Saturday, May 25, 2013

39. Endless Stairs: Rank and Rights

Endless Stairs
By Becky Brown

 The stamp I paid my bills with this morning.

We live in the modern age. Modern thinking values the individual and human rights. We believe that human beings, to use the words of the America's 1776 Declaration of Independence, "are created equal" and have "certain unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

(You may recall that the original words referred to "all men," but we aren't going to quibble about that now.)

We view the past through that modern lens forgetting that before the Enlightenment, the age of Rational Thought and Revolution, Western people had radically different ways of thinking about society, people and their relations to each other.

A German allegory of the medieval feudal order

As Kings inherited a divine right to rule, the rest of creation was born into a hierarchy, an endless stair of rank---the Great Chain of Being. Nobility lorded it over the gentry, gentry over the workman, the workman over his wife. Every creature fit into a social order. Lions headed the animal kingdom; dogs were higher on the scale than cats; brunettes more attractive than redheads, white Europeans closer to God than darker peoples. Christian theology made it easy to understand.

 "Such duty as the subject owes the prince 
Even such a woman oweth to her husband…" 
Taming of the Shrew

Laws, custom and religion taught all their place and trained them to be content with their fate. Like dogs angling to be top dog and chickens with a pecking order, human nature seems to cling to hierarchies as we define "us" versus "them".

Philosophy Run Mad by Thomas Rowlandson, 1791
The French Revolution destroying the pillars of society
The modern age began a little over 200 years ago when Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine wrote about the rights of man and Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft expanded the ideas to the rights of women. 

Paine, author of The Rights of Man, is caricatured  here with his "Leveling Tools" advocating sins including Ingratitude, Treason and Equality.

Society was not enlightened in concepts of equality overnight---nor even over the centuries. We need to recall those well-taught concepts of hierarchy when considering the past. Understanding not only hierarchy but the sense of acceptance helps explain the disconnect that occurs when we ask our mothers why they "put up with that," when we read about 19th-century slaves who never considered running away or a literary hero whose diary is full of antisemitism.

Endless Stairs
By Dustin Cecil

Endless Stairs was a popular pattern 100 years ago when Hearth and Home magazine gave it that name. Shaded with darks and lights and repeated---it does seem to go on and on.

BlockBase #1110 

Cutting an 8" Finished Block

There is only one piece A (In other words: All shapes are created equal).
A. Cut 8 rectangles 2-1/2" x 4-1/2" (For 12" Block: 3-1/2" x 6-/12"). Make half light and half dark; scrappy would be great here. Arrange them as shown.

Endless Stairs
By Becky Brown

A late-19th-century silk quilt in a variation
of Endless Stairs

Endless Stairs
By Georgann Eglinski

See more about the campaign against Tom Paine's radical ideas here:

A cartoon satirizing the British social order in 1837,
 the new Queen Victoria at the top.


  1. What a beautiful and reasonable essay highlighting a profoundly troubling aspect of human nature.

  2. I always love your blog posts, as they remind me of why I love the progress we've made since the beginning of our nation (which we must keep going). You always make me think, as well as giving me some good quilt ideas!

  3. another good block for me as a beginner to try, thankyou