Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
In W. G. Runciman's words, ‘all societies can be characterised in terms of the nature and degree of institutionalised differences of privileges among their members’. However, the precise nature of the social privileges characteristic of pre-industrial societies such as medieval England has proved a controversial issue amongst historians and social scientists. For instance, can medieval English society be analysed in terms of the class divisions characteristic of modern societies, or should it be seen, like other pre-industrial societies, as stratified in terms of orders or estates? Was conflict inherent within medieval social relations or can instances of conflict be explained by more immediate, short-term factors? Such debates are linked to broader methodological questions such as whether historians should describe a society in the terms employed by members of that society or whether societies of the past can be analysed using the concepts of modern social theory. Here it will be argued that, rather than being stratified exclusively in terms of classes, orders or any other single form of social inequality, medieval English society was made up of a number of different axes of social inequality. Any one individual thus had a variety of social identities, including those of class, order, status group and gender. The first part of this chapter examines how these forms of social inequality came together to create the particular social hierarchy to be found in late medieval England; the second assesses the forces working to produce economic and social change in the later middle ages.