The People of Europe on the Eve of the Renaissance


This is the worst age in history.

                                                                        -Erasmus 1536


            With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europe fragmented into a tangled mesh of 1500 overlapping states comprised mostly of villages, parishes, and small towns. Only five towns, including London and Paris, had populations in excess of 100,000.  The collapse of larger kingdoms into small, virtually self-contained feudal estates was largely in response to invasion from the East by the Magyars, but more especially the Norsemen, or Vikings, from Scandinavia. 000000000The Vikings came to trade in goods and slaves, but also to raid. Their primary purpose was to obtain gold and silver which could be used for trading in other areas. They quickly learned that the Christian churches of Europe were ready sources of precious metals, which made them tempting targets. Since the history of Medieval Europe was written by churchmen, their accounts of the savagery of the Vikings may be somewhat suspect. They did not indiscriminately burn and pillage everything in sight; rather they took that which was useful to them and left.


            One must not entirely discount stories of Viking savagery, however. Fierceness in battle was highly prized by their culture, and many a priest who resisted their looting was hanged from a nearby tree and burned alive. A particularly horrendous method of killing an adversary and delivering a message at the same time was to “carve the blood eagle” into the victim’s back. He was cut along the spine, his lungs removed and spread across his back in a bloody spread-eagle formation.


            Vikings attacked from longboats which sat high in the water. This allowed them to travel far upstream and embark very near villages where they attacked. They often appeared without warning, and there was not time for a monarch with a standing army to respond timely. It thus became necessary for the local lord to enlist men to fight for him; whom he rewarded with grants of land. Hence the birth of the feudal system; it was born of necessity to defend against raiders from the North.


            The people of Medieval and early Modern Europe can be classified into three groups:




The Peasants: Those who Work


            Europe was thinly populated from the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries, with roughly 98 per cent of the populace engaged in agriculture. Serfdom had ended, so peasants were no longer tied to the land (the exception being Russia which did not end serfdom until well into the nineteenth century.) Most people lived in small farming villages connected to a self sufficient estate, the manor. A typical village consisted of 500-700 people and usually had a miller to grind grain, a blacksmith, a church, and perhaps the manor house in which the principal landowner lived.  Most people lived in two-room thatch-roofed huts with a dirt floor. A hole in the roof acted as a makeshift chimney which did not work well, so the house often was smoky. Most huts contained an attic and had an attached barn or cowshed. There were no windows, and privacy was unheard of. Everyone in the house slept in a single bed, usually stuffed with straw. Those who wished to spend "quality time" together had to put up with the presence of other members of the household, including children. During Summer hours when daylight was long, they might even get to watch.  Lice, fleas, rats, and other vermin were rampant. People seldom bathed (it was considered unhealthy) and the smell of unwashed bodies often blended with that of animals and smoke from the hearth. People generally wore homespun clothing generally made of wool and wooden shoes; although persons deeply in debt might literally sell the clothes off one's own back. It was not unusual to see a completely nude person walking down the way. Adults were frequently bent over from working in the fields, and illness was common. Many people had yellowish skin or a deep tan. Almost all peasants had bad teeth and breath that would knock down a horse. They also suffered from intestinal worms, and amoebic dysentery, which often proved fatal.


            The horse drawn plow and plow shares with steel tips were new innovations, but even so, crop yields were minimal. Farmers might expect a return of three seeds for every one planted. Since one seed in three must be saved for the next year’s crop, Europe’s peasantry frequently lived on the edge of starvation.


            Plowing had previously been performed by teams of oxen; a slow, laborious process. Horses could pull a plow twice the speed of oxen, but the collar used for oxen did not work well for horses. It tended to choke the animal at the jugular vein, causing it to rear back frantically. In the high middle ages, a horse collar was invented which fell across the animal’s shoulders, and made the horse-drawn plow feasible.


            The common practice was the “three-field system” whereby one field was planted with wheat; a second with barley or rye, and the third allowed to lie fallow. The following season, the fields were rotated. Everyone in the family worked in the fields, with the exception of children under seven who were allowed to stay at home with the disabled, or older children who were assigned the task of babysitting. Men worked the fields, gathered wood, and repaired broken equipment. Children assisted to the extent they were able. Woman helped with the plowing weeding, reaping, etc. and were also expected to take care of all household chores. They also gathered kindling wood, hauled water from the common well, tended the garden and animals, cooked, made homemade beer, swept, sewed, and did the laundry. On occasion, peasant women sold cheese and butter.


