Monday 10 June 2019

Master and Mister - The Shire 'class system'?

At the beginning of the Lord of the Rings (LotR) - and despite the absence of a King - the Shire is divided into Gentry and commoners. The Gentry get called Mister, while the commoners get called Master, by their first names, or by occupational titles.

So we get Misters Baggins, Took, Brandybuck and Bolger - all Gentry; and commoners such as Master Sam Gamgee, and the Farmers Maggot and Cotton.

What is interesting is that the Hobbit Family Trees in the Appendices, show that the Shire Gentry intermarry pretty exclusively - so that the Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Fatty Bolger are all inter-related (and with the Boffin family, such as the 'extra' Folco); but not related to Sam. And Merry marries Fatty Bolger's sister; Pippin marries Diamond 'of Long Cleeve' - thus, presumably another of the landed Gentry.

But Sam (regardless of his achieved heroic status, fame and wealth) marries a commoner (Rose Cotton). And Sam stays Master Gamgee, despite becoming the Mayor; which suggests a distinction between the elected positions such as Mayor, and the hereditary positions such as Thain (held by the Tooks at the time of LotR) and Master of Buckland.

Indeed the Thain and Master are essentially titled aristocracy. Pippin and Merry are heirs to these premier lordships, and therefore perhaps the two highest status young Hobbits in the Shire.

However, while Sam remains Master Gamgee apparently up to his death; we can see that at least two of his children become Gentry - Elanor marrying Fastred 'of Greenholm' and the first Warden of Westmarch - a western extension of The Shire equivalent to Buckland in the east. Goldilocks marries Faramir, Pippin's son, and therefore becomes wife of the Thain - the Shire's premier aristocrat.

The upwardly-mobile Gamgees illustrate that The Shire is a class society, but does not have a caste system.


Note added (21 Sept 2021): I should have noticed that a list of the Shire Gentry is implicitly provided in the first chapter - in the guest list of Bilbo's close friends and relations who were invited to the 'special family dinner party':

There was a splendid supper for everyone; for everyone, that is, except those invited to the special family dinner-party. This was held in the great pavilion with the tree. The invitations were limited to twelve dozen (a number also called by the hobbits one Gross, though the word was not considered proper to use of people); and the guests were selected from all the families to which Bilbo and Frodo were related, with the addition of a few special unrelated friends (such as Gandalf). Many young hobbits were included, and present by parental permission; for hobbits were easy-going with their children in the matter of sitting up late, especially when there was a chance of getting them a free meal. Bringing up young hobbits took a lot of provender. There were many Bagginses and Boffins, and also many Tooks and Brandybucks; there were various Grubbs (relations of Bilbo Baggins’ grandmother), and various Chubbs (connexions of his Took grandfather); and a selection of Burrowses, Bolgers, Bracegirdles, Brockhouses, Goodbodies, Hornblowers and Proudfoots. Some of these were only very distantly connected with Bilbo, and some of them had hardly ever been in Hobbiton before, as they lived in remote corners of the Shire. The Sackville-Bagginses were not forgotten.

The hobbit family trees in the Appendices (and in Volume XII of the History of Middle Earth) confirm that these surnames are mostly listed as being inter-married extensively. By contrast, none of Bilbo's 'special unrelated friends' included surnames from the Shire peasantry - no Gamgees, Cottons, Maggots or the like. 


Cererean said...

Very much like Britain, really. Unlike the Continentals, where noble status was passed down to all children, almost everyone in Britain was legally a Commoner - which meant that there was no special legal status you had to gain to rise into the ranks of the Gentry. This, I suspect, played a big part in making sure the Aristocracy got to keep their heads.

Bruce Charlton said...

@C - That's an interesting point which I haven't heard made before, and I'm not sure I understand the distinction. Perhaps it has to do with the Norman Conquest which imposed a new aristocracy (and deposed the old). For about three hundred years there was little intermarriage between the Normans and Saxons - so it was a de facto caste system, and at first there was some kind of legal distinction between Norman and Saxon I believe - so there must have been a legal definition of who was who. I wonder if differneces with the continent are related to the Common Law versus Roman Law distinction?

Cererean said...


As I understand it (I'm not that well versed in Anglo-Saxon society...), there was even less of a distinction before the Conquest. A ceorl who did well and acquired enough property could rise to the status of thegn -

The last thousand years of English history have largely been marked by the Angles gradually turning their Norman overlords towards the pre-Consquest system, where the King answered to Parliament and there wasn't the rigid divide between Commoners and Aristocrats found on the Continent. :p

Anonymous said...

Very interesting! The Hobbits seem somehow most 'modern' of peoples (cf. 18th-20th centuries - ?), but I have never (beyond enjoying Tom Shippey's observations in the first ed of The Road to Middle-earth) thought properly about 'Hobbit sociology', and comparisons between County, and Country Gentry, and, say, Goldsmith, Jane Austen, Trollope, and Wodehouse - or, taking up the comments discussion, what mediaeval comparisons might well be made... Thanks for the provoking of thought!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to see the 'class' attention in what I.A. Blackwell's 1907 translation of Thorpe's ed. of the 'elder' Edda calls 'The Lay of Rig' - and to note as well that there is nothing that seems to me descriptive 'class' characterization of "the race of thralls", "the race of churls", or "Jarl's progeny" there which is analogous to Tolkien's characterizations of, say, the Hobbits, the people of Rohan, and the people of Gondor. (My acquaintance with Norse sagas is very limited - perhaps such things are more evident in (some of) them. In this context, in The Legend of Sigurd and GudrĂșn, Christopher Tolkien discusses 'social' differences between what Blackwell calls 'The lay of Atli' and 'The Groenland Lay of Atli' that were not evident to me, reading translations of them.)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Iceland has a very different kind of society than England - once based on subsistence farming. My understanding is that there was a small Danish upper class, a small itinerant middle class (travelling between family farms, providing skilled services, trade etc), but then mostly a spread out society of independent farmers - who only just grew enough food to survive (except when there were famines). Very different from England.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! That may well apply to a lot of Scandinavia, too, and to how more 'southerly' things are taken up into 'Norse'/'Icelandic' literature.

Gwendolyn Bowers has an interesting imaginative picture of Ninth-century Sweden in part of her (young-people's) novel, The Lost Dragon of Wessex (Oxford University Press, 1957), but I don't know enough to have a good sense of how she is working and playing with her sources, there.

David Llewellyn Dodds