thomas Wilson, in The State of England (1600), similarly believes that the practice of trade is "base," "except, it be exercised & undertaken by a generall Estate, or the Deputies thereof" (C4).

Generally, the urban ranking system is seen to be completely distinct from the rural/feudal one. Some authors like Ferne and Wilson barely control their animosity for the urban ranks and read them almost totally in terms of how they are unrelated to the higher rural ranks, the gentry, or especially the nobility. Questions of personal--as well as inherited--nobility taint their consideration of city ranks: since these people are not born noble or gentle, they cannot achieve personal nobility either. Yet while the urban ranks are seen to exist quite removed from the rural ones, all authors admit that they do abut upon the rank of "gentleman," the lowest untitled rank of the gentry. It is at this abutment, especially in terms of the relationship between "gentlemen" and "citizens/burgesses," that occur the most difficulties for understanding class alliances or class hierarchies of the period.

The two sets of hierarchies--rural and urban--just considered are consistently defined and redefined throughout the period under consideration. While some seventeenth-century authors may feel compelled to stress the lack of nobility--personal and inherited--of those in the urban hierarchy, all authors agree with the rankings of both groups as well as with the rural vs. urban differentiation. However, the boundaries of these two systems tend to be quite permeable in both directions. For example, Harrison specifies that one cannot be born into the rank of knight, "but they are made either before the battle,... or after the battle ended, as an advancement for their courage ..., or ... for some great service done,..." (101-2). That an unspecified "great service" may result in knighthood explains Harrison's further contention that "sometimes divers ancient gentlemen, burgesses, and lawyers are called into knighthood" (102). While it may not be surprising that "ancient gentlemen"--presumably younger sons of old noble families--may be named knights, the addition of lawyers and burgesses to this list suggests the permeability of the boundary between the rural and urban ranks at this level. (17) A greater permeability is revealed when Harrison expands his definition of "gentlemen":
 so gentlemen whose ancestors are not known to come in with William,
 Duke of Normandy (for of the Saxon races yet remaining we now make
 none account, much less of the british issue), do take their beginning
 in England after this manner in our times. Whosoever studieth the laws
 of the realm, whoso abideth in the university giving his mind to his
 book, or professeth physic and the liberal sciences, or,... can live
 without manual labor, and thereto is able and will bear the part,
 charge, and countenance of a gentleman, he shall for money have a coat
 and arms bestowed upon him by heralds ..., and thereunto being made so
 good cheap, be called master, which is the title that men gives to
 esquires and gentlemen, and reputed for a gentlelman ever
 after. (113-14) (18)

Ignoring for a moment Harrison's prejudice against Saxons and the original Celtic inhabitants of Britain, his expanded definition is interesting for two reasons: it allows professional men to be considered gentlemen and it suggests a direct relationship between money and "gentleness." University graduates have studied for their gentle "title," yet curiously enough, Harrison also suggests that men can be considered "gentle" if they can afford to live without manual labor and can afford to purchase a coat-of-arms from the College of Heralds. Further, the purchasing power necessary to become a gentleman can even be held by yeomen, the lowest of the rural ranks, who "with grazing, frequenting of markets, and keeping or servants ... do come to great wealth, insomuch that many of them are able and do buy the lands of unthrifty gentlemen, and often, setting their sons to the schools, to the universities, and to the Inns of the Court, or otherwise leaving them sufficient lands whereupon they may live without labor, do make them by these means to become gentlemen;..." (Harrison 117-18). This last situation not only points out the permeability of the boundaries between the gentry and the lower classes, but the fearful possibility that those of the lowest ranks can move up into it.


