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.
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.
Marriage was the foundation of the family and the society and most couples had an average of four or five children. Infant mortality rates were quite high, but children who survived contributed to their family's well-being from an early age and were typically treated like little adults. Men and women shared household duties with men focusing on agriculture, labor, trade, politics, and the public sphere, and women working in the home to care for the family's domestic needs. While the husband was officially the head of the household, in practice, both the husband and the wife had authority over their households.
Economic Changes and Challenges
The 16th century was a time of economic changes and challenges. Europe's population was increasing and this led to surplus labor and production, which in turn brought unemployment, decreasing wages, poverty, and crime. Peasants worked hard to clear new farmland and meet growing demands for food, but the new land was not always fertile and bad harvests meant hunger throughout Europe.
Furthermore, Europe was experiencing the Price Revolution. As more and more gold and silver entered Europe from the New World, money steadily decreased in value. Prices rose sharply, making already scarce food more expensive. City dwellers faced food shortages and lower wages. Peasants battled starvation. Even nobles struggled when their peasants could not pay their rents or provide food. Hard times were the rule for just about everybody.
Early modern European society has a hierarchy. At the top were land-owning nobles, who were titled, privileged, often wealthy, and politically powerful. Peasants worked the nobles' lands; their simple lives were governed by agriculture and based on the cycle of the seasons. 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. Some city dwellers were merchants and bankers, others were craftsmen and guild members, and still others were servants and unskilled laborers.
Whether a person was a noble, a peasant, or a city-dweller, more often than not he or she lived in a family. Family life was central in early modern Europe and most families were nuclear families made up of a married couple and their children.
People at all levels of the hierarchy faced challenges and changes during the 16th century as the population grew. Food was often in short supply, and the Price Revolution decreased the value of money. It was a difficult time for peasants, city dwellers, and nobles alike.
After this lesson is done, you should be able to:
- Understand the hierarchy system of life in early modern Europe
- Recognize family life was still central to all early modern European sects
- Identify the economic challenges that led to the Price Revolution and how this affected all levels of society