Commoners' Life 


The common people in the 16th and 17th centuries was large a rural and illiterate.  But their world was not static. The expansion of trade and cities, and the rise of Protestantism introduced for some the opportunities of new wealth and independence.  On the other hand, for many commoners an already dangerous world was disrupted by more rapid economic fluctuations and the loss of traditional rights. There was also the disruption of religious discord and war.  Commoners had few resources in their efforts to understand and control their lives.  Folklore and and witchcraft trials are two examples of how illiterate peasants attempted to do so.

16th and 17th-century Economy

In the 1500s and 1600s almost 90% of Europeans lived on farms or small rural communities.  Crop failure and disease was a constant threat to life.  Wheat bread was the favorite staple, but most peasants lived on Rye and Barley in the form of bread and beer.  These grains were cheaper and higher yield, though less tasty.

In towns, occupations were organized by guilds and regulated by guild or town rules governing everything who can make or trade what, to hours of business and prices to be charged.  Women were sometimes members of guilds, and some trades were dominated by women, such as spinning, midwifery and prostitution.  Many European cities (even Calvin's Geneva) had officially recognized brothels that were subject to city rules and taxes.  At the bottom of the scale were the many workers outside the guild trades, those who provided simple labor such as hauling water and supplies.  Both men and women especially might hire themselves out as domestic servants.

The 1500s was a time of significant population growth, which contributed to the expansion of the cities.  London increased 400%!  In general, prices rose while real wages fell, putting more in danger of serious poverty.  Prices rose rapidly between 1500 and 1650 (Bread increased about 500%) partly because of the demands of a growing population, and partly because of so much silver and gold flowing in from America.  Inflation made some poorer and some richer, depending on whether you could lock prices in a flat rate (such as a long-term rental), or could raise one's income fast enough.  In some respects peasants were protected from inflation because they lived off their own produce, but they were not protected from some adverse effects.  Townspeople were more vulnerable.  On the upside,  inflation may have contributed to innovation and competition.  Tradespeople had to work hard to keep up.

In the countryside, rising populations and rising prices contributed to peasant uprisings in the 1500s.  The greatest was in Germany in the wake of the Reformation.  Peasants combined demands for religious and economic rights.  They were afflicted by a loss of income, rising rents, and a loss of local rights to graze animals in common fields, or to forage and cut timber in common forests.  Uprisings like this were inspired by loss, but also by hope, particularly the example of Luther's dramatic challenge to church authority.  Why not also a new economic order?  We have noted that Luther himself did not support the peasants, and they were brutally suppressed.  There were similar, though smaller, revolts in other European countries.

Family and Social Life

The family was the primary social and economic unit in European life.  Inheritance and occupation was usually determined by family membership.  Nuclear families were not very large, usually about five or six members.  Couples married relatively late--women at age 25--and this, along with disease helped to limit family size. Men's roles were often defined as public and women's the private, though, as we have noted, many women worked in guilds.  In rural families, the difference between public and private life was small.  Men exclusively plowed and reaped, and provided heavy labor such as road building, but otherwise, labor duties were similar.  In urban life, the segregation of sex role was greater because the public and private lives were more distinct.    Women were excluded from government and from most of the guilds.  Widowed women were exceptions to the general rule.  They might assume some of the independence and public roles normally reserved for men.  They could function as head of household and owner of a shop or farmland.  As women heads of household, however, they were never fully accepted as equals and were socially disadvantaged.  Many widows sought to remarry if possible.

Rural communities were normally directed by local lords and clergy.  The church was at the center of the common life, the site of all important ceremonies, from baptisms, weddings, holiday observances and burials.  That is not to say that peasants were always theologically correct.  Popular traditions blended with Christian orthodoxy to create a hybrid view of the world.  Virtually everyone believed in magic.  Magic was special knowledge needed to manipulate nature, and only some could attain this special knowledge.  Alchemists focused on the manipulation of minerals, astrologers on reading the stars, and witches were thought to be particularly good at manipulating animals, including human beings, which they might do through a special knowledge of herbs and other organic substances.  One reason that witches were so feared is that almost no one, educated or not, doubted the reality of magic.  (Is it really so different today?) Women were usually witches, or associated with witchcraft because they were understood to be more knowledgable about herbs and the body.  The Christian clergy saw witches and sorcerers as competitors for their authority to assure blessings, healing and good fortune.  This is one factor that contributed to the attack on witches in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Witchcraft Craze

In these centuries there were tens of thousands of witchcraft trials throughout Europe.  The concern about witchcraft was a sign of troubled times.  Our readings indicate many of the key aspects witchcraft trials.  Firstly, is the fact that most accused of witchcraft were women, especially older women, and/or women who were widows or otherwise independent from male control.  Some may have indeed engaged in witchcraft.  But is also true that this class of women were both vulnerable and suspect because they are on the social fringes of the community.  Some have even argued that such women were a burden on poor and struggling communities.  We see in the folktales such as Little Red Riding Hood that food and other resources are in short supply, and hunger is common, even if there are no wars.   

How did villagers in Europe determine that witchcraft was at work around them?  Most fundamentally, by observing that evil was occurring.  The common thought was that evil forces directed by the devil caused bad things to happen.  It is a logical proposition:  all actions must have a cause.  In a community which observes evil around them, the most fearful prospect is that evil will infiltrate the people in their own community on whom they depend.  Notice on p. 471 of your text, how the witch was blamed for a variety of deaths of unborn children or newborns. The doctrine of witch-hunting was that witches gained their power by giving themselves to the devil.  Again, the witch on p. 471 is described as being the sexual lover of the devil.  Once again, it was thought women were most succeptible because of their emotional character.  Witches were sometimes accused of having sex with the devil--and liking it.  Witches were in the power of the devil just as Little Red Riding Hood was under the power of the wolf.

It comes as no surprise that witchcraft trials were most common in places where the Reformation had caused religious divisions and fears of spiritual and social deviance.  And trials were most common in places were the common people suffered most from wars and privations.  When both of these fears and difficulties subsided in the later 1600s, the trials also dwindled to a rarity.  To some extent people believed less in the power or even reality of witchcraft.  In 1500s and early1600s, however, there was little doubt in most minds that witchcraft was a reality, and there was little doubt that there really were witches, that is to say those who attempted devise herbal remedies or potions to cause good, or perhaps evil, and those who attempted to cast blessings or curses on their neighbors.  It is perhaps true that villagers needed to find witches guilty so that they might find expiation (the cleansing of evil), and the sense that they have taken effective action against the evil forces working against them.

In some locations, especially in Germany, these fears of evil and discord within the community was directed at Jews rather than witches. There was a similar demand for expiation by mob justice.   All the factors we describe concerning the fear of witchcraft can be applied in our understanding of the fear of Jews.  What is so scary about this situation is that the fear and hatred of Jews did not subside forever in the 18th century, and was to return with disastrous virulence in more recent times.

The life of commoners in the 16th and 17th centuries were undergoing great changes, both for good and ill.  Improvements in agriculture, population growth, the growth of trade and cities all created both opportunities and stress.  Collectively, common people had few means at their disposal to address their problems.  One was revolt, another was attacks on witches and Jews.  A more subtle way that commoners faced their problems and their fears was in the stories they told.  These stories expressed both warnings and hopes expressive of troubled times.