Looking at this organization of hierarchies, we are faced with a major problem. Was there one hierarchy from the feudal ranks of duke through knight, gentleman, and yeoman on into the urban ranks of burgesses, artisans, laborers, ans so on? If so, where and how do we rank classes like yeoman (or franklin), gentlemen, citizen, burgess? Who ranks higher? Which ranks are equal? And if these questions were not difficult enough, where are those problematical gentlemen placed--closer to the feudal ranks or closer to the urban ones? Or might we consider that there are rural gentlemen and urban gentlemen? If so, do they have the same rank? Or should we simply scrap these delightful hierarchies so carefully recorded by Harrison, Smith, and others and view the class system of early modern England as Louis B. Wright suggests as being composed basically of three groups: "The highest class consisted of the titled nobility, the landed gentry, and the more important members of the learned professions. The lowest class was composed of unskilled laborers, an illiterate peasantry, and those small artisans whose trades required little training and whose rewards were meager. Between these extremes was a great class of merchants, tradesfolk, and skilled craftsmen, a social group whose thoughts and interests centered on business profits. They made up the middle class, the bourgeoisie, the average man" (2). Despite the fact that Wright has erred in his groupings--few "members of the learned professions" were considered to rank as highly as he suggests and the bourgeoisie could not, at this time, be thought to consist of "the average man"--his tidy tripartite schema eliminates without explanation the really problematic aspects of the early modern English social structure. Purely for the sake of discussion, I would propose considering the early modern social structure as consisting of three different elements: the old feudal ranks from duke to yeoman to peasant; the urban range from citizen/burgess to laborers; and the lower gentry/bourgeoisie. In the remainder of this essay, I want to consider how to make sense out of this latter pesky group. Where can, or can, we draw the line between lower gentry and bourgeoisie? Under what circumstances could/did the bourgeoisie become gentry and under what circumstances did the lower gentry "drop" down into the mercantile ranks? Finally, how did authors of city comedies like Heywood, who seemed to flatter the mercantile classes in their plays, see the interactions between the two classes?

Lawrence Stone indicates that the "most fundamental dichotomy" in early modern society was between "the gentleman and the non-gentleman" (1976, 28), a distinction that harks back to the concerns of early modem authors of class manuals: whether or not (or how) a man was "noble" or "gentle." This was, of course, the major gulf between classes and one that was bridged in one way early in the sixteenth century by the "courtier class" I described earlier, men like Morton, More, and Cromwell who entered the Tudor bureaucracy--and later its "aristocracy"--through the Church and the law. These professions provided the first means by which lower-, or, indeed, low-class men could advance to civil positions that allowed them to cross into gentry status. Although families like the Wolseys, Cromwells, Cecils, and Walsinghams originated within the mercantile class, university or ecclesiastical training allowed for the erasure of their born positions, positions that demanded manual labor. The labor of lawyers and clergymen and, indeed, all members of the courtier class, was mental rather than physical. In twentieth-century Marxist terms, these men could be thought of as the "intelligentsia," that revolutionary group that would guide the proletariat in its overthrow of the bourgeoisie. And even in early modern terms, this group was "revolutionary" in the sense that it led in the reformation of the early modern English class system; it provided a way for nongentlemen to take over the tasks and "labor" of gentlemen, a process that demanded not only the redefinition of the concept of gentry but the reconceptualization of what it meant to be non-gentry. (19) When those original members of the mercantile classes moved up to "jobs," at court they certainly accepted some court/gentry values; Wolsey's conspicuous consumption regarding the building of Hampton Court palace is a classic example. Yet not all of those courtiers accepted gentry values completely. Thomas More's refusal to countenance Henry VIII's divorce can be seen as much as a refusal to countenance gentry values--the ability to be "above" the law or to bend the law to one's purpose through bribery--as an example of pious Catholicism. A greater acceptance of mercantile values can be seen in Elizabeth's court in the monarch's and her courtiers' financial backing of venture trading companies. (20) Elizabeth's fiscal conservatism--as well as her refusal to make new nobles or highly reward the ones she inherited--suggests a more mercantile attitude toward governing than the openhanded largess of less bourgeois-oriented monarchs like James I.

