The famous French historian Ferdinand Braudel used disciplines such as economics and anthropology to discern deep unchanging patterns in history. This is somewhat different to the Anglo-Saxon school of historical writing that has concentrated on the big picture of change over time. The influence of Braudel can be seen in the studies of rural life and beliefs by historians such as Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginzburg. These authors do not deny the existence of change but they are also interested in microhistories and the analysis of popular mentalités.
Early modern Europe was a predominantly rural society. In western and central Europe c. 1600 fewer than 5% of the people lived in some hundred ‘cities’ of over 20,000 inhabitants each. A further fifth lived in small country towns. The rest (75%) lived in rural communities.
Peasants were the largest social grouping but the term ‘peasant’ is exceedingly broad and covers a great variety of tenure and income. Peasants were often despised but also recognized as the mainstay of society. A German print of the 16th century showed the tree of society with the peasants as its roots. The peasant who lived off his own lands in a self-sufficient manner (though this was an ideal rather than a reality) could be respected, but the rural dweller that had to seek paid employment had a very low status.
In most of western Europe peasants were personally free but most were not freeholders and they had to perform a variety of services in kind and labour. In sparsely populated eastern Europe serfdom predominated and was growing.
The rural community was based on an overwhelming economic reality - the need to grow food. This could be a precarious business. The best land was in the control of the landed elites, who lived comfortably on rents and taxes paid by their tenants. Most people lived on the margins of poverty and many lost the struggle for survival.
The dominant feature of agriculture was the extension of arable land to meet the needs of a growing population. In central and southern Europe the main crop was wheat, in the north it was rye. Whatever the crop, it was essential to keep livestock for manure and a large and prominently displayed dung heap was a sign of wealth and status. In his 1548 sermon 'Of the Plough', Hugh Latimer listed the seasonal tasks of the ploughman (Rowlands, 36).
And well may the preacher and the ploughman be likened together: first, for their labour of all seasons of the year; for there is no time of the year in which the ploughman hath not some special work to do as in my country in Leicestershire, the ploughman hath a time to set forth, and to assay his plough, and other times for other necessary works to be done. And then they also may be likened together for the diversity of works and variety of offices that they have to do. For as the ploughman first setteth forth his plough, and then tilleth his land, and breaketh it in furrows, and sometime ridgeth it up again; and at another time harroweth it and clotteth it, and sometime dungeth it and hedgeth it, diggeth it and weedeth it, purgeth and maketh it clean: so the prelate, the preacher, hath many diverse offices to do. He hath first a busy work to bring his parishioners to a right faith
Books of Hours give an idea of the rural year and its pastimes. The most representative scheme was:
February: sitting by the fire
April: a garden scene
May: hawking or boating
June: the hay harvest
July: reaping corn
August: threshing corn
September: treading grapes
October: ploughing and sowing
November: gathering acorns for the pigs
December: killing the pig or baking bread.
The division of labour in grain-growing societies was gendered. Men and boys cut grain with a scythe, women and girls, older people of both sexes, and children bound the grain into sheaves, watched animals, and picked up fallen grain kernels (gleaning).
Land reclamation was especially intense in the Netherlands (the most agriculturally advanced region of Europe) and North Germany. The emphasis on agriculture was accompanied by a spate of farming manuals. At least up to the 1570s there was a steady rise in agrarian output. But there was almost no technological breakthrough. The traditional planting rotations were used so that as much as half the arable soil in Europe might be vacant in any year, and new crops were slow to make inroads, even though vegetables were increasing in variety. Manure was scarce. Much of southern Europe lived with the recurrent problem of drought and smallholdings were frequently dependent on hand watering, much of this done by women and taking from three to give hours a day.
The staple food was bread. In north-west Europe peas and beans were made into soup and the diet was also supplemented with root vegetables. There was a greater range in the Mediterranean. For most families, milk, cheese, eggs, butter, bacon were luxuries, dependent on the ability to maintain livestock. One reason for the prosperity of the Dutch Republic was the prevalence of salt herring. Livestock were essential for fertilizers.
