16th-Century Western Europe: Economic Change to Religious Wars and Toleration

17th-Century English Church Court / Wikimedia Commons

Lecture by Lisa M. Lane / 05.16.2016
Professor of History
MiraCosta College

Economic Change

Spanish Colonial Silver Reales coins / Wikimedia Commons

Throughout history, periods of free-for-all economic expansion are often followed by some level of contraction and control, as some figure out how to profit at the expense of others.

There is no question that the 16th century experienced economic expansion — it was the era of exploration and colonization. You may recall that what the Spanish found in Mexico was a lot of gold and silver. This was mined and transported to Europe. As it entered Spain, it caused inflation of prices. But Iberia was not a commercial or industrial area — Spain and Portugal were still mostly agricultural. This meant that since they had to import most manufactured goods from the north, most of the gold and silver was exported out of the area. Much went to the manufacturing areas of northern France, England and the Netherlands. Ultimately, trade with Asia meant that most of the gold and silver from the New World ended up in China (an interesting parallel to today).

The “price revolution” was also caused by population increase, as the population began to recover some after the first rounds of the plague. There may not have been enough going on agriculturally to feed the entire population, so food prices increased.

Sheep / Wikimedia Commons

Since the price of woollen goods was also increasing, lords who wanted to profit from price increases looked for ways to raise more sheep and control the profit. Some began to focus on “enclosure”, the practice of commandeering the common land used by peasants to graze their animals or raise extra food. Enclosure made life more difficult for the peasants. Some historians believe that it was enclosure that began to dismantle the medieval manorial system of mutual responsibility between peasant and lord. Commerce began to replace these responsibilites.

Weaving / Wikimedia Commons

Entrepreneurs also took advantage of people’s need for money, and the labor they could provide in the countryside. The cloth industry is again the best example. An entrepreneur might buy raw wool, and take it to the cottage of a peasant who knew how to spin, or even one who had one of the new spinning wheels. Collecting the spun yarn a week later, he could then take it to someone who had a loom, and did weaving in their home. Then on to a dyer, and a fuller, and so forth, until he marketed the finished cloth.

Products made with this “putting out” (or domestic) system could be made much more cheaply than in guild-controlled towns, so the guilds could be impacted in any area where people could produce items at home for sale. Specialty processes that needed high-level equipment, like press printing, metalworking, silk spinning and wire-drawing remained town and guild-dominated.

At the same time as this commercial expansion, states were changing also. The competition for colonies, the battles for succession like the Hundred Years War, the ongoing conflict among the Italian city-states, and the new conflicts between Protestant and Catholic meant that more money was going into funding armies. The state needed to control its own money, and spend it in a way that would benefit the government during a time of change. Taxation systems were codified, and trade regulated. Instead of waiting to see how things would go (as brick-and-mortar businesses have done today in response to the internet), 16th century governments moved quickly to create systems of tariffs. Innovations like double-entry bookkeeping, which were beneficial to merchants, also helped governments.

Realizing the impact of gold and silver (bullion) leaving a country, policies were enacted designed to keep bullion in the country. The idea was that there was only so much wealth in the world, and that wealth was gold and silver. So for a country to prosper, they needed to export high-value goods, and import cheap goods or raw materials, preferably from colonies the country controlled. That way the home country would become wealthier. Governments established trade barriers such as tariffs and duties designed to encourage domestic industry and make imported goods more expensive. The most important way they controlled trade, however, was by chartering companies to monopolize trade in a particular area. These companies would come to not only dominate trade in the colonies, but even control and govern the colonies themselves.

Arts and Music

The Fight between Carnival and Lent, by Peter Brueghel the Elder, 1559 / Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The arts and music from 1500-1648 reflected not only a sophistication we commonly see in commercial society, but a beauty that seems to fit with the ochre colors used by its artists. The Baroque masterpieces date from this time, but my favorite picture for the era captures the “battle” between Carnival (the party side of life) and Lent (the life of religion). It’s Pieter Brueghel’s work, from 1559.

This age is one of adjustment to new commercial and religious models at the same time. And the same conflict we saw with Savanarola in Renaissance Florence, the vanity of worldly goods versus a life dedicated to God, is here in this painting. Calvinists solved the problem by viewing worldly success as a sign of God’s favor, the origin of the “Protestant work ethic”.