But while the Tudor aristocracy was redefining and recreating its identity as one that, at least, coexisted with or, at best, profited by the newly developing foreign trade, the mercantile classes were similarly redefining themselves and creating a system of values that differed from court ones. The passage of sumptuary laws (1559 to at least 1597)--as well as the inability successfully to enforce them--reinforced the fact that London's merchants were earning enough to allow them to afford the expensive and exotic fabrics and furs previously only affordable by the nobility. This "threatening" conspicuous consumption--"threatening" because it was erasing the sartorial distinctions that instantly and visibly separated members of the various hierarchies and suggested the disintegration of those hierarchies--has caused a number of critics, like Laura Stevenson, to maintain that middle-class values aped courtly or noble ones. While a play like The Royall King and the Loyall Subject demonstrates just the opposite, plays like Heywood's The Foure Prentices of London With the Conquest of Jerusalem (c. 1600) and George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston's Eastward Ho! (1605) indicate that the values of the mercantile class were far different from those of the gentry. In fact the characters in these plays usually state that mercantile values are superior to gentry ones. Godfrey de Buillon's statement in act 1 of The Foure Prentices
 I prayse that Citty which made princes Trades-men:
 Where that man, noble or ignoble borne,
 That would not practise some mechanicke skill,
 Which might support his state in penury,
 Should die the death; not suffered like a drone,
 To sucke the honey from the publicke Hive.
 (1, p. 169)

constructs a set of values that revolve around productive labor in support of the state--labor that can and should be engaged in by members of any class. "Drones," whether born to the gentry or the mercantile class, are unwelcome in the society Godfrey describes. But Eastward Ho! presents a series of mercantile and gentry traits that are often not as generous as Godfrey's list. Early in the play, mercantile class traits are described by Golding as:
 Whate'er some vainer youth may term disgrace,
 The gain of honest pains is never base:
 From trades, from arts, from valor, honor springs;
 These three are founts of gentry, yea, of kings.
 (1.1.198-201) (21)

His concepts of honor and honesty reinforce Godfrey's depiction of trade as noble. By contrast, Frank Quicksilver describes gentry traits as:
 Frank. Why, 'zblood, sir! my mother's a gentlewoman, and my father a
 justice of peace and of quorum; and, though I am a younger brother and
 a prentice, yet I hope I am my father's son; and by God's lid, 't is
 for your worship and for your commodity that I keep company....
 [later, to Golding] ... though I am a prentice, I can give arms;... I
 am a gentleman, and may swear by my pedigree,... 'S life, man!
 [Touchstone's] father was a malt man, and his mother sold gingerbread
 in Christ Church.
 Golding. What would ye ha' me do?
 Frank. Why, do nothing; be like a gentleman, be idle; the curse of man
 is labor. (1.1.30-37; 137-39; 141-42; 154-59)

Unlike the active noble apprentices in The Foure Prentices of London, Quicksilver reinforces the dronelike traits that Eastward Ho! suggests all members of the gentry possess. Gertrude Touchstone's suitor Sir Petronel Flash, like Quicksilver, possesses an excess of the gentle knack of "doing nothing." Yet Gertrude and Mrs. Touchstone are attracted by his birth and title--as well as their personal desire to raise Gertrude's class status--and do not examine the class traits that characterize this wastrel. Thus, Golding's amazing rise within the mercantile hierarchy--and Quicksilver's and Sir Petronel's fall--reinforces the fact that gentry values are useless in the burgeoning world of trade and only mercantile ones are desirable or socially useful.

Eastward Ho! underscores the fact that gentry and mercantile values are wildly different and privileges the latter over the former. Heywood's plays show how the gentry can profit by hard work. While the authors of Eastward Ho! probably recorded the "us vs. them" situation prevalent in London that was behind the passage of the sumptuary laws and the spate of works I considered earlier that described hierarchichal relationships in detail, Heywood's work not only shows how the gentry can profit by hard work, but more radically suggests a way for members of the problematic lower gentry/upper mercantile class to work together for the benefit of all, including the state.

