The Stucture of Elizabethan Society
The Structure of Society - Being a Summary & Introduction
That infinite wisdom of God, which hath distinguished his angels by degrees, which hath given greater and less light and beauty to heavenly bodies, which hath made differences between beasts and birds, created the eagle and the fly, the cedar and the shrub, and, among stones, given the fairest tincture to the ruby and the quickest light to the diamond, hath also ordained kings, dukes or leaders of the people, magistrates, judges and other degrees among men.
Sir Walter Raleigh, History of the World (1614)
When an Elizabethan was born, he or she was born into a clearly defined place in society. He spent his entire life in that place, and from constant reinforcement, he understood instinctively what was expected of him with regard to that place, and what he could expect from other members of society. The structure was hierarchical and arranged like a pyramid, with the numberless mass of the peasantry and laboring class at the bottom, and the Queen at the top.
This is perhaps a flawed analogy however, since there were really two separate hierarchies: that of the country and that of the town. As that of the country constituted the vast majority of the population, I will begin with it.