The Madonna with the Long Neck or Madonna and Child with Angels, by Parmigianino, c.1540 / Uffizi Gallery, Florence

This is also the time of the transition away from the Renaissance style of art, toward something we call “Mannerism”. Mannerists imitated the High Renaissance styles, but they also responded to the new trends in society and politics. The style is deliberately artificial. My favorite mannerist painting is Parmigiano’s Madonna and Child with Angels (1534-40), known for obvious reasons as the Madonna with the Long Neck. This style is supposed to add sophistication through a certain lack of balance and proportion (those elements so prized in Renaissance art as a re-emergence of the classical style). Rather like the Hellenistic styles added drama to move away from Greek statis, Mannerism moved away from the perfect proportions of the Renaissance.

Another example would be Tintoretto. Here’s a comparison between the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci and that of Tintoretto.


Left: The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci, c.1496 / Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan
Right: The Last Supper, by Jacopo Tintoretto, c.1594 / Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

Notice how balanced and peaceful Leonardo’s version is, as opposed to the dramatic, offset, unbalanced, and boldly contrasted work by Tintoretto.

Music developed a certain sound during this time, and many samples are available (you can hear it at a Renaissance Faire). It’s surprising that Thomas Tallis was patronized by both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth in England, given the difference in religion. His most famous work, and one of the most beautiful ever, is Spem in Allium (1570), which is rumored to have been written for Queen Elizabeth I’s birthday.

The transition to Mannerism here can best be heard in the work of Gesualdo, who wrote madrigal music with chromatic harmonies.

Presumably the latter is more sophisticated.

The Night Watch, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642 / Amsterdam Museum

Artists of the Baroque era did not only work for royal and church patrons. As more money was concentrated into the hands of the middle classes, we find artists working for wealthy middle-class patrons as we enter the 17th century. Here’s a great example from 1642 (right), Rembrandt’s The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq (known as The Night Watch).

The men make up a kind of high-level neighborhood watch group, guarding each others’ warehouses in Amsterdam to prevent theft. They expected the portrait to show all of them clearly, lined up, but instead it didn’t even though each man paid Rembrandt the same amount.

Women and Witchcraft

We know that the Inquisition had more power in the 16th century to eliminate “sorcery” from Europe. At the same time, women in ordinary culture were gaining a more active role in public life. I see the two facts as coming up against each other and leading to witch hunts.

The Hammer of Witches was a guidebook for inquisitors, written back in 1486. It gives us a strong indication of how the issue was seen. Notice how in 1486 it is assumed that the witch is male:

The Hammer of Witches (1486)

An instruction book for inquisitors

But if, neither by threats nor by promises such as these, the witch can be induced to speak the truth, then thejailers must carry out the sentence, and torture the prisoner according to the accepted methods, with more or less of severity as the delinquent’s crime may demand. And, while he is being tortured, he must be questioned on the articles of accusation, and this frequently and persistently, beginning with the lighter charges-for he will more readily confess the lighter than the heavier. And, while this is being done, the notary must write down everything in his record of the trial – how the prisoner is tortured, on what points he is questioned and how he answers.

And note that, if he confesses under the torture, he must afterward be conducted to another place, that he may confirm it and certify that it was not due alone to the force of the torture.

But, if the prisoner will not confess the truth satisfactorily, other sorts of tortures must be placed before him, with the statement that unless he will confess the truth, he must endure these also. But, if not even thus he can be brought into terror and to the truth, then the next day or the next but one is to be set for a continuation of the tortures – not a repetition, for it must not be repeated unless new evidences produced.

The judge must then address to the prisoners the following sentence: We, the judge, etc., do assign to you, such and such a day for the continuation of the tortures, that from your own mouth the truth may be heard, and that the whole may be recorded by the notary.

And during the interval, before the day assigned, the judge, in person or through approved men, must in the manner above described try to persuade the prisoner to confess, promising her (if there is aught to be gained by this promise) that her life shall be spared.

The judge shall see to it, moreover, that throughout this interval guards are constantly with the prisoner, so that she may not be I alone; because she will be visited by the Devil and tempted into suicide.

But such handbooks were more in demand in the 16th century, as there seemed to be an upsurge in witchcraft and other satanic practices.

We know that the population in general expanded during the 16th century, while food production had not yet caught up. As a result, the age at marriage tended to be later because land was scarce, and agrarian couples could not marry until they had land to support them. Later marriage tends to mean that women in particular get a chance to develop their own personalities before marrying. In addition, the era saw a demographic imbalance: there were about 110-120 women for every 100 men. We know that such gender imbalance causes change. When men outnumber women, men tend to compete with each other through flashy fashions and showing off their wealth. When there are more women than men, it leaves more women unmarried, and therefore in need of tending to their own affairs.