So how then to answer the question of how to delineate between the lower gentry and the mercantile class, or whether or not there were two or more "types" of gentry? Eastwood Ho! would suggest that class affiliation--which class a man thought he belonged to and with which he identified--determined his class. A man was either a gentleman, no matter how poor--like Quicksilver or Sir Petronel--or a merchant like Touchstone or Golding. Heywood's plays reflect a more radical notion of a less marked, definitely permeable class structure and suggest that people at times "belonged" to one class, at times to another, depending on their actions in relationship to the means of production as well as their class affiliations. For example, both Elizabeth and Sir Philip Sidney acted as merchants when they lent private money to trading ventures, yet both identified with the gentry. Walsingham's huge trade connections made him act very much as a merchant while he was also a member of the courtier class. (22) Making sense out of the gentry/mercantile class group in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was not easy, and ways to do so were not foolproof. The line of demarcation between the two groups would not become fixed until the Puritan control of Parliament and the incidents of the Civil War hardened the boundaries between the gentry and the bourgeoisie once again. Yet having the clear sense of each group as a class with specific identities and relationships to the means of production, as the authors of Eastward Ho! seem to be doing in their play, makes it much easier to chart the movement between and among those groups.

I have chosen to use Eastward Ho! as exemplum because it allows me to consider attitudes toward gentle- and middle-class affiliations through the anomalous figures of the two gentle apprentice characters. While there is little doubt that this play was intended to mock the citizen values lauded by playwrights like Dekker and Heywood, it simultaneously mocks gentry values. Frank Quicksilver represents the nightmare apprentice. Although he has signed articles and is ostensibly learning the craft of goldsmith, he repudiates all aspects of trade as well as his position as an apprentice. We first view Frank arriving home drunk from a night on the town as Golding, the good apprentice, is opening shop. Not only is he drunk, but Frank is inappropriately dressed for an apprentice--he is wearing a cloak, pumps, and carrying a sword. All these are accoutrements of the gentry, as his master Touchstone reminds him. Shortly after, Frank, Touchstone, and Golding enter into discussion--partially quoted above--regarding what, exactly, determines a person's class: birth or occupation? Despite the fact that he is legally an apprentice, a position he says he holds only for the money, Frank maintains that his birth and blood--and that of his father and mother--are the major factors that determine his position in society and supersede all other factors. Touchstone's response is more legalistic. His focus is on the contractual arrangement that has given him, as master, power over Frank, his apprentice. And this power was given to Touchstone by Frank's justice father, the man who signed his gentle son's articles of apprentice. Thus not only penury but legality bind Frank to Touchstone. And, ironically, his gentle father has set the legal wheels in motion to redetermine Frank's class position.

But Frank's "gentle" exploits exhaust Touchstone's patience and he gives his apprentice back his articles. Once free of his master, Frank reveals to his mistress, the prostitute Sindefy, that he will go to court--which he can do as a gentleman--to earn his living. A workingwoman, she pragmatically points out that, if he has trouble being nice to one master, he will have more trouble being nice to the infinitely larger number of people he must placate at court. Frank responds by claiming that "he that has wit, let him live by his wit; he that has none, let him be a tradesman" (2.2.167-68). This would probably work if Frank had wit, but he doesn't. The remainder of the play demonstrates that, even though gentle birth may assure one a high class position, it cannot grant wit or intelligence--or insure one a living. Only hard work can do that.

While Frank claims his class position from his blood and defines his class as one that repudiates labor and valorizes leisure, Golding, born to the same class, has his own definition of gentility, which not only suggests that honor can come from trade or art, but also suggests that there are common sources of honor that all classes draw upon, and that honor is the "fount of gentry." Thus the ability to be "gentle" has now shifted ground and become an earned, rather than an innate, condition that can be acquired by anyone. Thus Golding, consciously or unconsciously, provides a linkage between those who are born gentle and members of the mercantile class.

When this hardworking apprentice is given the freedom of the city and made a citizen, he is also immediately elected to the common council and made deputy alderman, positions that legally place him above his former master and now father-in-law, Touchstone. Despite the innate absurdity of this Horatio Alger-like rise, the issues raised by it are important ones to consider when examining the development of mercantile class identity. Touchstone accepts Golding's elevation, not because of Golding's gentle birth, but because his election to the council suggests that his talents have preferred him, not his birth. In this situation, talent and skill--not to mention hard work!--combine with occupation to become the determining factors of class. Touchstone, as a solid and self-identified member of his own class, is willing to accept Golding's rise not only because it is a result of the younger man's talent, but also because it is an intrinsic example of Touchstone's skill, not only in teaching Golding his craft, but in teaching him how to be a citizen. Like Golding, Touchstone has also "risen" by trade. Born the son of a "maltman" and a gingerbread seller, he is now a member of one of the wealthiest and most prestigious guilds in London.

