Daily Life

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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. Other personal belongings included a few old clothes, a stool, a table, and a bench that also doubled as a bed, perhaps with a few sacks of straw serving for a mattress. Items such as these furnished life in crowded rented rooms, which were generally dark and dirty and located on the upper floors of buildings—floors reserved for the poor. The homeless poor lived in shantytowns (assemblies of small, temporary homes)—in 1560 in Pescara, Italy, for example, four hundred people out of a population of two thousand lived in such conditions. In Genoa, Italy, the poor sold themselves as galley slaves (people who manned oars on large ships called galleys) every winter. In Venice, destitute people lived in small boats near quays (platforms along banks) or under bridges of canals. In each city the poor lived with fleas, lice, and other pests. Poverty and destitution were visible everywhere.


In Renaissance society, marriage was the foundation of the household and kinship, which in turn were the foundations of society and the state. In most parts of Europe, starting a household and beginning married life were essentially the same thing. Kin were very aware of their connections by blood and by marriage, which was an instrument for extending and strengthening kinship. Marriage alliances between ruling families sealed peace treaties and sometimes created empires.

All religions agreed on the value of marriage to prevent sinful sexual behavior. Marriage was a spiritual and respected institution. In 1439 it was officially declared a sacrament, or religious obligation, of the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants believed marriage to be a relationship singularly blessed by God. Unlike Catholic priests, who could not marry and took vows of chastity, Protestant ministers were encouraged to get married. Until the Reformation, the church, not the state, legally defined and oversaw marriage.

Finding a partner

Although a fairly large number of people remained single, marriage was considered the normal lot of ordinary people. In addition to religious celibates (those who choose not to have sexual relations in order to please God), the unmarried included those who could not afford marriage and those who were social outcasts (perhaps due to a physical or mental handicap or deformity). Marriages tended to be among people of similar social and financial backgrounds, and were usually limited to the local area. In rural villages and urban neighborhoods courtships developed from the contacts of daily life. Marriage was different for the very wealthy. Young people of higher status were more closely supervised, and the marriage pool for them had to be wider if they were to be wisely matched. Members of the highest nobility married people from other regions or even other countries. For them courtship took place only after a mate had already been selected by parents or other kin. Such arrangements could be protested and called off, but this rarely happened. In lower classes the choice of a mate was sometimes made by young people, but the selection was subject to parental approval. These selections were rarely rejected by the parents, but the church often had a say in the approval of a prospective marriage. For those in the nobility, political alliance through marriage was important, and there was often the danger of marrying someone close in the bloodline. The Protestant church reduced the number of forbidden marriages (by both blood relation and marriage ties), while the Catholic Church kept all of its limitations but often gave permission to couples who were distantly related.

Although sexual intimacy before marriage was not condoned, a number of lower-class women were pregnant at the time of their weddings. Village youth groups, which had some control over marriage choices, discouraged what they considered to be inappropriate matches. Marriages that might be objected to were those in which there was a wide age difference or in which one of the parties was an outsider. Typically, even these marriages would be agreed upon if both parties were serious about marrying. In upper classes the bride was rarely pregnant at the time of marriage, and the rituals of courtship were highly formal. Traditional gifts were exchanged and the man was expected to assume the role of "servant" to the woman, who was his "mistress." These terms were simply part of the formality of courtship and the wedding itself, however; after marriage, the man became the master of the household and the woman generally possessed very little power.

Betrothal is binding

Courtship led to betrothal, an important stage in the process of getting married that began to lose its central place only toward the end of the seventeenth century. It was often a formal ceremony that might be performed in front of a priest at the church door. Betrothal bound the couple in a relationship that could be broken only by mutual consent, which was supposed to be as public as the betrothal itself. The legal difference between a betrothal and a wedding was not easy to understand, and church lawyers wrestled with it for a long time.

In most cases, betrothal led directly to marriage after an interval of a month or two. There were some exceptions. For instance, betrothals sometimes lasted for years, or one of the parties in an informal betrothal might go back on his or her word. One party in a formal betrothal could refuse to break it at the request of the other. A pregnant woman might insist that she was actually married since she was betrothed to the man with whom she had conceived her unborn child. Perhaps the hardest case was one in which a woman sued a man who, she claimed, promised to marry her. The courts had to decide if a betrothal had occurred. Such cases were known as "clandestine marriages" and took up much of the time in church courts. In the sixteenth century, after the split between the Catholic and Protestant churches, both churches focused more on the vows exchanged during marriage, but betrothal remained important.

Marriage: A Business Agreement

The idea of marrying for love is relatively new, and rarely was it the reason for marriage during the Renaissance. While there were probably romantic couples like Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers in Shakespeare's play, marriage was first and foremost a business arrangement. For centuries, throughout world cultures, marriage was the decision of the family (usually the father, although the mother would typically have some say) and not of the individuals getting married. Marriage negotiations between families might extend over weeks or months and were more complicated among the higher social classes. The most common concerns discussed during these negotiations were the dowry contributed on the bride's side and how the possessions of the couple would be distributed after death. The dowry was a financial offering made by the parents of either the bride or the groom, a tradition that is almost as old as history itself. The family of the bride would be particularly concerned about her financial support in the event of the husband's death. Most widows (women whose husbands have died) would receive a contribution (known as a dower in England) from the husband's side of the family. The details were spelled out in a contract. If the bride and her family did not make specific agreements about such issues, the bride could possibly have to return home and be supported by her birth family. For her parents this could be an undesirable and economically difficult situation.

Church wedding required

Wedding ceremonies varied widely. Some took place in church or, more often, at the church door. Some were held in private homes. In much of Italy, the "wedding" consisted of so many steps that it is hard to know which one actually resulted in a legal marriage. It may have been the appearance before a notary (a public officer who certifies legal documents), who recorded what he witnessed. Each region had its own version of the words that were traditionally spoken. In general, the couple agreed to be husband and wife and, in many versions, the bride's father gave his daughter into the keeping of the bridegroom. There were symbols like the ring and gestures like the kiss. One common gesture was the clasping of hands, which was a synonym for a wedding (or a betrothal) in many places.

Until the middle and late sixteenth century, the legal requirements for marriage were a confusing combination of canon (church) law, decrees from the church, and local civil laws. Then the church became a legal part of the marriage ceremony. Most Protestant towns and governments adopted ordinances requiring a wedding to take place in a recognized church in the presence of a minister. Similarly, the Catholic Church defined a valid marriage as one in which consent was exchanged in front of a priest and other witnesses. It may be that of all the religious changes of the Reformation period, those that most affected ordinary people were in marriage practices.

Many wedding customs and celebrations remained unchanged. The signing of the marriage contract, when there was one, preceded or closely followed the exchange of vows. There were processions to or from the church, there were communal meals with traditional foods, and there were dances, music, and songs. All of these activities often took place out of doors with many participants. On higher social levels there was a trend toward more private and more restrained weddings. Church authorities were generally in favor of eliminating all elements of paganism (religions native to areas before the spread of Christianity) and superstition in wedding celebrations. Protestant authorities in particular attempted to ban noise, music, and dancing. Yet the Roman Catholic Church had long disapproved of weddings that were too private, and discouraged such aristocratic practices as midnight ceremonies in private chapels. Class differences continued, but the popular practices that were most offensive to church officials gradually disappeared.

A small number of couples eloped (married without their parents' knowledge), usually because of parental disapproval. Since the Roman Catholic Church never required parental consent, an elopement was acceptable in the religious and legal sense. Nevertheless, it was often looked down upon in society. Many Protestant ordinances required parental consent, especially for people under a certain age. No matter how strict regulations became, however, there were always couples who managed to avoid them.

Married life

According to the common view of married life, the husband was superior to the wife. After the period of courtship, in which the male suitor was a servant to the female, the man became the master of the household. Women had few legal rights. Scholars generally agree, however, that women were usually treated well and enjoyed a degree of equality with their husbands. A man may have had authority over his wife, but he was expected to provide for her, protect her, treat her kindly, and make sure she was taken care of in the event of his death. In addition, individual relationships created different types of marriages. If a man was much older than his wife, there tended to be more inequality, as was the case in many upper-class marriages. In the lower classes there was likely to be less of an age gap, and the husband and wife had usually both worked as servants before they married. Therefore they had a basis for a relationship. In practice, many marriages were economic partnerships. Rural wives in particular did work in the household and on the land that complemented the work of their husbands. Men frequently depended on their wives' judgment and ability more than they might admit. Some literate upper-class men expressed admiration for their wives and confessed to being at a loss in household affairs after their wives' deaths. Husbands' wills sometimes gave considerable power to their widows.

Infidelity: a double standard

While love was not commonly considered a proper basis for marriage, the feelings that developed between a woman and a man once they were married—as they lived together and shared responsibilities—often came to include love and affection. Many couples worked together, were active parents, and were also bed-fellows. Sexual pleasure was an important aspect of marriage, but it had to be kept within bounds. Husbands and wives were expected to satisfy one another sexually, something called the "conjugal debt." Sometimes cases were brought to ecclesiastical (church) courts by spouses who complained that the debt was not being paid.

Muslim Women Keep Dowries

During the Renaissance and Reformation period, the man was considered the master of the household. A wife was therefore subservient to her husband, and laws and religious customs supported this inequality. No matter how large a dowry a wife had brought into a marriage, the husband assumed control of it. Generally speaking, wives could not act for themselves either in law or in commerce. It is important to note, however, that this was true of Christian marriages but not of Muslim marriages. In Islamic law, found in the Koran (the holy book for Muslims, followers of Islam), women kept their dowries and had a greater level of economic control than their Christian sisters. Islam was not tolerated in most of Europe, especially after the Crusades (Christian religious wars against Muslims) of the Middle Ages and the expulsions of Muslims and Jews from Spain in 1492.

Religious writers warned that too much sex in a marriage was just as dangerous as adultery. Adultery is defined as a married person having a sexual relationship with a person other than his or her spouse, and it was considered a serious sin. Both husbands and wives were capable of cheating on their spouses, but the infidelity of a woman was considered the greater of the two evils. Secular and civil laws alike reflected this attitude. The double standard became a strong part of Christian culture at this time. Wives of husbands who cheated were expected to endure the infidelity as long as it was conducted in private. Husbands who allowed themselves to be betrayed by their wives, however, were publicly mocked and scorned. One of the worst social insults was to be called a "cuckold" (a man whose wife is unfaithful). From every indication, wives were rarely unfaithful, and the few who were found guilty were severely punished. The unlikelihood of a woman committing adultery did not prevent male jealousy from being one of the most common themes in Renaissance literature.

