Saturday, 27 September 2008

A daughter's love

Here is the Telegraph's review of John Guy's biography of Thomas More's daughter, Margaret Roper. It looks interesting though the reviewer doesn't like Guy's style. Click on the picture to enlarge.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The urban community

[Above: guildhouses in the Grote Markt, Antwerp]

How is a city defined?

Legally and juridically a city was a corporate community embodied in its citizens, the adult male heads of households. Economically, by the standards of the 16th and 17th centuries a major city was one with a population of around 100,000 people.

In 1500 there were only four cities of this size: Paris, Venice, Naples and Istanbul. (Antwerp reached this figure briefly in the middle of the 16th century.) By 1600 there were twelve European cities of 100,000 or more: the new arrivals included Lisbon, Seville, London, Rome, and Moscow.

This remarkable growth is one of the many signs that the population of Europe as a whole was increasing. With the high mortality rate in the towns, they could only maintain and increase their population by immigration.

Industry, wealth and trade
However an urban community did not have to reach this size to play a major economic and cultural role. Towns generated wealth by marketing the products of agriculture and commerce but they also made things, engaged in major construction projects and commissioned works of art. At the peak of its efficiency in the early 16th century the Venice Arsenal, employed some 16,000 people who apparently were able to produce nearly one ship each day, and could fit out, arm, and provision a newly-built galley with standardized parts on a production-line basis not seen again until the Industrial Revolution. Cordoba made leather goods. Haarlem and Amsterdam brewed beer. The towns of Flanders and Brabant produced fine cloth from English wool, though as England increased its own cloth manufacture (with the help of Flemish guest workers) production declined and disgruntled weavers and dyers caused headaches to the authorities.

All large towns had their international trading communities and had done so since the Middle Ages (see Lombard Street, London). There were Genoese merchants in Seville, Spaniards in Nantes and Antwerp, Netherlands merchants in the Baltic and German merchants in London and Venice

The Mediterranean spice trade benefited Venice in particular. In the 1560s some 4.5 million pounds of spices – mostly pepper – arrived in Alexandria and the Venetians played a key role in bringing it west. Venice’s stability was remarkable in this period, though in the seventeenth century it was to find that it could not compete with the Atlantic powers.

Poverty, hardship and disease
City dwellers were subject to considerable economic insecurity and could be thrown out of work in times of crisis. These temporarily unemployed were the ‘masterless men’ who so troubled the authorities and social commentators. Even in prosperous cities like Antwerp and Lyon 75% of a craftsman’s income would be spent on food. Economic crises swelled the numbers of poor. In 1586 the Aumône Générale of Lyon had to cope with a queue of 6,000 people out of a population of 70,000 seeking food. Plague was always a hazard. In London in 1563 27% of the population died of the plague. The plague closed the theatres between 1592 and 1594. In the great plague of 1575-7 some 50,000 died in Venice out of a population of almost 170,000 (including Titian’s son). (When the plague went away the Venetians built the church of the Redentore in gratitude.) In 1597 more than 6,000 people died in Hamburg out of a population of no more than 40,000.

Social structure
The elite dominated the social structure of towns. The ‘rich’ – those who had access to grain reserves - made up 10-15% of the population. At the bottom of the social heap were widows, orphans, and the disabled.

The larger cities in Europe could have hundreds of different guilds, each of which had a strong sense of identity through ceremonies, processions and sometimes distinctive clothing. Guild members enjoyed a greater measure of protection than non-guild members. Guilds were led by master craftsmen, adult male heads of households who had become members by producing a product judged acceptable – a ‘masterpiece’. Each craftsman led his own shop, which could be in his own house and hired apprentices. Craftsmen enjoyed status and honour because they exercised a specialist profession and because they were economically ‘free’ and independent.
Thomas More’s paternal grandfather was a baker, the son-in-law of a brewer, and his maternal grandfather, Thomas Graunger, was a tallow chandler. Both grandfathers were members of their Guilds; Graunger was a warden of the Tallow Chandlers’ Company.
Most urban dwellers were not guild members. Journeymen worked for masters. Below them were the unskilled workers and the numerous servants (between 15 and 30% of the population). The rural workers who lived in the city but earned their wages in the countryside had the lowest status.

