The French Revolution was in origin an uprising of the commoners against the nobility and the clergy (Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix)

The terms common people, the masses, or commoners denote a broad social division referring to regular people who are members of neither the nobility or the priesthood. Following the rise of the middle class in the 19th century, this division is now of mainly historical interest. Since the 20th century the term "common people" has been used in a more general sense to refer to typical members of society in contrast to highly privileged (in either wealth or influence).


European history

In Europe, a distinct concept analogous to common people arose in the Classical civilization of ancient Rome around the sixth century BC, with the social division into patricians (nobles) and plebians (commoners). The division may have been instituted by Servius Tullius, as an alternative to the previous clan based divisions that had been responsible for internecine conflict.[1] The ancient Greeks had no concept of class and their leading social divisions were simply non-Greeks, free-Greeks and slaves.[2] With the growth of Christianity in the fourth century AD, a new world view arose that would underpin European thinking on social division until at least early modern times.[1] Saint Augustine postulated that social division was a result of the Fall of Man.[1] The three leading divisions were considered to be the nobility, the priesthood and the common people. Sometimes this would be expressed as "those who fought", "those who prayed", and "those who worked". This threefold division was formalised in the estate system of social stratification, where again commoners were the bulk of the population who are neither members of the nobility nor of the clergy.[3] They were the third of the Three Estates of the Realm in medieval Europe, consisting of peasants and artisans.

Up until the late 15th century european social order was relatively stable. There were periods where the common people felt oppressed in certain regions, but often they were content with their lot. In 12th century England for example, while the common people would sometimes complain about the "Norman yoke" [4] there was allmost no unemployment and the average commoner only had to work only about 20 hours per week.[5] Though incidents of savage brutality still occurred in Europe, especially when one set of nobles displaced another, in general nobles were seen as just protectors of the common people, as was encouraged by Christian teaching.[6] With early medieval times being a period of close to absolute faith, the clergy were also highly valued by the common people, bringing much happiness as at the time there was close to universal belief that through sacraments such as confession , the priest had the ability to ensure salvation.[7]

The social and political order of medieval Europe was shaken by the development of the mobile cannon in the 15th century. Up until that time a noble with a small force could hold their castle or walled town for years even against large armies - and so they were rarely disposed.[8] Once effective cannons were available, walls were of far less defensive value and rulers needed expensive field armies to keep control of a territory. This encouraged the formation of princely and kingly states, which needed to tax the common people much more heavily to pay for the expensive weapons and armies needed to provide security in the new age. Up until the late 15th century, surviving medieval treaties on government were concerned with advising rulers on how to serve the common good: Assize of Bread is an example of medieval law specifically drawn up in the interests of the common people.[8] But then works by Commynes , Machiavelli and later Cardinal Richelieu began advising rulers to consider their own interests and that of the state ahead of what was "good", with Richelieu explicitly saying the state is above morality in doctrines such as Raison dEtat.[8] This change of orientation among the nobles left the common people less content with their place in society. A similar trend occurred regarding the clergy, where many priests began to abuse the great power they had due to the sacrament of contrition. The Reformation was a movement that aimned to correct this, but even afterward the common people's trust in the clergy would continue to decline – priests were often seen as greedy and lacking in true faith. An early major social upheaval driven in part by the common peoples mistrust of both the nobility and clergy occurred in Great Britain with the English Revolution of 1642. After the forces of Oliver Cromwell triumphed, movements likes the Levellers rose to prominence demanding equality for all. When the general council of Cromwell's army met to decide on a new order at the Putney Debates of 1647, one of the commanders, Colonel Rainsborough, requested that political power be given to the common people. According to historian Roger Osbourne, the Colonel's speech was the first time a prominent person spoke in favour of universal male suffrage, but it was not to be granted until 1918. After much debate it was decided that only those with considerable property would be allowed to vote, and so after the revolution political power in England remained largely controlled by the nobles, with at first only a few of the most wealthy or well-connected common people sitting in Parliament.[9]

The rise of the bourgeoisie during the Late Middle Ages, had seen an intermediate class of wealthy commoners develop, which ultimately gave rise to the modern middle classes. Middle class people could still be called commoners however, for example in England Pitt the elder was often called The Great Commoner, and this appellation was later used for the 20th century American anti-elitist campaigner William Bryan. The interests of the middle class were not always aligned with their fellow commoners of the working class.

