TAKE THE MIDDLING CULTURE Social status CALCULATOR FOR EARLY MODERN individuals HERE
Note: The calculator, and information surrounding it, will be updated over time in line with further research. Stay up-to-date with developments by subscribing or following us on twitter.
Our Social Status Calculator is inspired by the 2013 BBC Great British Class Calculator (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22000973). We wanted to break down what “middling” status meant in sixteenth and seventeenth century England (with a focus on urban environments), so that we could give a sense of what being a part of this group was like.
Broadly, individuals or households among “the middling” sat below the more elite landed gentry in the social hierarchy, and they worked for their living. But they occupied a position above the wage labourer or the dependent poor, and they spent money on household furnishings, decoration, and goods; pursued professional advancement; and displayed or sought out various other forms of social, cultural, and political power. In order to understand this group, we also have to think about the experiences of those above and below them, so our calculator includes “Gentry,” “Wage Labourer,” and “Dependent Poor” among our ten status categories, though we are focused here on more detailed understanding of those in the middle. It’s very difficult to put a precise number on the proportion of the population that made up a middling group. Jonathan Barry and Christopher Brookes observed in 1994 that there have been various estimates for the 16th to the 18th centuries that put the proportion between a conservative 30% (perhaps due to the exclusion of, what we would term, the upper and elite middling and the professional middling) and 50% of the population, with numbers rising across the period.
Therefore, this group represent a huge swathe of early modern society—one not always uniform or experienced in the same way by different people. That’s why we have identified seven groups within the “middling” to give a sense of the different ways in which they were central, in particular to creative production and social mobility, but differently so for a young apprentice than for a widow in the later stages of her life, for example. This is not a homogenous and much-caricatured notion of a later British “middle class,” but a broad range that included French preachers, Flemish doctors, and Spanish silkweavers as part of a broader European migration of skills, techniques, materials, and religious identities. Neither was “middling” necessarily synonymous with “white”: Imtiaz Habib has shown how Black men and women in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries were haberdashers, musicians, soldiers, pages, divers, and gardeners, though he also alerts us to the racialised language and global exploitation and slavery that underpin surviving records, suggesting social limitation as much as possibility. The calculator aims to indicate the fluidity, flexibility, and scope of the social world of early modern England and of the potential for movement (upwards or downwards) between social groups and categories.
We hope you enjoy exploring this calculator, then, which will divide you into one of ten groups from early modern society depending on your answers to the questions in the quiz. The more you know about the “individual” (real or imagined) you put through the calculator, the more reliable the result will be.
NB: Although the quiz seeks to cover most life stages, considers gender, and picks out key attributes for each group, it cannot cover all nuances of wealth, authority, civic activity, and consumption. It is meant to be illustrative and designed to provoke critical discussion about social status. As such, if you would like to skip the quiz or are dissatisfied with your result, then please take a look at the whole status scale HERE and the accompanying example biographies and probate inventories (lists of goods at death) that give an example of the real-life individuals and property that inform our research and that may help you place your own individual (real or imagined).
 Jonathan Barry and Christopher Brooks, The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550-1800 (London: Macmillian, 1994), p.3. For more information about those that fell in the group below the middling sort (wage labourers and the dependent poor) see the ‘History From Below‘ on the Many Headed Monster blog.