18th Century Society: An Overview
by Rick Brainard
The aristocratic elite set the standard of European Society. The Aristocracy possessed a wide variety of inherited legal privileges, established by the government. The Catholic and Protestant churches also heavily influenced society. The medieval sense of rank and degree was still persistent and became more rigid throughout the course of the century.
Intimately related to the State, the aristocracy was on the top of the social hierarchy. An urban labor force, and rural peasantry, subject to both high taxes and feudal dues, was under the aristocracy in society. The most striking feature of this period was the marked contrasts in the lives and experiences of people in different social standing, which varied by country, and even by region.
Regions of smaller communities made up each state. There were no individual rights as we in the modern world perceive them now, rather you maintained a certain status in the social order, and the privileges that came with that status were given by default. One of the most important privileges of 18th century society was land ownership. You either owned land as an inheritance, or as privilege granted at the pleasure of the king.
Land was also the basis of the economy in 18th century society. Except for Britain, the quality and quantity of the harvest was the most important fact of life for the overwhelming majority of the population. It was the concern to their governments. Since the landowners were the aristocracy, they either influenced or had direct control over the peasant's lives.
Some peasants were free, as in England and France; others were bound to the land, such as in Russia, Germany and Austria. In all cases, aristocratic landowners also controlled the local government and the courts. Tradition, hierarchy, and privilege were the chief social characteristics of the old regime.
The major European monarchies had no standard of uniform law, money, or weights and measures. Continental Europe had internal tolls that hampered the passage of goods. Britain however, had no such tolls. In the 18th century, the nobility of that country lived in the most magnificent luxury that the order had known. On the continent, the nobility were wealthy. However, the noble was, to some extent, better off than a prosperous peasant was. This is because the peasant tended to prosper with the rest.
The intensity of the power of the landowner increased as one moved from west to east. In areas east of the Elbe River, the peasants reached new depths of social and economic degradation. Unlike Western Europe, Russian serfs were economical commodities. They had no legal recourse against the orders of their landlords. Russian serfdom and slavery were virtually the same.
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Encyclopedia Britannica, vol.18 pp.654-657, 1990 edition.
Notes from college course on European history to 1900.