Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION IV: The consequences of the introduction of Agriculture, with respect to the intercourse of the Sexes. - The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
SECTION IV: The consequences of the introduction of Agriculture, with respect to the intercourse of the Sexes. - John Millar, The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks 
The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks; or, An Inquiry into the Circumstances which give rise to Influence and Authority in the Different Members of Society, edited and with an Introduction by Aaron Garrett (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The consequences of the introduction of Agriculture, with respect to the intercourse of the Sexes.
The passions which relate to the commerce of the sexes may be still raised to a greater height, when men are acquainted with the cultivation of the ground, and have made some progress in the different branches of husbandry.
The improvement of agriculture, which in most parts of the world has been posterior to the art of taming and rearing cattle, is productive of very important alterations in the state of society; more especially with respect to the subject of our present inquiry. Although this employment requires greater industry and labour than is necessary among men who have only the care of herds and flocks; yet, by producing plenty of vegetable as well as of animal food, it multiplies the comforts and conveniencies of life, and therefore excites in mankind a stronger desire of obtaining those pleasures to which they are prompted by their natural appetites. It also obliges men to fix their residence in the neighbourhood of that spot where their labour is chiefly to be employed, and thereby gives rise to property in land, the most valuable and permanent species of wealth; by the unequal distribution of<68> which a greater disproportion is made in the fortune and rank of individuals, and the causes of their dissension and jealousy are, of course, extended.
In the heroic times of Greece, we may, in some measure, discern the effect of these circumstances upon the character and manners of the people.
The inhabitants of that country were then divided into clans or tribes, who, having for the most part begun the practice of agriculture, had quitted the wandering life of shepherds, and established a number of separate independent villages. As those little societies maintained a constant rivalship with each other, and were frequently engaged in actual hostilities, they were far from being in circumstances to encourage a familiar correspondence; and when in particular cases a formal visit had produced an interview between them, it was often attended with such consequences as might be expected from the restraints to which they were usually subjected. A man of wealth and distinction, having conceived a violent passion for the wife or the daughter of a neighbouring prince, was disposed to encounter every danger in order to gratify his desires; and, after seducing the lady, or carrying her away by force, he was generally involved in a war with her relations, and with such as chose to assist them in vindicating the honour of their family. Disorders of this kind were for a considerable time the source of the chief animosities among the different states of Greece, as well as between them and<69> the inhabitants of Asia Minor; and the rape of Io, of Europa, of Medea, and of Helen, are mentioned as the ground of successive quarrels, which in the end were productive of the most distinguished military enterprise that is recorded in the history of those periods.
But notwithstanding these events, from which it appears that the passions of sex had often a considerable influence upon the conduct of the people, there is no reason to imagine that the Greeks, in those times, had entirely shaken off their ancient barbarous manners, or in their ideas with respect to the women, had attained any high degree of delicacy.
In the Iliad, the wife of Menelaus is considered as of little more value than the treasure which had been stolen along with her. The restitution of the lady and of that treasure is always mentioned in the same breath, and seems to be regarded as a full reparation of the injury which Menelaus had sustained: and though it was known that Helen had made a vol-untary elopement with Paris, yet her husband neither discovers any resentment upon that account, nor seems unwilling to receive her again into favour.*
Even the wife of Ulysses, whose virtue in refusing the suitors is highly celebrated in the Odyssey, is supposed to derive her principal merit from<70> preserving to her husband’s family the dowery which she had brought along with her, and which, it seems, upon her second marriage, must have been restored to her father Icarius.*
And though Telemachus is always represented as a pious and dutiful son, we find him reproving his mother in a manner which shews he had no very high notion of her dignity, or of the respect which belonged to her sex.
Penelope, so far from being offended at this language, appears to consider it as a mark of uncommon prudence and judgment in so young a person.
In all parts of the world, where the advancement of agriculture has introduced the appropriation of landed estates, it will be found that the manners of the inhabitants are such, as indicate considerable improvements in the commerce of the sexes.<71>
But the acquisition of property in land, the jealousy arising from the distinction of ranks, and the animosities which are apt to be produced by the neighbourhood of great independent families, appear to have been attended with the most remarkable consequences in those barbarous nations, who, about the fifth century, invaded the Roman empire, and afterwards settled in the different provinces which they had conquered.
