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1 In property law, see propertyproperty,
rights to the enjoyment of things of economic value, whether the enjoyment is exclusive or shared, present or prospective. The rightful possession of such rights is called ownership.
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; tenuretenure,
in law, manner in which property in land is held. The nature of tenure has long been of great importance, both in law and in the broader economic and political context.
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. 2 In constitutional law, an estate denotes an organized class of society with a separate voice in government. Representation by estate arose in Europe in the 13th cent. when the feudal system was being broken up as a result of the growth of the towns. The term generally designates three classes—the nobility, the clergy, and the commons. The commons were the knights and the townspeople of substance—the burgesses or bourgeoisie. The sovereign would occasionally consult the three estates and consider their grievances. Often voting was by an estate as a whole rather than by individual vote. In many cases the estates might merely advise the sovereign, and their decisions were not binding. From these practices modern parliamentary institutions gradually evolved in several countries. Much of the constitutional development of the later Middle Ages is a record of the emergence of the commons—sometimes called the third estate—into a position of equality with the other two estates. The process is clearly shown in the history of the States-GeneralStates-General
or Estates-General,
diet or national assembly in which the chief estates (see estate) of a nation—usually clergy, nobles, and towns (or commons)—were represented as separate bodies.
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 in France. The next step was the transition from representation by estates to popular representation. A crucial moment in the French Revolution was the rejection of voting according to estates and the merger of the States-General into the national assemblynational assembly,
name of a number of past and present constituent or legislative bodies. In France, under the constitutions of the Fourth and Fifth republics, the lower house of parliament has been called the national assembly.
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. The English ParliamentParliament,
legislative assembly of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Over the centuries it has become more than a legislative body; it is the sovereign power of Great Britain, whereas the monarch remains sovereign in name only.
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 may be viewed historically as a representative body of the estates; the nobility and the Church of England are represented by the House of Lords, and the commons—the remaining adult citizens—by the House of Commons. In fact, however, the term estate is not applicable to a country with democratic institutions and is probably not appropriate in any modern state.
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A sizable piece of land, usually containing a large house. Because these properties represent an investment opportunity for public conservation and recreation, as well as other forms of private and commercial development, community organizations and local governments are becoming increasingly involved in the preservation of endangered estates.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved


(in preindustrial society) a SOCIAL STRATUM within a system of SOCIAL STRATIFICATION, distinguished by a specific set of legally-defined rights and duties. The estate system is particularly associated with European, and especially French and German, feudal and postfeudal, so-called STÄNDESTAAT societies, although there were broadly similar systems in Russia, Japan and China. Estates might vary from locality to locality, but within their own area they had rigorously ordered boundaries and value systems, and the main divisions are conventionally defined as being between nobility, clergy and commoners. The rise of ‘gentry’, ‘professional’ and other groupings might complicate status divisions on a local basis, but the regulation of rights to offices, titles, property etc, and, less formally, of whom it was appropriate to ‘know’ and how it was appropriate to know them, was a defining feature of estates.

Estates formed ‘communities’ in the sense used by WEBER, whose conception of STATUS GROUP owes a great deal to his understanding of the historical conformation of estates. The elements of exclusiveness and ‘acceptability’, common life chances, and shared culture and experience, are found in different historical situations, but the aspects of legal regulation and relatively fixed boundaries define the estate system (compare CASTE). See also FEUDALISM.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Russian, soslovie), in precapitalist societies, a social group possessed of hereditary rights and obligations fixed by custom or law. Organization by estates is characterized by a hierarchy of several estates, each unequal in status and privileges.

A society’s division into estates is not unrelated to its class composition (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 2, p. 476; vol. 6, p. 311). However, estates usually outnumbered classes, primarily because of the various forms and methods of extraeconomic constraint. Estates property still bore the stamp of naturally specified forms of the exploiters’ political unification (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, pp. 22–24). Estates came into existence in different ways and over a long period of time—longer in some societies, shorter in others. Estates emerged as property inequalities and military, religious, professional, and other functions in society were consolidated in practice and sanctified by law.

Unlike castes, which may be viewed as organization by estates in which the hereditary principle is absolute, estates involve a less rigid adherence to the hereditary principle. Membership in an estate may be purchased, granted by the sovereign, or obtained in other ways. At the same time, an estate differs from bodies in which membership is a reward for personal merit—for example, service in the military or the passing of an examination, as with the shen-shih in China. In Europe the clergy played a singular role, one that largely undermined the very principle of organization by estates, since membership in the estate of the clergy was not hereditary and since “the church formed its hierarchy out of the best brains in the land, regardless of their estate, birth or fortune” (K. Marx, ibid., vol. 25, part 2, p. 150). The members of an estate usually display the fact of their membership through outward symbols, such as special ornaments, marks of distinction, items of clothing, and hair styles. A sense of morality specific to the estate also arises.