Boom cities
Antwerp flourished as the great entrepôt port and boom town of Northern Europe. Its population rose from 40,000 to 90,000 in the first half of the century. Merchants handled some 10 million florins of exports per year in the mid-1540s, about 75% of the total exports of the Netherlands. Its fortunes were made in 1501 when several Portuguese caravels tied up at the wharf, their holds stowed full of Indian spices. The king of Portugal, who had a monopoly of the trade, had decided to make Antwerp the distribution centre for his oriental products in Western Europe. This was not just because of the town’s key position on the river Scheldt but because it was linked by trade routes to the cities of the south German bankers. Only in Antwerp could he obtain the quantities of precious metals which were indispensable for his trade with India (silver) and Africa (copper). It was claimed that a thousand vessels were at times anchored off the city, and one hundred came and went daily. In 1531 Antwerp built a new Exchange – the Beurs – (left) to house the money market.

In turn this impacted on London as Antwerp handed about a third of England’s cloth production. From Antwerp much of the cloth went to south Germany and Italy inland by river and overland in wagons. The Portuguese and the south Germans bought English worsted and local ‘new draperies’ on an increasing scale. London and Antwerp remained intimately connected until the city fell to the Spaniards in 1585.

London dominated the economy of England, on its own accounting ofr half the increase in population. It seems to have risen from a population of 85,000 by 1565, rising to 155,000 by 1605. According to John Stowe, Survey of London, the fields beyond the city had ‘now within a few years made a continual building throughout of garden houses and small cottages, and the fields on ether side turned into garden plots, tenter yards, bowling alleys and such like’. According to the Elizabethan antiquary, John Stow, Southwark was ‘pestered’ with places of popular resort, taverns and brothels, pleasure grounds and theatres. The overcrowding became so serious that in 1580 Elizabeth issues a proclamation forbidding ‘any new buildings of any house or tenement within three miles from any of the gates of the said city of London’. Of course it did not work. Within three years of the proclamation the city authorities were lamenting the continual increase in sheds, lodgings and tenements outside the walls.

Like all the great cities, London had a variety of trades and occupations including brewers, dyers, brickmakers and soap and salt boilers.

Advanced schools were to be found in towns, such as John Colet’s St Paul’s school. There were charitable institutions such as the Maagdenhuis in Antwerp for orphaned girls. By the early sixteenth century the larger cities were acquiring printing presses.

Seville expanded as a result of its importance in dealing with New World silver. Its population rose from about 65,000 in the 1550s to at least 90,000 in the 1590s. Its trade in precious metals and sugar was handled by the Genoese through the Casa de Contratación. However, the Genoese did not have a monopoly, as unusually for the Iberian peninsular, the aristocrats of Seville were not too grand to trade.

Lyon grew because of its strategic position on the Rhône, making it the main beneficiary of the great urban expansion of the sixteenth century. By 1580 its population had reached 80,000. The city was linked to the Atlantic by the interests of its merchants in spices and silver – the king of France regarded Lyon as his ‘Peru’. Its main industry was silk. Two merchants, Voison and Durier, were said to employ between 800 and 1,000 people. Lyon’s prosperity faded during the Wars of Religion.

Danzig was the eastern outpost of European trade. Its population of 60,000 was not large by western European standards but it was remarkable in the east, where the advance of manorialism had crushed the prospects of urban development. It imported grain from Poland, Prussia and Pomerania. The grain was handed by Dutch merchants and was destined for western Europe.

City States
Both Germany and Italy had a variety of city states which stood out as exceptions in a predominantly agrarian and feudal world. The inhabitants had a separate body of law and concept of citizenship. Their landscape was marked by high town walls, churches, cathedrals and market squares. The degree of independence of the city states varied inversely with the strength of the monarchies.