As those nations were small, and as they acquired an extensive territory, the different tribes or families of which they were composed spread themselves over the country, and were permitted to occupy very large estates. Particular chieftains or heads of families became great and powerful in proportion to their wealth, which enabled them to support a numerous train of retainers and followers. A great number of these were united under a sovereign; for the different parts of a Roman province, having a dependence upon one another, fell naturally into the hands of the same military leader, and were erected into one kingdom. But, in a rude age, unaccustomed to subordination, the monarch could have little authority over such wide dominions. The opulent proprietors of land, disdaining submission to regular government, lived in the constant exercise of predatory incursions upon their neighbours; and every separate family, being in a great measure left without protection from the public, was under the necessity of provid-<72>ing for its own defence. The disorders arising from private wars between different families of the same kingdom, were not effectually repressed for many centuries; during which time the same causes continued to operate in forming the character and manners of the people, and gave rise to a set of customs and institutions of which we have no example in any other age or country.
The high notions of military honour, and the romantic love and gallantry, by which the modern nations of Europe have been so much distinguished, were equally derived from those particular circumstances.
As war was the principal employment of those nations, so it was carried on in a manner somewhat peculiar to themselves. Their military enterprises were less frequently undertaken against a foreign enemy than against the inhabitants of a neighbouring district; and on these latter occasions, the chief warriors of either party, were, from the smallness of their numbers, known to each other, and distinguished by the respective degrees of strength or valour which they possessed. The members of different families, who had long been at variance, were therefore animated with a strong personal animosity; and as, in the time of an engagement, they were disposed to single out one another, a battle was frequently nothing more than a number of separate duels between combatants inspired with mutual jealousy, and contending for<73> superiority in military prowess. As the individuals of different parties were inflamed by opposition, those of the same party, conscious of acting under the particular observation of all their companions, were excited to vie with each other in the performance of such exploits as might procure admiration and applause. In this situation they not only contracted habits which rendered them cool and intrepid in danger, but at the same time acquired a remarkable generosity of sentiment in the exercise of their mutual hostilities. Persons, who aspired to superior rank and influence, fought merely to obtain a reputation in arms, and affected to look upon every other consideration as mean and ignoble. Having this object in view, they thought it disgraceful to assault an enemy when unprepared for his defence, or without putting him upon his guard by a previous challenge; and they disdained to practise unfair means in order to gain a victory, or to use it with insolence and barbarity. These notions of honour were productive of certain rules and maxims, by which the gentry were directed in their whole manner of fighting, and from which they never deviated without bringing an indelible stain upon their character.
The ideas of personal dignity, which were thus raised to so high a pitch among neighbouring families, were incompatible with any regular distribution of justice. Men of wealth and distinction were unwilling to apply to a magistrate in order<74> to procure redress for the injuries or affronts which they sustained; because this would have amounted to a confession that they were unable to assert their character and rank, by taking vengeance upon the offender. If a law-suit had arisen in matters of property, it commonly happened in the progress of the dispute, that one of the parties gave such offence to the other, as occasioned their deciding the difference by the sword. The judge, who found himself incapable of preventing this determination, endeavoured to render it less hurtful to society, by discouraging the friends of either party from interfering in the quarrel. With this view, he assumed the privilege of regulating the forms, and even became a spectator of the combat; which in that age, no less prone to superstition than intoxicated with the love of military glory, was considered as an immediate appeal to the judgment of heaven. These judicial combats, though they did not introduce the custom of duelling, had certainly a tendency to render it more universal, and to settle a variety of observances with which it came to be attended.
The diversions of a people have always a relation to their general character and manners. It was therefore to be expected that such warlike nations would be extremely addicted to martial exercises, and that the members of different tribes or families, when not engaged in actual hostilities, would be accustomed to challenge one another to<75> a trial of their strength, activity, or military skill. Hence the origin of jousts and tournaments; those images of war, which were frequently exhibited by men of rank, and which tended still farther to improve those nice punctilios of behaviour that were commonly practised by the military people in every serious contest.
From this prevailing spirit of the times, the art of war became the study of every one who was desirous of maintaining the character of a gentleman. The youth were early initiated in the profession of arms, and served a sort of apprenticeship under persons of distinguished eminence. The young squire became in reality the servant of that leader to whom he had attached himself, and whose virtues were set before him as a model for imitation. He was taught to perform with ease and dexterity those exercises which were either ornamental or useful; and, at the same time, he endeavoured to acquire those talents and accomplishments which were thought suitable to his profession. He was taught to look upon it as his duty to check the insolent, to restrain the oppressor, to protect the weak and defenceless; to behave with frankness and humanity even to an enemy, with modesty and politeness to all. According to the proficiency which he had made, he was honoured with new titles and marks of distinction, till at length he arrived at the dignity of knighthood; a dignity which even the greatest<76> potentates were ambitious of acquiring, as it was supposed to ascertain the most complete military education, and the attainment of such qualifications as were then universally admired and respected.
