Status and Contract

In his classic 1937 work The Crisis of Civilization, Hilaire Belloc summarizes the development of Christendom and diagnoses with precision how the rejection of the Catholic Church at the time of the Protestant Revolt is responsible for the social and economic troubles of the modern world. The most pressing economic problem is that the vast majority of people are wage-earners to a small owner class who have a disproportionate control of the means of production. This situation Belloc calls 'Proletarianism.' While modern wage-earners have political rights, full economic freedom eludes them because they are too dependent upon those who pay their wages. Unlike the Communists, who assert that the evil is in private ownership of property, Belloc states the problem is not that capital is owned and utilized by so few, but that so many are proletarian wage-earners. At the end of the Middle Ages, Europe was moving towards a free peasant class of owners. By 1900, the peasant class had disappeared and was replaced by landless wage-earners, which occurred simultaneously with the rise of Capitalism. How did the free peasant of the 16th century become the urban proletarian of the 19th? Belloc says the crux of the transformation was in the shift from Status to Contract in socio-economic relationships. 

What is Status and Contract? Belloc explains:

"First of all, what is "status"? The meaning of the word is "standing." The status of a man is his established condition. In our original Christian society - that society which reached its flower in the Middle Ages - status was omnipresent. It did not cover the whole ground of human activity by any means, but it covered a sufficient area to make status the determining character of all our society. A man's position was known, the duties and burdens attaching to it were known, as also the advantages, and they were in a large measure fixed; for the spiritual force and motive underlying the whole business was an appetite for security: for making life tolerable on its material side so that there should be room and opportunity for men to lead the good life, as the Greeks put it, or, as the Catholic Church puts it, to save their souls.

Status arose from the strong, instinctive demand of a Catholic society for stable social relations between men, and, what was much more important, for a stable sufficiency of livelihood attaching to the great mass of families in the community...[a man] was certain of his position, he had a hereditary holding, and could not be rendered landless or destitute. He had Status" [1]

In the traditional arrangement, there were three basic statuses a man could have; these are the famed "Three Orders" of society: those who fight, those who pray, and those who work. The division of society into these three orders is first found in a loose translation of Boethius done by Alfred the Great in the late ninth century; the king is to have gebedmen, fyrdmen, weorcmen; "men of prayer, men of war, men of work" [2]. It was made famous in the writings of Adalbero of Laon (c. 1020). This of course reflects the three basic statuses of the medieval world - the nobility, the clerical caste, and the peasantry.

In reality, however, status was not always this easy to define. Berthold of Regensburg (c. 1250) distinguished ten statuses, not three. A German sermon dating from around 1228 lists 28 social statuses. [3] The statuses and their classifications got more complex as the Middle Ages wore on.

The important thing to understand about status is that division of status is not a wealth-based class distinction; the medieval orders were supposed to correspond to functions, not to class distinctions. The 'functions' were largely very stable concepts. Every status had a particular set of obligations (as well as privileges) assigned to it by custom and upheld by law.

For example, a medieval peasant held his land in tenancy from the lord. However, unlike today's landlord-tenant relations, medieval tenancy was not established by a simple at-will contract between the lord and the peasant. Tenancies were usually 99 years long; rents were established by customary law and could not be altered. The peasant had certain obligations to his lord's demesne, but he also had certain inalienable rights - the lord could not demand more from him than custom permitted. In short, the status of the peasant was stable; no matter what happened, he could not be dispossessed from the land. Similar privileges were attached to the nobility; since title and nobility were hereditary, a noble need have no fear of losing his holdings. Like the peasant, he knew exactly what his obligations were, as well as his privileges.

In other words, aside from the unpredictable vicissitudes of weather and war, medieval life was marked by a fundamental stability. This is because social-political relationships were not determined by individual contractual agreements between men, but by customary relations between different status groups. This is why medieval society and economy was inherently stable. This is true of any culture where status is the predominant norm for social interaction. Men and their individual circumstances are unstable, but status allows some sort of stability to emerge despite this. This is why, in Economics 101, when students are introduced to Command, Market and Traditional economies, it is always mentioned that the Traditional economy is inherently stable; this is because traditional societies maintain status.

Now, regardless of what we may think about modern economies or their merit, it is undeniable that our modern capitalist economies are unpredictable and inherently unstable. This instability has to do with the erosion of Status as the determining factor in socio-economic relations and its replacement by Contract.

What do we mean by Contract? Whereas status denotes the customs delineating the relations between different groups, contract denotes that which is agreed upon by two individuals. Because the focal point of contract is on individuals and not groups, it leaves the individual much more exposed to exploitation than status did. Let us offer a few examples:

In a society characterized by status, the balance of power between two parties is determined by the obligations and privileges attached to each status or order. When status evaporates and we are left only with contractual arrangements, the balance of the agreement is determined solely by the power leveraged by individuals. This is not so bad when individuals of equal stature are entering into contract, but when the contract is between a man and a huge corporation or a man and another man of extreme power, the smaller, weaker party has no leverage. If he wants to eat, he must assent to the terms proposed by the stronger party, whether or not they be just. Under status there were certainly still many economically weak individuals with little economic leverage, but individual weakness was cushioned by power of the group whose privileges were governed by custom.

For example, though individual peasants had little power, their collective status was protected by strong customs enforced by law. It was understood that they could only be held to certain obligations and none other. If the landowner tried to enforce further obligations beyond what custom recognized, the landowner's demands would be overturned in court. This happened in the early days of the English enclosures, when many peasants successfully fought the enclosure of the commons and had their grievances upheld in the local courts. But once status has given way to contract, the peasant had no more leverage from which to insist on his customary rights. He stood alone before the landowner. Instead of one class or status negotiating with another on conditions established by custom - conditions that protected the privileges of each - now the little man is naked before the great man and can negotiate only what he is able to leverage as an individual, which is not much. Thus the group status accorded to different classes in the old system allowed more equity in their socio-economic relations.

