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The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance

Estate or (Latin) status or (Dutch) staat or (French) état or (German) stand or (Italian) stato.. 

In the political sphere the term ‘estate’ denoted a class or order that participated in government either directly or through its representatives. The system of representation through estates arose in Europe in the thirteenth century, and remained in place until it was displaced by popular representation; the French Revolution precipitated the end of representation by estates in France (though the last assembly had been convened in 1614), but Navarre maintained representation by estates till 1828, Hungary till 1848, Sweden till 1866, and the duchy of Mecklenburg till 1918.

Societies were traditionally divided into three classes according to whether they prayed, fought, or laboured. In England, for example, Edmund Dudley, president of the King's Council under Henry VII, divided society into ‘clergy, chivalry and commonalty’ (Tree of Commonwealth, 1509). The most important formulation of the tripartite division of society is contained in the Traité des ordres et simples dignités (Paris, 1610) of the French jurist Charles Loyseau (1566–1627). The contention that the estates were the central feature of early modern society is reflected in the use of the term Ständestaat by German historians.

This ancient theory of social stratification, which may derive from the Roman hierarchy of senators, equestrians, and plebeians, was formalized in the assemblies of late medieval Europe. In the English Parliament the three estates were the lords spiritual (the clergy), the lords temporal (barons and peers), and the Commons. Until the Parliament of 1428 the estates in Scotland were prelates, tenants-in-chief, and townsmen; thereafter they became the lords (lay and clerical), the commissioners of shires, and the burgesses. In France the three estates of the États-Généraux (Estates-General) were the clergy, the nobility, and the townsmen, and assemblies such as the Bohemian sněm, the Castilian cortes and Catalan corts, the Dutch staaten generaal, the Polish sejm, the Hungarian országgyüles, and the independent landtage of Germany were similarly divided. The first two estates are not normally known by their numbers, but the third estate in English refers to the Commons and le tier état in French to the roturiers (the commonalty). The number and constitution of estates was not consistent across western Europe. The Aragonese corts contained four brazos (arms): clergy, ricohombres (magnates), infanzones (lesser nobility), and townsmen; similarly, the Swedish riksdag contained four estates: clergy, barons, townsmen, and peasants. Peasants also constituted a separate estate in Denmark (until 1627), Friesland, and the Tirol.

Some writers on constitutional affairs used the term ‘three estates’ in a quite different sense to refer to rival forms of government, i.e. monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and in English usage the three estates were sometimes said to be the crown, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. In Sir David Lindsay's A Satire of the Three Estates, which was performed before the regent Mary of Guise and her court in 1554, the three estates are the Nobility, the Spirituality, and the Merchants.


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    O. Niccoli, I sacerdoti, i guerrieri, i contadini: Storia di un'immagine della società (1979);Find this resource:

      M. L. Bush, Social Orders and Social Classes in Europe since 1500 (1992).Find this resource: