Traditionally, the estates of the realm are three: Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal, and Commons. The ancient Parliament of Scotland comprised the king and three estates: (a) archbishops, bishops, abbots, and mitred priors; (b) the barons and commissioners of shires and stewartries; (c) the commissioners from the royal burghs. In France, the three estates were nobles, clergy, and the plebs (they remained separate until 1780). The fourth estate is, colloquially, the press. The concept of a gradated society is ancient and universal.
During the Middle Ages society was carefully structured in a hierarchical system; at its simplest from king down to beggar, say. The concept extended to embrace the natural order. The eagle was a top bird, the lion top animal. In fact, the idea of degree was so pervasive that it included a kind of rank order in the sport of falconry, for example, Gyr falcons were exclusively for royalty, peregrines for noblemen, merlins for noblewomen, goshawks for yeomen, sparrowhawks for priests, and kestrels for knaves or servants. In one kind of hierarchical scheme the religious were at the top, laymen next and all women at the bottom. At the beginning of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales Chaucer thinks it ‘acordaunt to resoun’ to tell us the condition of his pilgrims:
And whiche they weren, and of what degree,
And eek in what array that they were inne …
Thus, he begins with the knight (the senior in social rank among the pilgrims) – but later abandons the rank order. Satires on the estates (many of them were in Latin) were a kind of exposition of the duties and responsibilities of different members and the characteristics of individual groups plus criticism of their shortcomings. To a certain extent, Chaucer does this in the Prologue, which contains some quite scathing portraits of individual types (e.g. Friar, Summoner, and Pardoner). William Langland drew on the same tradition in Piers Plowman, and its use is discernible in, for example, the anonymous political allegory Wynnere and Wastoure (c. 1352) and the early 15th c. anonymous Middle English poem Mum and the Sothsegger. Much later we find an interesting development of the tradition in Sir David Lindsay’s curious Morality Play Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (1540).
The numerous artists who created illustrations for the danse macabre from the 14th to the 16th c. also showed an awareness of this rank order. Often satirical in tone and purpose, the illustrations depict, through the democratic equality of death, the various estates of men and women going to their doom.
There is a perceivable connection, too, with the character studies which became popular early in the 17th c. collections of generalized and detailed studies of the behavior, character, and appearance of individual classes or types.
Finally, the general concept of a hierarchical system of estates’ is also inherent in the theory of the ‘Great Chain of Being’.