Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History

By Euan Cameron | Go to book overview
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The Conditions of Life for the Masses


Who Were the Masses?

Late fifteenth-century Europeans often thought about their society in terms of the traditional tripartite image they had inherited from their medieval forebears. According to this image people were divided into three distinct orders, each defined by its own God-ordained function and accorded different privileges and status. The clergy occupied pride of place as those who prayed for their fellow Christians. They were closely followed in prestige by the nobility as those who fought and provided military protection for the wider Christian community. The rest of the population--the commonalty, or in German das gemeine Volk (literally 'the common people')-- constituted the largest and lowliest group. They made up the broad social base on which the two privileged orders reposed and they laboured as peasants and artisans 'to pourveye for the clerkes and knyghtes suche thinges as were nedeful for them to lyve by', as William Caxton wrote in 1480.

Always more of an ideal than a guide to historical reality, this image of the masses becomes increasingly inadequate when compared to their experience between the late fifteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It is too general: it takes no account of the fact that the common people of sixteenth- century Europe were not a homogeneous mass but individuals whose experience of life was influenced by many factors: their gender, wealth, age, marital and social status, and especially the type of community (rural or urban) and region in which they lived. It is also too static an image: it fails to reflect the fact that the sixteenth century was a time of significant change, notably in demographic and economic terms. This change had particularly


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Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History


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