Caste System in Europe


Caste is a word “which in most minds is most strongly connected with Hindu social order”, wrote A. L. Basham, while noting that this practice did not exist in the ancient India.[i] A study of writings by early twentieth century sociologists makes it obvious that the caste system was deeply rooted in European customs and laws until 200 years back. But tactfully this fact was suppressed by most of the later authors, and the caste system was projected on exclusively to India.

 Views of John Oman Campbell 

 The unjustifiable treatment and bullying of Hinduism in name of ‘caste system’ was criticized a hundred years back by John Campbell Oman, who was a professor of social sciences at Government College, Lahore at the end of the nineteenth century. He wrote,[ii]

“No little amused wonder and supercilious criticism on the part of Europeans has been aroused by the caste system of India, which has generally been regarded as an absurd, unhealthy, social phenomenon, without parallel elsewhere… but caste prejudices, and institutions based on such prejudices, are not wholly absent from social life outside India, even in the highly civilized states of the western World. And a little consideration of such indications of caste feelings will help us account in some measure for the more salient characteristic of the Indian system, or at any rate serve to clear our minds of certain unfounded prejudices and offensive cant…but it is nevertheless undeniable that, even in Europe, certain genuine hereditary caste distinctions have at various times been maintained by law, and are to be found there at the present day.”

“One much derided peculiarity of the Hindu caste system is the hereditary character of trade and occupations, and in this connection it is interesting to recall to mind that at certain epochs the law in Europe has compelled men to keep, generation after generation, to the calling of their fathers without the option of change.” (Oman, J. C.; pp. 63-64).

“ Englandan ancient enactment required all men who at any time took up the calling of coal-mining or drysalting,  to keep to those occupations for life, and enjoined that their children should also follow the same employment. This law was only repealed by statutes passed in the 15th and 39th years of the reign of GeorgeIII; that is in the lifetime of the fathers of many men who are with us today. A more striking European example of a compulsory hereditary calling, common enough in the Middle Ages and down to the last century in Russia, is that of the serfs bound to the soil from generation to generation. Then again there existed through long periods of European history, the institution of hereditary slavery, with all its abominations.” (Oman, p. 65)

A further study of European social history will reveal more of details how an extremely tyrannical and rigid caste system was operative in Europe with legal sanction, which of course functioned under the theocratic rule of Church.

Edward Alsworth Ross (Principles of Sociology, 1920 Ed.[iii] and 1922 Ed.) gives a detailed description of rigid and strict caste system of Europe, which lasted till the beginning of the nineteenth century. Ross noted that Europe had a strict caste system during the Roman Empire period, however, it had not been brought to Europe by the Roman conquests, but it was a product of forces within the European society (Ross, 1922, p. 322). Thus the Europeans of the “Middle Ages lived in their caste rather than in their people… Something of this spirit has lived on in Poland.” (Ross, 1922, p. 359).[iv]

“The tendency of the later empire was to stereotype society by compelling men to follow the occupation of their fathers, and preventing a free circulation among different callings and grades of life. The man who brought the grain of Africa to the public stores of Ostia, the labour who made it into loaves for distribution, the butchers who brought pigs from Samnium, Lucania or Bruttium, the purveyors of wine and oil, the men who fed the furnaces of the public baths, were bound to their calling from one generation to another… Every avenue of escape was closed… Men were not allowed to marry out of their guild… Not even a dispensation obtained by some means from the imperial chancery, not even the power of the Church could avail to break the bond of servitude.” (Dill, p. 194, quoted by Ross, 1920, p. 322).[v]

In Prussia, not only men, but land too belonged to castes, and land belonging to a higher caste could not be purchased by individual belonging to a caste lower than that. This provision was abolished by the Emancipation Edict of 1807 (Ross, 1922, p. 182).

Oman quoted from Ingram: “This organization established in the Roman world a personal and hereditary fixity of professions and situations, which was not very far removed from the caste system of the East…Members of the administrative service were, in general, absolutely bound to their employments; they could not choose their wives or marry their daughters outside of the collegia to which they respectively belonged, and they transmitted their obligations to their children… In municipalities the curiales, or the members of the local senates, were bound, with special strictness, to their places and their functions, which often involved large personal expenditure… Their families, too, were bound to remain; they were attached by the law to the collegia or other bodies to which they belonged. The soldier, procured for army by conscription, served as long as his age fitted him for his duties, and their sons were bound to similar service.” (Ingram, p. 75)

“In a constitution of Constantine (A.D. 332) the colonus is recognized as permanently attached to the land. If he abandoned his holding, he was brought back and punished; and anyone who received him had not only to restore him but to pay a penalty. He could not marry out of the domain; if he took for wife a colona of another proprietor, she was restored to her original locality, and the offspring of the union were divided between the estates. The children of a colonus were fixed in the same status, and could not quit the property to which they belonged.” (Ingram, p. 78, quoted in Oman, J. C., p. 64).[vi]



Max Weber’s Comparison of Hindu Caste and Untouchability with European Hereditary Guilds

 Max Weber found that the Vedic Indian society did not have anything like medieval European, or later Indian caste.

“Perhaps the most important gap in the ancient Veda is its lack of any reference to caste. The (Rig-) Veda refers to the four later caste names in only one place, which is considered a very late passage; nowhere does it refer to the substantive content of the caste order in the meaning which it later assumed and which is characteristic only of Hinduism.”[vii]

Max Weber was able to find similarities between modern Hindu castes and pre-modern European guilds. He wrote: “In this case, castes are in the same position as merchant and craft guilds, sibs, and all sorts of associations.”

