Do we know whether class strata stay static over time?
November 19, 2019 1:08 PM   Subscribe

I was idly reading today's featured Wikipedia article about a guy I'd never heard of, Odaenathus, born in 220 CE and described as "born into an aristocratic Palmyrene family."

So I found myself wondering: would a family that was aristocratic then, be more likely to be in a socially superior position now? I've read that there are families in Italy who can claim descent from prominent Roman aristocracy, for example, and some aristocracy in Japan may also have ancient claims, but I don't know all that much about either.

The other side of this coin is "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations" and that's seen often enough, but how static are our social strata, do we know?
posted by zadcat to Society & Culture (5 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a roundup of some research, at Vox. Researchers looked at tax records from Florence in 1427 and 2011 - obviously they don't have genealogy in between, but the highest-ranking surnames in 2011 were among the highest-ranking ones in 1427, and vice versa.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:16 PM on November 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

The Vox article refers to an article by Gregory Clark; he actually did a series of articles that were the basis of his book The Son Also Rises, which found significant persistence over long periods; some commentary here.

And a recent paper found that wealth of slave-holding families dropped following the civil war but quickly rebounded, suggesting that "Even after the enslaved people on whom their wealth was built were freed, Southern elites passed their advantages to their children through personal networks and social capital."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:26 PM on November 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

I remember reading this and this a number years back, regarding this question vis-a-vis England. The articles nuance the conclusion, but still:

"People with "Norman" surnames like Darcy and Mandeville are still wealthier than the general population 1,000 years after their descendants conquered Britain, according to a study into social progress"


"The pair tracked the prevalence of particular surnames in the student rolls of Oxford and Cambridge Universities over the centuries. They chose one group of “rich” family names, associated with the aristocracy, such as Darcy, Percy, Mandeville and Neville, and another group of “poor” names like Delmer, Goodhill, Trevellyan and Cholmondley. Sure enough, names from the first group popped up continuously over the centuries, while those in the second did not. In the words of Dr Cummins, “The names of the Normans who conquered England nearly 1,000 years ago are still over-represented at Oxbridge and also among elite occupations such as medicine, law and politics.”
posted by ClaireBear at 2:24 PM on November 19, 2019 [6 favorites]

i would've expected Trevelyan and Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumly) to be rather upper crust. It's names like Bloggs that strike me as quintessentially lower stratum, in England. But thanks.
posted by zadcat at 8:24 AM on November 20, 2019

Not necessarily, no.

Firstly, a word of warning about a purely surname-based analysis : a powerful family's continuity over time is not necessarily the same as normal biological descent, and surname continuity is not the same as either. Examples:
  • somebody might be adopted into a family and take on the family name, despite not being biologically related
  • normal conventions of patrilineal family naming are sometimes bent; for example if a daughter is the heir, her husband may take on her family name
  • a person from a lower-class background may change their name to a higher-class one; Brunty to Brontë, for example
So, while that study of the prevalence of upper-class names is a useful one, it is still Just One Study, has methodological weaknesses as well as strengths, and should not be taken as the final word on the matter.

Secondly: in some societies, it's known for certain that aristocratic families of a certain era did not continue at the same social class. The patrician families of ancient Rome were virtually wiped out, over a few centuries, by the paranoid reprisals of emperors against plotters, perceived and real.
posted by vincebowdren at 9:22 AM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

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