Divorce not condoned

Most marriages did not end until one of the partners died. Yet marriages rarely lasted long because the death rate was so high. It was not uncommon for men who married in their late twenties to die in their forties. Furthermore, many women died in childbirth after only a few years of marriage. Some couples separated before death. Divorce was not available as a real option, though some Protestant jurisdictions allowed it. The Catholic Church allowed legal separation ("divortium"), and most Protestant authorities preferred separation to outright divorce, in which remarriage was permitted. The usual ground for separation was adultery, and few believed that a person who had committed adultery should remarry. Other grounds included abuse, but it was not easy for ordinary people to be granted permanent separations.

People in power had more options. Especially when policy seemed to require a new marriage alliance, a ruler might ask for an annulment, which stated that a legal marriage never existed. An annulment was often granted on a variety of grounds. Among them were lack of consent on the part of one party or another, and the lack of freedom to marry in the first place because of blood relations between the parties. But an annulment for a marriage that had existed for several years and produced children was always a problem. The most famous annulment of this period was the "divorce" of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, the king and queen of England (see "England" in Chapter 3). When the pope would not grant Henry's request for an annulment, Henry broke away from the Catholic Church and founded the Church of England. Some marriages of lesser folk were annulled fairly easily, usually because they had never been consummated (the couple had not had sexual relations).

People tended to stay in unhappy marriages, but some took the most direct route to divorce: desertion. It was usually men who deserted. A wife was left in the position of being one who had lost a husband but was still married and unable to remarry. The lack of communication among different regions made it possible for the husband to go elsewhere and re-marry without his wife ever finding out. If it was discovered that one of the parties was married to two people, the later marriage was annulled and the offending party was severely punished.

Remarriage is frequent

The normal way of looking at marriage was that it was a union of young people who had never been married before. Yet many people, perhaps 20 percent of the population, were married for the second or third time because of death in previous marriages. A widower (a man whose wife has died) was likely to marry again after a fairly short interval. A widow (a woman whose husband has died) was somewhat less likely to re-marry, but much depended on age and circumstances. Families were often eager to use young widows to form desirable new alliances, but some more mature widows clung to autonomy they had never enjoyed before in their lives. Second marriages generally had much less festivity surrounding them, and the ceremonies even eliminated certain solemn sayings. Second marriages were often the source of social mocking as well, especially in France.

Childbirth and infancy

Even though birth and infancy were common to all in the Renaissance, very little firsthand information is available because women did not write about the subject and men were seldom witnesses. Previously untapped sources, like church records and burials, have recently given some valuable information about the experiences of ordinary people. What is clear is that birth and infancy were filled with danger, especially for the child.

Midwives assist childbirth

The most important attendant at a birth was the midwife (one who assists in the delivery of a baby). She was typically of a social rank not far removed from that of the mother and was generally an older woman who had already given birth to several children of her own. Her skills were greatly respected, even by physicians. She was trained by a practicing midwife, who passed along her knowledge much as masters trained apprentices (young men who learned a trade from a craftsman). Midwives were often the target of men's suspicions about secret activities involving women. They were sometimes feared as witches who might give the soul of the child to the devil before the child could be baptized (initiated into the Christian religion by being anointed with water by a priest).

The basic techniques of midwives seem to have worked well in most births. The woman in labor was encouraged to sit up and bear down to ease the passage of the baby through the birth canal, often using a birthing chair. Some problem births were handled effectively. Midwives knew how to turn infants who were incorrectly positioned. Complications that could be dealt with only by using instruments required the intervention of a surgeon—however, this usually meant the child would not survive. If the birth canal was blocked, a surgeon used hooks and knives to remove the infant in pieces. Cesarean sections (the removal of a child from the womb by making an incision in the mother's abdomen) were performed only if the mother died and there was a chance of saving the infant.

Men, Childbirth, and Medical Knowledge

Women gave birth in the company of many women. It was an occasion for the gathering of relatives and neighbors, not only to give help and comfort but also to make social contact. This custom went across geography and class. Even medical men were completely excluded, and thus their knowledge of childbirth was mainly drawn from books rather than observation. While men were generally forbidden from taking part in birthing, male painters frequently depicted birth scenes, usually as part of cycles on the lives of saints. (A cycle, or series, of paintings would cover the birth, life, miracles, and death of a holy figure.) These paintings cannot be considered accurate but do show the presence of many women. While men did not attend the actual birthing, many physicians attempted to improve the safety of the process. The first medical work on childbirth written since antiquity was a manual for pregnant women and midwives by the German physician Eucharius Rosslin. First published in 1513, it was printed in England three decades later as The Burth of Mankynde. The work was translated into other languages and republished many times until the end of the seventeenth century. Rosslin's aim was to combine medical knowledge taken from classical antiquity with what he could find out about midwives' methods. His goal was to improve the childbirth process, not replace midwives. The emergence of male midwives, or obstetricians, came much later.

Although the danger of death in childbirth was great, most women survived and gave birth many times. Nevertheless, many writers, mostly male, expressed a fear of childbirth. They spoke of illness, pangs, torment, even "pains of hell" and "snares of Death." The main cause of childbed death was probably infection, usually a consequence of a hand or an instrument being inserted into the birth canal. For example, a midwife might attempt to remove a placenta (organ that connects the fetus to the mother's uterus) that had not been expelled. This kind of contact probably caused most cases of postpartum (after birth) illness and death. In such cases a woman who had a seemingly normal delivery could develop a prolonged fever, and death would come within a month.

Feeding infants

The normal food for newborns was human milk. Most mothers breast-fed their babies, particularly in the lower classes. A few lower-class babies could not be nursed by their mothers, who had either died or were ill. Some infants were fed animals' milk or wheat gruel (a liquid substance made of wheat grain and water or milk). Breast-feeding by the mother had the enthusiastic approval of respected authorities. The medical profession recommended it, and the clergy was strongly in favor of it. The Italian theologian Saint Bernadino of Siena (1380–1444), among others, preached against women who neglected their breast-feeding duty in order to indulge in sinful behavior, such as vanity and sensuality. These were common themes in many sermons of the time. The image of the nursing Madonna (the Virgin Mary; mother of Jesus of Nazareth) became a central theme of Renaissance art.

Wet-nursing a thriving business

In spite of the overwhelming approval of maternal nursing, many mothers of the upper classes hired wet nurses to breast-feed their babies. A thriving business, wet-nursing may be the best-documented part of infancy in the Renaissance. The typical wet nurse was a married peasant woman whose own infant had died. If her child was not dead she might decide to suckle it along with an additional infant, but that was a highly unlikely and undesirable situation. Wet nurses usually stayed in their own homes, so situations frequently arose where an infant was sent to live in a strange house more modest than that of his or her parents. A few exceptionally wealthy families kept at least some of their infants, most often their sons, at home, with a wet nurse living with the family. This assured that the infant would get the nurse's undivided attention and would be well rested and well nourished.

Renaissance society expressed mixed feelings toward wet-nursing. Writers who recommended that mothers nurse their own babies also offered advice on how to select wet nurses. The reasons for using wet nurses were fairly complex. Christian moralists thought wet nurses could prevent marital infidelity (having sexual relations with a person who is not one's spouse) on the part of the husband, which was a risk because nursing mothers were not supposed to be sexually active. The prospect of uninterrupted sexual relations was appealing to couples, but this meant that wives would become pregnant more often. There seems to have been a feeling, rarely expressed directly, that a nursing woman was reduced to subhuman status. While breast-feeding may have been acceptable for common women (who could not afford wet nurses anyway), it was not appropriate for women of higher status. Whether these ideas were consciously held by all people in the privileged classes is not known, but it is clear that they routinely avoided having to deal with such issues.

Many upper-class women had mixed feelings about hiring a wet nurse. The practice of avoiding nursing stood in stark contrast to the artistic images showing the Virgin Mary breast-feeding the baby Jesus. There were other sources of ambivalence as well. Milk was thought to carry with it character and personality traits, so that a baby was formed as much by breast milk as by the environment of the womb. The Italian artist Michelangelo (1475–1564) joked that he became a sculptor because his nurse was a stonecutter's wife. It was assumed by some that a baby could take on the undesirable peasant characteristics from its nurse.

The business of wet-nursing operated in much the same way throughout western Europe. The father chose the nurse and made a contract with her husband, who received regular payments. Some cities had nurses' registries (places where nurses would register their services), which were privately run or under government control. The best-known registry was founded in Paris before 1350. Like a careful father, a registry was supposed to check that nurses were of good moral character and had pleasant dispositions. Their milk was tested and judged as to thickness, color, and taste. One function of registries was to provide nurses for foundlings (abandoned babies) and orphans in the care of religious institutions or municipalities.

Mortality rate is high

Life was precarious for newborns. The infant death rate remained more or less constant throughout the Renaissance. Between 20 and 40 percent of all babies died before their first birthday. At that age they still had only a 50 percent chance of surviving past the age of ten. These figures applied to all classes. The main reason for this widespread phenomenon was that infants had difficulty fighting off illness. In addition, infants' digestive and respiratory systems are less able to withstand environmental hazards like extremes of weather and impure water. Poverty added more dangers, such as malnourished nursing mothers. Poor orphans were exposed to the worst hazards in the crowded houses of overworked, inattentive wet nurses. Even the better conditions of the rich could not prevent the overwhelming dangers of infant diseases.

How infants were treated is difficult to determine. Some experts believe that the high mortality rate was due to parents investing little or no emotion into their children. Others claim that it is difficult to know how specific parents felt as the historical record gives little indication of the personal feelings of grieving parents. Many children were certainly showered with love and attention, and the parents were overcome with grief in the event of death. What is left out of history is how the mother felt, because first-hand accounts of women's lives are lacking. People seem to have accepted to a large degree the inevitability of frequent death. Some families even reused the name of a dead infant for another child. The tenderness shown in artists' images of the infant Jesus could have reflected an attitude toward babies in general. There was much concern that a baby be baptized as soon as possible to avoid the risk of its soul remaining in limbo (place where the unbaptized remain after death) for eternity should it die prematurely.

Care of infants

Soon after birth a baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes, an intricate arrangement of cloth that kept the arms and legs straight and the body warm and easy to handle. For most children the clothes were changed from time to time, but there was frequent changing of clothes for babies under the care of live-in nurses in well-to-do homes. Breast-feeding lasted at least a year, sometimes more than two years. The preferred food for weaning, before the child switched to a regular adult diet, was a mixture of fine white wheat and water, which the child was fed with a spoon.

