Social class always enters into marriages arranged by matchmakers or parents; the higher the class, the more this enters into consideration. In the later middle ages "the evil of child marriages seems to have been more common amongst the upper classes . . . . " 27Next Page
The dowry system, wherever in use, is a social as well as an economic instrument. It might well have been set up in order to entrench the class lines. It brings marriage to the planned stage, and social class considerations are a part of all planned marriages. " . . . the custom of seeking 'good providers' and daughters and widows 'well placed' was as firmly fixed in Massachusetts as the common law itself." 28
Specialization in etiquette and fashion. One of the means by which each social class excels the one below it, and perpetuates this distance through careful training of the child, is by specializing in etiquette and fashion. Children seldom fail to respond to parental example in these matters. If the father whittles and spits, the son most likely whittles and spits.
Social class comparisons, invidious and otherwise, are constantly being made. This is true of every social layer from the dregs of society that lie drunk in foul-smelling doorways upward through all the social strata to ladies who never wear the same gown to two social functions. Taste in clothes and care in manners, or lack thereof, are parts of the daily life of every class.
These matters pertain solely to externals; they do not apply to the way individuals behave when not subject to social class comparisons. In fact, it has been the complaint of many sexologists that the younger generation is coached much more in dining room etiquette than it is in the manners required to maintain connubial felicity.
The finer sensitivities revolving around etiquette, developed by careful training, are the aesthetics of the social class system. Women, more carefully trained in these matters, frequently cannot bring themselves to share a household with poorly trained men; this sometimes results in spinster-hood. In the social gatherings of any class above that of proletarian status a shortage of "eligible men" is obvious. At the top of the social scale there is a great surplus of women; at the very bottom many men have to share the attentions of but few women.
There is fashion in more than clothes and etiquette beyond parlor rules. The condition of hands, choice of remarks, kinds of patter, of accent, of pauses in conversation, little movements of the head and hand, meaningful glances -- all these aspects of breeding mark one man from another and indicate the circle in which he moves. Middle class radicals have trouble fraternizing with real workers. They do not know, and cannot easily learn, how to behave on that level.
Secrecy and snobbery. "A privileged stratum consciously or unconsciously veils itself in mystery in order to appear to the disadvantaged levels greater, more powerful, and more worthy of respect than it actually is," 29 says von Wiese, and Landtman shows that "a distinct feature of the aristocratic ranks among certain peoples is their separate language or mode of using the popular vernacular." 30
In former centuries the ability of the upper classes to read and write lent immeasurably to their prestige. (Crude indeed were the upper classes in France in the ninth century who had temporarily lost their knowledge of writing.) Today it is hard to visualize the gap once existing between the read and the unread. More than learning was involved here: the mystery of secret knowledge over-awed the illiterate.
Higher classes make pretense at possessing special knowledge by sabotaging conversation about certain topics when talking with persons of lower class standing. Condescension, non-committal responses, lifted eyebrows (all the tricks known to schoolteachers to gain respect and to appear to know much more than they do) are used by the higher classes in the presence of those who pay deference to them.
27. A. Abram, English Life and Manners in the Later Middle Ages (London, 1913) p. 115.
28. Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, vol. I (New York, 1927) p. 136.
29. von Wiese, op. cit., p. 312.
30. Landtman, op. cit., p. 303.