Western Civilization, 1650-Present

Lecture Week 1

Life in Early Modern Europe

Map of Europe circa 1650:

Basic geographic features that influence history (e.g., Gulf Stream, mountain ranges, the Russian step)

Ethnic and religious diversity and concentrations

The role of religious strife in shaping war and politics in the 1400-1600s

A political map very different from the Modern era:  patchworks of small states (mostly princedoms and small kingdoms), a few “familiar” larger kingdoms, and a few sprawling empires

A society and power structure based upon "privilege" ("The Old Regime")

[Legal] Estate System of legal social “estates” common across Europe, in which you are born into a social caste the legal privileges duties of which are “fixed” (although in some places in practice there was some flexibility and some very limited possibility of social mobility between estates). 

In general, the French system of three estates was the basic model:  Nobility, Clergy, and Commoners.  But often the designations were more specific, e.g., commoners were divided into “free” and “un-free” (serfs), into merchants, artisans, peasants, etc.

Of these social estates, the peasants were the most numerous.

But privilege, power, and wealth were in the hands of the Nobility, who were a small minority.  The nobility differed from country to country, and they were by no means homogeneous, even within a single country.  (In France, for instance, there was great tension between nobles from "old" aristocratic families and those whose families had "recently" been granted noble titles by the King to reward their service.) Among the privileges common to the nobility across Europe were exemption from taxation; exclusive access to political power, through service to the monarch in high-level government posts, the army, and the high-level positions in the various state-established churches (e.g., the Catholic Church in France, the Church of England [a Protestant denomination], or the Russian Orthodox Church); and the power to demand payment of various kinds of taxes or "dues" from the peasants on their lands (including payments in the form of work).

A predominantly rural world where seasons dictated the rhythms of life

An overwhelming rural population, in most places predominantly members of the peasantry (e.g., over 80 percent in France and Russia)

Difference between “peasant” and “farmer”:  farmers grow to produce surplus beyond family needs and obligations (like taxes), which is then sold at market (a form of capitalist exchange); peasants' aim is subsistence—to grow enough to feed the family, meet obligations, and have seed for next year.

Everywhere:  dominant factors in rural life were weather and seasons, soils, etc.—elements of nature.  The specific state of a region's agriculture from region to region depended upon these factors, and upon the ways in which people used human and animal labor, the types of tools used, the types of crop rotation—such as the use of 3-field system (etc), the types of seeds and fertilization used, the introduction of new crops, etc..  “Simple” natural events, such as drought, floods, crop failures, could lead to mass hunger, which would effect both rural and urban areas.

Western Europe, especially Holland and Britain, first witnessed the introduction of new crops, seeds, systems of crop rotation that led to agricultural surpluses and would be an engine for the emerging capitalist economy.

Patterns of rural life:  importance of the Feudal/Manorial past of the Middle Ages; the relationship between lord and peasant; common lands and scattered fields.

Western Europe, decline of serfdom, but vestiges of feudal/manorial social relations remain; growing importance of commercialized agriculture and non-agricultural activities in countryside, esp. in England and Holland, enclosure “movement,” the end of common lands, and  use of enclosed farms (sheep-farming, tenant farming, etc.) by nobles in England and by merchants in Holland, growing importance of rural manufacturing to village life (putting out system).

Central Europe, depending upon region, survival of  “traditional” lord-serf relationship, though in some regions serfdom in decline  Eastern Europe—an anomaly—serfdom on the rise in Russia (law code of 1648), power of lords over serfs, who are born into bondage. 

Important changes, already noted, in the nature of land ownership and land use in Western Europe were beginning to produce an agricultural surplus.  These had a number of important implications:

1. They produced greater wealth for powerful land owners, which could potentially be re-invested into other ventures (this was the case in England and Holland—elsewhere nobles used their incomes in consumption of luxury goods)

2.  They created the problem of a surplus rural population, which was not “necessary” for agriculture, and generated a greater need among rural populations (especially in Western Europe) for other sources of income, e.g., by migrating to cities, or by participating in rural manufacturing.

Rural manufacturing and the putting-out system:  merchants provide households with raw materials (e.g., wool); householders who own the tools (e.g., spinning wheel), do labor for pay (e.g., making yarn); merchants then move goods to next stage of production (e.g., to households that do weaving), until they have a finished product for the market.  The merchants control the goods, and make profit because by dividing the stages of production (Adam Smith, in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, observed that the division of production led to higher levels of profit), and by-passing the urban guilds (which we will discuss in a bit), the can produce that finished product at a lower cost (profit equals the selling price of a good minus the costs of production).  The peasant households  own their own tools, have some control over the pace of labor, and earn extra income.  But working conditions in these home workshops were generally bad, the work hard, the discipline harsh, and the compensation (pay) poor.


In general, rural life marked by “small” world of the village, traditional culture, illiteracy; poverty and constant threat of hunger, disease, and fire; and relative powerlessness.