A Description of the System of Estates in England and Germany in the 18th Century on the Basis of German Travel Reports

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

28 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)


1) Contents

2) Introduction

3) The term “System of estates”

4) Germany in the 18th century

5) England in the 18th century

6) The basic system of estates in Germany and England

7) The contact of the estates with each other

8) The king and the people

9) The contrast of rich and poor, of the high and the low

10) The right to vote

11) Law and justice in the 18th century

12) Education and sciences

13) Conclusion

14) Appendix

15) Bibliography
15.1) Primary literature
15.2) Secondary literature

2) Introduction

In the 17th and 18th century few people are able to afford travelling through their own or a foreign country. At first only children of the rich nobility travel in the framework of their education: These travels are called “The Grand Tour” and comprise visits of Italian and French cities. Later, especially in the 18th century, also people of the lower classes, the middling ranks and the bourgeoisie can afford travelling.[1] In the 18th century England takes France’s place as the European model due to changes in economy and society, due to progresses in science and politics. England becomes more and more interesting to people on the continent and the number of travellers grows constantly. Many of them write diaries or letters about their experiences and publish them. One thing the travellers write about is the English society, its state and its changes. England’s society and system of estates are of interest due to its differences towards societies on the continent. Its society is more liberal and open although the hierarchy is nearly the same. What the differences and similarities exactly are, shall be discussed in this paper with the help of German travel reports. I will discuss the details as mentioned by German travellers and try to find reasons, why they emphasized certain aspects, and why there are different opinions on these aspects. But first it seems useful to get a general overview of Germany and England and its societies in the 18th century because this background information will help to understand the travellers’ opinions and remarks. Additionally, a definition of the term “system of estates” could be useful.

3) The term “System of estates”

The term “system of estates” stands for the social system and the system of government in many countries during the Middle Ages and the early modern era. The term “estate” describes the totality of the members of a self-contained group in a hierarchical society, for example in feudalism. There are three main groups: the clergy, the nobility and the common people. Since the late Middle Ages there is also a differentiation of the common people into the bourgeoisie and the farming community. The members of the estates differ in their descent, in rights, privileges and duties, in their opinions and way of life.[2] There can also be a certain differentiation within the estates which then bases on factors like wealth and reputation. Generally, all people are equal by birth for they are all human beings; but why do we then talk of inequality? To the mind of Jean Jacques Rousseau the inequality has two main reasons: “Je conçois dans l’Espèce humaine deux sortes d’inégalité; l’une que j’appelle naturelle ou Phisique… L’autre qu’on peut appeler inégalité morale ou politique, parce qu’elle dépend d’une sorte de convention. Celle-ci consiste dans les différents Privilèges.”[3] These privileges make up the estates. The relation between the different estates is generally guided by principles of authority and subordination.

In the times of the estates the countries face a dualism of power: On the one hand the authorities (the king or emperor and his loyalists) and on the other hand the estates of the Empire. The sovereign is the first man in the country. Nevertheless, he has only a certain amount of rights and power for he is bound to the “jus divinum”, the “jus naturale” and the “jus genitum” and has to respect the claims and rights of his subjects. In this way the estates have the right to a say in all important matters that concern the public welfare. Their most important right is the approval of the taxes without which the sovereign can hardly finance anything.[4]

The system of estates is organized like a pyramid, from the sovereign, the clergy and the nobility in the top down to the huge bottom with the bourgeoisie, the artisans and peasants. But the pyramid does not include all people of the society for below the estates there is still another group of people: Those who do not really belong to the society like criminals, vagabonds, prostitutes, people without land, etc. All in all, we can subsume these people under the term “outcasts”.[5]

The titles of the nobility are generally distributed by birth although sometimes such titles can be rewarded to important personalities. They are the people in the country who hold the important public offices, who are members of the parliament and who make decisions. They refuse bourgeois occupations or skilled manual labour and let peasants, artisans and others work for them. This leads us to feudalism, a system in which people of the lower classes (up to four fifth of the whole population) work hard for only few money whereas the nobility becomes richer and richer. Work in general is a matter of class/ estate the rich consider themselves too good for.[6]

In the course of time the rights and power of the estates become kind of privileges and the social system reinforces more and more so that reforms are nearly impossible. On the other hand, such a system preserves a certain kind of liberty and prevents the state from becoming absolutist. As mentioned before, in the 18th and 19th century the bourgeoisie develops, gets more and more power and takes over the power from the nobility and aristocracy. The time of the estates finally ends during the industrialisation of the countries when the class society comes up.[7]