Villages ranged from tiny hamlets of five or six households to large settlements with sixty or seventy. Living in a village community benefited the household in many ways. It offered a degree of protection against marauders, a church, the focus of sociability, a share in communal resources such as common land, farming implements and the service of a herdsman, and a variety of skills that were useful to everyone. In the precarious rural economy individuals had to be flexible. Farming was not a single occupation but many, for besides growing their crops and rearing their stock the farmer and his family were masters of many skills. They processed from their own raw materials virtually everything they ate and drank, wore and used for fuel and built shelters for themselves and their animals and fashioned most of their own tools and implements. Within the rural community one man could have a variety of occupations. The miller Menocchio told the inquisitor of Aquileia and Corncordia that he earned his living as a ‘miller, carpenter, sawyer, mason, and other things’. When he presented himself at his trial for heresy in 1584 he wore the traditional miller’s costume, a jacket, cloak and a cap of white wool; but the mill was never his sole source of income.
Another example is provided by the Daguerre brothers at Artigat in the Langedoc. They farmed wheat, millet, vines and sheep and also established a tile works. A pamphleteer later described them as ‘rather comfortable for people of small estate’. In 1538 one of the sons, Martin Guerre, was considered a suitable match for Bertrande de Rols, daughter of a well-off family.
In England only the more substantial farmers would employ day labourers, mostly cottagers and smallholders or live-in ‘servants of husbandry’. Ordinary husbandmen with fifteen to twenty acres of arable land were likely to spend part of their time working for wages.
In Oakham in Rutland in the 1520s there were about 140 adult males of whom about half were labourers and servants and only about a quarter farmers. Some 34 were craftsmen, but each of them also had a strip of land.
In most of Christian Europe the village community coincided with the parish unit. In more feudalized areas, the village would be dominated by a seigneur, particularly if he controlled most of the land. In England the manor was the essential unit of lordship. The manor meant the estate (the land traditionally reserved for the lord’s own occupation and a variety of tenancies. The vast majority of the villagers would have been his tenants. In southern France and Italy sharecropping was practised: the lord gave his tenant a third of a half of the seed or livestock to farm and the tenant returned a half or third of the produce. Elsewhere in western and central Europe tenants were obliged to pay an annual rent and to fulfull labour services. These dues often took little account of poor harvests.
To the manor also belonged the residual ownership of woodland, pasture, fisheries, the use of which was shared with the tenants and also seigneurial rights such as the holding of manor courts, and of fairs and markets, the construction of mills and the seizure of stray animals.
Besides the lord of the manor, there were other forms of government. In areas where rights of lordship were fragmentary, such as France, Spain, Switzerland and southern Germany it was an ‘assembly of all household heads with sufficient land to qualify them for a full right in the community. This met regularly to make decisions relating to the use of communal resources and to fine any villagers who had violated community custom (these fines were usually converted into alcohol and drunk by the village assembly. In parts of Germany in 1525 it was the village community that made the decision to join the peasants’ revolt.
In England parish constables exercised considerable authority.
The annual ceremony of beating the bounds was not just a picturesque ritual. It physically reaffirmed the limits of the community and the principle of exclusivity on which it was based.
Few villages existed as viable independent units and village communities were not social isolates. Nearly all depended on nearby communities for (eg) marriage partners or exchange of products. The Deguerre brothers were originally from the Basque country, but they settled in Artigat, a three weeks’ journey away. England is a good example of a mobile population. The villagers of Terling in Essex enjoyed contacts with outsiders resident in London, Kent, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.
A good deal of the population mobility can be accounted for by the movements of adolescent servants, youths as apprentices and some single women moving to towns. Seasonal labour was another factor. Every year workers from Cleveland moved to the farms of south Yorkshire at harvest time. For the vagrant poor, restless movement was a way of life.
In about 1450 rural Europe was dominated by a middle peasantry possessing holdings of adequate and similar size. The next 150 years saw a polarization between a minority of wealthy farmers and a majority of land-poor and landless labourers. The main cause was the expansion of the population though the increase in the money supply and urbanization were contributory causes. The odds were stacked against them as they did not own the land.