The Life of the People



IN one sense the drama of religious, political, and martial conflict that filled the front of the sixteenth century was superficial, for it proceeded only by permission of a deeper drama played behind the historic scenes or beneath the pompous stage—man’s daily and perpetual battle with the soil, the elements, poverty, and death. What, after all, were the bulls and blasts of popes and Protestants, the rival absurdities of murderous mythologies, the strut and succession, gout and syphilis, of emperors and kings, compared with the inexorable struggle for food, shelter, clothing, health, mates, children, life?

Throughout this period the villages of Europe had to keep watch night and day against wolves, wild boars, and other threats to their flocks and homes. The hunting stage survived within the agricultural age: man had to kill or be killed, and the weapons of defense made possible the routine of toil. A thousand insects, the beasts of the forests, and the birds of the air competed with the peasant for the fruit of his seeds and drudgery; and mysterious diseases decimated his herds. At any time the rains might become erosive torrents or engulfing floods, or they might hold back till all life withered; hunger was always around the corner, and fear of fire was never far from mind. Sickness made frequent calls; doctors were distant; and in almost every decade plague might carry off some member of the household precious in the affections of the family or in the siege of the earth. Of every five children born, two died in infancy, another before maturity.1 At least once in each generation the recruiting officer took a son for the army, and armies burned villages and ravaged fields. From the crop at last grown and harvested, a tenth or more went to the landlord, a tenth to the Church. Life on the land would have been too hard for body or soul had not happiness intervened in the gaiety of children, the games of the evening home, the release of song, the amnesia of the tavern, and the half-believed, half-doubted hopes of another and more merciful world. So the food was produced that fed the barons in the castle, the kings in their courts, the priests in their pulpits, the merchants and craftsmen in the towns, the physicians, teachers, artists, poets, scientists, philosophers, and, last and least, the slaves of the soil themselves. Civilization is a parasite on the man with the hoe.

Agricultural science marked time; progress in productivity came chiefly through the replacement of small holdings by large tracts. The new landowning merchants and capitalists brought into stagnant rural areas a lust for profits that increased both production and misery. Enterprising importers introduced into Europe a new fertilizer rich in phosphates and nitrogen—the guano or dung deposited by birds off the coast of Peru. Plants and shrubs from Asia or America were naturalized on the soil of Europe; the potato, the magnolia tree, the century plant, the pepper plant, the dahlia, the nasturtium.... . The tobacco plant was brought from Mexico to Spain in 1558; a year later Jean Nicot, French ambassador in Lisbon, sent some seeds of it to Catherine de Médicis; history rewarded him by giving his name to a poison.

The fishing industry grew as population increased, but the Reformation dealt a passing blow to the herring trade by allowing meat on Fridays. Mining progressed rapidly under capitalistic organization. Newcastle was exporting coal in 1549. The Fuggers multiplied the output of their mines by prodding labor to greater and more orderly effort, and by improving the methods of refining ore. Georg Agricola takes us into a sixteenth-century mine:

The chief kinds of workmen are miners, shovelers, windlass men, carriers, sorters, washers, and smelters.... . The twenty-four hours of a day and night are divided into three shifts, and each shift consists of seven hours. The three remaining hours are intermediate between the shifts, and form an interval during which the workmen enter and leave the mines. The first shift begins at the fourth hour in the morning and lasts till the eleventh hour; the second begins at the twelfth and is finished at the seventh; these two are day shifts in the morning and afternoon. The third is the night shift, and commences at the eighth hour in the evening and finishes at the third in the morning. The Bergmeister does not allow this third shift to be imposed upon the workmen unless necessity demands it. In that case .... they keep their vigil by the night lamps; and to prevent themselves falling asleep from the late hours or from fatigue, they lighten their long and arduous labors by singing, which is neither wholly untrained nor unpleasing. In some places one miner is not allowed to undertake two shifts in succession, because it often happens that he falls asleep in the mine, overcome by exhaustion from too much labor.... . Elsewhere he is allowed to do so, because he cannot subsist on the pay of one shift, especially if provisions grow dearer. ...

The laborers do not work on Saturdays, but buy those things which are necessary to life, nor do they usually work on Sundays or annual festivals, but on these occasions devote the shift to holy things. However, the workmen do not rest... if necessity demands their labor; for sometimes a rush of water compels them to work, sometimes an impending fall .... and at such times it is not considered irreligious to work on holidays. Moreover, all workmen of this class are strong and used to toil from birth.2

In 1527 Georg Agricola was made city physician of Joachimsthal. In that mining town he became between times a mineralogist; there and elsewhere he studied with zeal and fascination the history and operations of mining and metallurgy; and after twenty years of research he completed (1550) his De re metallica, which is as epochal a classic in its field as the masterpieces of Copernicus and Vesalius appearing in the same decade. He described in accurate detail, and engaged artists to illustrate, the tools, mechanisms, and processes of mining and smelting. He was the first to assert that bismuth and antimony are true primary metals; he distinguished some twenty mineral species not previously recognized; and he was the first to explain the formation of veins (canales,channels) of ore in beds of rock by metallic deposits left by streams of water flowing into and under the earth.* 3