Ultimately, though, Eastward Ho! validates the mercantile class by rewarding those who work hard and punishing those--like Frank--who are idle. That we can easily see this distinction between the mercantile class--the bourgeoisie in Touchstone's case--and the gentry--in Frank's--indicates that class formations are obvious in protocapitalist England. While birth alone may not determine one's class position, a combination of class identity, class affiliation, and community of interests does. But such identity and affiliation only work when there is a defining concept of the class to which an individual belongs. In Eastward Ho! Touchstone and Golding, by their actions and remarks, provide a definition of bourgeois identity that contrasts sharply with Frank's suggestions and actions that idleness and profligacy define gentility.

Questions of what constitutes the early modern "middle class" are closely tied to questions of what constitutes the "gentry," that strange, permeable, consistently metamorphosizing group at the bottom of the titled and landed classes. Critics like Stone, Tawney, Hexter, and Zagorin have been examining the gentry primarily in terms of whether the rise of the middle class directly contributed to a decline in the gentry as a class. (23) While I do not want to enter this discussion, it is definitely necessary to realize that the groups known as gentry and middle class did overlap, that each group did interpenetrate the other, but also that each group did simultaneously exist as a separate entity with its own class affiliation and "identity." I want to focus specifically on this question of "class identity," since Hindess states that groups become classes "only as a consequence of the members' growing awareness of a community of interests" (22). Thus in examining just how the lower gentry differed from the middle class (or, indeed, from the upper gentry), it is necessary not only to consider how each group related to the means of production, but also how each group thought of itself in terms of its various social, economic, and cultural beliefs. I contend that the movement between the lower gentry and the mercantile class was not simply a slide based on accumulation or loss of wealth. If that were the case, few theorists would have exercised themselves over the question of what constituted gentility. By the late sixteenth century, it was not enough only to own land or have an income to be accepted as a member of the gentry. Nor was it enough only to lose that land or income to be considered a member of the middle class.

But while the category "gentleman" has, according to Stone, "been expanded to such a degree as to be valueless for analytical purposes" (1965, xvii), (24) the term "middle class" is equally vague. While most of the members of this class who moved into the gentry were merchants in the more prestigious guilds, (25) some were also merchant adventurers earning their wealth from trade as opposed to merchandizing. Thus the Marxist term "bourgeoisie" more precisely refers to this group of flexible middle-class entrepreneurs. These owners of the means of production are the capitalists whose work will change the English economic system, and their movement into the ranks of the gentry symbolizes, at the very least, the movement away from a primarily land-based to a primarily trade-based economy. Yet whether these capitalists were merchants or traders, they developed a common way of life, a "code of ethics ... which emphasized thrift, honesty, industry and godliness" (Wright, 3, 1). Just how the class identity of these rising capitalists developed--and how it was to be named and defined--can be seen in both the Heywood plays I have considered as well as in Eastward Ho!


I would like to thank the Trustees of the Newberry Library for awarding me a Summer Research Grant in 1997 that allowed me to complete the primary research for this essay. I would also like to thank Jean Howard and Scott Shershow who have both been most generous in answering questions and providing suggestions for revision.