The same ambition, in persons of an exalted military rank, which gave rise to the institution of chivalry, was afterwards productive of the different orders of knighthood, by which, from a variety of similar establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, a subdivision was made in the degrees of honour conferred upon individuals.
The situation of mankind in those periods had also a manifest tendency to heighten and improve the passion between the sexes. It was not to be expected that those opulent chiefs, who maintained a constant opposition to each other, would allow any sort of familiarity to take place between the members of their respective families. Retired in their own castles, and surrounded with their numerous vassals, they looked upon their neighbours either as inferior to them in rank, or as enemies. They behaved to each other with that ceremonious civility which the laws of chivalry required; but, at the same time, with that reserve and caution which a regard to their own safety made it necessary for them to observe. The young knight, as he marched to the tournament, saw at a distance the daughter of the chieftain by whom the show was exhibited; and it was even with difficulty that<77> he could obtain access to her, in order to declare the sentiments with which she had inspired him. He was entertained by her relations with that cold respect which demonstrated that their dignity was alarmed by his aspiring to contract an alliance with them. The lady herself was taught to assume the pride of her family, and to think that no person was worthy of her affection who did not possess an exalted rank and character. To have given way to a sudden inclination would have disgraced her for ever in the opinion of all her kindred; and it was only by a long course of attention, and of the most respectful service, that the lover could hope for any favour from his mistress.*
The barbarous state of the country at that time, and the injuries to which the inhabitants, especially those of the weaker sex, were frequently exposed, gave ample scope for the display of military talents; and the knight, who had nothing to do at home, was encouraged to wander from place to place, and from one court to another, in quest of adventures; in which he endeavoured to ad-<78>vance his reputation in arms, and to recommend himself to the fair of whom he was enamoured, by fighting with every person who was so inconsiderate as to dispute her unrivalled beauty, virtue, or personal accomplishments. Thus, while his thoughts were constantly fixed upon the same object, and while his imagination, inflamed by absence and repeated disappointments, was employed in heightening all those charms by which his desires were continually excited, his passion was at length wrought up to the highest pitch, and uniting with the love of fame, became the ruling principle, which gave a particular turn and direction to all his sentiments and opinions.
As there were many persons in the same situation, they were naturally inspired with similar sentiments. Rivals to one another in military glory, they were often competitors, as it is expressed by Milton, “to win her grace whom all commend”;4 and the same emulation which disposed them to aim at pre-eminence in the one respect, excited them with no less eagerness to dispute the preference in the other. Their dispositions and manner of thinking became fashionable, and were gradually diffused by the force of education and example. To be in love was looked upon as one of the necessary qualifications of a knight; and he was no less ambitious of showing his constancy and fidelity to his mistress, than of displaying his military virtues. He assumed the title of her slave, or servant. By<79> this he distinguished himself in every combat; and his success was supposed to redound to her honour, no less than to his own. If she had bestowed upon him a present to be worn in the field of battle in token of her regard, it was considered as a pledge of victory, and as laying upon him the strongest obligation to render himself worthy of the favour.
The sincere and faithful passion, which commonly occupied the heart of every warrior, and which he professed upon all occasions, was naturally productive of the utmost purity of manners, and of great respect and veneration for the female sex. The delicacy of sentiment which prevailed, had a tendency to divert the attention from sensual pleasure, and created a general abhorrence of debauchery. Persons who felt a strong propensity to magnify and exalt the object of their own wishes, were easily led to make allowance for the same disposition in their neighbours; and such individuals as made a point of defending the reputation and dignity of that particular lady to whom they were devoted, became extremely cautious, lest by any insinuation or impropriety of behaviour, they should hurt the character of another, and be exposed to the just resentment of those by whom she was protected. A woman who deviated so far from the established maxims of the age as to violate the laws of chastity, was indeed deserted by every body, and<80> was universally contemned and insulted.* But those who adhered to the strict rules of virtue, and maintained an unblemished reputation, were treated like beings of a superior order. The love of God and of the ladies was one of the first lessons inculcated upon every young person who was initiated into the military profession. He was instructed with care in all those forms of behaviour which, according to the received notions of gallantry and politeness, were settled with the most frivolous exactness. He was frequently put under the tuition of some matron of rank and distinction, who in this particular directed his education, and to whom he was under a necessity of revealing all his sentiments, thoughts, and actions. An oath was imposed upon him, by which he became bound to vindicate the honour of the ladies, as well as to de-<81>fend them from every species of injustice; and the uncourteous knight who behaved to them with rudeness, or who ventured to injure and insult them, became the object of general indignation and vengeance, and was treated as the common enemy of all those who were actuated by the true and genuine principles of chivalry.†
The sentiments of military honour, and the love and gallantry so universally diffused among those nations, which were displayed in all the amusements and diversions of the people, had necessarily a remarkable influence upon the genius and taste of their literary compositions. Men were pleased with a recital of what they admired in real life; and the first poetical historians endeavoured to embellish those events which had struck their imagination, and appeared the most worthy of being preserved.