Certainly we know that there were social objections to women being strong and independent. One good example can be seen in Hic Mulier (the Mannish Woman) from 1620, which objects to the revealing fashions. In some cases, fashions that reveal the body can indicate dependence, as in men showing off their women. But here the objection is to single, independent women dressing this way.

Hic Mulier (The Mannish Woman) (1620)

Come, then, you Masculine women, for you are my Subject, you that have made Admiration an Ass and fooled him with a deformity never before dreamed of; that have made yourselves stranger things than ever Noah’s Ark unloaded or Nile engendered. . . . From the other you have taken the monstrousness of your deformity in apparel, exchanging the mdoest attire of the comely Hood, Cowl, Coif, handsome Dress or Kerchief, to the cloudy Ruffianly broad-brimmed Hat and wanton Feather; the modest upper parts of a concealing straight gown, to the loose, lascivious civil embracement of a French doublet, being all unbuttoned to entice, all of one shape to hide deformity, and extreme short waisted to give a most easy way to every luxurious action; the glory of a fair large hair, to the shame of most ruffianly short locks; the side, thick gathered, and close guarding Safeguards [petticoats] to the short, weak, thin, loose, and every hand-entertaining short bases [skirts]; for Needles, Swords; for Prayerbooks, bawdy legs; for modest gestures, giantlike behaviors; and for women’s modesty, all Mimic and apish incivility. . . .

It is an infection that emulates the plague and throws itself amongst women of all degrees, all deserts, and all ages; from the Capitol to the Cottage are some spots or swellings of this disease. Yet evermore the greater the person is, the greater is the rage of this sickness; and the more they have to support the eminence of their Fortunes, the more they bestow in the augmentation of their deformities. Not only such as will not work to get bread will find time to weave herself points [laces] to truss her loose Breeches; and she that hath pawned her credit to get a Hat will sell her Smock to buy a Feather; she that hath given kisses to have her hair shorn will give her honesty to have her upper parts put into a French doublet. To conclude, she that will give her body to have her body deformed will not stick to give her soul to have her mind satisfied.

Remember that God in your first creation did not form you of slime and earth like man, but of a more pure and refined metal, a substance much more worthy; you in whom are all the harmonies of life, the perfection of Symmetry, the true and curious consent of the most fairest colors and the wealthy Gardens which fill the world with living Plants. Do but you receive virtuous Inmates (as what Palaces are more rich to receive heavenly messengers?) and you shall draw men’s souls unto you with that severe, devout, and holy adoration, that you shall never want praise, never love, never reverence.

To you therefore that are Fathers, Husbands, or Sustainers of these new Hermaphrodites belongs the cure of this Impostume [pride]. It is you that give fuel to the flames of their wild indiscretion; you add the oil which makes their stinking Lamps defile the whole house with filthy smoke, and your purses purchase these deformities at rates both dear and unreasonable. Do you but hold close your liberal hands or take strict account of the employment of the treasure you give to their necessary maintenance, and these excesses will either cease or else die smothered in the Tailor’s Trunk for want of Redemption. . . .

Francesco Maria Guazzo, The Obscene Kiss, 1608 / Wikimedia Commons

The victims of witch hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries were predominantly female. They tended to be widows or single women, often on the outskirts of society or in professions where they had a lot of contact with men (tavern owner, shopkeeper). The predilection to accuse females was so strong that some feminist historians accuse the Church of “gendercide”. While that seems to be going a bit far, society might have been using witchcraft to cleanse itself of perceived sins, including those that involved killing fellow Christians because they believed differently than ones own church.

Such trials also revived the concept of women in general as representing the base and earthly Eve, rather than the virginal Mary. Women were seen as more gullible to the wiles of the Devil, more inherently susceptible to witchcraft than men. You can see the witches in the image on the right kissing the behind of the Devil, a satanic practice. Women had societies that men could not enter. The activities that had always been dominated by women, such as childbirth and herbology, were now seen as suspect. Midwives, for example, were accused of infanticide when a baby died.

Now here we get into the question of whether witchcraft actually existed. Certainly many believed it did, and not just ignorant people. And certainly there were people who claimed to worship the Devil, and who met with others to engage in Black Sabbaths and other practices viewed with suspicion by nominal Christians. But studies of witchcraft trials during this era suggest not only gender issues, but also competition for land, commercial rivalries, sexual jealousy, political conflict, psychological derangement, fear of change, and other explanations for what happened. Each case seems to provide its own peculiar combination of local crisis, but all seem to have one. People don’t go hunting for witches when they are happy and secure.

