Early Modern Europe

Historians have reached no consensus over definitions of early modern Europe. Published work on the period roughly spans the years between 1400 and 1800 but chronological boundaries vary by region and discipline. The term itself is largely Anglo-American. Historians in continental Europe refer to the period between the Middle Ages and the contemporary world simply as "modern history," but again there is little consensus over its meaning. In contrast, the French Annaliste tradition, advanced by Fernand Braudel and his followers, largely refutes dating altogether in favor of the tripartite longue durée (long-term structures), conjoncture (short-term trends), and histoire évenémentielle (individual events). In the United States and the United Kingdom early modern European studies gained ground in the 1970s. Historians began with the breakup of feudalism and the emergence of the western European state in the fifteenth century and ended with the eighteenth-century revolutions in politics and economic life. The literature spotlighted advances in science and secularism, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the rise of the modern state, developments that were linked to the concept of modernization.

The period did witness significant strides in state building in England, France, and Spain, where growing bureaucracies levied taxes to finance large-scale warfare and territorial expansion. But at the same time encroachment on the longstanding powers of the nobility invited feudal reaction, while the breach with tradition, particularly by creating new taxes in an era plagued by war, famine, and disease, triggered widespread peasant revolts. The road to modernization theme quickly led to a literature of adjustments that demonstrated failures to modernize as well as the demographic and technological limits hindering economic growth. Still, a number of historiographical trends emerged to give the period firm contours: the fragmentation of Christendom and growing secularism; pronounced demographic and economic fluctuation; the development of the European state system; and the emergence of a global, Europe-centered system of production and trade.

These grand narratives, however, did little to include women's roles in reproduction and production, or the travails of ordinary people; nor did they work well for comparativists in world history circles. Thus historical output in the last decade of the twentieth and the early years of the twenty-first centuries has attempted to redress these omissions as well as to reconceptualize how historians arrive at periodization. Like definitions of early modern Europe, discussions of childhood experience have also continued to evolve. Was there an awareness of childhood as a distinct stage in the life cycle? In the predominantly agrarian economy of early modern Europe, childhood and adolescence quickly progressed into adulthood for peasants and workers whose lives revolved primarily around reproduction and production. In contrast, improved material conditions among the middle class fostered more awareness of childhood as separate from adulthood. Commercialization and urbanization required more formal education for the young. As a result, civic groups, church, state, and parents made larger investments in child rearing and education with efforts that divided along gendered lines.

The Religious Reformations

In the second decade of the sixteenth century, the Christian church experienced the first in a series of religious divisions along geographic lines. The sequence of splits, beginning in the Holy Roman Empire and spreading to the whole of Europe by the end of the century, transformed the relationship of the reformed churches with state, society, and the individual. It also transported Christianity to the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Asia. There was a fervent desire for religious homogeneity, marked by compulsory conversions of Moors and Jews to Catholicism in Spain and missionary zeal both in Europe and abroad. At the same time in nearly every area of Europe religious conflict and calls for a redistribution of power became virtually indistinguishable, evoking crises in authority at state and local levels.

The Protestant and Catholic Reformations affected family life, and by extension children's upbringing, in important ways. Protestants advanced new family models that overrode Catholic doctrine and canon law, models which presumably would affect the character formation of children. They refuted the celibate ideal, closing convents and monasteries and celebrating the status of husband and wife over that of monk and nun. Reformers like Martin Luther found marriage to be the appropriate place for sexuality and a prophylactic for fornication. Pastors and former nuns took marriage vows. Both lay and clerical Protestants were encouraged to form companionate marriages, where husbands still held authority over wives but where spouses were encouraged to divide family responsibilities. In contrast, the Catholic clergy continued to make strenuous efforts to restrict sexuality, particularly that of women. In order to defend family purity as well as maintain social order, women were either to marry or undergo religious enclosure.

While Protestant theologians created the legal possibility of divorce and remarriage, Catholic reformers made strenuous efforts to tighten the rules on marriage and family formation with the Council of Trent (1545–1563). The church sought to regularize and stabilize marriage and to protect women and children. Unlike Protestant theology, divorce was proscribed by canon law but legal separations of bed and table were permitted under extreme circumstances. After the Council of Trent Catholic theologians lay greater claim to the regulation of the marriage contract. The Tametsi decree ruled that banns be published and that a couple pronounce their vows in the presence of a parish priest and several witnesses. Although parental consent was not required or enforced, secret marriages were discouraged. Some children used the reform to have their arranged marriages annulled, arguing that their parents had forced them to take vows. Others married against the wishes of their parents.