“’Guilds’ of merchants, and of traders figuring as merchants by selling
their own produce, as well as ‘craft-guilds,’ existed in India during the
period of the development of cities and especially during the period in
which the great salvation religions originated. As we shall see, the salvation religions and the guilds were related. The guilds usually emerged within the cities, but occasionally they emerged outside of the cities, survivals of these being still in existence. During the period of the flowering of the cities, the position of the guilds was quite comparable to the position guilds occupied in the cities of the medieval Occident. The guild association (the mahajan, literally, the same as popolo grasso[viii]) faced on the one hand the prince, and on the other the economically dependent artisans. These relations were about the same as those faced by the great guilds of literati and of merchants with the lower craft-guilds (popolo minuto[ix]) of the Occident. In the same way, associations of lower craft guilds existed in India (the panch). Moreover, the liturgical guild of Egyptian and late Roman character was perhaps not entirely lacking in the emerging patrimonial states ofIndia.

“The merchant and craft guilds of the Occident cultivated religious interests as did the castes. In connection with these interests, questions of social rank also played a considerable role among guilds. Which rank order the guilds should follow, for instance, during processions, was a question occasionally fought over more stubbornly than questions of economic interest. Furthermore, in a ‘closed’ guild, that is, one with a numerically fixed quota of income opportunities, the position of the master was hereditary. There were also quasi-guild associations and associations derived from guilds in which the right to membership was acquired in hereditary succession. In late Antiquity, membership in the liturgical guilds was even a compulsory and hereditary obligation in the way of a glebae adscriptio, which bound the peasant to the soil. Finally, there were also in the medieval Occident ‘opprobrious’ trades, which were religiously declasse; these correspond to the ‘unclean’ castes ofIndia.”

“The merchant and craft guilds of the Middle Ages acknowledged no ritual barriers whatsoever between the individual guilds and artisans, apart from the aforementioned small stratum of people engaged in opprobrious trades. Pariah peoples and pariah workers (for example, the knacker and hangman), by virtue of their special positions, come sociologically close to the unclean castes of India.”

“Furthermore, caste is essentially hereditary. This hereditary character was not, and is not, merely the result of monopolizing and restricting the earning opportunities to a definite maximum quota, as was the case among the absolutely closed guilds of the Occident, which at no time were numerically predominant.”

“Let us now consider the Occident. In his letter to the Galatians (11:12, 13 ff.) Paul reproaches Peter for having eaten in Antioch with the Gentiles and for having wthdrawn and separated himself afterwards, under the influence of the Jerusalemites. ‘And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him.’ That the reproach of dissimulation made to this very apostle has not been effaced shows perhaps just as clearly as does the occurrence itself the tremendous importance this event had for the early Christians. Indeed, this shattering of the ritual barriers against commensalism meant a shattering of the voluntary Ghetto, which in its
effects is far more incisive than any compulsory Ghetto. It meant to shatter the situation of Jewry as a pariah people, a situation that was ritually imposed upon this people. For the Christians it meant the origin of Christian ‘freedom,’ which Paul again and again celebrated triumphantly; for this freedom meant the universalism of Paul’s mission, which cut across nations and status groups. The elimination of all ritual barriers of birth for the community of the eucharists, as realized inAntioch, was, in connection with the religious preconditions, the hour of conception for the Occidental ‘citizenry.’”
”By its solidarity, the association of Indian guilds, the mahajan, was a force which the princes had to take very much into account. It was said: ‘The prince must recognize what the guilds do to the people, whether it is merciful or cruel.’ The guilds acquired privileges from the princes for loans of money, which are reminiscent of our medieval conditions. The shreshti (elders) of the guilds belonged to the mightiest notables and ranked equally with the warrior and the priest nobility of their time.”


Thus a review of works of Oman, Ross, Dill, Ingram and Weber is enough to prove that the caste system existed in Europe throughout most of its history. On the other hand, we find that the caste system has a history of less than 1000 years in India.

[i] Basham, A. L., The wonder that was India, thirty-fifth impression (1999) of the Third Revised Ed. of 1967, Rupa and Co., Bombay, p. 148.

[ii] Oman, John Campbell, “Caste in India”, in Brahmanas, Theists and Muslims of India, Republished Kessinger Publishing, 2003, pp. 63, 64. (First published by T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1907).

[iii] Ross, Edward Alsworth, “Caste in Later Roman Empire”, in The Principles of Sociology, The Century Co., New York, 1920.

Ibid. 1922 Ed. at 

[iv] ibid, “Rise of Gross Inequalities”, in The Principles of Sociology, 1922, pp. 326.

[v] Dill, Samuel, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, MacMillan and Co. Ltd., London, 1905.

[vi] Ingram, John Kells, A History of Slavery and Serfdom, Adam and Charles Black, 1895.

[vii] Weber, Max, Gerth, H. H. and Turner, B. S., “India: The Brahman and the castes”, in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Routledge, 1991, p. 396, opening paragraph. (First published in 1921 in German as Part 3, Chapter 4 of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.  English translation by Girth, H. H. and Mills, C. W., as “Class, Status, Party. Pages 180–195 in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1941, 1958.)

[viii] Means ‘big people’.

[ix] Means ‘small people’.




  2. Pingback: Egalitarian Ethos of the Vedas | Premendra's space

  3. I find your article very interesting! I’m also interested in this aspect of the caste system, and now I’m doing a research on this topic. I would like to consult you on this subject. How can I contact you?

    Thank you very much!
    Andy Pomus

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