My wife and I bought several antique maps when we lived in Europe. Dealers purchased antique books which contained maps, then framed and sold these colorful maps as art pieces. Several antique maps hang in the study where I write. One is a hand-drawn map titled A New Mape of the XVII Provinces of Low Germanie. The map displays the land of Belgium and The Netherlands. It was drawn by John Speed (1552–1629), an English cartographer. In 1626, the map was published in Fonction indérterminée (edited by George Humble). In 1549, just before the birth of John Speed, the Seventeen Provinces were combined by the Pragmatic Sanction and named the Low Countries.
The Low Countries had a tumultuous history during the Protestant Reformation. In 1581, the seven northern provinces united and declared independence from Habsburg Spain. The ten southern provinces remained under Catholic Spanish occupation and later became Belgium. My map displays the united Low Counties, but it was a religiously divided land. We own another antique map of the Low Countries dated 1748. By this date, cartographers separated the Low Countries into two regions and my map labeled the seven northern provinces Septem Belgium Provinciae Foederatvm.
One striking feature of Speed’s map was the drawings on the left and right map edges. The left side displays five different male figures while the right side depicts five complementary female figures. Speed’s ordering represents the social structure of the period. At the top is a gentleman and gentlewoman, each dressed in their finery. The second figure is a Brabander, a person from region of Brabant, located in central Belgium. Next is a Hollander, a person from the Southern Netherlands. The fourth is a fifner, a man who plays the fife. The last, and lowest figure is a countryman dressed in rural clothing. Each male has his wife shown on the opposite side. The members of the five social classes wore clothing that depicted their societal rank.
How did Europe develop into social classes? Europe was a Christian State by the Middle Ages. After over a thousand years of Christianity, social inequality still remained embedded within society, which contrasted with the Gospel of equality. Dr. Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), in his book The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Volume I, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1992, pages 284–296), wrote about the development of the Medieval Church during the Middle Ages. Jesus articulated the Kingdom of God, but “the Gospel was not at all concerned with the question of ‘how’ this was to happen.” As I previously described in an earlier blog, the early Church was not concerned about their sinful world. Their focus was on Jesus’s return. By the Middle Ages, the Church’s focus switched to social harmony. “Whenever this harmony, in actual fact, has been disturbed, it ought to be restored.” Social order supported harmony and dignity within the social classes, but not equality.
The Church adopted 1 Corinthians 7:20 to gain social harmony, both within the Church and outside it. “It is the duty of every man to remain within his own class, and to serve others gladly. The Christian virtues are not progress and change, but the preservation of healthy organizations and contentment with one’s present position in relation to the whole.” Troeltsch maintained that the Medieval society was founded upon the ancient city-state (Polis) and the Pauline concept of calling was inserted into the social structures of the Middle Ages “carrying with it the implications of the value of the unequal positions of work and service for the whole system.” The economic system was structured for specialization through divisions of labor and social order. This system “essentially created the new positive conception of ‘the calling’ as a rational constituent part of the social system” was a step up from the Roman system of slave labor.
Medieval theology portrayed work as punishment from the Fall. This obligation was given to all, but the various classes experienced it differently. “For the claims on life are strongly differentiated according to class and position, so that, on the one hand, more freedom is permitted to those in the higher ranks of Society, while, on the other, no man may try to rise beyond the limits of his class, nor forsake the position or the calling which he inherits from his father. These elements engender a spirit of patience, of humility and suffering, which permeates the whole of life. It has no connection with the joy of fulfilling one’s calling within the organic organization, but it is rather a passive acceptance of the results of the Fall, and of inequalities appointed by God.”
Although our post-modern world has shifted away from Medieval social structures, remnants remain. I witnessed British royalty and class ranks while living as an ex-pat in London. In authoritative countries, political power determines the social ranking. The separation of Church and State has limited the Church’s ability to create new social structures, but the Church does currently speak out against inequities. Historically, Christianity’s push against inequalities has been a more recent development that started during the Industrial Age labor abuses. Sadly, the Medieval Church preached the Gospel of God’s love for all but in practice, upheld inequalities.