            The\typical diet for the peasantry consisted of hard dark bread made from barley, rye, wheat or a combination of grains, washed down with water or beer, or a porridge made from boiled oats or barley--similar to today's oatmeal. Protein and vitamins came from dried beans, peas and fish. Meat was exceptionally rare. Cows were too valuable as a source of milk for butter and cheese. Pork was occasionally eaten from pigs that were allowed to run rampant through the forests. They were very lean, and the meat tough and stringy. Corn (as Americans know it) and Potatoes were unheard of until the expansion of Europe into the Americas.  Green vegetables were also rare, and fruit was too expensive. Water was often not safe to drink, and milk was used to make butter and cheese, so the normal drink at meals was beer, which was consumed in huge amounts. Ironically, the beer provided vitamins and other nutrients to improve the peasant's diet. Should crops fail, starvation was likely. During hard times, peasants often ate tree bark, grass seed, even earth mixed with wheat flour. Malnutrition, hard work, and disease took its toll on the European peasantry. Girls in Northern Europe often did not menstruate until age eighteen. The typical peasant lifespan was just over forty, and few households had living grandparents.


            In the late sixteenth century, Henri IV of France commented that he wished every French Peasant could have “a chicken in his cooking pot every Sunday.” A modification of this phrase was used by Herbert Hoover in his unsuccessful bid for re-election during the Great Depression: “A chicken in every pot.”


            Taxes were also part of the peasant’s life. He paid to use the landlord’s mill, or to breed livestock. He had to perform certain duties for the landlord as part of his rent, including repairing roads and fences. A peasant son was expected to surrender his best animal to the landlord as an inheritance tax before he could inherit his father’s property. Roughly one third of the harvest was paid in taxes to landlords, the church, or the king’s tax collector. If the harvest was poor, the tax had to be paid, and people starved. A cruel but perhaps necessary practice was to abandon newborn children if there was no way to feed them.


           At a time when most of Europe was covered by forests, one seldom entered the forest by himself, and never at night. Wolves and European bears were common and were known to attack small children or even adults. Tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Hansel and Gretel, even the Three Little Pigs originated as stories designed to keep kids away from the woods. The modern version which we have all heard is a much milder version than the originals, which all have rather bloody endings. Superstition was rampant, including the belief in witches and that bull’s blood had magical powers. The only breaks in the drudgery of peasant life were holidays, weddings, or fairs, where magical potions might be purchased. Dancing and partying was frenetic, providing a brief respite to the toils of everyday life. At festivals, peasants would often dance until they literally dropped. Drunkenness was common.


            Peasants were often looked upon with contempt by the landed gentry; and the result was intense resentment which often led to revolts. Revolts were most common during times of failed harvests when high taxes left peasants with nothing. Landlords had little regard for the welfare of peasants, even in times of starvation.  However, peasants were trained to farm, not fight, and had no weapons other than farm utensils. As a result, almost all peasant revolts were put down quickly and brutally.


            The Towns:  Most European Villages were clustered near larger towns and cities. Some, such as London, Antwerp, and Paris had populations in excess of 50,000 people. Large cities were often walled with towers and battlements as protection from invaders, and villagers quickly fled to the towns in the event of attack. The city’s dead (particularly the more prominent) were often interred within the walls. Most towns and cities were located on major rivers and coastlines and served as ports, although some were located at the juncture of major trade routes. Each town had a Butcher’s Row, Fishmonger’s Alley, Weaver’s lane, etc., and also had its share of beggars and prostitutes. Merchants typically lived on the second floor above their shops. Church Bells served as time clocks which sounded the hour, and also served as a warning system in case of attack. Streets were narrow, crowded with people, and animals, primarily pigs. Streets were filled with garbage as well as animal and human excrement, which was often thrown from second floor windows.


            A common practice in London was for housekeepers to shout “guardez-l’eau” before heaving the contents of the chamber pot out the window, so that those below might avoid receiving a “golden shower.” The phrase evolved into the common British term for the toilet: “loo.”


          City streets were dangerous places at night where respectable people did not venture. Punishment for crime was severe: in one instance, a six year old girl was hanged for stealing two pence of salt. Those who committed more serious crimes were often beheaded, and their heads put on display on City Gates as a warning. Such dire warnings did little to discourage thieves, robbers, rapists, etc.