Social historian Karl Polanyi wrote that in 19th century Britain, the new middle class turned against their fellow commoners when they seized political power from the upper classes in 1832. Early industrialisation had been causing economic distress to large numbers of working class commoners, leaving them unable to earn a living. The upper classes had provided protection such as workhouses where inmates could happily "doss" about and also a system of "outdoor" [10] relief both for the unemployed and those on low income. Though early middle class opposition to the Poor Law reform of Lord Pitt [11] had prevented the emergence of a coherent and generous nationwide provision, the resulting Speenhamland system did generally save working class commoners from starvation. In 1834 outdoor relief was abolished,[12] and workhouses were deliberately made into places so dehumanising that folk would often prefer to starve rather than enter them. For Polanyi this related to the economic doctrine prevalent at the time which held that only the spur of hunger could make workers flexible enough for the proper functioning of the free market. Later the same Laissez-faire free market doctrine led to British officials turning a blind eye to the suffering in the Irish potato famine and various Indian famines and acts of exploitation in colonial adventures. By the late 19th century, at least in mainland Britain, economic progress has been sufficient that even the working class were generally able to earn a good living, so working and middle class interests began to converge, lessening the division within the ranks of common people. Polanyi writes that on continental Europe middle and working class interests did not diverge anywhere near as markedly as they had in Britain.[13]

Break down of the trifold division

US Vice President Henry A. Wallace proclaimed the "arrival of the century of the common man" in a 1942 speech broadcast nationwide in the United States.

After the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and with industrialization, the division in three estates - nobility, clergy and commoners - had become somewhat outdated. The term "common people" continued to be used, but now in a more general sense to refer to regular people as opposed to the privileged elite. Communist theory divided society into capitalists on one hand, and the proletariat or the masses on the other. In Marxism, the people are considered to be the creator of history. By using the word "people", Marx did not gloss over the class differences, but united certain elements, capable of completing the revolution. The Intelligentsia's sympathy for the common people gained strength in 19th century in many countries. For example, in Imperial Russia a big part of the intelligentsia was striving for its emancipation. Several great writers (Nekrasov, Herzen, Tolstoy etc.) wrote about sufferings of the common people. Organizations, parties and movements arose, proclaiming the liberation of the people. These included among others: "People's Reprisal", "People’s Will", "Party of Popular Freedom" and the "People's Socialist Party". In America, a famous 1942 speech by vice president Henry A. Wallace proclaimned the arrival of the "century of the common man" saying that all over the world the "common people" were on the march, specifically referring to Chinese, Indians and Russians as well as Americans.[14] Wallace's speech would later inspire the widely reproduced popular work Fanfare for the common man by Aaron Copeland.[15]

