The term ‘Estates‘ represents a type of stratification that existed in Europe during the Middle Ages. Estates system has a long history. The system emerged in the ancient Roman Empire, and existed in Europe until very recent times.
The estates system consisted of three main divisions—the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners or the ordinary people. In England and France, for example, these three divisions were found. In some parts of Europe, for example, Sweden, almost upto 1866 there were four estate divisions; Nobles, Clergy, Citizens and Peasants.
These historical estates were akin to social classes in at least two respects. (i) Each estate was to some extent characterised by a distinctive style of life, (ii) The three estates could be thought of as representing a hierarchy. In this hierarchy the clergy were at the top and the commoners at the bottom.
The intermediary position was occupied by the nobles. It should be noted that the clergy was called the First Estate only in consonance with the medieval idea that the Church is supreme and the state is subordinated to it. Hence, in reality there were three classes, but with the nobility (including royalty) at the top.
Characteristics of Estates:
T.B. Bottomore has mentioned about three important characteristics of the feudal estates of medieval Europe. They are as follows:
1. Legal Basis of Estates:
Estates were legally defined. Each estate had a ‘status’ of its own. More precisely in a legal sense the status was associated with rights and duties, privileges and obligations. As it has been said, “To know a person’s real position “it was first of all necessary to know” the law by which he lived”.
In comparison with the first two estates—the clergy and nobility—the third estate consisting of the serfs or commoners suffered from many legal disabilities. For example, the serfs had the inability to appeal to the king for justice. They had no rights over their chattels or properties and holdings.
They had the liability of paying the fines of ‘merchet’ and ‘heriot’. (i.e., a fine paid to a lord for the marriage of a daughter, and a find paid to the lord on the death of a tenant). Even different penalties were imposed on them for similar offences.
2. Estates Representing Division of Labour:
The estates represented a broad division of labour. They had some definite functions. According to the law of the day, the nobility were to fight and defend all, the clergy were to pray and the commoners were to pay or provide food for all.
3. Estates as Political Groups:
The feudal estates were political groups. An assembly of estates possessed political power. From this point of view the serfs did not constitute an estate until the 12th Century A.D.
The decline of Education feudalism after the 12th Century is associated with the rise of a third estate. The third estate behaved for a long period within the feudal system as a distinctive group before they overthrew it.
Thus the three estates—clergy, nobility and the commoners functioned like three political groups. As far as participation in government was concerned, the clergy used to stand by the nobility. In France, the political position was more rigid.
This system of three estates remained there until 1789, that is, till the outbreak of the Revolution. In the French Parliament called ‘States – General’, these estates used to sit separately and not together. That differentiation within the estates prevailed for a long time. The political movement of the French Revolution brought about some radical changes in France.