            Class distinction within cities grew rapidly in the late middle Ages, as prominent merchants became a “middle” class. They enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle, and considered themselves superior to the working peasants; in fact they tended to identify more closely with the nobility (which they could never aspire to be, since nobility was an issue of birth.) They were in essence, the first “yuppies.”  Many identified with the old Roman leading families and referred to themselves as “Patricians,” hence the title “alderman” (“elder man.”) The leading citizens were exclusively male. They often controlled town councils and considered themselves the “town fathers,” often debating issues such as the extravagant dress of children on holy days and whether or not a woman was “too ardent in bed with her husband.” Women were not allowed to participate in public discussion, and were subservient to husbands. A husband treated his wife as he would a child, beating her if he thought it was warranted.


          The growth of towns led to the growth of capitalism, an economic system whereby free markets determine prices, production, and distribution. The medieval prohibition against lending money for interest disappeared and banks became prominent as a means of financing business ventures. The most famous business ventures were trading enterprises, particularly the Italian City states of Venice and Genoa. The Polo Brothers, and Marco Polo (if he in fact existed) made fortunes importing spices, silk, and perfumes from Asia, all of which commanded huge prices.


            The most famous of the banking houses was that of Jacob Fugger, who once said, “I shall gain while I am able.” He loaned money at exorbitant rates to the crown heads of Europe, and asked no questions. He once loaned 544,000 guilders to Charles V to allow him to ensure his election as Holy Roman Emperor by bribing the electors. He also loaned Albrecht of Mainz the money needed to secure his appointment to Archbishop; which triggered Martin Luther’s famous protest against the sale of Church offices.


            Slaves were among the many items imported and sold, primarily for use as domestic servants or workers in the cloth industry. Slaves were imported from Slavic or Islamic areas, but also from Africa. Black Europeans were not unheard of, although they often provoked curiosity. Their presence is indicated in Shakespeare’s Othello.


            There was a small Jewish population who were treated with contempt and suspicion. They were blamed for the Black Death, and accused of poisoning wells Many were burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition, a heinous ceremony called auto de fe *”act of faith.” They were often forced to leave the country or convert to Christianity; but even those who converted were considered suspect. By the late sixteenth century, they comprised less than one per cent of the European population, although they later staged a comeback.

            The growing chasm between wealthy was fertile ground for avarice and led to a thriving legal profession. Lawyers themselves were often considered the essence of greed. Class tension was common, and turf battles within a given class often erupted. Lower classes often engaged in “bridge battles”  with sticks and fists for possession of a bridge. The affluent families often feuded with each other over influence, at times even influencing the election of the Pope.

            Europe was uniformly Christian, and religious diversity was not tolerated. Spain had at one time contained a sizeable Muslim population, but in 1451, Queen Isabella of Castile (the same Isabella who didn’t sell her jewels to finance Columbus) forced them to either accept Christianity or leave the country. Most chose the latter. In Eastern Europe, however, the Muslims fared better. On May 29, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II used cannon to breach the walls of Constantinople and took the city. It was renamed Istanbul.

            Istanbul was a corruption of the Greek, “the city, the term the Greek speaking inhabitants of Constantinople used when they referred to it. The fall of Constantinople marked the end of the Eastern Roman Empire, and also the end of the European Middle Ages. Thus, one can precisely pinpoint its demise: May 29, 1453 at 2:00 p.m., when the city’s walls were breached.

            Mehmed captured Athens in 1456, and much of Bosnia, Serbia and Albania. Substantial portions of the modern population of these areas is still Muslim. His successor, Suleiman (“Solomon”) the Lawgiver captured Belgrade and reached the gates of Vienna in 1529.It is doubtful that Western Europe could have stopped the onslaught; however the Turkish feudal officers had to return home periodically to settle affairs there, and Suleiman was concerned about the effects of the cold European climate on his beloved Arabian horses, Even so, Islam became permanently established in the Balkans.

 The Nobility: “Those Who Fight”

            The Nobility were by definition those responsible for defense during the time of Invasion and were also the landed gentry who collected rents (often paid in kind) by the peasants residing on their lands. They comprised less than two percent of the population, but controlled over half the good land, and were generally exempt from paying taxes. With the rise of the merchant class, their wealth and importance waned. Some few were quite wealthy who dressed and ate sumptuously. Men wore hose, (thus “men in tights), and ladies wore lace and brocade. Many others were not so fortunate. They saw a substantial loss of income, and insisted that rents be paid in cash rather than in produce.

