Estates, Orders and Corps

Gail Bossenga, Elizabethtown College


Estates, orders, and corps provided one of the most important means of conceptualizing and organizing society in the old regime. According to a long-standing, and not infrequently contested ideal, European society was composed of a series of hierarchically arranged social groups (estates, orders, and corps), each with a prescribed function and corresponding degree of honour and privileges. In its simplest form, society consisted of three basic groups: the First Estate, the clergy, who prayed; the Second Estate, the nobility, who fought; and the Third Estate, the common people, who worked. This hierarchy of superiority and inferiority was, according to some theorists of the period, inscribed in the order of the universe, so that the terrestrial human hierarchy participated in a greater, divinely sanctioned celestial hierarchy.