Mining, metallurgy, and textiles received most of the mechanical improvements credited to this age. The earliest railways were those on which miners pulled or pushed ore-carrying carts. In 1533 Johann Jürgen added to the spinning wheel, hitherto spun by hand, a treadle that spun it by foot, leaving the hands of the weaver free; production soon doubled. Watches were improved in reliability while diminishing in size; they were engraved, chased, enameled, bejeweled; Henry VIII wore a tiny one that had to be wound only every week. However, the best watches of this period erred by some fifteen minutes per day.4

Communication and transport limped behind commerce and industry. Postal service was gradually extended to private correspondence during the sixteenth century. The commercial revolution stimulated improvements in shipbuilding: deeper and thinner keels helped stability and speed; masts increased from one to three, sails to five or six.5 Francis I and Henry VIII ran a race not only in war and love and dress but in shipping; each had a grandiose vessel built to order and whim, crowded with superstructure, and flaunting the pennants of their pride. In the Mediterranean a ship of the early sixteenth century could make ten miles an hour in fair weather, but the heavier vessels designed for the Atlantic were lucky to make 125 miles a day. On land the fastest travel was by the postal courier, who rode some eighty-five miles a day; yet important news usually took ten or eleven days to get from Venice to Paris or Madrid. Probably no one then appreciated the comfort of having news arrive too late for action. Land travel was mostly on horseback; hence the heavy iron tethering ring fastened to the entrance door of a house. Coaches were multiplying, but the roads were too soft for wheeled traffic; coaches had to be equipped with six or more horses to drag them through the inevitable mud, and they could not expect to cover more than twenty miles a day. Litters carried by servants were still used by ladies of means, but simple people traveled on foot across the continent.

Traveling was popular despite roads and inns. Erasmus thought the inns of France were tolerable, chiefly because the young waitresses “giggle and play wanton tricks,” and, “when you go away, embrace you,” and “all for so small a price”; but he denounced German innkeepers as ill-mannered, ill-tempered, dilatory, and dirty.

When you have taken care of your horse you come into the Stove Room, boots, baggage, mud, and all, for that is a common room for all comers.... In the Stove Room you pull off your boots, put on your shoes, and, if you will, change your shirt.... There one combs his head, another... belches garlic, and... there is as great a confusion of tongues as at the building of the Tower of Babel. In my opinion nothing is more dangerous than for so many to draw in the same vapor, especially when their bodies are opened with the heat... not to mention... the farting, the stinking breaths... and without doubt many have the Spanish, or, as it is called, the French, pox, though it is common to all nations.6

If matters were really so in some inns, we can forgive a sin or two to the traveling merchants who put up at and with them in the process of binding village with village, nation with nation, in an ever spreading economic web. In each decade some new trade route was opened—overland as by Chancellor in Russia, overseas by a thousand adventurous voyages. Shakespeare’s Shylock trafficked with England, Lisbon, Tripoli, Egypt, India, and Mexico.7 Genoa had trading colonies in the Black Sea, Armenia, Syria, Palestine, and Spain; it made its peace with the Porte, and sold arms to the Turks who were at war with Christendom. France saw the point, made her own ententes with the sultans, and, after 1560, dominated Mediterranean trade. Antwerp received goods everywhence, and shipped them everywhere.

To meet the needs of this expanding economy the bankers improved their services and techniques. As the cost of war rose with the change from feudal levies bringing their own bows and arrows, pikes and swords, to masses of militia or mercenaries equipped with firearms and artillery and paid by the state, the governments borrowed unprecedented sums from the bankers, and the interest they paid or failed to pay made or broke financial firms. The savings of the people were lent at interest to bankers, who therewith financed expensive undertakings in commerce and industry. Notes of exchange replaced cumbersome transfers of currency or goods. Rates of interest varied not with the greed of the lender so much as with the reliability of the borrower; so the free cities of Germany, controlled by merchants prompt in payments, could borrow at 5 per cent, but Francis I paid 10, and Charles V 20. Rates declined as economies were stabilized.

Gold and silver from the mines of Germany, Hungary, Spain, Mexico, and Peru provided an abundant and fluid currency. The new supplies of precious metal came just in time, for goods had been multiplying faster than coin. Imports from Asia were paid for only partly by exports, partly by gold or silver; hence, in the decades before Columbus, prices fell, to the discouragement of enterprise and trade. After the development of European mines, and the import of silver and gold from Africa and America, the supply of precious metal outran the production of goods; prices rose, business rejoiced; an economy based on mobile money dislodged the old economy rooted in the holding of land or the control of industry by the guilds.

