Representations of Social Order


Social class or estate was one of the primary shapers of identity in Early Modern Europe. The station into which a person was born played a far greater role in expanding or limiting individual prospects than “nationality.” Early Modern Europeans developed a nuanced hierarchy of social classes, as rendered visible in Gerhard Altzenbach’s broadsheet. But as Altzenbach’s image and Samuel Hartlib’s correspondence show, ideas about “nationality” intersected with social class to shape identity. When Hartlib describes his family history, “national” boundaries appear porous, easily transcended through connections (such as marriage) via estate. But Hartlib’s correspondence also suggests that ideas about estates were not fixed: the German nobility felt that being a merchant negatively affected a person’s status, whereas the Polish nobility—according to Hartlib’s account—regarded this occupation as neutral. One of the main ways that people transcended the boundaries of their estate was through marriage. Hartlib’s correspondence shows that people were concerned with making suitable marital alliances and that national identity did not seem to be a limiting factor, even if it was something that people noticed. The family tree of Philipp von Kerssenbrock and Catharina von Adelebsen shows the importance of ancestry and marriage in creating and maintaining social identity; it also illustrates how members of the German nobility depicted their heritage to bolster their status.


  1. < The Thirty Years War and the Fatherland
  2. National Character – Cultural Nationalism – Empire >