Renaissance and Reformation Reference Library

Daily Life

Daily Life

How does one define daily life in any period of the past? Doing so involves looking at a wide variety of factors. How did people dress, and what did they eat? What did they do for fun? Did the rich and the poor do the same things? To understand daily life, we must look at these issues along with politics, warfare, art, economics, religion, and the effects of illness and disease on families and social groups. In this chapter we will look at the different areas of Renaissance Europe, examine the customs of various peoples during the early and late Renaissance, and examine the social and economic factors that affected people's everyday lives.

A diverse society

Renaissance Europe was not a single, unified society with the same traditions throughout the land. Each region had distinct languages, ethnic makeups, and geographic factors that shaped everyday life. Broadly, Mediterranean societies experienced hot, dry summers and cool, rainy winters, while the North experienced mild, temperate summers and long, cold winters. The Mediterranean region had arid (dry) or semiarid mountain ranges, while the North was characterized by broad expanses of fertile plains and forest. The Mediterranean Sea connected the South with more ancient cultures and peoples of northern Africa and Asia. Consequently, cities, long-distance shipping, and trade were features of life in the South much more so than in the North. The exceptions were the Hanseatic cities (cities belonging to a trade network called the Hanseatic League; see "Hanseatic League" box in Chapter 4) of northern Germany and the cosmopolitan industrial cities of the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg).

Everywhere else, Europe's population was thinly spread throughout rural areas. In these regions peasants and nobles sometimes rubbed shoulders with sheepherders on the plains when the sheepherders brought their flocks down from the high pastures in the fall and looked for work in the winter. Europeans were often on the move, going to market, traveling to political centers to pay taxes, or embarking on religious pilgrimages. Southerners traveled from one port city to another on ships; they crossed over land by foot or uncomfortably on the back of a donkey. Northerners traveled by foot or, increasingly, by boat on canals and rivers. Hosting travelers were numerous inns, taverns, and religious establishments.

Gender and class also shaped daily life. Upper-class women were confined to the home or the court. Someone accompanied them (or they went in groups) when they went to the market, church, or special civic or religious events. Middle-class and poor women spent much time working. Middle-class women were artisans or shopkeepers, and poor women worked in the fields if they were peasants or in households if they were servants. Women of the elite classes supervised a domestic staff and oversaw the education of their children. Noblemen spent their time at court, at war, or managing their country estates. In urban areas, especially in Italy, some men engaged in business activity. Political life was open to some, but opportunities for nobles to have a meaningful impact on politics declined as princes and kings gained more and more power. In smaller urban areas nobles of middle rank directed local politics under the authority of capitals of territorial states. Sometimes they ruled on their own if they had not yet been made part of the political structure of a regional state. Whatever the setting, political life was almost entirely the domain of upper-class men. Rural males participated in village affairs through parish or village councils, which were directed by priests or local lords.

Economy divides classes

In Renaissance Europe the economic cycle that lasted from 1450 until 1550 began and ended in crisis. In the earlier stages, around 1450, Europe was recovering from population losses and the consequent economic depression that followed the "Black Death," a widespread disease epidemic (see "Black Death" section later in this chapter). As population levels began to recover, people became more prosperous, and workers' wages bought more and better food. From this time until 1550, the wages of an average worker were enough to provide good food and a warm, clean home for the family. Then prices began to rise rapidly, and by 1600 increases had reached 200 to 300 percent above what they had been fifty years earlier.

To some extent, this rise in prices, called inflation, was due to large amounts of gold coming in from European colonies in the Americas. The severity of inflation varied from region to region, as did the ability of workers to live on their wages. In rural areas the expansion of a money economy (an economy that runs on cash, not credit or goods) initially produced a problem for both lords and peasants: how to convert wealth in land and goods into increasingly necessary cash. The seignorial (lord) class solved this problem by forcing peasants to pay cash instead of working off their obligations (peasants were required to give lords a percentage of crops and other products). Peasants then had to find some means of getting cash to pay the lord. Some would find extra jobs and work for wages, while others would produce surplus goods (such as growing extra food or making pottery) that they could sell at the local market. Some were forced to become criminals and began smuggling goods to raise the extra money. In the meantime, the gap between rich and poor was widening. The upper and merchant classes took advantage of the money economy to establish thriving banks and businesses that formed the basis of modern capitalism (private or corporate ownership of goods).

