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Chapter 15 - The Experiences of Life in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1650

Economic Life

  • Class dictated culture more than country or geography
  1. Nobles from across Europe had more in common with each other than with    peasants on their own manors
  • Trends:
  1. Increase in agricultural production - more land brought into cultivation and      cleared
  2. Increase in population
  3. Increase in commodity prices

Rural Life in the 16th Century:

  • 90% of the people lived on farms and small villages
  1. Social organization revolved around three factors:  Manor, Parish and rural      administration
  • Cost peasants up to 50% of their income
  • Bad harvests presented a constant threat
  • Household:  family unit (home)
  1. Life centered on the hearth
  2. Few possessions:  wooden chest, few clothes, straw bed, table + chairs (luxury)
  3. Rarely traveled outside village
  • Agriculture:
  1. Northern Europe:  3 field system - winter wheat / rye, spring barley, peas,   beans 
  2. Mediterranean World:  2 field rotation, olives and grapes supplemented income
  3. Mountains:  Animal husbandry - sheep (mountains), pigs (woodlands), cattle (farms)
  4. Impact:  agriculture was the main profession, land was the principle       resource
  • Lords owned land - rented it
  • Western Europe peasants owned a greater percentage of land
  • Feudal contracts dominated social / econ. Relationship
  • Fields were planted / harvested communally
  • Town Life
  1. Guilds dominated social / econ. Life
  • set standards for training, labor conditions, wages and quality standards
  1. Towns were interdependent upon one another and the countryside
  2. 25% poverty rate, general welfare better than the countryside
  3. Larger the town the greater the specialization of labor
  • Economic Change:
  1. Population explosion between 1550 and 1650
  2. At first an increase in agricultural production (increased land in production)
  • Cycle of growth resulted in surplus labor and commodities for urban growth
  • Eventually population outgrew production (new farm land tended to be less productive)
  1. Population increases caused problems in cities
  • Increased poverty, crime, lower wages

Price Revolution:

  • Between 1500 and 1650 cereal prices increased 5 to 6 times, manufactured goods 2 to 3 times
  1. Causes:
  • Population increase
  • Increase in precocious metals (new world)
  • War and increased state deficits led to debasement of currency
  • Highly susceptible to inflationary problems
  1. long term rents (99 years), rights to purchase products at fixed prices

Result:  "social dislocation"

  • Towns:  manufactured goods inflated slower - loss of purchasing power
  • Landowners:  income tied to rent, fixed rent meant a loss of purchasing power
  1. Payment in kind rents, became wealthier
  • Peasants:  largely insulated, rarely participated in economic exchange
  1. Greater incentive to produce surplus crops - greater specialization
  2. increased unequal distribution of wealth among the peasantry
  • Urban workers:  hardest hit, many became migrant laborers

IMPACT:  new understanding of wealth:

  • People used to see land / tenants as wealth (asset), shift to liquid assets as a   sign of wealth

Social Life:

  • Basic assumption:  inequality, hierarchy and stratification
  1. The group was the basic pattern of organization rather than the individual
  • Hierarchy was the basic organizational form of society:
  1. Wealth was a poor indicator of position (rise of the new rich)
  2. STATUS was the key:  conferred privileges and responsibilities, reflected everywhere as publicly as possible
  3. The Great Chain of Being:  universe was a chain, everything has its place from God all the way down to rocks (implied hierarchy and interdependence, precluded social mobility)
  • All life connected and interdependent


  • Body Politic:  Metaphor that saw the state as a body (implied hierarchy and interdependence, precluded social mobility)
  1. Head = rulers
  2. Arms = protectors
  3. Stomach = nourished
  4. Feet = labor
  5. Soul = church
  6. Hands = crafts

Social Classes

  • Nobles:  legal rank that carried privileges and obligations
  1. Prince, duke, earl, count, baron
  2. Political order:  held govt. positions
  3. Economic order:  exempted from most taxation
  4. Obligations:  ran local areas
  • Town elite / Gentry
  1. As wealth increased so to did power - devised their own system of status
  • Wealthy farmers who acquired their own tenants, began to act as if they were nobles
  1. Rise of the Gentry created a rift in society b/w old money and new money
  • Nobility of the Robe:  conferred status
  • Nobility of the sword:  hereditary status
  • New Rich:  expanding wealth and population created a demand for an increased ruling class (result of the Price Revolution)
  • New Poor:  more of them and greater dislocation of the poor (result of the Price Revolution)
  1. Traditional poor:  "deserving poor" were cared for by the community in which they lived (church primary actor)
  • Problem:  more poor than could be supported, led to migrant labor
  • As destitute migrated they lost their rights to alms
  • Crime rate increased with poverty, dislocated poor were blamed and targeted for retribution
  • Society became increasingly reactionary
  • Peasant Revolts:
  1. Organized petitions in response to perceived changes in their rights / obligations
  • Met tremendous opposition
  • Agrarian changes led to the revolts
  1. Expansion of agricultural practices
  • Enclosures:  fenced off sections, removed decision making fromcommunal agriculture
  1. Gave greater freedom to wealthy landowners
  2. Hurt the small farmer
  3. Seen as an "effect not a cause"
  • Ket's Rebellion (England) was in response to enclosures
  1. Similar uprisings occurred across Europe
  1. German Peasants' War - a series of uprisings
  • Agrarian and religious in their motivation
  • Twelve Articles of the Peasants of Swabia (1525)
  • List of demands:  Marriage, freedom of movement, elimination of death taxes, stable rents, limit on labor service
  • Crushed by the German nobility

Private Life

Life was in a state of change:  new worlds, centralization of state, war and religious reform

The Family:

  • Primary kin group
  • Nuclear:  married couple w/ children
  1. Extended family more common in Eastern Europe (taxes based on household)
  • Linage determined one's status
  1. Provided stability and predictability to society
  • Social organization provided discipline / hierarchy that society was based on

Gender roles

  • Women experienced as many pregnancies as possible, often dictated gender roles
  1. Dominated work in the household
  2. Roles changed over lifetime
  3. Work was conducted within the household - private life
  • Men worked in public and were seen as the leadership within the household
  1. Work often focused on heavy labor

Local Communities:

  • Guided by lords (acted as administrators of justice) and priests (conduits of communication)


  • Public events which served as a rite of passage into the adult community
  • Property was exchanged and status was conferred (maintained a stable society)

Popular beliefs:

  • Preliterate society, very superstitious
  • Magical practices were still accepted
  1. Magicians:  herbs & plants focused on diseases
  2. Alchemists:  rocks, minerals - precursor to experimental science
  3. Astrologers:  studied the stars to predict the future
  4. Witches:  animals

Social Disorders:

  • Skimmingtons / Charivari:  shaming ritual to ensure traditional gender roles
  1. Aimed at women who challenged traditional gender hierarchy
  2. Became increasingly common as economic pressure increased
  • Witchcraft craze
  1. Witchcraft = use of magic for evil
  2. 1550-1650 30,000 victims (80% women)
  3. Why single women?
  • Fringes of society
  • Often sold herbs as a means of income
  • No male protector
  • Traditional bias (religion)
Subject X2: 

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