Medieval France is usually considered the classic example of a society organized by estates. By the 14th and 15th centuries, when the rise of the hereditary estates culminated, French society had been divided into the clergy, the nobility, and the third estate, all of which sent delegates to the Estates General, a body made up of representatives of the estates. Each estate had strictly defined rights and privileges. The first two estates were exempt from state taxes, had privileged access to positions in the state bureaucracy, and cultivated a distinctive life-style that set them apart from the “common folk” of the third estate. However, membership in the nonprivileged third estate also entailed inclusion in a system of relations regulated by law. The exclusivity of the estates began to break down in about the mid-16th century, as the “well-born” lost their economic advantages, as the nobility ceased to monopolize military functions, and as the ranks of the nobility were filled by the rich and by state and judicial officials. The estates were abolished by the French Revolution.

In Russia, estates took shape as early as the mid-16th century, as the Russian lands were unified in a single state, the appanage feudal aristocracy fell into decline, and the dvorianstvo (service nobility) and urban elite gained increasing influence. In this period, the zemskie sobory (councils of the land) were convened for the first time, in which representatives of the urban elite and, at the zemskii sobor of 1613, even of the state peasants sat alongside members of the boyar-dvorianstvo estate and upper clergy. The estates of this period were complex and multifarious. The razriadnye spiski (lists of appointments) of the 17th century and the Barkhatnaia Kniga (Velvet Book) of 1687 were the lever by which dvorianstvo was gradually transformed from a corporate service group into a hereditary estate. The hereditary principle of organization by estates was to some extent weakened during the reign of Peter I, when the introduction of the Table of Ranks in 1722 blurred the lines between the estates and when individuals acceded to the privileged estates by dint of service and the tsar’s grants of status. Subsequently, however, the estates rights of the nobility expanded—at the expense of the other estates’ legal status. After the Manifesto on Freedom of the Nobility in 1762 and the Charter of the Nobility in 1785, Russian society was consolidated into several estates: nobles, clergy, peasants, merchants, and meshchane (townsmen); these estates persisted until the February Bourgeois Revolution of 1917. Certain estates, the nobility and clergy, were exempt from taxes, while others, the peasants and meshchane, were not.

In Asia various forms of the social order evolved, ranging from the rigid caste system of India to the almost complete absence of a hereditary aristocracy or firm boundaries between estates, as in Burma.

As capitalist relations sprang up and took hold and as hierarchies based on hereditary status thereby gave way to hierarchies of wealth, whose true nature was concealed by formal legal equality for all, estates began to disappear. However, certain vestiges of estates have survived, even in modern bourgeois societies. In Great Britain, for example, aristocratic families have privileged access to higher education and government positions. Even in a country such as the USA, which has never experienced feudalism, graduates of Harvard or Princeton make up a “pseu-doestate,” distinguished by membership in exclusive clubs and by preference received in obtaining employment with the best legal firms, the best banks, the diplomatic corps, and the various branches of the military.

The vestiges of certain countries’ privileged estates can play an extremely reactionary role, as did the Junkers in Prussia and the large landowners and upper clergy in Spain.

Socialist revolution utterly and ruthlessly eliminates the inequality stemming from the existence of estates, since only socialist revolution eradicates the “remnants of feudalism and serfdom,” which, according to V. I. Lenin, form “the deep-seated roots of the social-estate system” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 44, p. 146).


Marx, K. Vosemnadtsatoe briumera Lui Bonaparla. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 8.
Engels, F. Anti-Dühring. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. “Agrarnaia programma russkoi sotsial-demokratii.” In Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 6.
Lenin, V. I. “O gosudarstve.” In Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 39.
Kliuchevskii, V. O. Istoriia soslovii v Rossii. In Soch., vol. 6. Moscow, 1959.
Absoliutizm v Rossii. Moscow, 1964.
Gurevich, A. Ia. Kategoriisrednevekovoi kul’tury. Moscow, 1972.
Barg, M. A. Problemy sotsial’noi istorii v osveshchenii sovremennoi zapadnoi medievistiki. Moscow, 1973. Chapter 3.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. The property of a deceased at the time of death.
2. A property interest, usually applied to land.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. Property law
a. property or possessions
b. the nature of interest that a person has in land or other property, esp in relation to the right of others
c. the total extent of the real and personal property of a deceased person or bankrupt
2. an order or class of persons in a political community, regarded collectively as a part of the body politic: usually regarded as being the lords temporal (peers), lords spiritual and commons
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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