Liberty, inequality, fraternity

“Creation cannot be governed in equality”

Order and inequality

The Three Orders, Book of Health, British Library. Source: Wikicommons
The Three Orders, Book of Health, British Library. Source: Wikicommons

“Creation cannot be governed in equality”. The one who speaks thus, with all the authority conferred on him by his position, is Pope Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to 604). He develops his idea by explaining that the “community” can only subsist if it is preserved by what he calls “the order of disparity”.

The expression seems difficult to understand, so deeply rooted is the idea that equality — social, economic, political, etc. — is the very condition of the social order. Inequalities, on the contrary, are widely perceived and denounced as threats, weakening the social balance, threatening political structures, undermining the very roots of our democracies.

However, for the medieval pope (or late-antique, let’s not quibble), it’s the opposite: “disparity” is order. Which amounts to saying, or at least implying, that equality is anarchy, confusion, chaos. For the medievals, the social order only makes sense if it is hierarchical.

Order and Orders

These hierarchies translate in many ways. For example, of course, in the famous “schema of the three orders”, which is fixed in the 9th century and imposes on each individual a precise place and a largely fixed social role. Normative sources praise the “good poor” and generally condemn attempts to change social class.

These hierarchies are also translated very concretely, in daily practices and mentalities. Gregory the Great notes, for example, that “true harmony” only exists if “the inferiors show reverence to the superiors”. Not only is the world unequal, not only must it be, to remain orderly, but this inequality must also be updated every day in the “reverence” of some for others.

There was no need, in medieval times, to hide these metaphors of a timid “first of a rope”: we can speak frankly and openly of inferiors and superiors. In charters, nobles are commonly referred to as optimates, literally the best, or majores, the greatest. In one of his fanciful etymologies of which he has the secret (article link), Isidore of Seville explains that the Latin word for knight, miles, comes from the word thousand, because the knight is “one among a thousand”. Well, etymologically it’s nonsense, but it says what it means. Nobility is election, superiority, which translates concretely into the multiplication of high castles, dominating the landscapes just as the nobles dominate the world (article link).

In this context, the concept of “freedom” takes on a completely different meaning: as Jacques Le Goff has shown, medieval libertas is not the equivalent of our modern freedom. The notion is very fluid, but can notably be defined as — I quote Le Goff — the right and the duty for an individual to occupy their rightful place, to integrate into society. Inequalities do not prevent individual freedoms, on the contrary, they guarantee them: to play a role, there must be very distinct roles.

Breaking down inequality

The foundations of this idea are above all religious. For the medievals, God created the world in a certain order, thus establishing a real scale of beings that goes from fish to man. God explicitly created animals and plants for man: the natural world is therefore ordered, hierarchical.

Theologians will therefore think of the social world as a reflection of this hierarchical nature. In the 14th century, in a very successful treatise, the Dominican Jacques de Cessoles spins the metaphor between society and the game of chess: each occupies a specific square, fulfills a specific role. Social ascent is possible: a pawn can become a rook, knight or queen by reaching the opposite line. But it remains rare, and above all never threatens the social and political balance: a pawn cannot become king. The inequality is presented as both necessary (if all the pawns had the same abilities, there would be no game) and accepted: a pawn never revolts against the player who pushes it forward.

The Garden of Eden according to Bosch. Source: Wikicommons
The Garden of Eden according to Bosch. Source: Wikicommons

However, this idea, however dominant it was throughout the medieval period (and beyond, of course, until the 18th century at least), encountered resistance and disputes. In fact, of course: strikes by knights, revolts by peasants, urban demonstrations, so many movements that challenge, with varying degrees of success, the social order and political hierarchies. But the challenge is also theoretical, and it is based on the Bible. From the fourteenth century, supporters of a reform of the Church, for example, ask a famous question: “When Adam was digging and Eve was spinning, where was the gentleman? “.

The question is crucial. By arguing that at the time of the Garden of Eden there were no social hierarchies, we emphasize that these, and therefore inequalities, are a historical creation, the fruit of a (bad) choice of men but not of a divine will. This amounts to saying that it is man who is responsible for inequalities, which then allows us to say that we can make them disappear, or at least reduce them. More and more voices are then raised to demand, if not more equality, at least a better distribution of power and roles. It is not surprising that these currents (Wyclif in England, Hus in Bohemia) come to question the privileges, even the very existence of the clergy, to demand direct access to the Gospels and the sacraments.

To delve into the way some medieval authors have, over the centuries, thought about inequality supposes succeeding in getting out of one’s own conceptions, the fruit of a long intellectual history mainly forged from the 17th-18th centuries. There remains, of course, a major question that should not be evacuated: almost all the sources that praise inequality in this way come from people who are at the very top of the social edifice. Were the serfs of the 11th century, crushed under the weight of corvées and taxes, firmly convinced that social inequalities were the very condition of world harmony?

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