Supervision of infants was not so concentrated as it is today. Most children lived in small houses and were placed in cradles by the fire until they reached an age where they could get around by themselves. The mother, a servant, or an older child would keep an eye on the baby while going about other tasks. Swaddled infants were often victims of fatal accidents. They were burned after being placed too near unwatched fires or smothered when sleeping in large beds with adults. Poor people often slept in the same bed with their infants out of convenience and warmth, and "over-laying" (that is, people turning over onto babies) was often listed as a cause of infant death. In larger houses there were usually servants to mind the children. No historical records suggest that the home, rich or poor, was child-centered. Wealthier children were better fed and safer, but they were no more visible, since they spent most of their time in the world of women that men had little to do with. Once out of swaddling clothes, babies were not encouraged to crawl freely or walk without walkers or leading strings (similar to leashes). Poorer children were probably subject to less control. Untended children who could walk might knock over (and be burned by) scalding liquids, fall into ditches, or be attacked by animals. The lives of Renaissance children, mainly boys, did not enter into historical record until they were older, which makes it nearly impossible to know much about the earliest stages of life.


Children were important primarily because there were so many of them. During the Renaissance more than half the population was under twenty-five, an age distribution not unlike many of the developing countries in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They were also the instrument of one of the fundamental organizing principles of Renaissance society: inheritance. Young people were often treated in contradictory ways. They were expected to be obedient and respectful, yet once they had survived infancy, the difficulty of taming their rebelliousness and transforming them into moral beings proved a constant challenge.

Meaning of childhood

Childhood was commonly thought to begin at age seven and end at fourteen. Children under seven, the stage known as "infancy," belonged to the world of women. After seven, children were regarded as capable of being instructed. In some places the laws considered children under fourteen to be capable of committing adult crimes. Confirmation (conferring the gift of the Holy Spirit) and first communion (service in which bread and wine are symbolic of the body and blood of Christ) took place between the ages of seven and fourteen. Many children started to work before the age of fourteen. Some boys were legally declared "emancipated" (released from parental control) as young as nine, and some were required to bear arms in times of war at an even younger age.

Historians have disagreed about the experience of childhood in this period. At the time it was thought that children had to be tightly controlled to prevent them from acting on their impulses. Moralists claimed that great effort was needed to tame children's wildness, which resulted from original sin (the human condition of being sinful at birth). Dealing with children was assumed to be a battle of wills, in which the only good outcome was their surrendering to authority. Children also needed protection against the forces of evil. The devil's work (evil) was closely associated with sexuality. Some scholars note that children were not protected from exposure to coarse and blasphemous language, or to gambling and excessive drinking. Such behavior was impossible to avoid in ordinary village and town life and in the confines of most houses. In spite of this environment, sexual activity outside of marriage was considered the most sinful behavior. Apart from the household, most institutions intended for children were segregated by gender.

Upbringing depends on class

While many variations existed depending on the social class of a child's family, play was a part of childhood at all social levels. The few toys that have survived look much like the balls, sticks, hoops, dolls, and marbles of later times. There were occasional references in writing to games, and it is unlikely that children played by themselves. Children of the poor who lived in very small houses probably did most of their playing out of doors. Some experts have claimed that children were raised in households where they received little love and attention, yet many writers in the Renaissance period frequently told parents to stop spoiling their children. It was thought that children needed to be raised in a disciplined and controlled manner. While it was commonly believed that the lower classes were most likely to spoil children with love and attention, Thomas More (c. 1478–1535), the prominent English humanist, was one example of a cultured person admitting to loving his children dearly.

Many children were motherless, fatherless, or completely orphaned. Relatives took orphans into their homes, sometimes in spite of not wanting to do so. It remains uncertain whether life for orphans was more difficult than life for other children. The most deprived children were those who were abandoned and left to be raised in foundling homes like the Ospedale delgi Innocenti (Hospital of the Holy Innocents) in Florence. Some of these homes were run by religious orders, while others were under the control of local government.

Training and education

Serious training started around the age of seven and usually took place within a household. Peasant children of both sexes started helping around the house even before they were seven. One form of early work was looking after younger children. In wealthy households children were likely to pass from wet nurses into the hands of governesses (women hired to care for children) and tutors (male teachers). As in peasant households, training was determined by gender differences. Girls learned needlework and basic household management skills, while boys were taught horsemanship and hunting. At the age of five, six, or seven, some boys and girls began formal schooling, whether inside or outside the home. The form (whether in Latin or a native language) and extent of education depended on the economic and social status of the family, the sex of the pupil, the expectations of parents, and the availability of schooling.

In northwestern Europe both urban and rural children commonly left home. Peasant children of both sexes often went to live in other peasant households and sometimes to great country houses or to better-off urban ones. Some children became apprentices with craftsmen or, if they were of the appropriate social rank, with merchants of professionals like physicians and lawyers. At the highest social levels children entered the houses of great nobles or princes. There was no set age at which children left home, and the length of time spent away from home depended on various factors. Peasant children might return after a year or two, spend some time working at home, and then leave again. Apprenticeships usually lasted for several years and generally meant a permanent separation from home. People who took in children also took on the educational and disciplinary roles of the children's parents. Arrangements with craft masters were usually made by the children's parents. In one form or another, this experience was common up and down the social scale. In Italy, upper-class families were less likely to send their children away from home. Even craft apprentices in Italy tended to work with their own fathers or with masters in the same town and continued to live at home.

Religion and Childhood

Children started learning about religion at a very early age, often from women. The heads of larger households led regular morning and evening prayers. In wealthy households a chaplain led prayers. The pressure to make religion a part of the household routine became even greater after the Reformation. Many believed that stories from the Bible should replace the traditional fairy tales and stories that were usually told to children. Humanist advisers of women held that the reading of stories distracted from religion and morality. After the Reformation, disapproval of stories based on superstition intensified under both Catholics and Protestants, but their criticism did little to change tradition. Parents would remember how the stories had moved or even frightened them as children and would pass them along to their own children.

Books on courtesy and etiquette (proper manners) give an idea of the elaborate code of behavior expected of nobles who frequented the courts of the powerful people. These books were directed at young boys and stressed the importance of good manners and the skills of serving a noble lord at the table. The sons and daughters of gentlemen learned a great deal at court. They also formed links between their families and the families they served and made valuable contacts for their own later careers. Fathers who chose not to give their sons this experience were thought to have done them a great disservice.


The transition from childhood to youth during the Renaissance is difficult to define. Almost everything that has been said about childhood also relates to youth. Youths were still expected to be respectful to elders and obedient to authority. In spite of this, the signs of physical maturity made a difference. These signs seem to have appeared fairly late, past the conventional age marker of fourteen. Research suggests that this was true not only of menstruation in girls but also of the development of voice change and facial hair in boys.

Strength, health, and beauty were youthful characteristics that were praised and envied. Adults tended to be nostalgic about their own youth. Many remembered it as a carefree time rather than one of obedience and hard work. In reality, most master craftsmen made their apprentices do full-scale, difficult projects without paying them. Another characteristic of youth was irresponsibility. Sports and games became more rambunctious, especially when combined with drinking and gambling, activities specifically forbidden in apprenticeship contracts. Youth groups organized seasonal celebrations, often following tradition, and supervised courtship behavior. Courtship was similar to modern-day dating, but with more elaborate rules and customs. Membership in such groups was generally limited to unmarried males, which was the definition of "youth."

For most people of both sexes, being a servant was equated with youth. The conventional view was that servants were both young and single. If they had not left home before the age of fourteen, they were likely to do so shortly afterward. Especially in the countryside the period of service could go on for many years and usually consisted of a series of relatively short stays with different masters. Servants were able to move freely from village to village, town to town, and, for females especially, from rural areas to urban ones. These servants were not independent but were always forced to rely on their employers. Young people's apprenticeships sometimes continued well into their twenties and was the form of service with the most well-defined rules. Stereotypes of apprentices—that they were abused by masters or that they were difficult to control—repeated the stereotypes of youth in general. For some young people the stereotypes were true, but for most they were not.

The end of youth came only with a change in legal status. Not surprisingly, youth was the time for courtship. The primary entry into adulthood was marriage, which brought with it a certain degree of autonomy, or independence. It usually coincided with the end of apprenticeship and other kinds of service, for men and women alike. Women, however, did not achieve the same legal autonomy. They passed from childhood to the dependency of wifehood. Some men chose not to marry and passed from childhood to an adulthood of partial dependency in monasteries (religious houses for men). Some men became technically autonomous without getting married if their fathers chose to emancipate them. Age did not define adulthood, but marriage certainly terminated childhood and youth.

Food and drink

Although the basic outlines of the Renaissance diet would be familiar to anyone living today, the way Europeans thought about food and drink was quite different. Patterns of fasting (abstaining from food) and feasting were set by the Christian calendar. A system of medicine, concentrating on "humors" (body fluids, such as blood) taken from the Greeks, informed their ideas about what food was healthful to eat (see "Medicine" in Chapter 10). Banqueting was the courtly ideal of dining, whereas the masses ate simple meals and plain food.

Bread is basis of diet

Bread was the single most important item in the European diet for all social classes. It was not only central to the Christian religion in the form of the Eucharist (communion), but it was also the principle agricultural product and a staple of all meals. Wealthier Europeans preferred fine bread made of carefully bolted (or sifted) wheat flour. Less refined brown bread containing more bran and sometimes including barley or rye—and in times of need, beans or chestnuts—was eaten by the lower classes. Typically, before the use of individual plates, bread served as a platter for holding other food. Cooked grains were also central to the diet and were easier and cheaper to prepare because they did not require a bread oven. In the south various forms of porridge were made of cooked barley or millet (grass made into a grain). In the north, spelt (a form of wheat) or oatmeal was used more commonly. People living in extreme poverty used vetches (vegetable-bearing plants) and lupines (a type of flower-bearing herb) instead of grains. Rice had been introduced into the European diet relatively recently.

The most common drink in southern Europe was wine, and entire regions were devoted to the production and trade of wine. Monasteries, whose monks made wine for use in the Catholic mass, maintained many of the oldest vineyards. Although the majority of wines were locally manufactured and consumed, there was a large export trade from regions such as Bordeaux (in the south of France). Expensive sweet wines were also imported from Crete (an island off the coast of Greece) and Madeira (islands in the North Atlantic belonging to Portugal). Stronger spirits, such as aqua vitae (an alcoholic liquid for medicinal purposes), brandy, and whiskey were also available. In northern Europe beer or ale was the most common beverage, and many households brewed their own. In some regions, such as Normandy (in France) and the southwest of England, cider pressed from apples was the usual drink. In eastern Europe, mead, one of the earliest types of an alcoholic drink, was made from fermented honey. Water was rarely consumed by itself, probably for fear of contamination, though it was typically mixed with wine. Whether the water was meant to dilute the wine or the wine to improve the water was a matter of debate in the Renaissance.

The preferred form of fat is another major distinction between southern and northern European diets in the Renaissance. Olive oil dominated in the south and butter in the north. Because it is an animal product, however, butter was not supposed to be used during Lent (a forty-day period—it used to be forty weekdays—separating Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, during which Christians are supposed to fast and pray). There was a conscious effort to enforce the use of olive oil in the north during Lent. Animal fats such as pork or goose might also be a central part of the diet in certain regions.