Religion, Science, and Popular Beliefs

Religious evangelism advocated greater spiritual education of the young. At the same time the rise of scientific inquiry provided new, conflicting methods of learning, grounded in empirical observation and the material world. Thus children of the educated classes were brought up in a world of competing models of knowledge advanced by churchmen and scientists, while the offspring of ordinary people were exposed to some combination of evangelical claims, folk wisdom, and the repressive powers of the Reformation churches.

Among the goals of religious reformers was that of molding parent—child relationships. Beginning with DESIDERIUS ERASMUS (c. 1466–1536), Christian humanists and other intellectuals stressed the importance of childhood for character formation among the middle and upper classes. Religious thinkers debated whether children were born innocent or depraved, but in either case emphasized a parental duty to invest in the upbringing of the young, not only at home but also at school. Schooling was provided both by the churches and through a growing number of secular tutorials. Throughout Europe the number of new schools increased significantly with the advent of the religious reformations. As during the Renaissance, both girls and boys of the upper classes received primary education, but following the Reformation many reformers encouraged girls as well as boys to become more literate so as to be able to read the Scriptures and to instruct their children. Boys from wealthy families were prepared for prestigious professions. Girls, whose training revolved around home life, at best attended finishing schools. In some respects the school replaced the family as parent, particularly for wealthy boys who boarded out. Whether child rearing and schooling included excessive discipline has been the subject of intense debate. Catholic or Protestant, the middle and upper classes increasingly attempted to separate children from the spheres of adult living, removing them from the workplace, prolonging schooling, and repressing their SEXUALITY.

Both Protestant and Catholic teachers also strove to delineate the boundaries of official doctrine more rigorously. Their encounters with common folk produced serious tensions. Popular beliefs were quickly judged pagan and labeled heretical, and their exponents were repressed. Evangelists and inquisitors sought to impose religious uniformity and eliminate groups or individuals who could not be assimilated into mainstream orthodox Christianity. In particular, the office of the Holy Inquisition denied the laity's claims to spiritual powers in an effort to make them the exclusive purview of the clergy. It was an attempt to divest the laity, and also medicine and science, of a spiritual dimension. The religious campaign to denounce magic, feigned sainthood, and witchcraft thus helped prepare the ground for the late-seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century scientific claims that the cosmos was mechanized. In the modern age science would marginalize and undermine magical beliefs and reduce the spiritual influence of the clergy.

The religious Reformation, together with the critical and antiauthoritarian nature of Renaissance humanism, shattered the unity of intellectual thought, developments that were vital to the advancement of science. The discovery of new worlds and peoples and that the earth was round; the invention of movable type; the development of firearms and of a lens that improved the visibility of the stars and planets; improved mechanical clocks; and the development of shipbuilding and navigation opened up new intellectual perspectives and methods of discovery that relied increasingly on rationalism rather than religion. Scientists made new claims to authority and objectivity, tending toward explaining the world in mechanical terms. Scientific inquiry complemented secularism and the focus on how to improve material life. Separating the observable world from the spiritual sphere represented a fundamental shift in thought. To see the world operating on basic principles discoverable by reason fostered hope that humans could control their environment, a change in attitude that helped pave the way for nineteenth-century industrialization.

Scientific emphasis on reason also encouraged new views about children themselves. JOHN LOCKE, writing in the late seventeenth century, argued against the importance of innate concepts and implicitly, original sin, urging that children were blank slates (tabulae rasae) open to education as a source of rapid self-improvement. These views promoted increasing attention to education, at least in theory, during the eighteenth century, as a crucial part of the ENLIGHTENMENT. It may also have encouraged other developments in child care, such as a decline of SWADDLING, in the interest of permitting children more opportunities for development in early childhood. In this cultural context, emphasis on children as loving and lovable creatures also increased, as did (by the end of the early modern period) the creation of TOYS and books explicitly designed to promote children's abilities.


Demographic patterns in early modern Europe were critical determinants of life experience for the majority of people. The periodic expansion and contraction of the population helped define the limits of the possible, the balance between available resources and demand, and the standard of living. Economic and demographic trends affected changes in age at marriage for peasants and workers. In the sixteenth century, for example, when the population was swollen and there were land shortages, marriage was generally delayed, at least in areas like northwest Europe where the custom was to form nuclear households. Postponing marriage to the late twenties for men and early twenties for women limited fertility and helped to prevent an excess supply of children. Conversely, following great EPIDEMICS or long periods of war, smaller populations with sufficient landed resources generally married younger and had the potential to have more children. Their resources permitted their children to be raised at home. Such trends were critical to economic life since marriage and reproduction created the basic units of production. A significant number of men and women did not marry at all, becoming servants or auxiliary members of the households of married kin.