            The last vestige of medieval warfare, the joust, fell out of favor in 1559 when a splinter from a broken lance struck King Henri V of France in the eye, causing his death. With no enemy to fight and no income, some resorted to robbing merchant caravans, often in gangs, hence the term “robber baron.”  

            Still the nobility were considered the top of the social scale, a status to which many a wealthy merchant aspired. Some married their daughters to noblemen or attempted to purchase titles; however gaining Patents of Nobility was difficult for those not “to the manor born.” As their political influence waned, the Nobility distinguished themselves from the lesser born by a refinement in manners and the social graces. In the words of a writer of the time, they were expected to be able to dance, play games, recite and understand poetry, speak clearly, and give good advice. A noble lady should

…have knowledge of letters, of music, of painting, and know how to dance and how to be festive, adding a discrete modesty and the giving of a good impression of herself to those other things that have required of the Courtier.

The Nobility also distinguished themselves by their diet. Since Peasants seldom ate meat, those of the nobility ate nothing but meat; primarily beef, venison, and other game, washed down with copious amounts of wine. Meals often lasted until late at night; as they also wished to distinguish themselves from the peasants by the leisure with which they took their meals. This dietary practice was hardly healthy. With no fiber in one's diet, people often became bloated and overweight. Many suffered from gout, an especially painful condition caused by overconsumption of beef. In the worst cases, sufferers were unable to walk, and had to be carried in sedan chairs.


The Clergy—Those Who Pray

            The Clergy made up 2 to 4 percent of Europe’s population in the early sixteenth century. They were considered the “First Estate” because they were closer to God. They were supposed to pray, do good works, and refrain from worldly pleasures so that everyone else might go to heaven. They were exempt from taxation as were the nobles (the second estate) and had their own court system, which tended to punish less severely. Women were allowed to enter convents or abbeys, and upon taking the veil were considered “brides of Christ.” The English ecclesiastical courts had no authority to sentence one to death. During Eucharist, only clergymen received communion in both kinds (bread and wine). Like the secular classes, they were divided between commoners, the parish priest who was quite poor, and the upper clergy, who were often from noble families. These were the abbots, bishops, archbishops, etc. They often controlled large estates from which they received rents, and also received large sums from church taxes levied on the peasants. The Clergy were also divided between the Secular Clergy, who lived in the world, and the Regular Clergy, who lived apart from it.

             English laws of inheritance at the time allowed for only the eldest son to inherit his father’s property, a practice known as primogeniture. The purpose was to prevent estates from becoming hopelessly fragmented. Younger sons were therefore often encouraged to “take orders” and became bishops, etc.. All members of the clergy were “tonsured,” the backs of their heads were shaved to create a bald crown. All wore sober clothing and were expected to present an image of piety.

                        The Secular Clergy were divided into  higher and lower orders Members of the lower clergy served as door keepers, acolytes, lectors, and exorcists. They were not supervised closely, and celibacy was not important; in fact many were married. One could leave his order simply by letting his hair grow out. The upper clergy were held to a higher standard. They had to be at least twenty five years of age, and expected to be celibate (although many violated the rule). If they had no sufficient means of income, they could support themselves by being a teacher or chaplain. Any and all requirements imposed on the clergy could be waived by a papal dispensation.  The upper clergy were responsible for administration of the seven sacraments, outward signs of God’s favor, necessary for salvation.

            The Sacraments were baptism, confirmation, penance, the Eucharist, ordination for the clergy, marriage, and last rites. During the Reformation, Martin Luther argued that there were only two Sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist.

            The Regular Clergy normally lived apart in monasteries or abbeys. They spent most of their day meditating or doing manual work, and were called to prayer seven times each day. Convents for nuns were part of the regular clergy, but they required the presence of a male priest to say mass. Men and women of this group wore distinct clothing to separate them from the laity and other clergy. Most regular clergy came from wealthy families. A woman was typically not allowed to take orders unless her family presented a dowry. In sixteenth century Florence, the average dowry was 435 florins, sixteen times the annual wages of a worker, but still cheaper than the dowry required to marry a man of status. Convents were the only places where women could be educated, and exercise intellectual talents. Males not only studied in monasteries but also in universities, from which women were excluded.