Diet for Rich and Poor

Renaissance Europeans were unique in comparison with the rest of the world's peoples because of the amount of meat and fish they ate. The relatively small human population left ample space for raising herds of cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep. Flesh was eaten by all classes, though in more variety and in larger quantities by the wealthy. Workers in sixteenth-century Flanders (now a region in Belgium) ate rye bread, peas, beans, and cured herring (a type of fish). When the poor ate meat, it was salted (preserved). Tuna fish was also available. The very poor might survive on a diet of two or three pounds of bread a day and nothing else. The rich ate every variety of flesh available—roasted, grilled, or baked meats and fish prepared several ways. Meats would be heaped together on metal plates, called mets in France, and the diners would help themselves. Dinner might consist of as many as eight courses, beginning with meats in broth and ending with fruit. The presentation of food was important only among the higher social classes and usually only on special occasions. Otherwise, quantity was more important than presentation.

Animal products

The most commonly raised domestic animals included cows, sheep, and goats. Their milk was used to make a wide variety of fresh and aged cheeses. When used as meat, these animals were typically eaten while young as veal, lamb, and kid. They could also be consumed at more mature ages. Pigs were important in all parts of Europe, and their meat was preserved throughout the year. Domestic fowl included chickens, duck, geese, and pigeons. Hunting wild game was common, though the privilege to shoot venison (deer) or boar (wild pig) might be reserved for the nobility. Small wild birds such as turtle doves, as well as rabbits, hares, and even hedgehogs were frequently served.

Depending on the location, fish were also extremely important in the European diet. In the Mediterranean, along the Atlantic coasts, and in the Baltic region, fish were either consumed locally or preserved for export. In the north, herring and cod were among the preserved fish, while in the south, anchovies, sardines, and bortago (salted belly of tuna) were prepared. These products were important during Lent, when they could be transported inland. The major river systems provided salmon and trout, and ponds offered a steady supply of fish to an inland community. Whale meat and porpoise were also among the more expensive and elegant foods.

Vegetable products

Fruits and vegetables were an integral part of the European diet, though physicians typically warned against excessive eating of these items. Generally the poorer a family, the greater amount of vegetables they consumed. The sixteenth century was a period of growth. Inflation and a drop in real wages increasingly tightened the average worker's budget, resulting in the family spending more money on cheaper foods. Grains and vegetables became a central, and sometimes only, part of the diet. This change meant less meat was consumed, and it may have been a reason the European diet became increasingly deficient. Some vegetables were specifically associated with lower classes: beans, cabbage, garlic, and onions in particular. Fruits like peaches and melons, on the other hand, were very popular in European courts.

When adding spices, Renaissance cooks depended on native herbs such as parsley, basil, oregano, marjoram (a type of mint), thyme, sage, tarragon, fennel, dill, bay, coriander, sorrel, saffron, and mustard. There was also an active trade in spices from Asia and Africa. Late medieval and Renaissance cooking made liberal use of spices. Spices were expensive because they had to be shipped across Europe, with numerous middlemen handling them, so they became a significant marker of social status. The more heavily one could season a dish, the more wealthy and impressive one would seem. The idea that spices were used to mask the odor of rancid meat makes little sense—anyone who could afford spices could also afford fresh meat. Apart from the spices still used in the twenty-first century, there were a number of others commonly imported. "Grains of Paradise," or melegueta pepper, was brought from the west coast of Africa until the Portugese feared it would cut into their pepper profits and banned its import in the sixteenth century. The importance of spices cannot be overstated, and it should be remembered that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) was primarily looking for spices, not a new world, when he reached the Americas in 1492. Sugar, used liberally as a spice in this period, later formed the backbone of several New World (the European term for the Americas) slave economies, especially in the Caribbean and Brazil. The attempt to find a sea route directly to Asia for spices also inspired the Portugese to travel around the southern tip of Africa. They eventually started colonies in India, Indonesia, and China for the spice trade.

Ideas about food

Attitudes toward food in Renaissance culture were informed by several different traditions. Some diets were basic and simple, while others were extravagant and rich. For the average European, the patterns of feast and fast were set by the seasons and the requirements of the Christian calendar.

Christian calendar

There were many Christian holidays throughout the year, and individual communities might also have celebrated their own patron saints with festivals and feasts. But no celebration better demonstrates the attitude of excess more than carnival, or carne-val, from the Latin word "meat." Generally this festival was designed as a way to consume all remaining meat before Lent, when the eating of meat (except fish) was forbidden. Carnivals were a way to indulge in food, violence, and sex. The festival climaxed in Mardi Gras (fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday) the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent. It often included a staged battle between a fat personification of Carnival bearing sausages and an old thin woman armed with herring, which represented Lent.

The Columbian Exchange

Although many New World food products did not gain wide acceptance until long after the Renaissance, some crops from the Americas made their first appearance in Europe after being introduced by Christopher Columbus and later explorers. Tomatoes, potatoes, corn (maize), peppers, certain types of squash and beans, turkeys, allspice, tobacco, and chocolate are all from the Americas. In many cases they were used in combination with other foods. Corn, for example, was made into polenta, a type of cornmeal mush; potatoes were turned into dumplings. In much of Europe, though, these foods were consciously avoided. Tomatoes did not catch on in Europe for centuries. (Many believed watery vegetables were not meant for human consumption.) Tobacco was also thought to be dangerous by some medical doctors.

In stark contrast to these scenes were the official fasts. Lent, extending forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter (commemoration of Christ's resurrection, or rising from the dead), was the most important though not the only time meat, milk, butter, and eggs were forbidden. One could get permission to break the rules, and this was apparently done somewhat regularly. For instance, beaver's tail and puffin (a seabird) were defined as fish products and therefore suitable for Lent. Otherwise most Europeans did survive on fish and vegetables, but for some this did not involve any hardship. Rare and exotic fish, as well as elaborate varieties of fruit, were common among the wealthy, overshadowing the purpose of Lent as a period of prayer and atonement. Protestants did not observe Catholic rituals for Lent. Nevertheless, some rulers declared periods of "political" Lent, as did Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533–1603; ruled 1558–1603), to prevent the supply of meat from dwindling and its price from soaring.

Nutritional theory

The second major influence on European foods in the Renaissance was nutritional theory. Renaissance physicians used a system they had inherited from the Greeks and Arabs, based on the four humors, or vital fluids, of the body (see "Medicine" in Chapter 10). According to this theory, human health depends on the balance of the humors: blood, phlegm (mucus), black bile, and yellow biles. It was thought that one particular humor was dominant in every individual and determined his or her complexion, or temperament—sanguine (cheerful; relating to blood), phlegmatic (slow; relating to mucus), melancholic (sad; relating to black bile), and choleric (angry; relating to yellow bile). Therefore, Renaissance nutritional experts believed they could classify every food according to the humors and how they might affect the individual.

Animals and plants also have their own complexion. Although there was wide disagreement among nutritionists about how to classify certain foods, flavor was the dominant factor. Spicy, aromatic, and salty foods were all classified as hot and dry and were thought to increase hot and dry (choleric) humors in the body. This diet was thought to be an advantage for people who had an excess of phlegmatic humors, for the food acted as a counterbalance. Sour foods and condiments were considered cold and dry. They were used to treat those with an excess of bile. It is possible that many popular food combinations were originally designed with this in mind. For example, cold and moist pork could be balanced with hot and dry mustard. Sweet dishes (hot and moist) might be balanced with sour (cold and dry) condiments.

Beyond their dominant humors, individual foods were also assigned specific properties: power to open or close the body's passages, aid digestion, cause sweating, and promote sleep. Thus, the order of a meal was considered important. Certain foods should precede other foods; foods that can rot easily, like melons and cucumbers, should never be allowed to rest at the top of the stomach where they might go bad before being digested. The list of rules and the resulting arguments waged in professional circles was endless. Numerous dietary guidelines were published during the Renaissance.

Cookbooks are popular

From the evidence provided by the first cookbooks, food in the early Renaissance was not very different from that of preceding centuries. The only major change was the appearance of distinctly regional styles of cooking, as opposed to the more international character of medieval cuisine. The first printed cookbook was De honesta voluptate (Of honorable pleasure; 1475) by the Italian humanist Bartolomeo Sacchi (1421–1481), who was called Platina. It contains recipes borrowed from a compilation made in the Middle Ages. Platina's recipes reflect medieval influences, such as heavy use of spices and sugar, as well as unique ingredients such as almond milk, rosewater, defrutum (reduced grapes), and verjus (juice of un-ripe grapes). Platina's work, which also contains much nutritional and historical information, was the best-selling book about food during the Renaissance period. It was translated from Latin into Italian, German, and Dutch. A French translation ran through dozens of editions throughout the sixteenth century.

The most detailed cookbook of the Renaissance was the Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, chef to Pope Pius V (1504–1572; reigned 1566–72). Scappi had access to the latest kitchen equipment, and there are detailed illustrations in his book. Among the most recent inventions was the fork. His recipes, which numbered in the hundreds, show Italian food of the Renaissance period breaking away from medieval cuisine. The recipes for pasta and stews are similar to those of today. Apart from cookbooks designed for actual use, several other food-related books became popular. Books about the eating habits of ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as guides for kitchen management and carving also became best-sellers in Renaissance courts.


Clothing and fashion were important in the Renaissance. The economic, social, and political changes of the time were reflected in popular styles—the raising of hemlines for men (and the lengthening of them for women), the shift toward military uniforms, the impact of the Protestant Reformation on clerical dress, and the evolution of class distinctions through clothes. Clothing was central in the shaping of identity, as color, cut, fold, and draping took on great importance. As a result, changes in clothing revealed as much about class distinctions and national character as they did about masculinity and femininity and ideals of beauty.

Clothing trade flourishes

Economic conditions toward the end of the fourteenth century became favorable for the clothing trade. Political stability, greater wealth, and an expanding market made it possible for industries to emerge in Italy and elsewhere based on the production, importation, and exportation of luxury goods and cloths. In Lucca, Italy, silk weaving—which had been introduced by the Jews in the tenth century—expanded considerably after the mid-fourteenth century. Venice benefited from its commercial network and large fleet to import precious silks and textiles (cloth and materials for making cloth) from the East. Silk in general underwent an expansion in Spain and later in France, but Italy remained central for the production not only of silks but of such luxury materials as satins, velvets, taffeta, and eventually lace. Wool and linen would remain the most used fabrics of the age, but the wearing of luxury cloth became such a large part of society that laws were passed to limit the manufacturing and consumption of these fabrics. The main purpose of the laws, called sumptuary laws, was to limit the consumption of luxury items. The laws also determined who could wear what, while regulating the shape and style of garments.

