The Sixteenth Century

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559

The sixteenth century in Europe was a time of unprecedented change. It was the beginning of the modern era, and it saw a revolution in almost every aspect of life. The century opened with the discovery of a new continent. The renaissance in Italy was peaking and spreading north, even arriving in backwaters like England. Life was largely prosperous for the average person, the economy was growing. The mechanisms of commerce, systems of international finance, ocean-going trading fleets, an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, were all building a recognizably capitalist, money-based economy. Geniuses were stepping all over each other on the street corners producing scientific innovation after innovation. Technological innovations like gunpowder were changing the nature of warfare and the military caste nature of society -- the cannon probably had a great deal to do with the rise of the centralized nation state as we know it. The printing press created a media revolution. It brought ideas, partisan rhetoric, and how-to manuals to the people. Most of all, it brought the Bible, in its original tongues and in the vernacular, to the masses. A spirit of inquiry, a desire to return to first principles, was blowing through the Church, which had been the unifying cultural foundation of Europe for a millenium.

The first half of the century saw what contemporaries viewed as the most earth-shattering change in the century: the Reformation. The cultural consensus of Europe based on universal participation in the Body of Christ was broken, never to be restored. Along with the Reformation came challenges to secular society. The nature and organization of power and government came under reevaluation as well. No one could imagine religious change without it going hand-in-hand with social and political change, as indeed it did.

There were other things fueling the furnaces of change. The economy was a prosperous one at the beginning of the century, with even the average peasant able to afford a bit of meat in the stew pot. People were optimistic about the future, they were having larger families and the population was growing. The combination of population pressure and inflation exacerbated by the flow of gold and silver from the New World saw a price rise that cut effective wages in half by about mid-century. Changing economic conditions saw many peasants lose their land as the terms of their tenancy become much less favorable, while land was becoming concentrated in the hands of the elites, especially the rising bourgeousie. Homelessness and vagrancy were on the rise, and towns experienced a sense of crisis trying to deal with the poor. By the end of the century, a peasant almost never saw meat, and many of them had reached such a state of despair about the future that they engaged in widespread revolts. Tensions between the social orders were high on many levels.

Athough the peasants and more marginal classes of people were struggling, the middle class was growing and generally becoming more powerful. In a port city like Calais, located on the north Atlantic with an active maritime trade with the English, Dutch, and other French ports, the quality of material life saw an overall improvement. People in towns had leisure time to spend in taverns, gaming, and drinking -- hard liquor as an escape from a hard life began to be a social problem during this time.

In France, the first half of the century saw the reign of François Ier, who brought the art and culture of the Italian Renaissance to France and encouraged the new humanistic learning. His contemporaries were Henry VIII of England and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose Hapsburg territories stretched from Hungary to Spain. All were destined to leave their mark on the times and all were rivals. The Hapsburgs in particular represented a constant threat to France, as their territories, Flanders in the north, the Imperial duchies and bishoprics in the east, and Spain in the south, almost completely surrounded its land borders.

In the second half of the century, the dynastic struggles continued and the characters of many of the emerging nations of Europe were formed. Henry VIII of England was eventually succeeded by Elizabeth, perhaps England's greatest monarch. Her age was one of genius, exploration, and growing national pride. Charles V divided his empired between his son Philip II, who received Spain and the Netherlands, and his brother Ferdinand, who received the eastern territories (Austria/Hungary) and the imperial title. Philip II was the most powerful monarch of the age, controlling an empire that stretched completely around the world. The mind-boggling riches of the New World were his, and for the most part they were spent making war to enforce Catholicism in the Netherlands and elsewhere. By the end of the century, Spain had declared bankruptcy twice.

The untimely death of François Ier 's son, Henri II, in 1559, saw the social and political consensus in France dissolve under the forces of the Reformation, dynastic rivalry, and economic pressure. The second half of the century was consumed with the Wars of Religion, which were as much a political and civil conflict as a religious one. The young sons of Catherine de' Medici came successively to the throne, and the last of them, Henri III, was assassinated in 1589. The first of the Bourbon dynasty, Henri IV, acceded to the throne, but as a Protestant his claim was hotly contested. Throughout the '90's he has been fighting the forces of the Catholic League, backed by Spain, to win control of the country. He converted to Catholicism in 1593, finally entered Paris in 1594. Internal League opposition began to wind down in the mid-90s, but as of 1596 Spain is actively at war with France and in the spring captured Calais, where we live.

The 1590s have been difficult years for the common people everywhere in Europe. The weather has been cold and wet for three years and there have been at least three bad harvests in a row. The League warfare has destroyed transportation and food supplies. Bread is scarce and prices of food, fuel, and housing are high, while wages are low. The costs of war and the huge national debt have meant that taxes are also high. There have been peasant uprisings in some provinces, sometimes with Huguenots and Catholics alike uniting against the nobility. The effects of war have been so severe in Northern France that two-thirds of the population of Picardy are widows and orphans. The Spanish are still pressing hard agains the northern border and these are bleak times, but Henri's leadership offers France some hope for the future.

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-c. t. iannuzzo