1. See Stephen Greenblatt in this regard.

2. "Marx often used the term class in a rather loose fashion, taking its meaning for granted. Nowhere in his work is there a concise statement of what exactly constitutes a social class and so Marx's views on class have been reconstructed by scholars drawing on a variety of his writings" (Breen and Rottman, 24). Also see Balibar: "The definition of the capitalist class or of the proletarian class therefore does not precede that of the social relations of production, but vice versa, the definition of the social relations of production implies a 'support' function defined as a class.... Classes are not the subjects of this mechanism [of the constant distribution of the means of production] but its supports, and the concrete characteristic of these classes (their types of revenue, their internal stratification, their relations to the different levels of the social structure) are the effects of this mechanism. The economic relation of production appears therefore as a relation between three functionally defined terms: owner class/means of production/class of exploited producers.... We therefore find that the social relation which determines the distribution of the means of production is instituted as a necessary relation between each individual of one class and the whole of the opposing class ... But these classes are obviously not sums of individuals, which would not change anything: it is impossible to make a class by adding individuals together on whatever scale. Classes are functions of the process or productions as a whole. They are not its subjects, on the contrary, they are determined by its form" (233, 267). (Italics in original.)

3. "One of the more subtle examples of this tendency is found in the work of Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst. They define class relations on the basis of the correspondence between 'the separation from/possession of the means of production' and the mode of appropriating surplus labor. Their inclusion of the separation/possession couplet in the definition guarantees that class signifies an underlying 'political' relationship, because the couplet is exclusively theorized in terms of rights of exclusion and the forms of domination that derive from these rights. Thus Hindess and Hirst join other Marxists, such as P.-P. Rey and N. Poulantzas, in referring the concept of class to the 'deeper' reality of power and exploitation.... In sum, it is only possible to designate specific class processes at a given historical moment" (Amariglio, Resnick, Wolff, 489-90).

4. Known also as the Controversia de Nobilitate, the text was translated c. 1460 by John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester.

5. All references to Heywood's plays will be to the edition mentioned on the "Works Cited" list. This edition has no scene or line numbers, so citations will include page numbers as well as act numbers. In this and in all early modern texts quoted, I have silently changed long "s" to conventional "s."

6. "noblenes ... can be diuided, but into these three members: The first is noblenes of bloud and auncestry: and this the vulgare sort of men, account for the chiefest: The seconde is noblesnes atchieued, through the proper vertues, and meerits of a man, tending to the benefit of his country. This noblesnes, almost all the Philosophers of all sectes, doe with an open mouth, contend to be the most excellent: The third braunch of ciuill noblenes, is called mixt, for that it is compounded and made of both the former: which noblenes, we exact as most worthye, and excellent aboue the rest" (Ferne, Bviiv-Bviii).

7. The elision of the terms "nobility" and "gentility" suggests that the virtuous personal characteristics that once allowed a man to become like a member of the nobility now allowed a (possibly lower-born) man to become like a member of the gentry. Interestingly, Marx does not define class in terms of income "since this is a consequence of class position, not a determinant of it" (Breen and Rottman, 27).

8. As Ferne indicates, "The knowledge of the lawes, eyther common Civill or Canon beene sufficient causes to aduance the professour, to noblenes, and the bearing of Armes:... The knowledge of lawes more worthy then all other humaine learninges.... If any person be aduanced into an office or dignity ... [follows description of same] the Herauld must not refuse to deuise ... a coate of Armes: and thenceforth to matriculate him, with his intermariages and issues discending, in the register of the Gentle and Noble" (Diiiv, Diiii, Evv).

9. The first edition of Harrison's work appeared in 1577 and the second in 1587. Smith's appeared first in 1583 followed by three more editions in the sixteenth century--1584, 1589, 1594, and many more in the seventeenth century through 1691.

10. The quote indicates Harrison's wording in the 1577 edition. The 1587 edition reads "yeomen, which are artificers." George Edelen, the twentieth-century editor, suggests that "Harrison seems to have been in some doubt where to classify Craftsmen" (94n2). It is necessary to remember that all members of the titled nobility are also members of the gentry.

11. Thomas Wilson, in "The State of England" (1600), also divides the nobility into nobilitas minor and nobilitas minor, though he includes the following within the minor nobility: "knight[s], esquyer[s], gentlelmen, laweyers, professors and ministers, archdecons, prebends, vicars" (23). John Doderidge, The Magazine of Honour (1642), also uses the terms major and minor nobility (147). Smith provides the amount of yearly income necessary to maintain these ranks (32).

