Social and Economic Life in Early Modern Europe: Peasantry, Nobility & Early Modern Economies

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  • 0:58 Peasants
  • 2:46 Urban Life
  • 4:06 Families
  • 5:02 Economic Changes
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the social and economic life of early modern Europe. We will focus especially on the social hierarchy, family relationships, and economic changes of the period.

The Nobility

Early modern European society was a hierarchy. Most people identified closely with their social class. They knew where they stood in terms of social class and they lived accordingly, expecting and accepting inequalities as simply a part of life. At the top of the hierarchy stood the nobility. Nobles were titled, privileged, and usually wealthy and they owned much of Europe's land. Most nobles inherited their rank from generations of ancestors who had demonstrated their military prowess throughout the Middle Ages, impressing their monarchs and gaining their lands as a reward.

By the 16th century, however, most nobles had abandoned their military careers, focusing instead on political power. They were usually influential in their national governments and at home, on their own manors and estates, they exercised quite a bit of control over the people who worked their lands, collecting taxes and tributes of labor, serving as judges and pretty much running the show.


The majority of Europeans, however, were not nobles; they were rural peasants, the people who worked the land. In fact, early modern Europe was very much a rural and agricultural society, for in the 16th century, about 90% of the population lived on farms or in small rural villages. By this time, most European peasants were free, rather than tied to the land on which they lived. But they still owed their local nobility taxes and labor. Some peasants rose to the rank of landowners, but most rented their homes and worked on land owned by others.

Peasant life was governed by agriculture and based on the cycle of the seasons. In Northern Europe, peasants grew winter wheat, rye, barley, peas, and beans. Closer to the Mediterranean Sea, farmers concentrated on grains, olives, and grapes. In mountainous areas, peasants raised animals and grew whatever crops they could. Most of them lived simple lives with few material possessions. Their homes usually consisted of one or two rooms, which they shared with their animals during bad weather. They might own a bed, a table, a storage chest, and some cooking utensils, but that was about it. They ate simple fare, mostly bread, beans, peas, and vegetables, but only rarely any meat or dairy products.

Every so often, peasants got fed up with their situation and revolted in protest of harsh and greedy nobles, economic downturns, bad harvests, and land enclosures that diminished their potential for agricultural productivity and and increased their chances of starvation. Revolts broke out in Hungary in 1514, Germany in 1525, and England in 1549. In all three cases, the peasants were squashed like bugs.

Urban Life

Although rural life continued to dominate early modern Europe, urban life was on the rise. Cities grew fast and assumed an ever-increasing cultural and economic role. At the beginning of the 16th century, only Paris, Naples, Venice, and Istanbul had populations of over 100,000 people. By the end of the century, 12 cities had reached this level and they were joined by many smaller cities that were also busy and flourishing.

Some city dwellers concentrated on trade and finance. These merchants and bankers soon formed a new middle class, growing in status and political influence as they expanded their wealth. Other urban residents practiced trades and united into guilds, which were workers' organizations that regulated training, labor, wages, and product quality. The guilds were managed by master craftsmen, who had their own shops. Beneath them were journeymen, who had completed most of their training but still worked for the masters, and apprentices, who were learning a trade. At the bottom rung of urban life were the servants and unskilled workers, who usually comprised 15-30% of a city's population. City life could be risky, especially for the lower classes, as disease ran rampant, poverty and hunger were a constant threat, and disasters like fires could occur at any time.


Whether a person was a noble, a peasant, or a city dweller, more often than not, he or she lived with a family. Indeed, family life was central for early modern Europeans. Most families were nuclear families made up of a married couple and their children. But sometimes extended families lived together to increase their chances of survival and prosperity.

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