Renaissance Social Class System

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  • 0:03 The Renaissance
  • 0:39 The Nobility
  • 1:39 The Merchants
  • 2:34 The Tradesmen
  • 3:37 The Unskilled Workers
  • 4:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Renaissance was an era of immense change. In this lesson, we'll see how those changes impacted European ideas about social class and what that meant for various people in this historical period.

The Renaissance

Social classes matter. Or at least they did, very much, to people throughout history. Social classes were used to organize society, and in many societies the rules about social classes were very strict. So, when the rules of social organization began to change, it could actually be pretty stressful for some. One time when we saw this is in the Renaissance, the period of intellectual and artistic growth from the 14th through 16th centuries. You probably know of the Renaissance from names like Michelangelo or Da Vinci, but Renaissance society was full of different people from different social classes, all of whom had a role to play.

The Nobility

Let's start at the top of society. The Renaissance really began in Italy, which was not a unified kingdom, but rather a series of city-states. Basically, each city was its own government. Ruling these cities were the nobility, or people who held noble titles, passed down hereditarily. The nobles, who were used to ruling over Europe as they had done for all of the medieval era, served as politicians and military commanders, and owned most of the land on which the city was built.

As the Renaissance brought new wealth into Europe and started changing some ideas about social classes, the nobility tightly held on to the rights and privileges of their status. They insisted on being treated with the utmost formality wherever they went and held themselves to strict standards of behavior. According to the Italian statesman Count Baldassare Castiglione, who in 1528 wrote The Book of the Courtier, true nobles must be highly skilled warriors, masters of all social situations, proficient at dance, and exude grace and wit in all they do.

The Merchants

Europe's nobility were used to controlling the monopoly on social power. What they had not expected was the flood of wealth coming into Europe, sustained by ever-increasingly wealthy merchants, or those who controlled much of the booming international trade, which resulted in the growth of technology, the arts, and a thriving Renaissance culture. The merchant class became extremely wealthy and powerful, much to the disdain of the nobility.

Perhaps the best example of what the merchant class could achieve in this era is the Medici family. The Medici were Florentine bankers of the merchant class, who became very wealthy. At the time, Florence was a republic, giving the Medici opportunities to gain political power. To secure their position, the Medici married into noble families, and put great effort into displaying their civility, education, and grace. One way they did this was by using their wealth to become great patrons of the arts, sponsoring artists like Botticelli for decades, who even went so far as depicting them in his paintings.

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