Such was the employment of the bards,* who about the eleventh century are said, along with their minstrels,† to have attended the festivals and entertainments of princes, and to have sung, with the accompaniment of musical instruments, a variety of small poetical pieces of their own composition, describing the heroic sentiments, as well as the love and gallantry of the times.‡ <82>
They were succeeded by the writers of romance, who related a longer and more connected series of adventures, in which were exhibited the most extravagant instances of valour and generosity, of patience and fortitude, of respect to the ladies, of disinterested love, and inviolable fidelity; subjects the most capable of warming the imagination, and of producing the most sublime and refined descriptions; but which were often disgraced by the unskilfulness of the author, and by that excessive propensity to exaggeration, and turn for the marvellous, which prevailed in those ages of darkness and superstition. These performances, however, with all their faults, may be regarded as striking monuments of the Gothic taste and genius, to which there is nothing similar in the writings of antiquity, and at the same time as useful records, that contain some of the outlines of the history, together with a faithful picture of the manners and customs of those remarkable periods.
This observation is in some measure applicable to the Epic poetry which followed, and which, with little more correctness, but with the graces of versification, described the same heroic and tender sentiments, though tinctured by the peculiar genius and character of different writers.
The romance of Charlemain and his twelve peers, ascribed to archbishop Turpin, a cotemporary of that monarch, but which is supposed to be a work of the eleventh century,5 furnished mate-<83>rials for the Morgante, the Orlando Innamorato, and the Orlando Furioso.6 The last of these poems, which entirely eclipsed the reputation of the two former, whatever may be its merit to an Italian, in easiness and harmony of expression, is a bundle of incoherent adventures, discovering neither unity of design, nor any selection of such objects as are fitted to excite admiration. The Gierusalemme Liberata, to the system of enchantment, and the romantic exploits which modern times had introduced, has united the regularity of the ancient Greek and Roman poets; and though the author’s talents for the pathetic seem inferior to his powers of description, the whole structure of his admirable poem is sufficient to show the advantages, in point of sublimity, derived from the manners and institutions of chivalry.7 The fabulous legends of Prince Arthur, and his knights of the round table, suggested the ground-work of Spenser’s Fairy Queen;8 but the writer, instead of improving upon the Gothic model, has thought proper to cover it with a veil of allegory; which is too dark to have much beauty of its own; and which, notwithstanding the strength of imagery frequently displayed, destroys the appearance of reality, necessary, in works of imagination, to interest the affections.
When the improvement of public shows had given rise to dramatic performances, the same sort of manners was adopted in those entertainments;<84> and the first tragedies, unless when founded upon religious subjects, represented love as the grand spring and mover of every action, the source of all those hopes and fears with which the principal persons were successively agitated, and of that distress and misery in which they were finally involved. This is the more remarkable, because, from the rigid morals of that age, women were not permitted to act in those representations; and therefore the parts allotted to them, which were performed by men, were usually so conducted by the poet as to bear a very small proportion to the rest of the piece.
The first deviation from this general taste of composition in works of entertainment may be discovered in Italy, where the revival of letters was early attended with some relaxation of the Gothic institutions and manners.
The advancement of the Italian states in commerce and manufactures so early as the thirteenth century, had produced a degree of opulence and luxury, and was followed, soon after, by the cultivation of the fine arts, and the improvement of taste and science. The principal towns of Italy came thus to be filled with tradesmen and merchants, whose unwarlike dispositions, conformable to their manner of life, were readily communicated to those who had intercourse with them. To this we may add the influence of the clergy, who resorted in great numbers to Rome, as the fountain of ecclesiastical pre-<85>ferment, and who, embracing different views and principles from those of the military profession, were enabled to propagate their opinions and sentiments among the greater part of the inhabitants.