12. Smith defines gentlemen as "those whom their blood and race doth make noble and knowne,... for that the auncestor hath bin notable in riches or vertues, or (in fewer wordes) old riches or prowes remaining in one stock. Which of the successors do keepe and followe, they be vere nobiles and Eugeneis: if they doe not, yet the fame and wealth of their auncestors serve to cover them so long as it can, as a thing once gilted though it be copper within, till the gilt be worne away" (38).

13. Smith defines a yeoman as "Legalem hominem,... which is a freeman borne English, and may depend of his owne free lande in yerely revenue to the summe of xl.s. sterling: This maketh (if the just value were taken now to the proportion of monies) vi.l. of our current money to this present" (42). Ferne considers four kinds of people to be "unnoble and ungentle," one of which is the villani, which he defines as those "whose lyfe attendeth the labour of the earth: are contained the yeomen or franklein,... with all other sortes of people, busied in the culture of the earth .... the lawe of Armes hath forbidden them, both from honor, and the ensignes of nobility" (Biiii).

14. Late fourteenth-century evidence shows that "yeoman" is a "state" or "office" (Campbell, 392). A "freeman" following his lord to war and wearing his badge is his "yeoman" (393-94).
 French = vadlet, vallet, or varlet
 Latin = valettus or valectus
 English = oman, zeman, yogman, yoman (389)

15. In records of a William Smith of Caldwell Hall, Eckington referred to him as a "gentleman" in 1443, a "ffrankleyne" in 1446, and a "yeoman" in 1465, "although there is no evident change in his circumstances" (Campbell, 391). Wallace Notestein defines "yeoman" as "an entrepreneur of the land, who planned the use of the fields and supervised the men.... The small yeoman, sometimes called a husbandman, and occassionally distinguished from the yeoman as constituting a class by himself, could afford only a little help and might be pretty much a 'dirt farmer'" (71). Some yeomen who acquired a lot of land "often graduated in the late Tudor and early Stuart period into gentlemen,..." (71). According to the old law, a yeoman "was one who had a freehold of 40 s[hillings] annual value,..." (71). In the early seventeenth century, most yeomen "were men who held their lands from a lord of the manor for a rent, but on such old tenures from father to son that they felt they had a kind of property right in them" (71). Wilson indicates that, while many yeomen were very wealthy--"are able yeerly to dispend betwixt 3 or 5 hundred pound"--their heirs were often not content to be called yeoman's sons, "but must skipp into his velvett breeches and silken dublett and getting to be admitted into some Inn of Court or Chancery, must ever after thinke skorne to be called any other than gentleman;..." (19).

16. Smith defines citizens and burgesses in a fashion similar to Harrison as those who "not onely be free and received within the cities, but also be of some substance to beare the charges. But these citizens and burgesses, be to serve the commonwealth, in their cities and burrowes, or in corporate townes where they dwell. Generally in the shyres they be of none accompt, save onely in the common assembly of the realme to make lawes, which is called the Parliament" (41-42).

17. Problems can occur when someone refuses a knighthood: "they are of custom punished by a fine that redoundeth unto his [the prince's] coffers and, to say truth, is oftentimes more profitable unto him than otherwise their service should be if they did yield unto knighthood. And this also is a cause wherefore there be many in England able to dispend a knight's living which never come unto that countenance, and by their own consent.... This nevertheless is certain, that whoso may dispend [pounds sterling]40 by the year of free land, either at the coronation of the king or marriage of his daughter or time of his dubbing, may be enforced unto the taking of that degree or otherwise pay the revenues of his land for one year, which is only [pounds sterling]40 by an old proportion, and so for a time be acquitted of that title" (Harrison, 102-3).

