On the odd occasion that your mind were to wander to the topic of early modern Europe, I’m sure that you would, no doubt, immediately reflect on the magnificent artworks of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, or the teachings of Luther and Calvin. Undoubtedly, the early modern period was one of significant cultural and religious revolution, however this change primarily affected the educated middle and upper classes of society. So what of the ordinary folk? How did the overwhelming majority of the population, the peasantry, live their lives in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe?
Let’s then cast our eyes back over four hundred years, to sixteenth century France and imagine that you are living the daily life and times of an ordinary French family. Unfortunately for you, we’re transporting back to a period in which 96% of the French population were peasants, so therefore there is very little hope that you would be anything more than an illiterate, land-working peasant.
It’s 1576 and you, a lowly French peasant, were born and raised in the small village of Ardon. You lead a tough life, working hard all year long to earn enough sous or harvest enough grain to sustain yourself and your family. Your wellbeing is constantly threatened by famine and shortage, drought, taxes, the plague and illness. Each day is a struggle however there is joy to be found in the small moments and celebrations that take place in the village community. Your daily life is intertwined with religious belief, not Christianity so much as a traditional Catholicism entangled with customary pagan practices and folklore. From birth to death religious observance, rites and celebrations punctuate your everyday life.
Your family unit is small but resilient, having withstood many hardships over the years. You are one of four children, however only two of you survived until adulthood. Your Mother’s first child passed away before it reached one year, and her youngest child died along with her during a difficult birth, when you were just six years old. At their death, the village priest was summoned to perform both a baptism for the child and the last rites for them both and together they were buried in the village cemetery ensuring their salvation.
For a year after your Mother’s death, your Father struggled to support his two young children and often went hungry himself. Although upset about the death of your mother, his mourning period did not last long and your father soon remarried a younger woman. This new wife, however, was not so young at 26, as it is unusual for anyone to marry in the village before they reach their mid-twenties. It was a simple ceremony in the village church followed by a wedding procession and a modest feast. Some of the neighbouring peasants, who enjoyed the festivities, brought a midnight feast (reveillé) to the wedding bed, a custom that was implemented to ensure fertility. Your stepmother had several children as well, and now you also have two surviving half-siblings.
Although not considered a well-off or rich peasant family, your economic situation was not as dire as some. Your father is a manoeuvrier, or a day labourer and spends most of his working hours ploughing, harvesting or threshing the land and vineyards of one of the Coq-de-villages, or rich peasants’ of the village. He is often paid in food, grain or animals, as even the three coq-de-villages in Ardon don’t have enough money on hand to pay all their workers and their taxes. Although not well off, your family is one of the lucky ones, having inherited a small plot of land with a modest cottage, you also own several chickens, a sheep and a small goat. A son in the family would have started working as a manoeuvrier at a relatively young age, helping to support the family unit. A daughter would also be working from a young age, planting and gathering the vegetables and grain in the family plot, collecting eggs and making milk and cheese. The females in the family would also be expected to work in the fields during the summer harvest months, picking grapes or harvesting grain. Women would also contribute to the family income by providing laundry services or making small wares such as weaved baskets to sell at markets.
Your social life is built around religious observance and celebration and linked again to the annual farming cycle. Sunday Mass is an opportune time for a weekly gathering of friends from the village, whilst feast days and festivals are joyous times of celebrations that involve the whole village. In a year, you would participate in about 100 different religious processions and celebrations including All Soul’s Eve and All Soul’s Day, St. Martin’s Day, the 12 Days of Christmas, the Epiphany, Lent, Carnival, Easter, Pentecost, Ascension Day, May Day, St. John’s Day and the summer solstice. Most of these celebrations begin with a religious parade to either the church or a shrine and are followed by dancing, music, drinking, performances and dress-ups. Some of these celebrations are accompanied by a traditional (pagan) ceremony to serve a particular purpose, for example on the first Sunday of Lent, firebrands are sent throughout the fields to ensure that the crops are safe from weeds and blight. These celebrations and social gatherings are one way for you to get to know the other villagers and to potentially find a future spouse. However, you know you will not marry for a few more years, and it is unlikely that love will play a big part in the union. Instead, your Father and the father of your future spouse will come to an agreement and land or livestock or food will be exchanged to honour the marriage.
It was a hard life however you overcame hardship on a daily basis and thrived with the support of your family and village community. For you life was about surviving on a day-to-day basis accompanied by the relief that came from religious observances and social celebrations. You had little interest in literature (as you were illiterate), humanism, and Calvinism or renaissance art. Instead life in the peasant village of Ardon was concerned with farming and working, Sunday mass and the next day of religious celebration to come.
Bibliography and further reading
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The French Peasantry: 1450-1660. Oxford: Scolar Press, 1987.
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Peasants of Languedoc. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1974.
George Huppert, “The Eternal Village,” in After the Black Death: A social history of early modern Europe (Bloomington, 1998).
Jean Colombe, Les Tres riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1480), Images retrieved from http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/rh/.
Jean de Coras, Arrest Memorable, (Lyon: Antoine Vincent, 1561) ed. Translated by Jeannette K. Ringold and Janet Lewis.
Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975.
Pierre Goubert “A Regional Case study of the Seventeenth Century Peasantry” in Isser Woloch The Peasantry in the Old Regime: Conditions and Protests. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970).
Pierre Goubert, The Ancien Regime: French society 1600-1750. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973).
Robert Mandrou, “Scarcity and Insecurity in Agrarian Life,” in Isser Woloch The Peasantry in the Old Regime: Conditions and Protests. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970
Thomas Platter, The Autobiography of Thomas Platter: A schoolmaster of the sixteenth century, (London: Wight and Dewe, 1839).
William Beik, A Social and Cultural History of Early Modern France. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.