Family and kinship

Kinship loomed large in the life of the Renaissance. It was referred to by a variety of terms, among them lineage, house, race, blood, and family.


Kinship was defined by the incest prohibitions (laws against having sexual relations with family members) of the Roman Catholic Church. Kinship comprised everyone with a common ancestry going back four generations (that is, extending out to third cousins). Also included were the spouses of these relatives and some connected by god parentage (a godparent is one who sponsors a child's baptism). Some secular (nonreligious) laws gave inheritance rights to descendants of even more remote common ancestors. In reality, however, kinship was seen more narrowly, being limited to individuals whose names were known and who saw one another from time to time. The idea of kinship also varied according to social position and wealth.

The standard way of reckoning descent was through fathers. Mothers were invisible in most genealogies (documents tracing generations of families). As a member of a family line, an individual belonged to a group of agnates, or people related by blood through male parents. However, maternal blood relatives were also important. Tracing ancestry through both parents was very much in practice at the time, in spite of the greater emphasis on paternal lines (family lines descending from the father). Relatives with no connection by blood could also be important. The church included both affinity (relationship by marriage) and consanguinity (of the same blood or origin) in its definition of kin, and advantageous in-law relationships were the prime objective of many marriages.

Powerful Families

Kinship was different for the nobility than for the majority of people. Ordinary people did not have the resources to know as many different relatives, whereas the elite could claim knowledge of even remote ancestors. The largest, most extended families were those in the upper levels of society. The Renaissance was an era of dynasties (families who hold power for many generations)—not only royal dynasties, but noble, patrician (aristocratic), and mercantile (merchant) ones as well. Names of dynasties were as least as important as names of individuals. In fact, the chief political players were not individuals, but families. Among the most powerful families of Renaissance Europe were the Colonnas and Orsinis of Rome, Italy; the Medicis and Strozzis of Florence, Italy; the extended Contarini family of Venice, Italy; the Fuggers of Augsburg, Bavaria (in southern Germany); the House (family of rulers) of Habsburg in Austria and Spain; the House of Tudor in England; and the House of Valois of France.

First among the symbols of powerful families was the surname (last name or family name). The use of a surname was fairly new in the early fifteenth century. It was at first associated with important families, who took the names of important ancestors or the names of territories they controlled. More visible symbols were coats of arms (emblems with family symbols), which decorated houses, furniture, the clothing of servants, and a variety of other items. The public works of a pope (supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church) were even marked with the arms of his family. Houses were family symbols, too, and the size and appearance of a house proclaimed power and wealth. Inheritance was the key to family power in modest families and well-to-do families alike. Property was passed down through a succession of individuals who were expected to preserve and enhance what they received.

Ancestry is important

There was hardly any aspect of an individual's life that was not affected by kinship, especially for someone in an important family. Nobles and patricians were acutely aware of their ancestors. They constructed genealogies that were sometimes partly fictional, such as naming a hero from antiquity as the originator of the family line. Preserving the memory of ancestors became important to Christian families. Elaborate funeral ceremonies, monuments, and family chapels have preserved the names of some great families into the present day.

Every member of a great family shared in the family's reputation. However, it is difficult to know if the same was true of lower-class individuals. Great families overshadowed other ones, especially in matters of state, and sometimes seemed to be the only families in a particular region. The loss of family honor was a collective burden. An individual convicted of a serious crime not only shamed his kin but also might cause them to lose for generations the legal privileges they enjoyed as members of the nobility. Women had a special responsibility for maintaining the honor of their husbands' families by being above reproach sexually. That is, women were expected to be virgins (one who has not had sexual relations) upon marriage and to remain true to their husbands. All kinsmen got involved in rivalries with other families. Feuds and long-held grudges were a feature of Renaissance culture (see "Feuds and Outlaws" box in Chapter 11).

