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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 29. Social conditions of the Trading and Yeoman Classes

At the lower end of the social scale, in the Elizabethan age, a very marked division is observable between those who, more or less, were moving upward and those whose doom is seemed to lag behind. The smaller tradesmen and manufacturers of the towns, though they could not, like the great city merchants, have any claim to be of the councils of the sovereign or of those who carried on the government, still found themselves occasionally chosen to represent in parliament the interests of the communities in which they lived, though, in the new boroughs established under the influence of the crown, that influence was powerful in securing the election of persons belonging to the gentry on whom it could directly depend. In other words, too, the industrial element was asserting its right to the social advantages within its reach; probably, such a case as that of Gabriel Harvey’s father, the rope-maker of Saffron Walden, who sent not less than four sons to the neighbouring university, was not a very unusual one in the social history of the times. Many yeomen, too, although their class was supposed to be marked by a definite limit of income, and although it was customary to address them and their wives as “goodman” or “goodwife” instead of “master” or “mistress,” were, by their cleverness and industry, constantly raising themselves on the social ladder—“buying up poor gentlemen’s land, educating their sons for professions and learning them how to become gentlemen.” “These were they,” adds Harrison, in picturesque remembrance of the days of Henry V, “that in times past made all France afraid.” An admirable dramatic type, dated still further back, of the stalwart yeomen of whom many an example must have remained in Elizabethan England, is George-a-Greene, the pinner of Wakefield, in the play named after him. Hobs the tanner, in Heywood’s Edward IV, may serve as a companion picture of the honest handicraftsman, imperturbable alike in his good sense and in his good humour.