The Life of the People
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE
LIFE OF ORDINARY
PEOPLE IN EARLY MODERN EUROPE?
1. Traditional Practices
2. The Role of the Family
3. The early industrial era
Document: Demographic Study
1. Traditional (pre-industrial) practices involved:
Late marriage (mid to late twenties), was arranged by parents for solely economic
reasons. The extended family was the exception rather than the rule. The wealthy maintained large households with non -relatives, and sometimes, an extended family.
Most people lived as nuclear families.
Economic circumstances caused delayed marriage, hence a later child-bearing, a shorter fertile period, and a lower fertility.
Strong community pressures deterred pre-marital relations, which minimized the incidence of illegitimate children and infanticide.
Children were usually treated indifferently and often abused. There were high infant and child mortality rates (comparable to those of less-developed areas of today's world.) Life expectancy at birth was low because of the high child mortality rates, approximately 1/3rd of those born not surviving beyond the age of 5, and about half dying before the age of twenty. Once having achieved adulthood the chances of survival into the forties or even fifties were much improved.
Maternal mortality rates were also much higher than they are in industrialized
societies today. Normal pregnancies were reasonably safe, but exceptional
circumstances such as incorrect position of the fetus in the womb, which
might require external intervention, often introduced infections leading
to mortality. Caesarian sections were dangerous and done only in extreme
circumstances, perhaps, to save the life of the baby when there was no
longer any way to save the mother. In spite of these hazards, female life
expectancy was about equal to that of males, because women who survived
pregnancies and gave birth to numerous babies usually tended to outlive
Nevertheless, the balance between numbers of men and women was much closer in the traditional period than in the industrial era when women clearly have a longer life expectancy than men.
The peasantry had more balanced diets than the wealthy; bread, their staple, was not refined; it was a coarse, brown bread which retained nutrients. Some vegetables were grown and consumed locally, but they were limited in supply. Diet was lacking in fruits. Famine and malnutrition were common among the lower class.
Introduction and spread of potato cultivation increased nutritional levels. However, periodic famine threatened, and there was no fruit, and a lack of vitamins. The wealthy ate heavily, but mainly meats, which were expensive and fatty. They shunned vegetables , which were thought to be the food of the poor. They also drank heavily and ate a lot of sweets.
All classes drank too much.
Medical care was poor, even dangerous. Bleeding was a common "remedy."
Anesthetics were lacking. Open wounds often became infected because sterilization and cleanliness were not common practice.
The most common form which the family has taken in European civilization appears to have been the nuclear family. This is true today and was true in traditional times. It is certainly true of the peasantry. There is some debate about the family form among the aristocracy and the middle class, probably because of a confusion between a family and a household. A family is a group of people directly related by blood. A nuclear family involves only the parents and their immediate offspring. An extended family includes other relatives. A household may include both the family and unrelated persons such as servants and indentured or hired craftspeople. It was not uncommon for the households of the middle class and the aristocracy to include numbers of unrelated persons. But this should not be confused with an extended family, which was the exception not the rule.
The significance of the family does change, however, as industrialization
and the liberal revolutions occur. In the traditional era, prior to the
liberal revolutions, the family was the central institution through which
power was held and conveyed. Another way of expressing it is to say that
the family possessed sovereignty. The monarch or the ruler was sovereign
because he or she inherited that power. Inheritance was the principle
that determined the legitimacy to rule. Primogeniture became an important
practice because it ensured that power passed undiluted to the next generation.
It is the cultural practice in which the eldest son inherits all of the
father's wealth and property. This developed among the aristocracy, particularly
in France and England. Peasants followed the example set by the nobility,
even though no power and little wealth was conveyed.
The dowry was important because it was the means of conveying wealth, although not power, from the father to the daughter at the time of the daughter's marriage. Power was often a deciding issue in the marriages of aristocratic families because it often cemented alliances between powerful families. Decisions to make marriages of this sort were usually determined by parents for political reasons.
The liberal revolutions began the process of changing this important role of the family. Today, the family is no longer the institution which possesses power or sovereignty. That is the fundamental change in the role of the family caused by industrialization.
2. Early industrial era (1650-1750)
Cottage industry broke down some of the social controls of the village, because it provided an alternate source of income allowing more people to be supported with the same or less land. Marriages tended to come at a somewhat earlier age, though parents and economic considerations usually remained as decisive factors.
Wet-nursing was common due to the desperate circumstances of peasant
women. They were paid little, and were at the mercy of their employers.
Foundling hospitals were established in major cities to provide a place for abandoned babies. Mortality rates there were extremely high.
Hospitals were unsafe due to lack of basic sanitation, and ignorance about the causes for disease.
Early attempts to remove mentally ill people from sight led to brutally inhumane confinement.
3. Educational opportunities were increasing. More non-farming occupations increased the value of basic education. The Calvinist religion increased incentives to read the Bible, and basic literacy became more highly valued. More schools were built.
The state of Prussia encouraged education and developed a literate and efficient bureacracy. The enlightenment philosophy also encouraged interest in education and led to a proliferation of printed materials and a dissemination of knowledge.
4. The church was important to the peasantry. The village priests were often the only literate people who could bring an awareness of the world beyond the village to the peasant. Rural people were nominally Catholic or Protestant but their actual beliefs and worship were profoundly influenced by folk superstitions, beliefs in ghosts and goblins and mysterious natural forces.
In the eighteenth century, there was a revivalist impulse which involved an emotional participation in worship, an "awakening" which was meaningful to the common folk. The Methodist Church, founded by John Wesley in England was one expression of a denomination which inspired ordinary people to become emotionally involved.