New Worlds: Status Without Wealth

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

We all know that status has its benefits. Rather a lot of them, in fact, and the lack of it is rarely a good thing.

But it also brings burdens. And when the benefits and the burdens get out of balance, being a person with status can suck in some creative new ways.

Last week I talked about the dynamics that arise when wealth is not (supposed to be) the metric of your rank. But I spoke of it mainly from the direction of people without status having lots of money, rather than from the other side — when rank is accompanied by insufficient cash.

This is the “keeping up with the Joneses” dynamic. Even in the absence of laws requiring the upper classes to wear expensive fabrics or finely-tailored official robes, there’s still a weight of expectation saying that you should. (Most of the time. There have been puritanical societies, e.g. the actual Puritans, with different views.) In cultures that make a major virtue out of generosity, you’re in trouble if you don’t throw lavish banquets or give away possessions to anyone who admires them. Your house must be grand, your entertainments grander. And over time . . . being important can bankrupt you.

If you don’t do it to yourself, someone else may step in. In Renaissance England, the monarch would sometimes go on a “royal progress,” i.e. a political road trip around their realm. Being visited by the sovereign was a great honor — so great, in fact, that some people built lavish manors with chambers intended for royal use, which then sat around unused and chewing through maintenance money while their owners tried in vain to attract the king’s or queen’s eye. But the angle I find especially interesting is when the honor of hosting the progress was used as a means of control, or even punishment. Because of course you aren’t just hosting the monarch: you’re hosting their progress. Which is to say, an enormous retinue of servants and attendants and hangers-on and the servants and attendants of the hangers-on, all of whom expect a roof over their heads (well, the servants might not) and regular meals and meanwhile their horses are trampling your fields and eating you out of house and home and you didn’t need that firewood or coal for this winter, did you?

Hosting a progress could ruin a person. So while a close ally of the king of queen might receive a brief visit — enough to shine the light of royal attention on them; not enough to become a burden — a fractious noble might find himself crushed under the weight of a lengthy stay. By the time the progress moved on, that noble barely had enough money left to repair the damage it had done, let alone plot rebellion. It’s an elegant way to ruin someone, and look gracious while you’re doing it.

Mostly, though, what happened over time is that the basis of aristocratic wealth fell out from under the upper classes. This dynamic crops up in both England and Japan, two countries whose histories I’m pretty familiar with; I bet it happened elsewhere, too. Go back a thousand years or so, and you’ll find that land ownership and exploitation is the main source of wealth, via farms, mines, and other such modes of production. Therefore, the people who owned the land (or at least its products) were also the richest, and the ones with power.

But over time, that changed. If you want to see this in action, read Neal Stephenson’s “System of the World” trilogy; he gets more detailed about the process than you’re likely to see anywhere outside of an economic history textbook. Short form is, things like commerce rose in importance while the value of land ownership declined, via everything from overworking the soil to the partition of estates. Cue the rise of mercantile classes — but long-standing prejudices meant the aristocrats were reluctant to sully themselves with money earned from sources other than land or investments.

Run this shift for long enough, and you wind up with rich merchants living the high life, and penniless aristocrats with little of value to their names apart from the names themselves.

Ever wonder why so many of those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century young Englishmen were forever dodging their creditors? In some cases it was because they were truly feckless, but in others it’s because the sand was washing out from under their feet. Expectations hadn’t yet caught up with the fact that the peerage wasn’t as rich as it used to be, so people spent far beyond their long-term means. Even today, you can find English aristocrats hocking their ancestral estates, or turning them into museums in a desperate bid to make the places bring in enough money to cover their upkeep. If their families had no status, it would be easier for them to scale down over the generations, or accept the new economic reality and adapt. But when you’re carrying the weight of a title, a lineage, the expectations of your social class . . . then it isn’t so simple.

Which means it’s an engine for story. Whether you feel sympathetic to people in that situation or not, it’s fodder for everything from romance plots (Impoverished Aristocrat Seeks Wealthy Plebian Bride) to tragedy (shouldn’t have gone to that guy for help with your debts . . .) to intrigue (the horse-trading of political influence for monetary support) and more.

I’ll be honest with you all; I kind of loathe economics as a subject. I blame a very bad experience with studying it in high school. But I find myself coming back to it again and again, never in major, plot-centric ways, but as minor touches in the background of a whole bunch of different stories. It lends a note of reality, creates little patches of conflict, gives characters motivations with an extra layer of complexity. So even though my eyes cross at the first mention of GDP, I try to pay attention to this — and I like stories that do the same.

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New Worlds: Status Without Wealth — 10 Comments

  1. Jennie Churchill is a prime example of the aristocracy seeking a wealthy bride for down at the heels younger brother Randolph Churchill. There are numerous biographies about her. The Smithsonian Channel had a series called “American Princesses” about wealthy American women who married titles and went on to become influential in their own right. Grace Kelly among them.

    • One reason why her family went to Europe was that NYC was even more rigid about keeping the new money out. After all, they didn’t have the security of titles to filter. Not that they were able to keep it up for long.

      To Marry an English Lord by Carol McD. Wallace and Gail MacColl has some good stuff on the topic.

  2. For world builders who want to understand something about economic underpinnings, I strongly recommend Debt, by David Graeber. It’s even interesting!

  3. Deep Throat was right: follow the money.
    They tried to argue that rich American women were ‘invigorating’ the English peerage — there’s shelves of novels, many by Frances Hodgson Burnett, arguing this. And everyone’s seen Cora, over at Downton Abbey. But essentially it was trading money for title and status.

    • A lot of folks regarded it as trading title for money.

      Like the Punch cartoon of a weedy nobleman arguing with his statuesque wife that he was a bargain, and her loftily countering that he was a remnant.

  4. all of whom expect a roof over their heads (well, the servants might not)

    Only some of the servants. You see, the tradition was that the king and even the nobles had quite high-ranking servants. Life in the English Country House by Mark Girouard goes into plentiful detail on that. The particular anecdote I remember is that one high-ranking noble — his highest ranking servant had three servants to attend him, and the highest of the three had a servant of his own. Perhaps the last might expect to not get a roof. But all the rest would