- uploaded: May 13, 2011
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The Estates of the realm were the broad social orders of the hierarchically conceived society, recognized in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period in Christian Europe; they are sometimes distinguished as the three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and commoners. "Medieval political speculation is imbued to the marrow with the idea of a structure of society based upon distinct orders," Johan Huizinga observes. The virtually synonymous terms estate and order designated a great variety of social realities, not at all limited to a class, Huizinga concluded, but applied to every social function, every trade, every recognizable grouping.
There are, first of all, the estates of the realm, but there are also the trades, the state of matrimony and that of virginity, the state of sin. At court there are the 'four estates of the body and mouth': bread-masters, cup-bearers, carvers, and cooks. In the Church there are sacerdotal orders and monastic orders. Finally there are the different orders of chivalry.
This static view of society was predicated on inherited positions. Commoners were universally considered the lowest order. The higher estates' necessary dependency on the commoners' production, however, often further divided the otherwise equal common people into burghers (also known as bourgeoisie) of the realm's cities and towns, and the peasants and serfs of the realm's surrounding lands and villages. A person's estate and position within it, was usually inherited from the father and his occupation, and similar to a caste within that system. In many regions and realms, there also existed population groups born outside these specifically defined resident estates.
Legislative bodies or advisory bodies to a monarch were traditionally grouped along lines of these estates, with the monarch above all three estates. Meetings of the estates of the realm became early legislative and judicial parliaments. Monarchs often sought to legitimize their power by requiring oaths of fealty from the estates