4) Germany in the 18th century

Unlike France or England, the Germany of the 18th century is no centralised and consolidated nation state. It is a kind of patchwork of small states, a complex and federal creation. (A map of Central Europe in the 18th century can be found in the appendix.) From 962 up to 1806 Germany is called the Holy Roman Empire and consists of about 300 sovereign territories. If we count the vast quantity of half-autonomous and autonomous areas and cities, too, the Empire comprises up to 2,000 different territories of more or less minute size and importance. Some people derisively call the territories “Miniaturhöfe” and their rulers “Quadratmeilen-Monarchen”.[8] The importance of the single territories depends on its size and economic and financial power. Only larger countries like Prussia or Austria are able to influence international politics. The population of all territories together is estimated at about 25 million (with the inclusion of Austria 37 million) around 1800. The main part of it, between 75 and 85 %, lives in rural areas; the urban West of the Empire is more densely populated than the East.[9]

The borders of the territories are changing constantly, not only in the smaller ones and during the colonisation of the East but also in the larger territories and during the whole Empire’s existence. Germany has no political or religious centre at that time, no capital and no united voice to speak with.[10] It is a patchwork of different political, legal, religious, social and cultural structures. This kind of division of Germany and the interests of every single duke or prince prevent several urgently needed reforms and the unification of the country for a very long time.[11]

5) England in the 18th century

In contrast to the patchwork of territories in Germany, England is a consolidated nation-state since the 16th century, as the first country in Europe. At that time the monarch is the head of the nation; at the end of the 17th century during the time of the Commonwealth a parliament develops. The members of parliament are not just marionettes of the monarch but trustees of the whole kingdom and people. From 1688/ 89 on England is a constitutional monarchy. Furthermore, England is the first country where the terms “nation” and “people of England” are used synonymously and include both the common people and the aristocracy.[12]

Concerning the territory of the English nation, there have not been such frequent changes as in Germany. The dukedom of Wales is connected with England since the 16th century. In 1707 the union of England and Scotland comes into force, which have already been reigned in personal union since 1603. London becomes the capital of the island kingdom; nevertheless, the court and church are still separated from each other. Finally, in 1801 Great Britain and Ireland form the United Kingdom as we know it today.[13] At that time the country has a population of about 8.7 million people.[14] Due to its unity in nearly any sector of life and politics, in language and in law the country can develop into an important (political and economic) power in Europe and reforms can take place much easier which then also spread to the continent.

6) The basic system of estates in Germany and England

In Germany (= The Holy Roman Empire) we find a hierarchical society which strictly conforms to the model of the pyramid of estates. The emperor is the head of state although he has only little power, especially since 1648 when the dukes and princes get the full decision-making power over their territories in the Treaty of Westphalia.[15] During the 18th century the social structure of the clergy, the nobility and the farming community remains nearly stable whereas the structure of the bourgeoisie (in many countries in Europe) begins to change which then leads to a change in the whole system of estates in the 19th century. Within the estates there can be a certain differentiation due to wealth, reputation and rank and sometimes titles can also be earned instead of being given by birth but the general social order remains stable. The German Reichstag (which is not too influential) of that time only consists of members of the nobility, the interests of the other groups of the people are not looked at. At the end of the century the nobility is highly criticized for they insist on their rights and privileges without seeing the need for reforms. Not until 1803 can their monopoly, their rights and privileges be broken.

The social situation of the peasants can be described as nearly hopeless: They have to suffer from a feudal system, have little or no property to say nothing of freedom, cannot read or write (like most people in Germany at that time) and have to work the whole day for tyrants. Furthermore, they have to shoulder most of the burden in the country and have no hope to escape this inhumane situation.[16] Very often they are called the rabble of the people.

The role and situation of the bourgeoisie is difficult to describe for it comprises all people that do not belong to the nobility, clergy and farming community, meaning that merchants, artisans, artist, literates and noble patricians can have the same social status. During the century the status of a bourgeois becomes independent from origin and a professional group and depends more on education, reason, tolerance and industriousness. However, these ideas can only really gain acceptance at the end of the century so that the bourgeois have to bow to the social order.[17]

To illustrate the distribution of the society we can finally have a look at the dukedom of Weimar and its pyramid of estates, which resembles that of other territories: The nobility, the peerage and the clergy comprise 1 % of the people of the estates, the artisans and the bourgeoisie together 36 % and the farming community 63 %. These figures, however, do not include the people outside the estates which make up circa 50 % of the whole population in the German territories. Here we have people in dishonourable jobs like undertaker and knacker, people in dirty jobs like tanner and shepherds, Jews and gipsies, widows, orphans and maniacs, vagabonds and criminals. They have to survive by begging because social institutions do not exist.[18] All in all, we can notice that the German society of the 18th century is caught in a stable hierarchical order with a numerical dominance of the underprivileged.