            Literature of the period often poked fun at the clergy suggesting that they violated their vows (particularly that of celibacy) with abandon. (See for instance, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Boccacio’s Decameron.  These stories were readily believed by those who resented the wealth of the church. In fact, 80 to 90 percent of the clergy maintained their vows steadfastly.

                                                                                                                 Medieval Education

 Early Medieval education was primarily monastic education whose purpose was to train monks—literally to reproduce itself.  The curriculum consisted primarily of the trivium and quadrivium. (the three roads and the four roads) which consisted of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. True “teachers” were difficult to find, as noted by Guibert of Nogent (c. 1055 – 1125) who wrote:

             In the recent past, and even partly during my childhood, there had been such a shortage of teachers that you could hardly find any in the towns and rarely in the cities. When one did happen to find some, they knew so little that they couldn’t even be compared to the wandering scholars of the present day.”          


Interestingly, Music was taught as part of Mathematics; as Music was recognized even then as largely mathematical. It is from the trivium that we derive our modern word, trivia a fact which every long suffering student will appreciate.


            Changes occurred as early as the tenth and eleventh centuries when education a trend developed to interpret scripture in the context of grammar and rhetoric. A substantial factor in these changes was the Reconquista, when the Muslims were driven out of Spain.  When Toledo was captured in 1085, Scholars interpreted the ancient texts first from Arabic and later from the original Greek. The foremost of the ancient scholars to be translated and adopted into Western learning was Aristotle.  Remarkably, Western Christian scholars were more intrigued by Aristotle’s works than were the Arabs, whose scholars discouraged philosophical speculation. One caliph, upon being told that his city held a great library of thought replied that if books of philosophy agreed with the Qu’ran they were unnecessary; if they disagreed, they were blasphemous. Either way, they should be destroyed. (Peters p. 329)


            With the introduction of the works of Aristotle, ethics was added to the study of grammar, and the study of natural philosophy was added to logic. Eventually, grammar and logic became preliminary courses and eventually dropped from university curricula; study of the quadrivium increased, and by the thirteenth century, the Aristotelian “sciences:” physics, ethics, and metaphysics became subjects of study in their own right. The beauty of Aristotle’s work in the Middle Ages was that his natural philosophy made the earth and heavens intelligible without violating major Christian beliefs. A prime example is his distinction between the substance of a thing and its appearance, its accidents.  This distinction led the Fourth Lateran Council to adopt a new technical term: Transubstantiation. Supreme irony that it may appear, the “Arabized” Aristotle became the presiding genius of the created (Western Christian) world.


Thirteenth century learning was “scholastic,” that is, academic, and all important writers of the period were “scholastics.”  Education was aimed more at refining existing thought than breaking new ground. Experimentation was discouraged. Medieval Universities were set up in which students followed a prescribed course of study upon completion of which they were awarded degrees which certified to their proficiency.  Lessons consisted of lectures and textbooks which frequently had to be shared by several students since they were quite expensive. The primary method of teaching was lecture (basically “reading”) and typical sources were the Aristotle, the Bible, and Justinian, which the instructor would interpret. 


            Together, students and teachers formed a collective identity and created for themselves a recognized corporate status known as the Universitas societas magistrorum discipulorumque: “the university, or society, of masters and students.” (Hence the modern term, “University,” from the Latin meaning any collective group.) A master and students together were referred to as the Scholae from the Latin schola meaning “group.” (Hence “school”) A group of scholae working together was called a stadium, and if the stadium was designated stadium generale, this was an indication that  their subject coverage and reputation were sufficient to allow their graduates to teach elsewhere.


Student’s engagement at Universities were similar to an apprenticeship in a guild. One had to serve as an apprentice and journeyman before he could be awarded his final degree. Since all were unmarried, the degree was a Bachelor’s Degree. The final degree was considered a license to teach; although many students preferred the practice of law for pecuniary reasons. Guilds of masters were licensed by the bishop who could intervene if he were concerned about doctrinal interpretation. Living conditions for students were substandard at best, and prices for food and lodging exorbitant. Riots between students and townsmen were not uncommon. One such encounter led to the founding of the University of Cambridge after masters and students abandoned Oxford. By the thirteenth century, wealthy benefactors established communal housing for students, known as “colleges.”