Chapter 15 A New Worldview in Europe, 1500-1750

Section 1 Transformations in Early Modern European Society

Despite the long-term impact of the Renaissance and the early Reformation, daily life changed little for ordinary Europeans in the 1400s and 1500s. For all its creativity, the Renaissance was largely an upper-class movement. For ordinary Europeans, the old religious worldview of the Middle Ages remained a central feature of life—along with the everyday toils of an agricultural existence. By the 1600s and 1700s, however, the discoveries of European explorers and the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation were transforming the European economy and calling into question many of the church’s teachings. Rising levels of insecurity, both material and spiritual, made life increasingly unpredictable. As a result, many ordinary Europeans began to question the old certainties and to seek new ways to explain the chaos in the world around them.

Breakdown of the Medieval Social Order

Most medieval Europeans believed that all of God's creations in the universe existed in particular relationships with one another. All things and all people had been assigned their places in what many scholars and theologians called the Great Chain of Being. At the top of the Chain was God Himself. He revealed His will through a vast hierarchy of nature, first through various orders of angels, then the prophets and apostles, who revealed the divine will to the church and through the church hierarchy to the ordinary believer. Society too, they believed, reflected this same hierarchical structure. Monarchs functioned as the head of what the ancient Greeks called the “Body Politic.” Nobles and knights, who made up the armies, were the arms of society. Merchants and artisans were the hands, while peasants and serfs acted as the feet.

Economic changes. By the 1500s,[x][x] however, this medieval view of society had begun to break down under the realities of economic and social change. European population had risen sharply since a low point caused by the outbreaks of the Black Death in the late Middle Ages. At first, this increase in population had been beneficial, providing more children who could work and earn money for their families. Soon, however, farmers could not produce enough food to feed so many mouths. People in rural villages began to migrate to towns and cities to work as laborers. With so many laborers available, wages began to fall, even as food prices began to rise due to the lack of food surpluses.

            The rise in prices also affected European landlords. Although not on the verge of starvation, they too felt squeezed by rising prices without an equal rise in their incomes. As they sought new sources of money, many began to fence in their lands, including those that had once been considered common lands for local farmers and villagers. This process of enclosures allowed landowners to combine parcels of land that had previously been farmed separately by several tenant farmers. Larger parcels could be farmed more efficiently and profitably than small ones. Farmers who had once farmed as they liked now found themselves reduced to the status of wage laborers for the landowners.

Town life. While peasants in the countryside struggled against changing circumstances, town and city-dwellers also experienced considerable transformations in early modern Europe. During the 1500s,[xi][xi] the class of merchants and guild people that had developed in the Middle Ages became increasingly more important. They brought a great deal of new wealth and trade to towns and had a higher standard of living than other commoners. They had better houses, more money, and more luxury items. As they grew in wealth, and feudal distinctions increasingly broke down, some even began to join the lower ranks of the nobility through marriage or by service to the crown.

            Women were an important part of this new prosperity. They helped their husbands run family businesses and looked after the apprentices. An English merchant, for example, admired the skill of both Dutch men and women in trade: 

" [they are] well versed in all sorts of languages . . . Nor are the Men only expert therein but the Women and Maids also . . .in Holland the Wives are so well versed in Bargaining, Cyphering & Writing, that in the Absence of their Husbands in long sea voyages they beat the trade at home and their Words will pass in equal Credit." 

            Over time, nobles and monarchs became more and more dependent on the wealth of this growing middle class to finance armies and conduct trade. Often, monarchs looked to alliances with merchants and artisans of the towns to overcome the opposition of their nobles. As kings used the money provided by such townspeople to assert their authority over the nobility, the middle class became more influential in the decisions of local government. This new alliance between kings and commons would soon lead to revolutionary developments in the organization of European states.

Family and Community

Despite the changes occurring in European society, some things remained essentially the same. The basic unit of society remained the family. People usually lived in small families, consisting of a father, a mother, and several children. Only rarely were other relations such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles included in a household.