With the increased import of precious metals after Columbus's journey to America, Italy was challenged by new manufacturing and trade centers in the north. These developments resulted in Italy increasing its production and trading in luxury cloths and silks. For northern countries, new manufacturing equipment that had previously been prohibited by old guild regulations began to appear. (Guilds were medieval craft and trade groups that trained apprentices and set standards for production of goods.) First on the scene was the fulling mill (a mill where woolen cloth was processed) and later the knitting machine (invented by William Lee in 1589). At the same time, technological innovations improved processes of weaving and dying. In England, landowners increased their own wool production by turning part of their land into pasture, so wool-bearing animals would have more space to graze.

Elite fashion

Fashion was extremely important to the Renaissance man, especially when he was at court. Every day the fashionable man undertook his dressing with the aid of a servant, who was required to tie up the points (pieces of lace that held a garment together), lace the doublet (a close-fitting jacket), arrange the stomacher (a piece of cloth heavily jeweled or embroidered, worn at the center of the bodice), and fasten the frilled shirt. Costume varied across nations. In general, however, men's long garments—which still prevailed at churches and universities—became much shorter. The surcoat, an outer coat or cloak, went out of fashion in favor of the exposed hose-enclosed leg. Attached to the hose was the pour-pont, a chest-and-waist-fitted doublet made of lined and quilted rich fabric that took many forms and cuts over the years and across regions. Regions, in turn, influenced one another. For instance, when the French king Charles VIII (1470–1498; ruled 1493–98) invad ed Italy in 1494, the French and Italians exchanged clothing styles.

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, Spain began to set standards of fashion that would eventually dominate throughout Europe. The Spanish preferred a simple and somber line of clothing. Softness was replaced by a straight and stiff silhouette, the doublet was designed to emphasize the slimness of the waist, and black became the preferred color for Spaniards. In France, King Henry II (1519–1559; ruled 1547–59) and his court were especially fond of dark hues over-traced with gold, with none of the Italian ornamentation that was usually found in clothing. During the reign of King Henry III (1551–1589; ruled 1574–89), the French briefly returned to the Italian style. Noblemen at the court of King Henry IV (1553–1610; ruled 1589–1610) had to have as many as thirty suits and were expected to change them frequently in order to maintain respectability. It was during this time, especially in Elizabethan England, that the ruff (a large round collar of pleated muslin or linen) around the neck grew increasingly pronounced in size. By 1579, according to one writer, the wearers could barely move their heads.

Women also used a variety of cosmetics, jewels, headgear, and accessories. Queen Elizabeth I, who made clothing a central part of her political strategies, wished to preserve the complexion of a "virgin queen" (nickname given her because she was unmarried). She did so by applying a thick layer of white powder makeup to her already pale face. Accessories became more important than ever, for men as well as women. Earrings, which had disappeared in the Middle Ages, became widely popular, as did handkerchiefs. Gloves were central to fashion and could be made of gold cloth encrusted with hundreds of pearls. Fans, hand mirrors, and elaborately embroidered objects, especially during Elizabeth's reign, completed the costumes that were in essence women's weapons in their social encounters. Prostitutes (women who have sexual relations for money) were given more leeway in dress and ornamentation than their more constricted, domesticated sisters, especially in cities such as Venice. Their dress influenced that of respectable women. Prostitutes often started fads such as wearing high wooden platform shoes—shoes so tall that one commentator described the spectacle as watching a creature of half wood and half woman totter down the street.

Fashion: Elaborate and Uncomfortable

During the Renaissance women's fashion became increasingly elaborate. Sumptuary laws attempted to limit the measurements, the amount of jewel trimming, and the cut of women's clothing. By the end of the fifteenth century, throughout Europe the gown replaced other garments for women except for the elegant surcoat. Both the gown and the surcoat fitted tightly to the upper part of the body while the skirt flowed and trailed on the ground, lengthening the line and accentuating the waist and hips. Necklines could vary—the square neckline came from Italian styles, while Burgundians favored pointed neck openings—and sleeves tended to trail. In the sixteenth century, women, like men, adopted Spanish fashions, most notably the farthingale, hoops worn under a skirt to expand it at the hip. The farthingale was a favorite garment of Marguerite de Valois (1553–1615), queen consort of Henry IV. It could take on many variations and required the building of special high chairs to accommodate the hoops when the woman sat down.

Fashion and the body

Clothing covered the body but it also changed, shaped, squeezed, and exaggerated the human form. For Renaissance men, puffy doublets gave the broad-shouldered appearance of a soldier in armor, while coats were padded with hay and straw at the shoulders. With hose, male legs received new emphasis, as did the waist, which was usually set off by a form-fitting doublet or tightened with a belt. In addition, the increasingly prominent codpiece (a flap or bag concealing an opening in the front of breeches, or pants), which had originated in Germany, exaggerated the male groin area. The shell shape was particularly popular. Women also wore clothing that enhanced or exaggerated their bodies. In sixteenth-century Italy, women "full of flesh" were favored and compared to wine barrels. To emphasize this full-figured ideal, women's clothes were layered with jewelry made of gold, emeralds, and pearls. Following Spanish influences, however, women's waists were gradually squeezed in, leading to increasingly rigid and torturous whalebone bodices that also tightly compressed the breasts.

Clothes of the lower classes

Clothing was simple and tended not to vary much among the lower orders. For peasants, underwear came into use in the thirteenth century. Legs might be bare and feet were uncovered except for a flat sole held by a leather strap wound around the leg. Some peasants in Flanders wore wooden shoes, as did the urban cloth workers in Florence. Women wore skirts and aprons tucked up for work and topped with tight bodices and enveloping cloaks, while men dressed in buttoned jackets, short breeches, and wide-brimmed hats. Material consisted primarily of coarse wool or unbleached linen, while colors were restricted primarily to black (in women's clothing) or dull browns and grays. Those who worked in a luxury industry attempted to imitate the higher classes by wearing velvet on special occasions. In general, however, embellishments to these drab clothes consisted of silver buttons, taffeta (a plain-woven, elegant fabric) scarves, or the occasional muff (a tubular item, normally made of fur, used to warm the hands). Only at the end of the seventeenth century would developments in industrial production offer the lower classes a wide variety of fabric and color. The very poor continued to wear hand-me-down rags or coarse wool garments donated by trade guilds or religious fraternities.

The military look

Fashion in the Renaissance took many elements from the military, from breeches to the wearing of swords, which noblemen wore for ceremonial decoration at court. Beginning in Germany, an obsession for slashes and puffed sleeves moved across Europe and peaked in the sixteenth century. The style was said to have been derived from the tattered clothing of Swiss mercenaries (hired soldiers) returning from a victory against Charles the Bold (1433–1477), duke of Burgundy, in 1476. The Swiss had seized the garments off defeated dead soldiers. The returning warriors found the clothes too tight, so they slashed them or allowed the seams to rip, causing the garments to puff out. Germans, who first noted this look, were responsible in turn for the military-like "lattice" breeches made of wide strips of material and worn by the papal Swiss Guards today. The Thirty Years' War (1618–48) seems to have been especially influential in spreading amongst the larger population the soldier's soft, broad-brimmed hat (which later became the three-cornered tricorn), the broad collar, and the rows of buttons that decorated the seams of trousers.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, armor (a protective metal suit worn in combat) became increasingly unnecessary in the face of changes in warfare, such as the use of massed troops and artillery (guns and cannons). Nevertheless, armor reached new levels of decoration that served more ceremonial than practical functions. In the sixteenth century the master armor maker was Filippo Negroli of Milan, Italy, whose detailed helmets and shields were made for such leaders as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; ruled 1519–56) and King Francis I of France (1494–1547; ruled 1515–47). Negroli drew upon themes in traditional Greek and Roman art. A fourth-generation member of an armor-making dynasty, he specialized in all'antica, a contemporary type of armor fashioned in the style of antiquity that featured images of lions, dragons, and Medusa heads. (Medusa was a monster in Greek mythology who had snakes for hair.) Among the more elaborate of his designs was a helmet that was a kind of monster mask. It consisted of flying batwing cheek pieces, fangs thrusting from the jaw, and a pair of ramlike horns positioned on the top of the head.

Evolution of Military Uniforms

After the sixteenth century the rise of infantry warfare involving masses of men generated a need for uniforms. Early versions of the uniform could be found in the fifteenth century, when Swiss soldiers wore short, brightly colored slashed doublets and tight breeches. Another example could be found in the sixteenth century, when troops in the imperial army in Nuremberg, Germany, wore red coats. Around the same time English soldiers under the duke of Norfolk wore suits of blue trimmed with red. German Landsknechten mercenaries, recruited from the lower orders, pioneered the use of long breeches and cloaks in battle, as well as widened slashes and puffed sleeves. In general, however, uniforms of a more simple and useful variety would not develop until the means of mass production were available at the end of the seventeenth century.

Religious clothing

Popes, cardinals, and other clergy were not immune from embracing the clothing trends of the time. As a result, in 1464 Pope Paul II (1417–1471; reigned 1464–71) issued vestimentary laws (laws relating to the clothes, or vestments, of the clergy) that were intended to regulate occasionally outrageous costumes. Although not typical, Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga (1444–1483) went into debt with his purchase of Turkish floor-length robes of crimson and green damask, various velvets and woven silks, and other garments. In another reaction to these displays, the Italian monk and preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) inspired many "bonfires of vanities" in Florence in the 1490s. These bonfires were ceremonies in which luxury items were burned in protest against the extravagance of the clergy and laity alike. Precious veils and cosmetics, ornaments, and masses of false hair—blonde was the fashionable color—were thrown onto the fires. The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466–1536) also commented upon the increasingly elaborate clothing of the clerical orders. He noted their obsession with girdles, cowls (hoods on cloaks), gowns, and tonsures (a shaved portion of the head, usually the crown). The Protestant Reformation also had an impact on clothing, as white gowns, plain white surplices (long outer garments with open sleeves), and black scarves distinguished men of the new faith.

Theatrical and festive costumes

Festivals, processions, and special events became more frequent in the Renaissance. These events were generated by the increased spending power, princely and civic displays, and a general desire for showmanship. As a result, clothing became more elaborate, especially in the seventeenth century when the masque (a form of drama in which actors used masks) became a fully developed theatrical court genre (see "Court masque" in Chapter 9). The masque was so important in England that the scientific scholar Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) wrote a treatise (study) on the subject. Since performances were always at night and usually illuminated by candlelight, the most flattering colors were thought to be white, carnation (red), or a kind of "sea-water green." Costumes could also be made of "tynsell" (tinsel; sparkling metal thread), beads, and sequins (small disks of shiny metal), and further adorned with gold tassels, gilt bells, fringing, and silver and gold lace. Masks were usually made of velvet and built up to produce a dramatic effect. Foreign visitors often thought the costumes to be outrageous and bizarre.

