The social structure of early modern Europe is called a Society of Orders and has its roots in the feudal system of the Middle Ages. In theory there are three orders, or estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the peasantry—those who pray, those who fight, and those who work very hard to support the other two! In a caste system one is born into a particular socioeconomic stratum and will remain there for life. Wealth primarily forms the basis or our class system in the United States. So a person from the middle class can strive through ingenuity and resourcefulness to become the richest person in the world and thereby secure for himself or herself a high social standing. A Society of Orders, however, is different. The nobility has privilege over other groups because they are born into a particular long-standing family of title and honor.
This tripartite system of feudal Europe—monks, warriors, peasants—was the theoretical basis of the culture. Europe at this time was largely agrarian, and farmers and land laborers formed about 90% of the population. However, since the late medieval period towns and cities had been on the rise, increasing the presence and influence of a fourth tier: urban folk. The mercantile sector of society—merchants, bankers, artisans—threw a monkey wrench into the traditional social schema. Throughout the Renaissance and beyond a number of families in the urban community began to generate more wealth than traditional noble families. Gradually, these families bought or married their way into the nobility. In England, for example, historians have traced the "rise of the gentry," the increasing prosperity and political influence of the middle class whose views clashed with the monarchy and the old aristocracy.