Europe in 1500

From an article by Robert Bucholz in the Teaching Company Magazine

The largest city in Europe in 1500 was Constantinople, but that had only 400,000 people. Only a few other cities approach the size of; say, Birmingham, Alabama, or Stockton, California, today: Paris had 200,000, Naples had 150,000, and Venice had l00,000. Then there was a clutch of smaller cities at about 50,000: London, Amsterdam, Moscow, Lisbon, Madrid, Rome, and Florence.

Below that level of town, cathedral, county, and market towns might house several hundred people. That is, places like Salisbury in England, Rheims or Lyon in France, Bruges in Belgium, or Dortmund in Germany. Some of these towns were not very urban. They were just a couple of cross streets surrounded by fields with a market square. They would often swell during holiday periods or during markets to twice their normal size. They were all dependent on trade and that meant they were vulnerable to war and epidemic.

More prosperous peasants might be able to afford a small house of stone or wood. All of these houses had thatched roofs and dirt f1oors. There might be one wooden door but few or no windows because windows let in the cold.

In any case, most people didn't live in towns. The vast majority of Europeans lived in villages of less than 500 inhabitants, and sometimes as few as 50. The countryside was mostly empty and green, but perhaps in the distance we would spy the towers of a castle, a windmill, or most likely the steeple of a village church. Any of these would tell us that we had stumbled upon the estate of a great landlord, known as a "manor:'

There are probably two impressive buildings on this manor. The first would be the lord's manor house. It might be near the center of the village or up on a hill. Actual1y, if this lord has lots of manors, his manor house might be an impressive castle or a big timber frame house.

But the building that would draw our attention rather more magnetically, I think, is the church. The church was virtually the only stone building in town apart from that manor house. It was the religious center of the village, where Sunday services were held and holy days - about 40 of them-were celebrated. Similarly, all the important rites of passage of one's life took place there - one's birth at baptism, one's marriage at matrimony, and one's death at one's funeral.

This church has no competition. There's one church per village. In most of Europe, there is only one legal religion. In the west before about 1550, it was what we today call Roman Catholicism. In the east it was one of the Christian Orthodox faiths. So, on Sundays, holy days, and funerals, the entire village turns up to hear the Latin or Greek Mass, performed behind an altar screen, and to hear a homily in the vernacular.

That homily is probably the only religious instruction and the only news that these people get. Most people were probably illiterate - about 95 percent of the population. The local priest was almost certainly selected and remains employed by the landlord. In other words, he's giving you the news, but he's giving you the news the landlord wants you to have. He's giving you the company line.

After Mass, there's likely to be some sort of party or socializing. Sundays and holy days are the only days these people have off from working in the fields. There might be church ale or the feast associated with a particular saint. On Sundays and holidays, people would engage in football and stickball. They would drink ale while sitting on the tombstones surrounding the village church.

There are a couple points to make here. One is that the entire village is present, even past generations, because given the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, there is a sense in which the living villagers are still praying for the people over whose graves they are drinking the ale and playing the football. The second point to make is that obviously the church is the social as well as the religious center of the village. Contemporaries would actually have been shocked at the way we draw a line between those two things.

After the excitement of the day, we might accompany the villagers down the dirt track to their homes. These were likely to be small two-room huts or shacks. They're made of basically anything that will stick together: mud, straw, animal manure, etc. As a result, they are pretty f1imsy and easily destroyed and washed away any time it rains. More prosperous peasants might at this stage be able to afford a small house of stone or wood. All of these houses had thatched roofs and dirt f1oors. There might be one wooden door but few or no windows, because windows let in the cold. On entering one of these hovels, our eyes take some time to adjust to the darkness because of the lack of light and the smoke. When our eyes do adjust, they would see a hearth in the center. Please don't think of a cheery brick fireplace; rather, I want you to imagine an indoor campfire. This was the family's main source of light and heat and its main implement for cooking.

When the harvests were good, the average peasant's diet was pretty well balanced, if not particularly mouth-watering: rough, brown bread, pea soup, cheese, meat on very rare occasions, and ale or wine.

Looking around the room, we might spy some possessions: a few pots and pans, a table and some stools, a chest, a candle holder, some cand1es, and a few articles of clothing. People slept on rushes, or mattresses that were stuffed with straw.

Admitted1y, they spent most of their time working outdoors, but at night and in the winter they lived their entire lives in these cramped conditions and very much in each other's company. In other words, modem notions of privacy did not pertain. Everything that takes place within a family would have taken place in front of the entire family.

If the family was lucky, it might have a second room to shelter the animals. Otherwise, during winter, you bring the animals in with you. Animals are so valuable and so necessary for survival that you can't risk their death in a frost. They provide milk, cheese, and wool that might keep this family solvent or even alive during the hard times of winter.

Surrounding the village were the fields where the villagers worked.