It was assumed that individual desires were never so important as the needs of the family. Marriage choices were based on what was good for the family, as were career choices. Family members in positions of power had an obligation to help their kin. Wealthier kinsmen were expected to come to the rescue of family members. Even in the lowest classes the first source of help for paupers (poor people) was kin. While the laws in England obligated only fairly close relatives—like grandparents and aunts or uncles—to support kin, members of great families assumed they had a right to approach distant relatives for help.

The system of family obligations and family power can be summed up in the word "nepotism," the practice of favoring one's family members over others. Far from being thought of as corrupt, favor of one's family was admired. The most famous examples are found in the Renaissance papacy, the office of the pope. In the course of what was usually a short reign, a pope would act quickly to advance the careers and status of his relatives, most often in the immediate family of a sister. The pope would award honorary titles, give away property, arrange powerful marriages, and name nephews as cardinals (church officials ranking directly below the pope). Popes did on a grand scale what other members of the nobility did if they had the opportunity. Royal ladies-in-waiting (court attendants to queens), for example, took care of husbands, brothers, and children. Whenever possible, the goal was to put a relative in a position where the family would benefit from future favors and, most notably, acquire something valuable that could be passed on to future generations.


During the Renaissance, the word most often used to refer to a household was "family." Although "family" also had other meanings, it was primarily a synonym for household.

Types of households

By far the most common household structure was, as it is today, the nuclear-family or conjugal household, based on one married couple and their children. Another common type, found among peasants using a system of inheritance in which property passed to a single heir, has been termed the "stem-family" household. The heir to family property remained in the household with the parents after he or she married, forming a second family that might produce a third household generation. Less common was a structure referred to nowadays as the "extended-family" household, but more accurately termed the "joint-family" household. It was based on a married couple and their sons, all of whom remained in the household after they married, along with their children.

Private Life

An important development during the Renaissance was the concept of private life. This notion involved a general change in mental outlook that came from the humanists' emphasis on individualism. During the Middle Ages the public and private spheres were intertwined. The needs of the individual were never so important as the needs for the community or group. The situation changed in the fifteenth century (and much earlier in Italy) with the development of commerce, cities, and wealth. Some people then had the means and the desire to distinguish themselves from others. In addition, monarchs and princes who busied themselves by accumulating wealth and political power created a state in which individuals defined themselves by what they owned. Changes in religious life also affected society, and individuals began to look inward and focus on communion with God. Also important were the changes in the role of the family. From as early as the seventeenth century in some regions, the home became a place where one could hide from the gossip and judgment of the public.

The conjugal household was generally the smallest in size. Joint-family households sometimes were quite large. For example, a family in early fifteenth-century Tuscany included forty-seven members, all related by blood or marriage. This was unusual, however. The chief determination of family size was wealth. There was a differences between the majority of less-privileged households, whatever their structure, and the households of the economically and socially privileged. Most households averaged five or six members. Some had one or two members, but households of moderate means might reach nine or ten. Elite households were large even if they were conjugal in structure, because parents and children were not the only inhabitants. Renaissance households almost always included people who had no kinship ties with each other, usually categorized as servants. A peasant household might at most have two or three servants, but the household of a lord might have forty or more. Elite households expanded in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and slowly shrank after that, though still remaining huge in comparison to most.

Some members of households were hard to categorize, even for contemporaries. Orphans who lived with aunts and uncles were sometimes considered servants. Elderly relatives might be in a similar position. Stepmothers, half siblings, and children born out of wedlock further complicated household structure, as did lodgers (people who paid a fee to live in another family's house), who were neither servants nor kin.