18. Smith describes the fashioning of gentlemen in a similarly cynical manner: "as for gentlemen, they be made good cheape in England. For whosoever studieth the lawes of the realms, who studieth in the universities, who professeth liberall sciences, and to be shorte, who can live idly and without manuall labour, and will beare the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman, he shall be called master, for that is the title which men give to esquires and other gentlemen, and shall be taken for a gentleman:... (and if neede be) a king of Herauldes shal also give him for mony, armes newly made and invented, the title whereof shall pretende to have been founde by the sayd Herauld in perusing and viewing of olde registers, where his auncestors in times past had been recorded to beare the same: Or if he wil do it more truely and of better faith, he will write that for the merittes of that man, and certaine qualities which he doth see in him, and for sundrie noble actes which he hath perforumed, he by the authoritie which he hath as king of Herauldes and armes, giveth to him and his heires these and these armes, which being done I thinke he may be called a squire, for he beareth ever after those armes. Such men are called sometime in scorne gentlemen of the first head" (39-40). John Doderidge's definition is similar: "But in these days he is a Gentleman, who is so commonly taken, and reputed,... And whosoever studieth in the Vniversities, who professeth the liberall sciences, and to be short, who can live idly, and without manuall labour, will beare the Port, charge, and countenance of a Gentleman, he shall bee called Master: For that is the title that men give to Esquires, and other Gentlemen:..."(147).

19. Interestingly, none of the sixteenth- or seventeenth-century texts I examined defines "manual labor." If yeomen, or franklins, are to be considered gentlemen, then presumably agricultural labor of whatever kind is not considered manual labor. Similarly, the training and use of weapons by knights and esquires was not to be considered manual labor. Not surprisingly, the law, diplomacy, politics, or the work of the clergy was not manual labor. The question remains, though, as to what extent the labor of merchants, traders, moneylenders, guild officers, and so on is manual in the sense of degrading or preventing consideraton of the "laborer" as gentle.

20. This might also be a commentary on Elizabeth's courtiers' consistent need for the funds to purchase newer, more fashionable clothing. As mentioned earlier, such conspicuous consumption beggered many noble families. See also Jankowski.

21. All references to Eastward Ho! will be to the edition mentioned on the "Works Cited" list.

22. For information on connections between Elizabeth's courtiers and the great trading companies, see Jankowski.

23. These essays often suggest that there was a full-fledged bleeding of the gentry into the middle class. While certain members of the upper gentry and nobility may have become impoverished as a result of the conspicuous consumption of the Tudor court (Stone 1972, 29), few actually lost their titles. It was the titleless members of this class--the "lower" gentry--who were more apt to enter business and reidentify as members of the middle class. While higher ranks of the gentry--or important members of the courtier class like Burghley or Walsingham--might engage in "business"--specifically trade and venturing capital in the great trading companies--they were not considered by Stone and those critics who agree with him to have descended into the middle class.

24. The problem of what to name these groups is addressed by Stone and Everitt: "what political significance should be attached to the undeniable phenomenon of declining gentry;... has the category of gentlemen been expanded to such a degree as to be valueless for analytical purposes; if so, what is to be put in its place, how is the gentry to be subdivided?" (Stone, xvii-xviii). Multilabeling can be a problem, since a single individual can be, variously, "gentry, bourgeois, country, capitalist, and puritan" (Stone, 1965, xiv, xviii-xix). Also, see Alan Everitt, "Social Mobility": "the ranks of that rapidly expanding class of leisured inhabitants of the town (of very mixed origin) ... can best be described as the 'pseudo-gentry'.... The fact that this elusive group is equally difficult to trace and to define is an indication both of its amorphous character, of its importance in the ladder of social ambition. Who were these people and where did they come from? By the term 'pseudo-gentry' I refer to that class of leisured and predominantly urban families who, by their manner of life, were commonly regarded as gentry, though they were not supported by a landed estate.... Some of them were younger sons of the country gentry; some were themselves impoverished gentry; some were clergy, or sons or daughters of clerics; some had served as officers in the army; some had married merchants and heiresses ...; some were the heirs of local lawyers, scriveners, or doctors; and some were the grandsons of those wealthy factors, maltsters, moneylenders, and innkeepers who, in the seventeenth century, became so numerous in the inland entrepots like Northampton" (70-71).

25. The "Twelve Great Companies," the most prestigious guilds in early modern London, were: the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Tailors, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, and Vintners. Neither Thomas Cromwell nor his father were members of any of the great companies, though Thomas did work as a wool dealer, usually a highly remunerative occupation.

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