Monday, July 20, 2015

Rise and Fall and Fall and Rise

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no
basis for a system of government!
Life is chaotic at best, and no time in our history shows this better than the Middle Ages of Europe.  Just look at how long those “Dark” times lasted (yes, Jamie, that’s aimed at you).  From the 5th Century through the 15th Century, Europe faced some rather tumultuous times.  It was born in calamity with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and featured such fun times as rapid depopulation, impressive wars and political intrigue, mass immigration, empires rising and falling, religious strife and invasion on a scale little seen ever again.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think I was talking about the modern age.

Thus, is it any wonder the people tried to create, as we always do, order from the chaos?  The noble class served as more than simple tyrants of privilege—they also provided a bar by which others, peasants and merchants, could strive to attain.  Writers tend to think of nobles and noble families as stretching back from a nearly infinite start point, but that’s really only a recent construction.  Noble families, although they had it easier than everyone else, still didn’t have it that easy.  They rose, fell and sometimes rose again and often fell again.

Anne Boleyn defined "losing your head over him"
While it may seem from fiction, television, and movies that if you born a peasant you died a peasant, it was actually possible of peasant families to rise over the generations to become a noble house.  It only took a little success from one generation to lift a family up and start the climb to nobility.  Have a look at the rise and fall of the Boleyn family (of Anne Boleyn fame).  Go back two generations, from Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, 1st Earl of Ormond and member of the Most Noble Order of the Garter and the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, to his grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn, and you find nothing better than a yeoman (an attendant in a noble house).  Grand-dad Boleyn’s son would become Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, but first he was an apprentice hatter (yes, a guy who makes hats) before he became wealthy and the head of the Mercers (a trade organization).

Wealth often buys power and prestige which can be translated into titles of nobility.  Noble
Blackadder needs no funny caption.
families, on the other hand, walked, ran, tripped and fell with some regularity.  As easy (relatively speaking) for a family to rise by wealth, it only takes one misstep (or push) to tumble brutally.  The Boleyn family remains a perfect example of this, as poor Anne, wife to Henry VIII, produces Elizabeth, is accused of various treasonous acts, and is tried and executed.  Although her daughter will become one of the most notable and powerful women in English history, the family itself pretty much gasped its last when Anne was beheaded.  Thomas Boleyn leaves court in disgrace.

Not all noble houses meet with such tragic, spectacular or deliberate ends.  Some simply fade back into the merchant or peasant class.  A lack of fertility, bad investments, or simple squandering of wealth could all lead a once powerful and rich family to end up literally dirt poor.  This might take a few generations, but the shuffle of power can easily leave nobles in the discard pile while the class system rolls merrily on.

It is a wonderful trope in fiction that once a noble/peasant, always a noble/peasant, and there is nothing so great as a noble or so low as peasant and never the two shall meet.  Movies like A Knight’s Tale and Robin Hood make much of the nobility over their lessers.  The truth is that while it wasn’t common for a peasant to leap-frog into the nobility or vice-versa, over a generation or three a family could easily rise (or fall) and often did.

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