All societies are stratified, but the criteria used to categorize people vary widely. Social stratification has taken many forms throughout history, including slavery, the estate system, indentured servitude, the caste system, and the class system.
Slavery is a system of stratification in which one person owns another, as he or she would own property, and exploits the slave’s labor for economic gain. Slaves are one of the lowest categories in any stratification system, as they possess virtually no power or wealth of their own.
A common assumption about slavery is that it is generally based on racism. Though racism was the primary cause of slavery in the United States, it was not the main reason that people in other areas were enslaved. Reasons for slavery include debt, crime, war, and beliefs of inherent superiority.
An ancient stratification system that no longer exists today was the estate system, a three-tiered system composed of the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners. During the Middle Ages, much of Europe was organized under this system.
Members of the nobility had great inherited wealth and did little or no discernible work. They occupied themselves in what we would term leisure pursuits, such as hunting or riding. Others cultivated interests in cultural pursuits, such as art and music.
To ensure that their inherited wealth passed smoothly from one generation to the next without being dispersed to members of the extended family, the nobility of the Middle Ages practiced the law of primogeniture. The word primogeniture comes from Latin and means “first born.” The nobility’s law of primogeniture stipulated that only a first-born son could inherit his father’s wealth. Members of this stratum developed an ideology to justify their privileged positions, the divine right of kings, which posited that the authority of the king comes directly from God. The king delegated authority to the nobles. Because the king and the nobles were God’s representatives, they had to be obeyed.
The eldest son was guaranteed a healthy income upon the death of his father, but other sons had to find their own means of income. Few, if any, were trained for work, so many became members of the Roman Catholic clergy, a body of religious officials. The clergy was very powerful in European society in the Middle Ages, and membership offered long-term job security and a comfortable living. The higher up the ladder a priest went, the more power he had over the masses.
The third tier of the estate system consisted of the masses of people known as the commoners. They spent their lives engaged in hard physical labor, with virtually no chance of moving up in society.
Some commoners, searching for a way out of their situation, found it by agreeing to indentured servitude, in which one individual agrees to sell his or her body or labor to another for a specified period of time. Once the time period is over, the individual may leave. Indentured servitude differs from slavery in that the individual chooses to enter into the agreement, while slaves have no say in deciding the course of their lives.
Indentured servitude was a common practice for European commoners during the settlement of the American colonies. In the 1600s and 1700s, many people who wanted to come to America could not afford passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, they entered into indentured servitude, selling their labor to the captain of an America-bound ship who, in turn, resold them to someone in America who needed workers. The terms of the contract lasted for an agreed-upon length of time, after which the new immigrant was free.