Household activities

Households were centers of production, and most were engaged in agricultural activities—at all social levels. Noble households were organized for the use of land, usually managed by the lords' officers, who were servants of relatively high status. Peasants called sharecroppers produced for both the lord and themselves, selling excess goods at the local market when they could. Whether tenants, sharecroppers, or direct owners, peasants used the labor of their whole household—their children, servants if they had any, and wives. Great households were also the centers of political power, from the households of kings and princes down to the households of lords of small manors. Various levels of justice were administered by household officers of manorial and territorial lords, including church lords like abbots. The main political function of lesser households was that they constituted units that were ruled. Heads of households were taxed rather than individuals.

The consumption of goods was different from today. Consumption in poorer households could hardly be separated from production, since the production was meant to sustain a livelihood. By contrast, consumption in great households was plentiful. The very size of houses was a way of indicating wealth. Exterior appearance was meant to convey power and importance. Interior decoration was meant to impress, often with reminders of an owner's distinguished ancestry. Large numbers of servants also proclaimed an owner's status. All this was usually displayed when households would receive guests, a frequent occurrence in most wealthy homes.

Sharp contrasts in housing

The quality of housing, both urban and rural, followed a slow but steady course of improvement during the Renaissance. Europeans were the best housed and fed among civilizations and cultures on the major continents. Those of the seignorial class who had not fallen on hard times lived relatively comfortably in wooden or stone castles or manor houses. The movement toward building with stone increased from 1400 on, with an emphasis, especially in France, on remodeling medieval (a term for the Middle Ages) structures in stone according to architectural standards established in Renaissance Italy (see "Architecture" in Chapter 8). The peasantry lived in houses made of wood or earth, with thatched roofs and earthen floors. The major improvements in these dwellings came with the practice of installing tile flooring, which was plentiful and inexpensive. There was little besides a screen to divide one room from another and separate the human occupants from their farm animals. Fleas and other insects were probably a constant problem, especially in the summer. Bathrooms and chimneys were unknown until the seventeenth century.

Furnishings differed according to status. In the homes of lords, beds, tables, and chairs were comfortable and elaborate. Metal plates were fashionable in Italy during the fifteenth century, and ceramic (pottery baked at a high temperature in a kiln) dinnerware was a specialty of the Romagna region. Among the poor, straw mattresses, chairs or a table fashioned from barrel halves were common. Cooking and eating might have centered on a metal stove, with a cooking pot and a copper drinking cup.

Household Is Model for Society

Most Renaissance writings on household management endorsed a power structure in which the master, or household head, was the supreme authority whom all other members were expected to obey. Very large households were supposed to be organized into various levels of authority. Notions about the household affected the way many other institutions were run. A monarchy was supposed to be little different from a well-run household. A major complaint against King Richard II of England (1367–1400; ruled 1377–99) was that he did not manage finances like a good housekeeper. Monastic institutions were organized like households, as were schools and colleges, partly because some of them were schoolmasters' homes and partly because the model seems to have been inescapable.

Only the elite classes in cities enjoyed style, comfort, and beauty in housing, furnishings, and food. Italy was in the forefront of quality of life among the well-to-do. For example, towns in northern Europe did not change their building materials from wood to stone until the sixteenth century. The Italians began building with stone in the Middle Ages, however, and brought the process to a high standard with the construction of Renaissance palaces in the fifteenth century. Around that time elaborate and beautiful ceramic dinnerware, which was less expensive and improved the taste of food, replaced metal plates of the earlier period. Table manners first emerged among the Italians, along with relatively refined cookery, which then made its way to France from about 1550 onward. The urban poor lived less well, showing evidence of the growing gap between the rich and the poor in cities.

The urban poor lived in terrible conditions, as can be seen in inventory records made of their possessions after death. A typical poor person had a few low-quality eating utensils, a blackened metal cooking pot, frying pans, dripping pans, and a board for kneading bread. …