The decay of the military spirit among the Italians was manifest from their disuse of duelling, the most refined method of executing private revenge, and from their substituting, in place of it, the more artful but cowardly practice of poisoning. Their taste of writing was in like manner varied according to this alteration of their circumstances; and people began to relish those ludicrous descripions of low life and of licentious manners which we meet with in the tales of Boccace, and many other writers, entirely repugnant to the gravity and decorum of former times, and which appear to have taken their origin from the monks, in consequence of such dispositions and habits as their constrained and unnatural situation had a tendency to produce. This kind of composition, however, appears to have been the peculiar growth of Italy; and those authors who attempted to introduce it into other countries, as was done by Chaucer in England, are only servile imitators, or rather mere translators of the Italians.
In the other countries of Europe, the manners introduced by chivalry were more firmly rooted, and acquiring stability from custom, may still be observed to have a good deal of influence upon the taste and sentiments even of the present age.<86> When a change of circumstances, more than the inimitable ridicule of Cervantes, had contributed to explode the ancient romances, they were succeeded by those serious novels which, in France and England, are still the favourite entertainment, and which represent, in a more moderate degree, the sentiments of military honour, as well as the love and gallantry which prevailed in the writings of a former period. The fashion of those times has also remained with us in our theatrical compositions; and scarce any author, till very lately, seems to have thought that a tragedy without a love-plot could be attended with success.
The great respect and veneration for the ladies, which prevailed in a former period, has still a considerable influence upon our behaviour towards them, and has occasioned their being treated with a degree of politeness, delicacy, and attention, that was unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and perhaps to all the nations of antiquity. This has given an air of refinement to the intercourse of the sexes, which contributes to heighten the elegant pleasures of society, and may therefore be considered as a valuable improvement, arising from the extravagance of Gothic institutions and manners.<87>
[* ]Iliad, book 3. l. 100. 127. 355.
[† ]Pope’s Odyssey, book 1. l. 453.
[* ]Among the Franks, so early as the compilation of the Salique law, it appears that a high degree of reserve was practised between the sexes. M. L’Abbé Velly quotes, from that ancient code, the following article, “Celui qui aura serré la main d’une femme libre, sera condamné à une amende de quinze sous d’or.” [[“He who has shaken the hand of a free woman, shall pay a fine of fifteen golden sous.” And he adds, “On conviendra que si notre siecle est plus poli que celui de nos anciens legislateurs, il n’est du moins ni fi respectueux, ni sì reservè.” “One will agree that while our century is more polite than that of our ancient legislators, it is neither as respectful, nor as reserved.” Histoire de France, tom. 1. p. 134.]]
[4. ]Milton, “L’Allegro,” p. 124.
[* ]M. de la Curne de Sainte Palaye has collected some extraordinary instances of that zeal with which those who enjoyed the honour of knighthood endeavoured to expose any lady who had lost her reputation—“Et vous diray encore plus,” says an old author, “comme j’ay ouy racompter à plusieurs Chevaliers qui virent celluy Messire Geoffroy, qui disoit que quant il chevauchoit par les champs, et il veoit le chasteau ou manoir de quelque Dame, il demandoit tousjours à qui il estoit; et quant on lui disoit, il est a celle, se la Dame estoit blasmee de son honneur, il se fust plustost detournè d’une demie lieue qu’il ne fust venu jusques devant la porte; et là prenoit ung petit de croye qu’il portoit, et notoit cette porte, et y faisoit ung signet, et l’en venoit.” [[“And you will say too, as I heard from many knights who saw Sir Geoffroy, that when he went riding in the fields, and saw the castle or manor of a Lady, he always asked who it belonged to; and when he was told that it belonged to a Lady who had been ‘blamed in her honor,’ he would rather ride a half [lieue] further than pass in front of her door; he would also take out a piece of chalk and mark the door, before leaving” (I:124–25 [note 43]).]]
[† ]Memoires sur l’ancienne chevalrie, par M. de la Curne de Ste. Palaye. [[I:118 (note 40).]]
[* ]Trouverres ou Troubadours.
[† ]Chanterres et Iongleoŭrs. [[Singers and Jugglers.]]
[‡ ]Histoire du theatre François, par. M. de Fontenelle. [[Oeuvres, III:2–3.]]
[5. ]La Chanson de Roland.
[6. ]Luigi Pulci’s Morgante (1480), Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (1483), and Ludovico Ariosto’s continuation of Boiardo’s poem, Orlando Furioso, were three of the greatest comic works of the Italian Renaissance.
[7. ]Torquato Tasso’s epic poem, published in 1581, describing the First Crusade.
[8. ]Millar had a further reference to Edmund Spenser’s poem (1590) in the earlier edition of the Ranks.