Politicians love to rant, and one thing they agree on is the importance of the Middle Class to the economy. It is taken for granted, and all that yada-yada.
Like this middle class has always existed, and been the lynchpin of progress, but that is not true.
This is the first of a series of posts on this thing called “the middle class” that is so popular.
In the beginning…
The genesis of the so-called middle class came from late medieval Europe. Previously, there were just three classes, Nobility, Clergy, and the Serfs. The nobility held all the power. They granted privilege to the Clergy to keep the nobility in power and to control the vast unwashed serfs. This worked (not well, but well enough) until the 14th – 15th century. Around this time, the rise of the merchant class, serfs who became traders, and profited quite handsomely, but still weren’t allowed to become landholders (where the power really was) began to gain some power.
Along with these two classes were trade guilds, skilled artisans who had a desired skills and thus a higher standard of living. That said, their position was little above the Serfs, without a lot of security.
As the Monarchs seemed to love to fight wars to gain territory, or to avenge wrongs and slights, they needed funding, and merchants had access to a lot of money. They loaned this to the warring Monarchs, and thus established a relationship above the serfs, but below the nobility.
Over the course of the next 3 centuries or so, merchants became master traders, plying their craft around an expanding horizon. THe discovery of the new world, trade routes to Asia and the middle east brought wealth. With this came the need for the professions. Banking, and Law rose, to join the merchants in this thing that was above a serf, but, again, below Clergy and Noble class.
Many of these professions had their origins in the guilds, groups that determined who could joined, the number of members, and prevented members from degrading their power. Think of today’s ABA, or AMA, and the parallel is clear.
This is the genesis of the middle class. As more professions gained cachet, and earning power, they were added to the middle class. But always remained the vast serfs who were on the bottom rung with little chance to climb up.
This was the status until the 19th century.
Next up: The Industrial Revolution and the rise of the capitalist.