Civic pride: The more self-confident cities linked themselves with the Roman Empire – for example Antwerp used the letters SPQA, a variation of the Roman SPQR. This was a republican parallel to the dei gratia used by kings. City states made up for their lack of obvious divine authority by claiming other origins. The Florentines insisted on their Etruscan/Roman foundation. Antwerp claimed its origin from Salvius Brabo, who slew the giant Antigonus and flung the giant’s hand into the Scheldt. Venice prided itself on its possession of the body of St Mark.

Civic ritual: One of the most important Venetian rituals was the desponsatio, the 'marriage to the sea', celebrated on Ascension Day. The Joyous Entry was the main state ritual of the Flemish towns in which the new state regent performed the ceremony of recognizing the charters and freedoms of the city.

The Italian situation
The term Italy was strictly geographical, though in times of crisis, Italians talked of a common Roman origin and a common linguistic inheritance. The chief independent powers of the peninsula were:
Venice: population 1 ½ million. This was a republic and the only Italian state with an overseas empire.
The Papal States: population 2 million, a principality ruled by the Pope.
Milan: population 1 ¼ million; a duchy. It was taken over first by the Viscontis and then by the Sforza. In 1450 Francesco Sforza became duke of Milan.
Florence: population ¾ million. The Medici family rose to prominence in the 15th century. In 1469 Lorenzo de Medici, the grandson of Cosimo, gained power. In 1494, following the French invasion, the Popular Party overthrew the Medici, but they had to rely on French support in order to do this. This led to a period of confusion dominated by the Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola, who owed his success to his powerful pulpit preaching and the accuracy of his prophecies (he predicted the death of Lorenzo de Medici in 1492 and the French invasion two years later). However in 1498 Florence returned to oligarchic rule. In 1512 the Medici marched in with a papal/Spanish army and established their domination as in the days of Lorenzo the Magnificent. In 1513 Lorenzo’s son Giovanni became Pope Leo X. Florence was now a republic only in name.
Sicily: population unknown; a hereditary kingdom, dependent on Aragon.

By the end of the fifteenth century the city states were almost invariably governed by an oligarchy: a patriciate of rich merchants and property owners. This created problems, especially in Italy. The city states tamed the feudal nobility of the countryside by forcing them to live for at least a part of the year in the city. But they introduced their feuds into the city where they became mixed up in the social and factional fights of town politics. Only Venice escaped this problem. The Venetian patriciate became the most exclusive ruling class in Europe.

In Italy the contado was the surrounding rural area, also including the smaller cities (eg, Pisa was part of the contado of Florence, though in 1494 it rebelled against Florentine jurisdiction. The war against Pisa lasted until 1509.) The city states needed the contado to ensure food supplies (the Venice contado was not large enough for this). Cities also needed to control rural manufacturing. Basel forbade rural propertyless workers into the city. It kept them in the countryside so that they could live and work in the surrounding villages.

The great banking family of the Fuggers of Augsburg were the Rothschilds of their day. Vying with Florence to dominate Europe financially, Jakob Fugger (1459-1525), who came to be known as ‘Jakob the Rich’, loaned money to nobles, church leaders and rulers, accepting control of mining properties as security on the loans. He gradually established a monopoly of silve and cooper mining in the Tyrol, Hungary and Slovakia, which provided him with 1.5 million florins profit. That profit was recirculated into further loans. Jakob financed the imperial election of Charles V in 1519 for which he was given control of mercury and silver mines in Spain. The Fuggers came to have houses in many of the major European cities, such as Antwerp. By the early 17th century, as the Spanish crown sank deeper into debt, they kept representatives in Seville to claim first rights on the incoming silver from Mexico and Peru.