The French were most noted for the dress displayed at glittering court events, gaining a reputation for spectacles of unparalleled magnificence. In seventeenth-century France, ballets became ways for performers to dress as Indians, Moors, Africans, and Asians. French court members indulged in their own kind of theater by dressing, at special events, as Persian shahs, Turks, rajas (Indian princes), and Native Americans.


Renaissance festivals may be usefully classified in several different ways. Both religious and civic festivals aimed at representing the established order in a favorable light and at creating an impression of harmony and security in the empire. Some festivals took place annually or were organized for unique occasions. Others were popular and folkloric, celebrating a tradition based on a popular myth or folk tale. Many involved elite and learned participants. Some festivals were meant to defy normal religious and social customs, if only for a day. For example, an old tradition in some cities allowed the common people to destroy the canopy under which a religious official had just ridden. At Ferrara, Italy, in 1598, even Pope Clement VIII's horse was taken as a prize by the over-excited crowd.

State occasions

Civic pageantry was also aimed at presenting a unified image of the state and society. Military processions and local ceremonies would often put the head of state and other government officials on display to the people. Foreign ambassadors, delegations of foreign merchants, and representatives of local guilds were often featured as well. These public displays implied a harmony among the various social classes and even among the nations of the Christian world.

Religious Feasts and Processions

The calendar of religious feasts and processions was meant to give a sense of harmony between human history and the universe. When civic officials took part in religious processions, they were showing that spiritual and everyday (called secular, or nonreligious) life were one. An example was the Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) processions in Venice. For Italian city-states, feast days were the equivalent of modern-day celebrations such as Bastille Day in France or Independence Day in the United States. In Florence, symbolic tribute was offered on the Feast of Saint John the Baptist (last Jewish prophet and forerunner of Jesus Christ; June 24), and there were often parades with patriotic floats. In Siena, the Assumption of the Virgin (August 15; the day when the Virgin Mary was believed to have been raised to heaven) was the national holiday. Venice celebrated not only the Feast of Saint Mark (one of Jesus Christ's twelve disciples; April 25), but also several other holidays recalling the saint's connection with the republic.

The routes taken by civic processions similarly suggested an integration of church and state, as well as the link between the ruler and the ruled. Visiting monarchs stopped at city gates to receive greetings from town fathers. Then they proceeded to the local cathedral to be received by the bishop and to make a show of personal devotions. Only after this ceremony were they free to go to the palace where they would be staying. In some cities, such as Naples, Italy, which had five seggi (seats; district governments), monarchs stopped at designated points along the entry route to receive the homage of local authorities. New popes, in their procession to take possession of Saint John Lateran (an ancient basilica, or church), paused to accept the civil allegiance of the Jewish colony in Rome and to confirm its civil rights. New sovereigns in England and France noted messages from various groups in their first grand progress through London and Paris. Official accounts of these processions tended to be positive, and it seems that public enthusiasm was enormous. Awareness of injustices were suspended temporarily as people were caught up in a feeling of civic pride.

Royal and dynastic weddings

Civic unity was also promoted by celebrations of royal and noble weddings. If the bride came from another state or country, joyous entries into the city were part of the ceremony. A series of courtly entertainments usually took place as well. An example was the wedding of the duke of Florence, Cosimo I (1503–1572) and the daughter of the Spanish viceroy (official who represented the king) of Naples in 1539. The union represented a significant political alliance between Spain and Florence. The themes of the entry decorations celebrated this alliance. Courtly entertainments included banquets, indoor pageants, tournaments or other contests of chivalry, fireworks, and (especially in Italy) the performance of comedies. Wedding festivities were, after carnivals, the principal occasion for the staging of comedies. In Ferrara, Italy, for the 1502 wedding of Lucretia Borgia (1480–1519) and Alfonso I d'Este (1486–1534), the comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus (c. 254–184 b.c.) were performed in Italian. Later in the century, original neoclassical comedies in the vernacular (local language), called commedie erudite (learned comedies), were put on in Florence, Mantua, and Ferrara. The first performance of neoclassical comedy in France took place when Queen Catherine de Médicis (1519–1589) visited Lyon.

Elaborate nuptial (wedding) festivities also became common in northern Europe. The wedding of the Danish king Frederick II (1534–1588; ruled 1559–88) in 1572 was celebrated with banquets, a tournament, and a grand passage of the bride through the streets of Copenhagen. The celebrations for the wedding of the Scottish king James VI (also known as James I of England; 1566–1625; ruled Scotland 1567–1625) to Anne of Denmark apparently included the playing of comedies both in Latin and in Danish, first at Oslo, Norway, and then at the Danish court. Northern European courtly entertainments eventually became more elaborate than the Italian, moving toward a lavish style called baroque. In 1634 in Copenhagen celebrations for the wedding of princeelect Christian included a ballet, two musical comedies, and an extremely elaborate display of fireworks. The art of court festivals became an international affair. Italians were often employed in the north, and the English architect Inigo Jones (1573–1652), who had Italian experience, almost certainly designed festival material for Hamburg, Germany, in 1603. English actors performed in Germany and Denmark.

Celebration of Palilia

Humanist professors and students in various cities amused themselves at times by reviving classical festivals or by celebrating events in Roman history. This practice was carried furthest in the Studium (university) at Rome, where in the late fifteenth century Julius Pomponius Laetus and some colleagues renewed observance of the Palilia. The celebration had originally been an agriculture festival but in classical times it also commemorated the anniversary of the building of Rome. In the early years of the revival there was more drinking than eating, with a Latin oration in praise of the city being the central ceremonial element. In 1501 the festivities were moved to the Campidoglio, the ancient Capitolium, and officials from the Vatican and the city government began to participate.

In 1513 the Palilia was the occasion for the most remarkable and learned festival of the Renaissance. The new pope, Leo X (1475–1521; reigned 1513–21), asked the city government to grant honorary Roman citizenship to his brother Giuliano Medici (1479–1516) and his nephew Lorenzo de' Medici (1492–1519). The flattered officials resolved to conduct the proceedings with as much style as possible. Making the citizenship ceremony coincide with the Palilia, they commissioned the construction of an enormous neoclassical theater, with temporary statues and paintings that depicted events in ancient history. Paintings and inscriptions concentrated on the supposedly friendly relations between the early Romans and Etruscans. The Etruscans were ancient peoples who settled the region in central Italy now known as Tuscany, where Florence is located. The Romans and Etruscans were continually at war with one another in ancient times. In the ceremony the Romans were named the symbolic ancestors of the Medicis, while the Etruscans were named the symbolic ancestors of the Florentines. Proceedings included a mass (the only religious element in the ceremony), a Latin oration in praise of Rome and the Medicis, and the presentation of a diploma of citizenship. An elaborate banquet of more than twenty courses was served, a complex pageant was performed in Latin, and Plautus's Poenulus was performed in Latin. Both female and male roles were filled by male students. Afterward the Romans took fierce pride in what they had accomplished. This event was one of the last times Latin was used as the main language in a public Roman celebration. Pope Leo X authorized annual celebrations of the Palilia, but there was never again such splendor.

Festivals of misrule

Festivals that served as protection from popular resentment or as subversions of public order have attracted the attention of historians in recent years. An undoubted ancestor of many Renaissance festivals of this kind can be seen in the Roman Saturnalia, which was celebrated around the time of the winter solstice (beginning of winter; about December 22). During one stage of the ancient feast, the social order was turned upside down. Masters and slaves exchanged clothing, and the masters served the slaves at table.

Feast of Fools

The Feast of Fools (Latin Festum Stultorum, French Fête des Fous, German Narrenfest) was long celebrated in religious communities over most of western Europe. It was held shortly after Christmas, near the time of the old Saturnalia. Hierarchy (social order) was reversed as a young cleric or monastic novice was elected bishop, and things normally held sacred were made fun of, notably in mock masses. Some places observed, more or less in association with the Feast of Fools, a Festum Asinorum (Feast of Asses), in which a donkey was brought into church and both priest and congregation brayed (harsh cry of a donkey) at certain points of the liturgy. High church officials took steps to stop this custom, and by the sixteenth century such celebrations were in decline. Secular festivals of misrule, however, continued to be practiced.

Abbeys of misrule

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, France and other European countries had organizations (especially of young men) that were sometimes called abbeys (kingdoms) of misrule (abbayes de maugouvert in French). These associations elected abbots or kings who led them in a variety of activities for regular festivals like Christmas and carnival. They also led charivaris (shivarees), rowdy events that humiliated men (known as "hen-pecked husbands") who were dominated by their wives. Often the wives themselves took part in the festivities. In sixteenth-century England, among the higher social classes, a court of mis-rule was sometimes convened for Yuletide (period of time before and after Christmas) celebrations. On January 3, 1552, George Ferrars, who was appointed abbot by King Edward VI (1537–1553; ruled 1547–53), staged a mock triumphal entry into London. Abbots could also have official functions, such as meeting foreign delegations. At other times, as a great number of surviving songs and literary works reveal, abbeys were simply agents of good fun. They were not always involved with subversive activities.


By far the most important annual feast of "transgression" was carnival. It was celebrated over most of central and western Europe, at least until the Reformation. Thereafter carnival was suppressed, along with Lent, in some (but not all) Protestant areas. Carnival was originally celebrated on Twelfth Night (the evening of Epiphany, the coming of the Magi after the birth of Jesus), close to the time of the old Saturnalia. During the Renaissance it was confined in most places to the last few days before Lent, whose date varied with that of Easter. Carnival was a period of licensed, authorized celebration of "the world turned upside down." The forms of celebrations varied with local tradition. Masking was perhaps the most common element, though it was periodically forbidden in reaction to various excesses. In really bad times, as at Rome in the years following the Sack of 1527 (invasion by the army of Emperor Charles V), the celebration of carnival was suspended. It was perhaps the most popular of all annual festivals, so people did not give it up easily.

Rome had one of the most elaborate series of carnival entertainments. Setting the annual program was the privilege and responsibility of the city government, the Campidoglio. The program had to be approved by the pope, who would help with expenses. Nearly all events took place in the week between the last two Sundays before Lent. There were several footraces: one for young men, one for Jews, one for old men, and, occasionally, one for prostitutes. There were also horse races, bullfights, and games involving other animals, some of them seeming very cruel to the modern mind. Several games took place on the second Sunday, at a hill called Testaccio outside the city walls. On certain other days contests of chivalry were held for young aristocrats. On Shrove Thursday the main pageant of carnival was held in Piazza Navona, then called the Agone, with a parade that included the single senator and the three conservatori (officials) of the city government, as well as a float depicting historical and mythological figures. Prominent writers and academics planned the floats, and first-rate artists sometimes decorated them.