The English society knows a similar social order and ranking in the 18th century though the differences among the estates are not so immense and clearly defined as in Germany or France. The main reasons here are the greater possibilities for a social advancement as the status can be gained, the taxation of all people in the country and less prejudices in contact with others.[19] In contrast to the German aristocracy and nobility the English peers, for example, even engage in trade and industry because success in these sectors and the acquisition of wealth are the natural way of gaining high social ranks and a good reputation.[20]

At the end of the 17th century the English society looks approximately like that[21]: 0.00013 % peers, 1.7 % gentry, 0.8 % clergy, 0.8 % merchants, 4.5 % artisans, 25 % yeomanry, 62 % common people (including all kinds of underground people) and others.[22] These figures can also be applied to the 18th century with only little modifications. What is really striking about these figures is the small number of peers, in contrast to Germany. But that is easy to explain for in Germany each territory has its own nobility or peerage so that together they build a larger group than in England. However, the majority of the people, the lower classes and the middling ranks, again have no political influence at that time. The power lies in the hands of an alliance consisting of the monarch and the magnates. And finally, as in Germany, there are again huge distinctions in wealth between the rich and poor.[23]

In conclusion we can say, that the social hierarchy in England does not change very much in the 18th century and that we have a similar pyramid of estates like in Germany. However, the society is more liberal and open-minded, it is not frozen in traditions and privileges.[24]


[1] See Michael Maurer, ed. O Britannien, von deiner Freiheit einen Hut voll (München, Beck: 1992), p. 12.

[2] See Meyers Großes Universallexikon 13 (Mannheim: Meyers Lexikonverlag, 1985), p. 358-361.

[3] Hilde-Lore Schmidt, Die soziale Lage der Landbevölkerung im 18. Jahrhundert sowie Probleme ihrer Umgestaltung. Darstellung und vergleichende Untersuchung der Gegebenheiten in den östlichen preußischen Provinzen und in Mecklenburg (Berlin: Ernst-Reuter-Gesellschaft, 1965), p. 19.

[4] See Meyers Großes Universallexikon 13, p. 360.

[5] See Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte. Vom Feudalismus des Alten Reiches bis zur Defensiven Modernisierung der Reformära: 1700 – 1815. (München: Beck, 1996), p. 135.

[6] See Helmuth Kiesel and Paul Münch, Gesellschaft und Literatur im 18. Jahrhundert – Voraussetzungen und Entstehung des literarischen Markts in Deutschland (München: Beck, 1977), p. 43-46.

[7] See “Soziale Schichtung,“ 08.03.2004 <http://www.unet.univie.ac.at/~a9509708/uni/PSAS.htm>

[8] Kiesel, p. 19.

[9] See Kiesel, p. 14.

[10] See Rolf Engelsing, Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte Deutschlands (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1983), p. 15.

[11] See Kiesel, p. 20.

[12] See Gerhard A. Ritter, „Nation und Gesellschaft in England,“Historische Zeitschrift 198, (1964): p. 25-26.

[13] See Michael Maurer, Kleine Geschichte Englands (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1997), p. 211, 295; „Die Geschichte Englands ca. 500 v. Chr. – 1707,“ 18.03.2004 <http://www.robert-morten.de/baseportal/Redaktionssytem/britannia_mini_detail&Id==51>; „Die Geschichte Großbritanniens 1707 – 2003,“ 18.03.2004 <http://www.robert-morten.de/baseportal/Redaktionssytem/britannia_mini_detail&Id==53>

[14] See Douglas Hay and Nicholas Rogers, Eighteenth-Century English Society. Shuttles and Swords (Oxford and New York: OUP, 1997), p.10-11.

[15] See Kiesel, p. 20-24.

[16] See Kiesel, p. 48-51.

[17] See M. Rainer Lepsius, „Bürgertum als Gegenstand der Sozialgeschichte,“Sozialgeschichte in Deutschland. Entwicklungen und Perspektiven im internationalen Zusammenhang. Band IV. ed Wolfgang Schieder and Volker Sellin (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1987), p. 61-63.

[18] See Kiesel, p. 43, p. 59.

[19] See Sisko Haikala, “Britische Freiheit” und das Englandbild in der Öffentlichen Deutschen Diskussion im Ausgehenden 18. Jahrhundert (Jyväskylä: Jyväskylän yliopisto, 1985), p. 50-51.

[20] See S.D. Stirk, Die Aristokratie und die industrielle Entwicklung in England vom 16. bis zum 18. Jahrhundert (Breslau: Verlag Dr. Hans Priebatsch, 1933), p. 70-71.

[21] A pyramid of the English society in the 17th century can be found in the appendix.

[22] See Putzger Historischer Weltatlas, ed. Ernst Bruckmüller and Peter Claus Hartmann (Berlin: Cornelsen, 2001), p. 102

[23] See Roy Porter, English Society in the 18th Century (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 48-55.

[24] See Porter, p. 340-41.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


A Description of the System of Estates in England and Germany in the 18th Century on the Basis of German Travel Reports
University of Münster  (English Seminar)
Advanced Seminar: German Travel in England in the 18th Centruy
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
1359 KB
Description, System, Estates, England, Germany, Century, Basis, German, Travel, Reports, Advanced, Seminar, German, Travel, England, Centruy
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Andreas Kellner (Author), 2004, A Description of the System of Estates in England and Germany in the 18th Century on the Basis of German Travel Reports, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/25439


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