The Fuggers pioneered lending money at interest. Conrad Summenhart, of Thubingen University put aside Aristotle’s view, declaring it was permissible to use something in a way that wasn’t intended. The Fuggers financed his student Johann Eck to argue the permissibility of certain loans for five hours before the full assembled University of Bologna in 1515. Eck assured them that the method of charging interest had been in use for 40 years with no-one being excommunicated. As economies became more dynamic, with real growth possibilities, it became clear that charging interest on business loans where the borrowing merchant prospered could not be condemned as greed or lack of charity and by 1516 the idea of a lending institution charging interest for its services had been overwhelming accepted.

One of their most celebrated clients was the 24 year old Hohenzollern prince, Albert of Brandenburg. He was already Archbishop of Magdeburg and Administrator of the diocese of Halberstadt, but in 1514 he had his eyes on the Archbishopric of Mainz far away to the south west. This Archbishopric carried with it the office of Imperial Chancellor and also made him primate of Germany. Albert acted decisively to secure his own election, while keeping on to his other offices. This plurality was against canon law. There were also routine fees involved in gaining the Archbishopric and it would require a dispensation from Leo X, who at the same time needed money for the new basilica of St Peter’s and was proposing to raise part of this by the sale of indulgences. A deal was struck: Albert would promote the indulgence and also gain a cardinal’s hat; half the money for each indulgence was to go to Rome; the other half would help to pay off Albert's debts to the Fuggers, who had also arranged the deal. It seemed a win-win situation! [This story seems to destroy the Weber thesis about the links between capitalism and Protestantism; mercantile capitalism was well underway before the Reformation.]

Another great financier, Simón Ruiz of Medina del Campo belonged to a family specializing in trade with France. He grew rich and founded a hospital in his home town. But from 1576 when the trading world felt the impact of the Dutch revolt, he moved his money into public financing. The next generation was more interested in acquiring noble status. By this time it had become a common complaint that rich merchants were more interested in acquiring noble status than in continuing to trade. The same might also have applied to lawyers. In the English Act of Apparel (1483) purple and velvet were forbidden to lawyers – a sure sign that they were aping the nobility. The urban community was a place of upward mobility (for the few!).

The rural community

Longue durée
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:
January: feasting
February: sitting by the fire
Mach: pruning
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.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

List of recommended books

Briggs, Robin, The West: Encounters and Transformations (Longman, 2007)
Cameron (ed), Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History (OUP, 2001)
___________The Sixteenth Century (OUP, 2006)
Clark, Stuart, Thinking with Demons: the Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (OUP, 1997)
Cowley, Roger, Empires of the Sea: the Final Battle for the Mediterranean (Faber, 2008)
Davis Natalie Zemon, The Return of Martin Guerre (Harvard University Press, 1983)
Ditchfield, Simon, ‘The Jesuits’, History Today, 57 (July, 2007), 52-9.
Elmer, Peter and Grell, Ole Peter, eds The Healing Arts: Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1500–1800 (Manchester University Press, 2004)
Fraser, Antonia, The Weaker Vessel (many editions)
Ginzburg, Carlo, The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992)
Hoby, M., Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, ed. Dorothy M. Meads (Routledge, 1936)
Houlbrooke, Ralph, Death, Religion and the Family in England 1480-1750 (Oxford UP, 2000)
Hufton, Olwen, The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe (HarperCollins, 1995).
Hutton, Ronald, The Rise and Fall of Merry England (Oxford UP, 1996)
Kamen, Henry, Early Modern European Society (Routledge, 2000)
Knecht, ‘The French Renaissance Court’, History Today, 57 (July, 2007), 40-7.
Koenigsberger H. G., Mosse, George L. and Bowler G. Q., Europe in the Sixteenth Century (Longman, 1989)
McConica, James, Erasmus (Oxford UP 1991)
MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 (Penguin, 2003)
McFarlane, Alan, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (Routledge, 1970)
MacKenney, Richard, Sixteenth-Century Europe: Expansion and Conflict (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1993)
McKitterick, David, Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order (Cambridge U P, 2003)
Mendelson, Sara and Crawford, Patricia, Women in Early Modern England 1550-1720 (Oxford UP, 1998).
O’Brian, Patrick, ed., Urban Achievements in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge UP, 2001)
Pettegree, Andrew, Europe in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).
Parker, Geoffrey, Empire War and Faith in Early Modern Europe (Penguin, 2003)
Rice, Eugene F. and Grafton, Anthony, The Foundations of Early Modern Europe 1460-1559, 2nd edn (Norton, 1994)
Roper, Lyndal, Oedipus and the Devil. Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe (Routledge, 1996)
_________ Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Modern Germany (Yale, 2005)
Sarti, Raffaella, Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture 1500-1800 ( Yale, 2002).
Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin, 1973)
Watt, Tessa, Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550-1640 (Cambridge UP, 1994)
Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E., Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 (Cambridge UP, 2006)
Woolley, Benjamin, The Queen’s Conjuror (HarperCollins, 2001)
Wrightson, Keith, English Society 1580-1680 (Routledge, 1982)