War, famine, and epidemic disease had catastrophic effects on mortality rates in early modern Europe. INFANT MORTALITY was high, particularly for babies farmed out to wet-nurses by the upper class and the destitute as well as for those born illegitimate. Infanticide also contributed to the mortality rate, despite the harsh laws designed to prevent it. As much as a quarter of all babies died in their first year, and another quarter never reached adult age. The high mortality rate of the young is a factor that sparked a lively historical debate, beginning with the work of PHILIPPE ARIÈS, on whether parents held much regard for their children or much awareness of the early stages of life. Perhaps parents and children who were fortunate to live out their lives together cared very much for one another. However, large numbers of children received little PARENTING at all. The excess children of the poor either died of malnutrition or left at an early age to live as servants or apprentices with another family. Moreover, one or both parents could be expected to die during a child's lifetime, making childhood brief.

Children represented a large percentage of the poor in early modern Europe. ORPHANS and the abandoned presented new challenges for both church and state who sought to reduce the numbers of beggars and vagrants and to provide children with sustenance, vocational training for boys, and small dowries for girls. England devised the Poor Law. In the rest of Europe, cities, civic organizations, and religious orders established foundling hospitals and encouraged the wealthy to bequeath resources to sustain charitable institutions. Efforts intensified after 1520 in correspondence with the spread of Christian humanism and the religious reformations. At the upper levels of society, wealth-conserving strategies helped determine children's life experiences. Fathers decided sons' careers and whether daughters would marry. Many unmarried Catholic daughters were forced to take the veil. Restricted marriage was common. In Venice, the fraterna (brothers in business together) limited marriage to one brother while other male siblings shared the family wealth and acted as an association. Some unmarried siblings entered ecclesiastical institutions. Few daughters were dowered to be married but instead were placed in convents, particularly as dowry levels steadily rose. Roman law on the Continent and common law in England, on the other hand, rested on the principle of primogeniture, whereby siblings did not inherit the land earmarked for the patrilineal lineage. The result was a large number of displaced children of the nobility whose destinies were determined in accord with gender expectations.


The early modern economy witnessed dramatic changes in the global spheres of transoceanic voyage and market exchange. State building and colonialism shifted the center of gravity from the Mediterranean to the wider Atlantic world, Africa, and the Americas. Spain and Portugal experienced temporary prosperity during this global expansion, while England and the Low Countries thrived well beyond the sixteenth century. Global markets and new goods linked people of different continents through sugar, tobacco, and coffee. Neither women nor most men, however, were highly visible at this economic level, where capitalism was at work and European states were in competition to control global trade networks, for most people did not have access to large resources, to companies and monopolies of control, or to the power of the state that would enable them to invest in capitalist enterprise.

Peasants and workers did, however, witness significant changes in production. The urban guilds that had prevailed in the Late Middle Ages waned in the sixteenth century, and production shifted to rural households where all family members took part in both productive and reproductive labor. Economic historian Carlo Cipolla states that the preponderance of demand centered around food, clothing, and housing, a phenomenon that determined the structure of production. Women, men, and children from the age of seven worked the land, cared for the livestock, and produced essentials for the family unit. They also tended and harvested crops that provided raw materials for manufactured products, such as flax, hemp, silk, and plants for dye. Capitalist investors found it in their interests to bypass the urban guilds and to hire women (and children), whose wages were more determined by custom than by the market. They bought from urban and rural households for export to Atlantic markets. Thus commercial capitalism and the globalization of the economy stepped up production based on hand technology in the family household.

The domestic industrial system changed the kinds of work opportunities available to women and children. It also transformed the functions of the family as men, women, and children began to receive individual wages for work. Nonetheless, Europeans had to work harder between 1500 and 1800 than during the previous centuries in order to maintain what were stagnant living standards, for their purchasing power did not increase much. It was not until the nineteenth century that capitalism transformed definitions of work. In the Middle Ages it included all tasks that contributed to a family's sustenance. With nineteenth-century industrialization and capitalism work became more exclusively participation in production outside the home and the market economy. When the household lost its central economic role to capitalist production and became more a center for reproduction, the status and importance of women's work and work in the household declined. Productive labor was seen as men's sphere, while women's labor, largely involving childbirth, infant care, and WET-NURSING, took place in the home and was of no monetary value. Women and children's roles in economic development were hardly recognized until gender analysis among late twentieth-century scholars reevaluated the importance of reproduction and domestic work as well as proto-industry in the home, connecting public and private spheres.

See also: Education, Europe; Medieval and Renaissance Europe; Protestant Reformation.


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