That was the question John Ball and his followers were asking in the late 14thc. It’s a pretty pithy attack on hereditary privilege. If we are all equally sons of Adam or daughters of Eve, how do some of us get the hereditary right to lord it over the others?
As it turns out, the other side had an answer. You don’t get to stay at the top of the social pyramid by sticking your fingers in your ears and saying “Lalalala I can’t hear you”. The argument is laid out in a fairly coherent form in the Book of Saint Albans, and goes like this:
“A bond man or a churl will say we all be comen of Adam: so Lucifer with his company may say we all be comen of heaven” Adam and Eve did not have gentilesse, any more than they had umbilical cords. Since gentilesse is defined by your parents, the term didn’t apply to them. Cain, however, became a churl through his slaying of his brother: nothing could be more ungentle. Seth became gentle through his father’s blessing, and so their children after them. Seth’s offspring, Noah, was likewise gentle.
Noah had thee sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Ham looked on Noah in his nakedness, and “laughed his father to scorn. Japheth….reproved his brother”. Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan to bondage. “I give to thee the north part of the world to draw thine inhabitation, for there shall it be: where sorrow and care cold and mischief as a churl thou shalt have in the third part of the world: which shall be called Europe, that is to say the country of churls.”
Noah blessed Shem and Japheth “and made them gentlemen.” The quoted material is the Book of Saint Albans’ interpolation, and not actually found in the Bible. However, in an age when very few people had access to the Old Testament in a form they could read, few readers would notice the liberty taken.
However, even without refuting the Book of Saint Albans’ version of Genesis, there are limits to the hereditary elitist argument. The Book of Saint Albans itself warns that gentle birth is at best a necessary but not sufficient condition for gentilesse. Cain and Ham are horrible examples of men of gentle birth who lost gentilesse because of their base actions.
Chaucer goes further at the end of the Wife of Bath’s Tale and in his own voice in the poem Gentilesse. Christ’s redemption trumps Old Testament curses and pride in distinguished ancestors. Gentilesse comes not from them, but ultimately from him. Gentle is as gentle does.