The shape of the century

(You can click on the map to enlarge it.)

Great events
The ‘early modern’ period is usually dated from the 1450s, the decade that saw the invention of printing with moveable type and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. The ‘long sixteenth century’, from c.1450 to c.1600 witnessed major changes: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the rise of capitalism, the voyages of discovery, and the growth of the nation state. All these changes are problematic and disputed.

Many demographers set the population of Europe at about 80 million in 1300. Over the next century the population was dramatically reduced by the Black Death, but by 1500 it had climbed back to pre-1300 levels ,and over the 16th century it reached about 100 million.
This had profound consequences for prices and the food supply

The political map

The map of Europe in the late fifteenth century looks in some respects similar to the present-day map and in other respects very different. In fact, the similarities are misleading.

The British Isles: England and Wales became a single state in 1536; in 1540 the English monarch was also king of Ireland. Scotland was a separate and independent nation. The dynastic marriages arranged by Henry VII were to prove very significant. His daughter Margaret married James IV of Scotland. Catherine of Aragon, the third daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella was married first to his son Arthur and then, on his death, to his second son, Henry.

The Iberian peninsula: The two largest kingdoms in Spain were Castile and Aragon. (Aragon was made up of a group of separate principalities and its territories included Naples, Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearics.) Portugal was an independent kingdom. In 1469 Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile, but the two kingdoms retained completely separate domestic governments and were only united in foreign policy. Ferdinand and Isabella’s most outstanding achievement was the conquest of Granada from the Moors in 1492. Their heir was their grandson (the son of their daughter, Juana) who became Carlos I of Spain in 1516 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1519.

France had expanded towards its present borders under the Valois king Louis XI (1461-83) but its border regions were far from settled. During the sixteenth-century France aimed at great power status and the Habsburg-Valois conflict is the great geo-political constant of the period.

Italy was a mosaic of small states. In the south there was the Kingdom of Naples, whose crown was contested by Aragon and France; in the centre the Papal States; to the north were the great city states of Florence, Milan and Venice. The peninsula was beset by dynastic disputes, which gave other powers the excuse to invade. In 1494 the French invaded, and then the Spanish, with dire results for Italy.

The Holy Roman Empire included modern Germany, the Czech Republic (Bohemia) and Switzerland, though Switzerland had established its independence. In practice, the Empire was almost synonymous with Germany and though there was no nation state called Germany there was a strong sense of the existence of a ‘German nation’. Germany was fragmented into about 300 states. The Emperor was elected by a body of Electors (three leading German archbishops and four secular princes). The Imperial Diet was the parliament of the Empire.

Austria was the main base of the Habsburg dynasty and from 1438 with the election of Albert II to its abolition in 1806 a Habsburg was always elected Holy Roman Emperor.

The Netherlands had been at the core of the Duchy of Burgundy, which had been a great power in its own right. In 1477 the last duke, Charles the Bold, died fighting the Swiss at Nancy and his duchy was dismembered. France took the province of duke of Burgundy (capital Dijon) to the south. The wealthy northern territories (present-day Holland and Belgium) passed to Charles’s daughter, Mary, who married Maximilian of Habsburg. Their grandson Charles was elected Emperor Charles V in 1519.