Witch hunts didn’t really end until the popularization of the scientific method, near the end of the 17th century. (If you’ve studied American history, our Salem witch trials of 1692 are very late, well after Europe stopped.)

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t scientific advancement in the 16th century. Examples would include the work of Ambroise Paré (1510-1590), an expert in surgery and forensic pathology. He developed the idea of ligatures for closing off arteries in amputations, and lancing infant gums when teeth refused to erupt, causing infection. We also have Vesalius (1514-64), who created detailed anatomical woodcut illustrations for his students. He also publicly dissected a body and arranged its skeleton for later study. His work on the vascular and circulatory system is the foundation of today’s cardiovascular medicine.

And of course we can’t forget Copernicus, the Polish mathematician who published his work just before his death in 1543. Copernicus revised everyone’s understanding of astronomy by moving the sun to the center of the system. Before his work and for some time afterward, the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian system was what everyone knew: it had the earth, immovable, at the center, with stars and planets stuck onto crystalline spheres that revolved around the earth in perfect circular orbit. This system was easy to understand and intuitive — it looks like what you see when you look up at the sky. The trouble was that each new object discovered in the sky, if it moved in a different way, required that another sphere be added to the system. Copernicus saw this as cluttered and mathematically unpleasant. Putting the sun in the middle simplified things. But because the Ptolemaic-Artistotelian system was supported by Church doctrine, Copernicus did not publish until he knew he was dying. Even then, it would take Galileo and his telescope to show that Copernicus was correct (and doing so brought Galileo before the Inquisition in 1615).

Religious Wars and Toleration

We know that Protestants and Catholics had at each other throughout the 16th century and well into the 17th. In fact, the Thirty Years War marks the end of this class precisely because it marks the end of war fought to save the souls of other people.

It’s harder to talk about tolerance, and harder to find it manifesting itself in history. We do have an example of legal tolerance in the Edict of Nantes (1598).

The Edict of Nantes (1598)

. . . And not to leave any occasion of trouble and difference among our Subjects, we have permitted and do permit to those of the Reformed Religion, to live and dwell in all the Cities and places of this our Kingdom and Countreys under our obedience, without being inquired after, vexed, molested, or compelled to do any thing in Religion, contrary to their Conscience, nor by reason of the same be searched after in houses or places where they live, they comporting themselves in other things as is contained in this our present Edict or Statute. . . .

We can see this kind of thing as state-sanctioned toleration, for which it is hard to find previous examples. That may testify to the new power of the state, which can decree something as broad as tolerance for a certain group of people. Eras of tolerance tend to end with war. The Edict would be revoked in 1685 by Louis XIV. who at the time was at war with several powers in Europe.

Click Image to Enlarge

The Thirty Years War is a marker for us because it ended very differently from how it began, and the reason is important. It began when Protestant lords of Bohemia and Austria rebelled against an effort by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II to enforce Catholicism throughout the empire. The Protestants called on Protestant countries (England, the Netherlands, Sweden) for assistance, and the Catholics called on Spain and the pope, as well as Catholic German principalities like Bavaria. So it begins as a war of religion, just like others.

But even previous “religious wars” had political elements. The Revolt of the Netherlands had begun in 1566 as the Protestant Dutch (the dominant group in the Netherlands) rebelled against his Most Catholic Majesty Philip II of Spain, who became their overlord. This war is thus partly nationalist (Dutch versus Spanish) as well as religious.

Similarly, the French Wars of Religion, which had begun in 1562, was also a class war between the commercial Hugenots (French Protestants) and the Catholic rulers. There Protestant activity was considered treasonous, threatening the control of the French king.

During the Thirty Years War, there appears to be an actual switch to purely political and nationalist motivations. In the first stage of the war, the Catholics won and Ferdinand II secured the Holy Roman Empire under Catholicism. Then the Swedes invaded on behalf of the Protestants, and a Spanish army met them and forced the Protestants out of southern Germany. This seemed to surround France with Hapsburg powers, which France had feared for some time. France then declared war on Spain in 1635. Both countries were Catholic — the issue was now political.

Sweden, France, Spain and Austria thus battled on German soil in a brutal free-for-all, trying to destroy things that might be of use to the enemy and forage for food and supplies as they could. Huge damage was done and many civilians, especially in Germany, were killed. Eventually France and Sweden (one Catholic, one Protestant) were victorious.

The stage was thus set for wars about a country’s territory, power and control rather than religion. But it didn’t make war any more kind than it had been before.