Guilds were in decay. They had taken form in times of municipal autarky and protectionism; they were not organized either to raise capital or to buy wholesale from distant sources, or to use factory methods and the division of labor, or to reach distant markets with their products. From the thirteenth century onward they had developed an aristocratic exclusiveness, and had made conditions so hard for the journeyman as to drive him into the arms of the capitalist employer. The capitalist was animated by the profit motive, but he knew how to gather savings into capital, how and where to buy machinery and raw materials, run mines, build factories, recruit workers, divide and specialize labor, open and reach foreign markets, finance elections, and control governments. The new supplies of gold and silver cried out for profitable investment; American gold became European capital. In the resultant capital-ism there was a zest of competition, a stimulus to enterprise, a feverish search for more economical ways of production and distribution, which inevitably left behind the self-contentment of guildsmen plodding in ancient grooves. The new system surpassed the old in the quantity, not in the quality, of its product; and merchants were crying out for quantity production to pay with manufactured exports for their imports from the East.

The new wealth was largely confined to the merchants, financiers, manufacturers, and their allies in government. Some nobles still made fortunes through vast holdings with hundreds of tenants, or through enclosures that supplied wool to the textile industry; but for the most part the landowning aristocracy found itself squeezed between kings and business-controlled cities; it declined in political power, and had to content itself with pedigrees. The proletariat shared with the nobility the penalties of inflation. From 1500 to 1600 the price of wheat, with which the poor baked their bread, rose 150 per cent in England, 200 per cent in France, 300 per cent in Germany. Eggs had been 4d. for ten dozen in England in 1300; in 1400 the same quantity cost 5d., in 1500 7d., in 1570 42d.8Wages rose, but more slowly, since they were regulated by government. In England the law (1563) fixed the annual wage of a hired farmer at $12.00, of a farm hand at $9.50, of a “man servant” at $7.25; allowing the purchasing power of these sums to have been twenty-five times greater in 1563 than in 1954, they come to $180.00 or so per year. We should note, however, that in all these cases bed and board were added to the wage. By and large the economic changes of the sixteenth century left the working classes relatively poorer, and politically weaker, than before. Workers produced the goods that were exported to pay for imported luxuries that brightened and softened the lives of a few.

The war of the classes took on a bitterness hardly known since the days of Spartacus in Rome; let the revolt of the Comuneros in Spain, the Peasants’ War in Germany, Ket’s Rebellion in England, serve as evidence. Strikes were numerous, but they were suppressed by a coalition of employers and government. In 1538 the English Clothworkers’ Guild, controlled by the masters, decreed that a journeyman who refused to work under the conditions laid down by the employer should be imprisoned for the first offense, whipped and branded for the second. The laws of vagrancy under Henry VIII and Edward VI were so savage that few workers dared to be found unemployed. A law of 1547 enacted that an able-boldied person leaving his work and roaming the country as a vagrant should be branded on the breast with a letter V, and be given as a slave for two years to some citizen of the neighborhood, to be fed on “bread and water and small drink, and refuse of meat”; and if the vagrancy was repeated the offender was to be branded on cheek or forehead with the letter S, and be condemned to slavery for life.9 It is to the credit of the English nation that these measures could not be enforced, and had soon to be repealed, but they display the temper of sixteenth-century governments. Duke George of Saxony decreed that the wages of miners under his jurisdiction should not be raised, that no miner should leave one place to seek work in another, and that no employer should hire anyone who had fomented discontent in another mine. Child labor was sanctioned, explicitly or implicitly, by law. The lace-making industry in Flanders was entirely worked by children, and the law forbade any girl over twelve years of age to engage in that occupation.10 Laws against monopolies, “corners,” or usury were evaded or ignored.

The Reformation fell in with the new economy. The Catholic Church was by temperament antipathetic to “business”; it had condemned interest, had given religious sanction to guilds, had sanctified poverty and castigated wealth, and had freed workers from toil on holydays so numerous that in 1550 there were in Catholic countries 115 nonworking days in the year;11 this may have played a part in the slower industrialization and enrichment of Catholic lands. Theologians approved by the Church had defended the fixing of “just prices” by law for the necessaries of life. Thomas Aquinas had branded as “sinful covetousness” the pursuit of money beyond one’s needs, and had ruled that any surplus possessions were “due by natural law to the purpose of succoring the poor.”12Luther had shared these views. But the general development of Protestantism unconsciously co-operated with the capitalist revolution. Saints’ holydays were abolished, with a resultant increase in labor and capital. The new religion found support from businessmen, and returned the courtesy. Wealth was honored, thrift was lauded, work was encouraged as a virtue, interest was accepted as a legitimate reward for risking one’s savings.

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