The Roman celebrations thus included both learned and popular elements, both aristocratic and plebeian (common). While there was much blowing off of steam and relieving of tensions, truly subversive elements were not very visible. The pageant often flattered the reigning pope, as when that of 1536 recreated the triumph of Paulus Aemilius (Pope Paul III; 1468–1549; reigned 1534–49). The masking was no doubt politically risky, and popes forbade disguising for the purpose of mocking the clergy or religious ceremonies. Carnival harassment of the Jews was also strictly forbidden, indicating that such activity was likely to occur otherwise.

Carnivals are more elaborate

Among other Italian carnivals, those in Florence and Venice were especially elaborate. In 1513, the Compagnia del Broncone and the Compagnia del Diamante, companies of young Florentines similar to the abbeys of misrule (see "Abbeys of misrule" section previously in this chapter), staged competing parades through town. The first had chariots portraying golden ages of the past and present (in reference to the recent return to power of the Medici family), and the second showed the three ages of man. Comedies were often performed for carnival in Florence, as in other Italian cities, and there arose a special lyric genre of canti carnascialeschi (carnival songs). These songs were a favorite of Lorenzo de' Medici (the Magnificent; 1449–1492), the city's ruler in the late fifteenth century.

Venice had a particularly long carnival celebration, beginning on Twelfth Night. The official climax came on Shrove Thursday, when the doge (duke) and other officials over-saw a bizarre celebration of a twelfth-century victory over the patriarch of Aquileia. In this ceremony, a bull and three hundred pigs were put on "trial" and executed, after being teased and chased around the piazetta (plaza). In the Piazza San Marco, there were sometimes parades that mocked the official ones of the republic. These festivities were usually performed without any tensions between officials and the people. As in Florence, many carnival activities were carried out by groups of wellborn young men, here called Campagnie delle Claze. These groups sometimes staged pageants in the piazza on specially built platforms. They also held performances of comedies, usually in private houses. Many strangers came into town during the Venetian carnival, both for the spectacles and for the masking, which was performed for free.

The official activity of Italian carnivals was scarcely subversive, and often even supportive of government, but in Germany it was more daring. During the early years of the Reformation, carnival parades and floats in several cities mocked the pope and Roman Catholic clergy. At Nuremberg in 1539, on the other hand, the main float, a ship, made fun of the principal Protestant preachers who were an enemy of carnival pleasures. Nervous city authorities everywhere tried to prevent such embarrassments. Most plays, such as those performed in Nuremberg, usually spared official government institutions and officials from ridicule. The subject matter was usually human failings, such as envy and lust. France offers the exceptional example of a carnival celebration that turned to violence. In the Dauphiné town of Romans, social tensions had been high for some time when in 1580 a group of celebrators took advantage of the confusion of carnival and massacred a large number of reform-minded revelers (carnival participants). Scholars are still unsure whether or not the "upside down" atmosphere of carnivals laid the groundwork for the social, political, and religious revolution of the times.


In the High Middle Ages (eleventh to thirteenth centuries), fairs became a significant feature of economic activity, and by the end of that period they existed in large numbers all over northwestern Europe. Less historical information is available about such events in eastern Europe and Italy. Most fairs were the expansion of a local weekly market into an annual event lasting a few days. Often fairs were held at the same time as the feast of a locally celebrated saint. A much smaller number were celebrated regionally or nationally, sometimes attracting merchants from a foreign country but without becoming a truly international celebration. The English fairs of Saint Ives, Boston, and Winchester, which were visited by Flemish merchants buying wool and selling cloth, are classic examples of this type. The annual cycle of six fairs in Flanders, comprising two at Ypres and one each at Bruges, Torhout, Lille, and Messines, were larger but did not rise much more above a regional status than did their English counterparts. The only true international fairs were the cycle of Champagne (in northeastern France), with two each at Troyes and Provins, and one each at Lagny and Bar-sur-Aube. By the end of the twelfth century these were the most energetic centers of trade in Europe, where Italians exchanged products for northern cloth brought by merchants from the Low Countries, France, and England. These fairs may be singled out also as the only occasions, before the fifteenth century, when money (whether in coin form or international bills of exchange) was a commodity. This feature helped maintain the importance of Champagne fairs until about the 1320s, even though as centers for trade in wares they had been declining for at least forty years before that.

A downturn in the economy in the fourteenth century caused a severe and widespread decline in fair activity. Recovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was patchy and accompanied by change. At first it appeared that Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy, France, might survive as an international successor to the Champagne fairs, but even before 1400 Geneva, Switzerland, had secured that position. For most of the fifteenth century its four fairs, spaced throughout the year, were massively attended by merchants from the Rhineland, the Low Countries, Italy, Spain, and France. Generally these merchants sold goods, bullion (coins), and financial instruments. In 1420 the French dauphin (eldest son of a king of France), later King Charles VII (1403–1461; ruled 1422–61), established fairs at Lyon, in Burgundy. Initially these events benefited from merchants coming from Geneva, Switzerland, but later the two cities became rivals. A turning point came in 1463, when Louis XI (1423–1483; ruled 1461–83) changed the dates of the Lyon fairs to be the same as the Geneva fairs. One early indication of the shift in importance was the transfer of a branch of the Medici bank from Geneva to Lyon in 1465. By the early sixteenth century the former was deeply overshadowed by the latter. The quarterly fairs of Lyon dominated Europe for the greater part of that century. They supported a prosperous trade in merchandise, especially silks and spices, but are best known for their role in the international money market. Loans were arranged there, bills cleared, and interest rates established. By the 1580s financial business was shifting to Besançon, another town conveniently positioned on the borders of France and the Roman Empire. Besançon flourished until well into the seventeenth century, purely as a money fair acting in close cooperation with similar fairs in Piacenza and Genoa in Italy and Medina del Campo in Spain.

Fairs in decline

The major Flemish fairs did not survive into the later Middle Ages and those of the northern Low Countries never became more than local events. In the fifteenth century a cycle of four important fairs was established in Antwerp, Belgium, and Bergen op Zoom in Brabant (now part of the Netherlands and Belgium). The growth of Antwerp as a major international center of trade and finance in the early sixteenth century caused these fairs to decline. Part of the reason fairs existed was that they allowed visitors and temporarily suspended local monopolies, but since Antwerp was an open city in this respect it did not need the fairs. In the early 1560s the English Merchant Adventurers Company, whose cloth trade provided a major stimulus to the fairs in the fifteenth century, tried with little success to restrict its members' business to the traditional fair structure of both towns.

In England many of the smallest fairs simply died out. Others changed their character and even increased their size by specializing in one or two products or types of livestock, often combining this with an annual labor hiring function. Some relics still survive under regional names, though very few retain any of their ancient characteristics. Among the few nationally significant fairs of this period, the most important were those at Bristol, England; at Beverly in Yorkshire, England; and above all at Stourbridge, near Cambridge, England. The last, unheard of in earlier times, flourished until the eighteenth century and was patronized by customers from all over England.

In northern Europe the great fair at Scania, in southern Sweden, survived until the mid-sixteenth century. Although basically considered a herring (a type of fish) fair, it was also a general distribution point for much of the west Baltic region. Apart from Scania, the Hanseatic (German) towns had little use for fairs and their civil ordinances prevented visiting English and Dutch merchants from attending the fairs in northern Germany and Poland. The most important German fair was that of Frankfurt am Main. Scholars still wonder whether this was an international fair, or just an extremely large and successful regional one. Since textiles brought from Italy and southern Germany were sent from the fair to the Low Countries, with English and Dutch cloth distributed in the opposite direction, there seems no reason to doubt its international status. In the sixteenth century the fair became important for financial transfers between Germany and the Low Countries, but activity was not on the scale of Lyon and the other southern fairs. Leipzig may be included as the second German fair town and for its book fair, which still survives.


The medieval world was filled with sporting contests, from chivalric tournaments to church-sponsored ball games. The Renaissance world also celebrated such contests, but with the new sense of individuality, gender, education, and the body that accompanied Renaissance thought. For humanists such as the Italian scholar Leon Battista Alberti (1401–1472), the pursuit of sports was the perfect meeting of the body and mind. He claimed that the scholar who engaged in sporting activities would achieve the ideal combination of mental and physical development necessary to become a "universal man." Such a man was to choose carefully, and have a perfect balance among his sports: swimming, running, hunting, wrestling, and horseback riding. All of these sports, and certain ones that focused on "ball-play," were acceptable because they were played by the ancient Greeks. Not all Renaissance men agreed, however. Some, such as Erasmus, claimed that honesty and responsibility were important elements of sport, but the overall goal of the society should be to produce gentlemen and scholars, not athletes.

On the playing fields and among nobler classes, jousting tournaments continued in popularity despite the pleas of academics and scholars. The English king Henry VIII was an avid supporter and participant in such games. Contests of physical strength and skill could be important diplomatic events, such as Henry's wrestling match with the French king Francis I at the Field of Cloth of Gold pageant in 1520. Another enthusiast of chivalric games was King Henry II of France, who was killed in a jousting contest in 1559. His death left France open to religious wars that eventually tore the country apart (see "France" in Chapter 6). At court, sports served as important social events. According to the Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529), author of Book of the Courtier, it was the duty of the perfect courtier (member of court) to gain proficiency not only in the joust but also in other popular and military-influenced sports such as archery, swordplay, fencing, and horse racing. He also urged participation in running, hurdle jumping, swimming, and throwing. The court lady, according to Castiglione, was to stand by and cheer the athletic displays of her man. A courtier could also engage in contest with peasants. Castiglione warned, however, that a courtier should be sure that he would win. For instance, it would be humiliating for a courtier if he were defeated by a peasant in a wrestling match.

Tennis becomes popular

One of the most popular sports of the Renaissance among the upper classes was tennis, which originated in medieval France and spread outward to other western European countries. Monarchs again set the fashion, with Henry VIII (the owner of seven rackets) joining Emperor Charles V in 1523 for a doubles match against the princes of Orange and Brandenburg. The game was played differently in various regions, which tended to complicate the rules. In 1555 a monk named Antonio Scaino de Salo wrote a treatise on tennis in which he attempted to universalize the rules of etiquette, scoring, and play. This work resulted in tennis becoming more popular among merchants, students, and artisans, all of whom would have had access to the book. Meanwhile, King James VI of Scotland (also known as James I of England) popularized the ancient sport of golf, which had originated in Scotland and was played not only by the king but also by his mother, Mary Stuart (also known as Mary, Queen of Scots). Golf's short-lived popularity among the English, however, was due more to their desire to please the king than to a love of the sport.