We mentioned above that modern economies are inherently less stable. This is another manner in which the erosion of status exposes the individual. Wealth today possesses greater 'liquidity', which means it can be transferred or disposed of with much greater ease than in the old days when most wealth was locked up in hereditary land holdings. But the greater liquidity of modern wealth means an increase in economic instability. Under status, it was very, very difficult for a family to lose its land, which was considered hereditary. Because land (and hence wealth) could be securely passed on from generation to generation, the landowners in turn were able to offer secure tenancies to their peasants - usually 99 year leases with fixed rents and obligations over the life of the lease. Imagine the security if your expenses were more or less fixed for 99 years! But once status gave way to contract, wealth became more liquid, which meant it was not as secure. Belloc notes: "When wealth was mobilized, when it became (to use another metaphor) liquid [everything] changed. A family very wealthy in one generation and ruined in the next gives no impression of status." [4] Once wealth could be freed up for speculative investments, some families did well, but others were ruined. Wealth put out to speculation is no longer secure, and property ownership no longer secure. Coupled with the erosion of status-based socio-economic relations, the increased mobility of fortune meant that increasingly the benefits of ones status could not be passed on. The peasant freeholder gradually becomes the landless urban proletarian and wealth is amassed in the hands of the most successful - and ruthless - speculators.

We could also note that, although the abolition of obligations based on status freed the peasants from certain duties to their landowners, it also left them exposed to exploitation by the state. In France, the revolutionary Republic abolished all feudal duties and obligations in August, 1789. The principle was that it would free the Third Estate from their obligations to the nobility; that in removing feudal obligation, it would give the peasant class more liberty. But the revolutionaries forgot that feudal status, besides imposing obligations, also enumerated privileges that could not be impeded. For example, under status, French peasants were subject to the corvée, a certain amount of unpaid labor they were required to give to their lord, usually for the maintenance of roads. On the eve of the Revolution, the corvée amounted to ten days per year. [5]

But if the corvée stipulated ten days per year owed to the lord, is also established 355 days per year upon which the lord had no legal claim. When all feudal obligations were abolished, this meant the lord could no longer claim ten days per year of service, but it also meant that there was no legal reason the state could not make claims on the citizen at any and all times whatsoever. The obligations of status were abolished, but so were the guaranteed protections. Thus, only four years after abolishing feudal obligations, the French Republic issued the Levée en masse in August, 1793. The Levée placed the manhood of France at the disposition of the state in such a way that would have never been conceivable under status. The law proclaiming the Levée read:

"From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic" [6]

The peasants who groaned under a ten day obligation now found themselves conscripted to perpetual state service in the wars of the Revolution that ended up going on for twenty years. Under status, subjects knew what obligations they must do, but they also knew what they were not under compulsion to do. With that all wiped away once status gave way to contract, the citizen is really a tabula rasa for the state. Under the regime of status, with its different classes and carefully defined obligations and privileges, no king or lord could ever place "all Frenchmen" in a condition of "permanent requisition" for the state. But with the abolition of status, the citizen is naked before the power of the state just as he is alone before the power of the landowner or corporation.

Finally, we should note that under status, the integrity of a particular group or class was protected by various mediatory bodies who were charged with upholding the customs associated with each class. The most famous of these are the Guilds, who protected the craftsman class in the cities, and by the customary laws of the countryside which rendered tenure of land fixed and hereditary. Man might belong to any number of bodies, all of which conferred upon him real legal rights that had to be respected by the state - rights as the subject of a town, perhaps more if a citizen of this or that "free" city; rights as a member of a Guild, as a tenant or this or that landlord, of this or that domain; rights associated with living along the stream or near the bridge and so on. And of course, rights as a Catholic with all of the protections and privileges afforded a Christian. In short, society was full of subsidiary bodies whose purpose was to check the competition and rapacity of each other and form several layers of social insulation between man and the state. In a kingdom where status reigns, each person's status sets limitations on what the state can demand of him and naturally keeps the power of the government in check.

Of course, when contract began to erode status and law began abolishing these intermediate bodies, increasingly the state came to act directly upon its citizens. Now, with the abolition of all the old guilds, associations and customs, every man is naked before the power of the state with no mediating bodies.

What does this mean for modern economy? Simply re-instituting guilds will not get us where we need to be, nor will the modern Union movement, which is but a corrupted shadow of the medieval guild. Under contract, the only status recognized is that of citizen, and in this every citizen is equal to everyone else. In fact, whether in the United States or Europe, the modern world is built upon the rejection of status. Certainly the European ancien regime was not perfect; it suffered from serious defects, especially in the end when it no longer understood the reasons for its own existence. But it cannot be denied that the old system of status afforded a level of economic security that can scarcely be imagined today.

What is needed, therefore, is a gradual return to a concept of status, a situation in which a man is viewed not merely as an economic unit or individual but as part of a group with a fixed, known status. Remember, class distinctions need not be based on wealth; this is where the European aristocracy went bad. The original medieval ideal, as exemplified in the Three Orders, was a class system based on function, where obligations and privileges are clearly defined and can establish a real condition of permanent economic stability for the members of a given status. 

We will examine this concept further in future posts.


[1] Hilaire Belloc, The Crisis of Civilization (TAN Books: Rockford, Ill, 1992), 116-117
[2] Jacques le Goff, Medieval Civilization (Blackwell: Oxford, 1999), 255
[3] ibid., 262
[4] Belloc, 119 
[5] Daniel Roche, France in the Enlightenment (Harvard University Press: Harvard, 1998), 50