Social divisions in non-Western civilisations

Comparative historian Oswald Spengler found the social separation into nobility, priests and commoners to occur again and again in the various civilisations that he surveyed, but the division may not exist for pre-civilised society.[7] As an example, in the Babylonian civilisation, The Code of Hammurabi made provision for punishments to be harsher for harming a noble than a commoner.[16]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c Gary Day (2001). Class. Routledge. p. 2-10. ISBN 0415182239. 
  2. ^ Though Plato did recognise a fundamental division into rich and poor - "Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these two cities are at war." - The Republic (Plato) , Part I , book IV.
  3. ^ See for example:
  4. ^ Even as late as the 17th century the English common people would still complain about the Normans, as they felt they had enjoyed more privileges before the Norman conquest had replaced the previous Anglo Saxon nobility with Normans– see Civilisation (2006) Roger Osbour p 293
  5. ^ David Boyle (2009). "Why do Modern Britons Work Harder than Medieval Peasants?". The New Economics: A Bigger Picture. EarthScan. pp. 77–95. ISBN 184407675X. 
  6. ^ Michael Howard (1976). War in European history. Oxford Paperbacks. p. 5. ISBN 0192890956. ""Knighthood was a way of life, sanctioned and civilised by the ceremonies of the Church until it was almost indistinguishable from ecclesiastical order of the monasteries: equally dedicated, equally holy, the ideal to which medieval Christendom aspired. This remarkable blend of Germanic warrior and Latin sacerdos lay at the root of all medieval culture"" 
  7. ^ a b Spengler, Oswald (1922). The Decline of the west(An abridged edition). Vintage Books, 2006. pp. passim , see esp 335–337. ISBN 1400097002. 
  8. ^ a b c Philip Bobbitt (2003). The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History. Penguin. pp. 80 , 108, 486. ISBN 9780141007557. 
  9. ^ Roger Osborne (2006). Civilization: A New History of the Western World. Jonathan Cape Ltd;. pp. 292–297. ISBN 0224062417. 
  10. ^ Outdoor relief means monetary or other assistance given to the poor without them needing to enter a workhouse to receive it.
  11. ^ The son of the "Great Commoner", unlike his father he accepted the King's invitation to raise him to the nobility.
  12. ^ Though some Lords, Ladys and well to do church people continued to offer it, in defiance of the Law.
  13. ^ Karl Polanyi (2002). The Great Transformation. Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807056431. 
  14. ^ Henry Wallace (February 1942). "The Century of the Common Man". Winrock International. Retrieved 2011-06-30. 
  15. ^ Byron Almnn and Edward Pearsall (2006). Approaches to meaning in music. Indiana University Press. p. 88. ISBN 9780253347923. 
  16. ^ Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society By Marvin Perry, Myrna Chase, Margaret C. Jacob, James R. Jacob, page 13

Further reading

  • The common people: a history from the Norman Conquest to the present J. F. C. Harrison Fontana Press (1989)
  • The concept of class: a historical introduction Peter Calvert Macmillan (1985)

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  • Commoner — Com mon*er, n. 1. One of the common people; one having no rank of nobility. [1913 Webster] All below them [the peers] even their children, were commoners, and in the eye of the law equal to each other. Hallam. [1913 Webster] 2. A member of the… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Commoner — (engl.), eigentlich der gemeine Mann, dann überhaupt alle, die nicht zur Nobility, d. h. zu den Mitgliedern des Oberhauses, gehören. Daher sind z. B. die Söhne von Peers Commoners. Nach englischem Recht bildet die Commonalty die zweite Klasse des …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Commoner —   [ kɔmənə; englisch »Gemeiner«] der, s/ s, in Großbritannien jeder, der nicht zum hohen Adel (Nobility, Peers) gehört, darunter z. B. auch die Gentry, die Bischöfe, die jüngeren Sprosse der großen Adelsfamilien und die Unterhausabgeordneten …   Universal-Lexikon

  • commoner — early 14c. (in commoners), from COMMON (Cf. common) …   Etymology dictionary

  • commoner — ► NOUN ▪ one of the ordinary or common people, as opposed to the aristocracy or to royalty …   English terms dictionary

  • commoner — [käm′ənər] n. [ME communer < commun,COMMON] 1. a person not of the nobility; member of the commonalty 2. Brit. at some universities, a student who does not have a scholarship and therefore pays for food (called commons) and other expenses …   English World dictionary

  • commoner — UK [ˈkɒmənə(r)] / US [ˈkɑmənər] noun [countable] Word forms commoner : singular commoner plural commoners someone who does not belong to a royal or noble family …   English dictionary

  • Commoner — Common Com mon, a. [Compar. {Commoner}; superl. {Commonest}.] [OE. commun, comon, OF. comun, F. commun, fr. L. communis; com + munis ready to be of service; cf. Skr. mi to make fast, set up, build, Goth. gamains common, G. gemein, and E. mean low …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Commoner — Com|mo|ner [ kɔmənə] der; s, s <aus engl. commoner »Gemeiner« zu common »(all)gemein; niedrig; gemeinsam«, dies über altfr. comun (fr. commun) aus lat. communis, vgl.↑kommun> jeder, der nicht zum hohen Adel gehört, d. h. nicht Mitglied des… …   Das große Fremdwörterbuch

  • Commoner — The Commoner William Jennings Bryan …   Eponyms, nicknames, and geographical games

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