            The father was the head of the family. Servants and apprentices reported to the wife. Although women helped run family businesses and worked in the fields, their main responsibility was to bear and raise children. Often this was a dangerous and painful responsibility, as the wife of one Jewish merchant of the day made clear in a personal memoir: 

"The next time I came with child I suffered terribly. I came down with a fever, God save us! in my seventh month, . . . If it began in the morning I suffered chills for four whole hours, then I burned for four hours, and finally, for four hours again, I sweat, and that was worse than either the chills or the burning. You may imagine my torments." 

            Next to the family, most people in early modern Europe identified with their local community. In towns this still meant members of one’s profession. Rural communities too remained relatively small, usually no more than 20 to 100 families. In both cases, such small groups allowed for close relationships as members of the community worked and made decisions together.

            Quarrels and arguments between neighbors were also common, however, and although local communities were usually tightly knit, the bonds of friendship and mutual reliance that held them together could also loosen in times of stress. As the general level of security in their lives dropped, for example, they might look for someone to blame for their growing problems. Often they picked on the least popular of their neighbors. In the 1500s and 1600s[xii][xii] this pattern led to one of the great tragedies in European history, the Great Witch Hunts.

Witchcraft and Witch Hunts

Since the days before the Roman Empire and Christianity, most people in Europe had believed in magic and the existence of witches as the best means of explaining both good and bad fortune in their lives. Many villagers relied for advice and assistance on local “wise” people, usually an old woman with special knowledge of the healing powers of herbs. Yet just as they believed these special powers might be used to help people, most Europeans also believed they could be used to harm. Such beliefs became especially powerful during times of trouble, when misfortunes seemed to multiply for no apparent reason.

            During the later Middle Ages, European conceptions of supernatural powers and the beings who wielded them became increasingly complex. European began viewing magic and witchcraft from a Christian perspective, increasingly identifying both with the Devil. Eventually, people came to believe that witches had made a pact with the Devil, through which they gained the power to fly and to change themselves into animals. Witches also were thought to gather at night in the woods, where they would dance and perform rituals worshipping the Devil.

            Most people believed that witches practiced maleficia, or harmful magic. If crops failed, livestock died, or people became sick, someone might accuse a person of having used witchcraft to cause the misfortune. Older women and widows were especially vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, since they could not easily defend themselves. They also often lived alone and without anyone to help them. In a society that valued community, such “outsiders” often excited peoples’ suspicions. Men also could be accused of witchcraft, however, particularly if they had become rich enough to inspire jealousy. Jews and other minority groups also were easy targets.

            People accused of being witches were tried as criminals. The accused were relentlessly questioned, and witnesses testified to the supposed acts of witchcraft they had seen. If the accused did not quickly admit their guilt, they were often tortured until they did. Such practices made sense to people who viewed the world from a religious standpoint, for they believed that people were most likely to tell the truth if they believed they were on the verge of death. To lie in such circumstances was to risk eternal damnation.

            The consequences of such logic were often gruesome, as the following description by an observer of a Scottish witch trial interrogation in 1591[xiii][xiii] illustrates: 

"His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off. . . . Then was hee. . . convaied again to the torment of the bootes, wherein hee continued a long time and did abide so many blowes in them, that his legges were crusht and beaten together as small as might be, and his bones and flesh so bruised, that the bloud. . . spouted forth in great abundance."           

After suffering such torment, admitting his guilt must almost have been a relief to the accused. As it was, he was lucky to be confessing in Scotland. In both England and Scotland witchcraft (maleficia) was considered a civil crime. The penalty was merely death by hanging. In the rest of Europe, the association of witches with devil-worship led the church to brand them as heretics. The punishment for heresy was burning at the stake.

            The number of witch trials increased during the 1500s and 1600s, as Europe was shaken by religious warfare and peasant revolts.[xiv][xiv] Town and church leaders, as well as country nobles, saw the existence of witches as a reasonable explanation for the problems in the world around them. Many hoped to head off trouble by tracking down and eliminating the witches in their domains. The great witch hunts of early modern Europe thus reflected above all people's growing sense of insecurity and a loss of control over their lives.

            As the religious wars came to an end, however, and security returned to most people’s lives, fewer and fewer cases of witchcraft were reported. In addition, as Europeans began to question the old doctrines of the church and to learn more about the nature of the world around them, they developed a new worldview rooted in science. This new worldview led many to doubt even the existence of witches, and to demand more concrete proofs of guilt than those obtained by torture.