The Ottoman Empire was growing. In 1453 it had captured Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire. The Turks ruled south-east Europe. In September 1525 the Turkish Sultan Süleyman I defeated the Hungarians at Mohács. Hungary never recovered from this defeat. A prolonged civil war ultimately resulted in the incorporation of the central and southern two-thirds of Hungary into the Ottoman Empire (1547) and in the establishment of Transylvania and the eastern Hungarian provinces as an autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman navy also dominated the eastern Mediterranean and their power was carried into the western Mediterranean by their support of the Barbary pirates.

With the notable exception of Venice, government was increasingly in the hands of ‘princes’ – a general term used to describe monarchs, both male and female. Ruling dynasties included the Tudors, the Valois, the Habsburgs and the Florentine Medici. There were various constraints on the powers of princes. They were accountable to God; they were expected to rule under the law; and they were confronted with the forces of localism. Sixteenth-century communications made it inevitable that a considerable amount of monarchical power had to be delegated to local elites.

In order to counter localism, princes were always on the move and as a result the concept of a capital city had not fully developed. Charles V in particular moved between Madrid, Brussels, Naples, Vienna and Prague. The court was where the prince happened to be. It was also the locus of power. A politician’s power depended less on his job description than on his access to the king, who disposed lucrative government jobs to those he favoured. This could lead to the creation of the ‘over-mighty subject’, such as Cardinal Wolsey who was untouchable as long as he had the king’s confidence. Losing his favour could lead to a catastrophic fall from power.

The monarch’s relationship with the Church was crucial. The Concordat of Bologna, signed in 1516 between Pope Leo I and François I of France gave the French king considerable power over the ‘Gallican’ church. Henry VIII fell foul of the papacy because Clement VII was more afraid of the Emperor than of him.

The demands of war had profound consequences for the running of the state. Taxes had to be raised and in many realms they could only be raised with the consent of representative bodies: Parliament, the Estates (France), the Cortes (Spain), the Diet (Germany). With their increase in bargaining powers, these bodies could grow more assertive in demanding what they argued were their ancient rights.

Machiavelli declared:
‘A prince should therefore have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study, but war and its organization and discipline’.
The main duty of the prince was to be a war leader, and in this period warfare grew in scale and expense. Glory in battle was seen as the highest fulfilment of the princely role. This was why Henry VIII invaded France early in his reign.

Technology was changing the nature of warfare. Few inventions have had an impact on human affairs as dramatic and decisive as that of gunpowder. The development of a means of harnessing the energy released by a chemical reaction in order to drive a projectile against a target marked a watershed in the harnessing of energy to human needs. Before gunpowder, weapons were designed around the limits of their users' muscular strength; after gunpowder, they were designed more in response to tactical demand. The new battlefield weapon was the arquebus (see right), the primitive gun held to the shoulder, shortly to develop into the musket. The arquebus was used defensively in conjunction with the pike. The arquebusiers aimed to prevent enemy cavalry or infantry getting close enough to break up the pikemen’s formation. These formations of pikemen and arquebusiers dominated the battlefields of Europe for most of the sixteenth century and led to the decline of the cavalry charge.

Wars were rarely run by decisive battles and more soldiers died of disease of infection than on the battle ground. The new technology enhanced the importance of siege warfare. Cities were built with more complex fortifications with outlying bastions in which they placed cannons. Ships, too, were increasingly fitted with cannon. In the Mediterranean and the Baltic specialized gun-carrying galleys were the most important type of warship. These were the types of ships that fought against the Turks at Lepanto in 1571.

The new military technology required longer training and larger armies. The first European rulers to build a standing army were the Ottoman sultans – the Janissary Corps was a group of professional soldiers recruited primarily from the Empire’s Christian subjects. By 1500 the western European nations also had their armies.

The greater size of armies and the growing sophistication of military technology made it more difficult for nobles to maintain private armies.