Social Trends in 17th Century Europe | The Problem of Divine-Right Monarchy

Throughout the seventeenth century the laborer, whether rural or urban, faced repeated crises of subsistence, with a general downturn beginning in 1619 and a widespread decline after 1680. Almost no region escaped plague, famine, war, depression, or even all four. Northern Europe and England suffered from a general economic depression in the 1620s; Mediterranean France and northern Italy were struck by plague in the 1630s; and a recurrent plague killed 100,000 in London in 1665.

The “little ice age”—a gradual onset of acute cold too severe for most crops—began in the late sixteenth century and made harvests unpredictable until 1650, and for a decade there was a perceptible advance of glacial ice. Population increase slowed dramatically, and general stagnation was the norm, despite important regional exceptions. Given the emphasis on high fashion at the French court, the gap between the rich and the poor was perceived as growing.

In France and Russia the sixteenth century was marked by peasant revolts. In France the revolts were directed against the tax collectors, who raised revenues “for the needs of the state”—needs that were felt to be a pretext for enriching a few private persons. The peasants especially resented the tax-farmer, who was a vigorously efficient tax collector because he kept part of what he raised. They also resented the tendency toward centralization that the new taxes, and most especially the gabelle, a tax on salt, represented. Peasant revolts in 1636, 1637, 1639, and 1675 underscored the general discontent.

Discontent and fear also help explain the renewal of the search for witches. Witches had once been part of the general belief in magic and religion. In the fifteenth century a substantial handbook on the detection and interrogation of witches had been widely read, and by 1669 it was in its twenty-ninth edition. Witchcraft combined sorcery and heresy; the first was to be feared and the second condemned. Though skeptics and rationalists doubted the existence of witches or the Devil, theologians and the great mass of people did not. Moreover, both law and medicine accepted the existence of witchcraft.

Between 1580 and 1650 witchcraft trials were commonplace; there probably were nearly 100,000 such trials, amounting to epidemics of mass hysteria. Even in England, where the common law prohibited torture to extract confessions, there were over a thousand trials. The great majority of the prosecutions were of women at a time of growing sexual tension. Although concern about witches was almost universal, the greatest number of executions took place in Calvinist areas.

Historians are not agreed on why an outbreak of witch persecutions would occur in one place rather than another—in Scotland and New England, in Switzerland and France—except to say that where popular magic was commonplace, so was the fear of witches. Trials also usually followed a period of fear about the future and concern over apparent changes in ordered and stable conditions. Nor were the educated spared—indeed, they were often in the lead when a community sought out a witch.

In 1691, in Massachusetts, the strange behavior of two small girls led the community of Salem into a mass witchhunt that did not stop until twenty persons had been executed. Some historians believe the hallucinations of the children thought to be under the influence of witches were induced by ergot poisoning from a fungus that grows on barley in a moist season. Elsewhere fertility cults were accused of performing black magic. In southern France witchcraft may simply have been a form of rural social revolt in which the Mass could be mocked and the church hierarchy challenged.

The clergy did not have all the needed answers for the peasant, and were often challenged by astrologers, village wizards, “cunning folk.” Popular magic often seemed to provide a more ready remedy for illness, theft, unhappy personal relationships, or a world in which meanings were shifting. In the seventeenth century magic declined in relation to religion; increased popular literacy, improved communications, the slow recognition that diseases such as epilepsy were open to human investigation instead of partaking of the supernatural, the failures of divination, and perhaps reaction against the horrors of the witchcraft craze, all contributed to the turn toward rationalism that occurred first in the cities.

Still, there was continuity amid change. The old traditional rhythms continued in marriage, childrearing, death, and burial. As feast and famine alternated, people continued to try to explain insecurity, sought for stability, and realized that their lives were racked by events not only beyond their control but beyond their understanding. These fears were also true of the upper classes.

Indeed, in some matters the lower classes had more control over their lives. The children of those who owned no property were freer to choose a spouse, since their parents had little economic leverage over them, having nothing to bequeath to them, than were the children of the aristocracy, who had to make carefully calculated marriage alliances to hold on to or increase family property.

By the seventeenth century the position of women with respect to property was improving. On the Continent perhaps 20 percent of families had daughters and no sons; when women inherited land, the social implications were far reaching, since ownership might pass to a different family at every generation. By the eighteenth century the “female presence” in landholding had become very important in England, finally matching the position women had held in ancient Sparta and Crete. Marriages were thereby encouraged between persons of similar status and wealth, hardening class lines. The marriage of a widow had become of great importance to her adult children, since it would influence the estate.

When they were excluded from the land, younger children had to be given an equivalent share in some other way. Thus the custom grew of a younger son’s buying a commission in the army, or entering the church, or joining the faculty of a university, or being given a stake in business. However, since the family name remained attached to the land, the aristocracy remained one of land rather than of wealth or of intelligence, so that being a “counter jumper” (a merchant, or “in trade”) might lead to far more income but much less prestige. Since common people were unlikely to be able to break into the aristocracy of prestige, successful commoners cast their lot with the merchant class and with capitalism, which was increasingly open to talent rather than to inherited wealth.

Increasingly, the law was used to hold society in balance: to keep people in their place, to assure that the poor did not poach upon the land of the rich, to define acts of social unrest as crimes. The growth in individualism—whether among contributors to the “century of genius” or among those who emerged from “Everyman”—led to greater variation in human behavior.

As a result, there was a perceived need to use laws to define appropriate behavior, with greater interference by the state (as well as the church) in matters relating to sexuality, bastardy, and marriage. Mere nakedness was not yet considered indecent, nor was drunkenness thought to be a public vice. Destruction of the family unit, however, by failing to observe the laws of inheritance was a clear offense against continuity and propriety. It remained one small area of stability that rich and poor could, to some extent, control.

Perhaps we speak today of the seventeenth century as the “century of genius” because so much that is still central to our thought—in politics, economics, literature, art, and science—can be traced most immediately to the great thinkers of that century. But the seventeenth century was also the century of the inarticulate, of the far-less-than-great, of common people who labored for themselves, their families, their church, and, often and increasingly, for their nation. The Fronde was not a popular uprising, but there were many peasant revolts in the seventeenth century and thereafter. The English Civil War was not a “war of people,” but the people were intimately touched by its events.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”* The past summarized so scantily in this volume is indeed, to the twentieth century, a vast foreign land—more different by virtue of the distance of time than modern countries may be from one another despite the distances imposed by language and technology. In 1513 Niccol6 Machiavelli had written in The Prince, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

Soon the introduction of new orders of things would become frequent, even seem commonplace, as the pace of known history—of recorded events that bear directly upon our understanding of the present—speeded up dramatically. To tread on the dust of the past, as the early nineteenth- century English poet Lord Byron wrote, is to feel the earthquake waiting below.

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