Sports of the Lower Classes

While sports among the elite were played across national boundaries, sports among the lower classes differed from region to region. In popular culture, games such as la soule, born in the twelfth-century villages of France, involved teams of men divided according to parish or marital status (those who were married versus those who were unmarried, for example). These teams then battled against one another and attempted to drive a ball forward and past a goalpost with the foot, the hand, or sticks of various kinds. The church had long sponsored events such as la soule, though some clerics had called for its prohibition from the beginning. Some clerics even threatened excommunication (exile from the church) for those who engaged in a game that caused such competitive spirits to arise.

In England, football (known as soccer in modern-day United States), which may have derived from la soule, had a long legacy. A rumor had for years attributed the origin of soccer to a group of Englishman kicking a Dane's (person from Denmark) severed head amongst one another. Stool ball, a popular Renaissance game, is said to have begun among milkmaids who threw (or hit with bats) balls toward their milking stools, trying to knock them over. By the Renaissance the game was associated with courtship and the Easter season and later evolved into the English ball-and-bat games of rounders and cricket. Finally, in piazzas across Italy the Easter season brought on games, including calico, in which uniformed (and only highborn) players kicked and hurled a leather ball filled with animal hair as a cheering crowd watched.

The possibility of disruption and violence in sports (and the problems that arose with gambling and dice games) had always been of concern to authorities. In the Renaissance even more people began speaking out against the "devilish pastimes," especially when they were played on the Sabbath (Sunday; a day for prayer and contemplation). Among the Protestant leaders, Martin Luther (1483–1546) was one of the few who publicly supported sporting events, especially bowling (Kegels). In general, however, such amusements as maypoles, bearbaiting, and cockfighting were denounced as sins of idleness. They were usually severely restricted, if not prohibited. Enforcement of these rules was uneven, as peasants often refused to stop participating in their favorite pastimes.

Sickness and disease

Wealthy people who lived during Renaissance times dealt with many of the same illnesses we have today: poxes (viruses causing pustules on the skin), scurvy (a disease caused by vitamin deficiency), cancers, fevers, rheumatism (any of a series of diseases in which the muscles and joints are severely swollen and inflamed), and gout (similar to rheumatism, with even more swelling of the joints and traces of uric acid in the blood). Some aristocratic families, such as the Medici family, struggled against tuberculosis (a highly communicable disease of the lungs), while others struggled to survive syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease; see "Epidemics widespread" section later in this chapter). Malaria (a bacterial disease often carried by mosquitoes) was an especially deadly disease that plagued Italy. Those who had to undergo surgery often suffered unpleasant chronic ulcers and infections, resulting in the need for continued surgery throughout their lives. For those who could afford such procedures, life expectancy could reach fifty or sixty years.

The majority of people living during the Renaissance also had to deal with persistent hunger, infection, overcrowding, and poverty. They were underfed and constantly in danger of being infected with a variety of diseases, and more often than not their cries for help fell upon the deaf ears of the wealthy. After the Black Death the poor lived a little better because prices stabilized, resulting in lower food costs, and wages increased. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, the homeless and hungry became more numerous than before, due to prices once again rising faster than wage increases. For those who were wealthy, avoiding illness was easier. They were able to remain healthy because of proper diet and the ability to move to summer cottages in the countryside (disease was less common in rural areas and therefore spread more slowly than in urban areas). The rich often imported wines (which were believed to help stave off disease), took long steam baths, and had access to the newest medicines and treatments. The poor, however, did not have doctors to plan diets for them, nor could they afford the food if they did. The rich scorned the poor for eating trash, worms, insects, and grubs (wormlike larvae of insects). People who lived in poverty were regarded by the rich as vagrants and criminals, and they were thought to be less than human. On the other hand, very little of elite medicine (such as potions, powders, baths, and prescriptions) made sense to the poor. Anger and resentment was felt on both sides, widening the already massive gap between the rich and poor.

New diseases

During the Renaissance physicians and laymen began to see many "new diseases," sicknesses that had not been discussed in the medical texts of the ancients. For instance, injuries inflicted by guns, which were introduced in the fourteenth century, were at first treated with ineffective methods used in medieval times. By the sixteenth century, however, discovering new ways of treating illness could make a physician very successful and wealthy. Among the new or newly recognized sicknesses was the "great pox" (or syphilis, the "French Disease"). "Great" distinguished this illness from smallpox (a contagious disease caused by a virus, which produces severe skin sores) that was first discovered by the Arabs. Smallpox had become a serious epidemic in late sixteenth-century Europe. Miners' diseases (ailments suffered by those who worked in underground mines) were the first occupational afflictions described in detail in medical texts of the time. Epidemic typhus fever (a bacterial disease carried by body lice, which causes high fever) appeared suddenly in the early sixteenth-century wars. Scurvy and yellow fever were first described during the time of overseas conquest and colonization. Scurvy is a disease of the gums caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet. During the Renaissance explorers regularly crossed the Atlantic to colonize the New World (the European term for the Americas). Many ships started carrying limes (citrus fruits are rich in vitamin C) in an effort to prevent sailors from contracting the illness. During trips to the New World, Europeans also contracted yellow fever, a disease caused by a virus-carrying mosquito, which results in high fever and jaundice (yellowing of the skin).

As new lands were "discovered," a wide variety of natural and organic plants were studied by doctors and laymen alike. Many new medicines and treatments, formed by using plants and minerals, became popular. The success of these medicines caused many to question the conventional ideas and treatments used by doctors. A philosophical debate exploded among scholars on how diseases where classified, and what made a disease "new."

Diseases and population

Lack of complete records from the Renaissance period make it difficult to know the numbers of people in the various social classes who were afflicted with disease. What is known is that 25 percent of all infants born never reached their second birthday, regardless of social class. In addition, fevers of various kinds and duration were the main cause of death at all stages of life. During epidemic years, even in the sixteenth century, mortality rates of more than 10 percent were common in urban areas. Deaths caused by plague alone in the great plague years (1520s, 1570s, 1590s, 1630) reached levels of 15 to 40 percent. These rates were as high as the levels witnessed during the Black Death in the mid-1300s. Wealthy people probably had a greater chance of survival because health practices during that time separated the rich from the poor in epidemic years.

Overall, the population of Europe began to grow after 1460 as more people moved from rural areas into urban centers. Yet among both urban and rural laborers, illness caused greater poverty and an increased dependence upon assistance from the government and private charities (see "Poverty" in Chapter 11). Any number of factors—plague, famine, illness, accident, an increase in the number of children, or the death of the mother in childbirth—could drastically change the economic conditions of a family. Hospitals and other traditional charitable organizations were rarely able to help families in any real way, and so the later Renaissance period was characterized by an even greater gap between rich and poor.


From the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, Renaissance Europeans were fascinated with death. Perhaps the reason was the recurring epidemics of bubonic plague (a highly contagious disease that unexpectedly swept a region and killed large segments of the population). Greater awareness of death was expressed in new forms of funeral rites, mourning practices, and acts of remembrance. Accompanying these changes was a preoccupation with the ars moriendi (art of dying), a subject some authors began writing about extensively in the fifteenth century. The themes of physical decay and the triumph of death were central ideas in images, especially in the tomb art of northern Europe. Although every society must confront the inevitable loss of its members through death, the ways in which Renaissance Europeans faced the facts of death reveal much about their social values, religious beliefs, and overall health status.

Causes of death

The single greatest killer in Renaissance Europe was bubonic plague, which was known simply as the plague or as the "Black Death" (see "Black Death" in Chapter 1). The unsanitary conditions of the Middle Ages permitted bacillus-carrying fleas to infest and infect black rats, which then bit humans. The bite of the flea produces buboes, or lumps the size of chestnuts, usually in the groin and the armpit. This type of infection is known as the bubonic plague. It came to be called the "Black Death" because it produced open sores that turned black on people's bodies. Bubonic plague arrived first in Sicily in December 1347 and spread up the Italian peninsula by the summer of 1348. It reached pandemic levels throughout continental Europe, especially in urban areas, by the end of 1349. (Pandemic refers to the outbreak of disease over a huge geographic area, affecting large numbers of people. In the twenty-first century, Africa has a pandemic level of citizens suffering from HIV/AIDS.) The first wave of the plague took an enormous toll on the population, with estimates ranging from one-third to one-half of local populations dying within those two years.

Beginning with the second appearance of the plague in 1362, the disease became a standard feature of life in Renaissance Europe. The plague returned every ten to twelve years until the last major outbreak in London in 1661, with some episodes being more contagious than others. Even though Europeans did not fully understand the causes of the plague, they knew that certain practical measures such as quarantine (confinement) and escape from infected areas were effective ways to reduce the spread of the disease. By the end of the fifteenth century, wealthy urban dwellers, especially those in the Mediterranean basin, fled every summer into the countryside where the plague was less easily spread. These practices gradually concentrated victims among the poor. After awhile local governments had formed harsh policies regarding those who suffered from the plague. By 1500 laborers and artisans were quarantined in plague hospitals. By the late sixteenth century the plague became a disease associated with poverty and poor hygiene.

Epidemics widespread

Renaissance Europeans confronted other epidemic diseases as well. Most widespread among them was a strain of syphilis that acted like a virus. It first appeared in 1494 and was known as the "pox." The pox was a painful venereal (sexually transmitted) disease that killed its victims far more slowly than the plague. The onset of new, powerful, and incurable diseases like the "pox" resulted in a rise of charitable groups throughout Europe. The "pox" was blamed regularly on those outside of the immediate community. At some point the Italians, French, and Amerindians (Native Americans) all were blamed for having caused and spread the disease. Unlike the plague, which attacked all age groups and both sexes equally, syphilis was confined to sexually active adults. Treatises on morality blamed the spread of the disease on prostitution, which contributed to the closing of state-run brothels in the later sixteenth century.

Europeans also commonly suffered from deadly respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis. Men routinely fell victim to accidents on their business travels or while doing agricultural work, while many women died during childbirth. Mortality was extremely high for children below the age of two, primarily due to illness. In times of economic hardship, infanticide (the killing of children) became a noticeable social problem, either because it actually increased as a way to limit family size or because it came to greater public attention as a criminal activity. Records from Italian courts show that infant girls were either killed or abandoned at roughly twice the rate of baby boys. Part of the reason for this was due to the fact that girls could not earn wages as high as those of boys. Girls also required more economic resources in order to fund the dowry required for marriage. Once children survived their critical early years, they had a reasonable chance of reaching adulthood.

Attitudes toward death

Renaissance Europeans had complicated views on death. Beliefs about the afterlife were a combination of Christian influences and classical Greek and Roman traditions. Perhaps the source that best reveals this cultural mix was ars morendi. Beginning in the early fifteenth century, writings in both Latin and vernacular languages started to teach a lay audience how a good Christian should approach impending death. These tracts stressed that death should be welcomed rather than feared, since it was death that gave meaning to life. In fact, life on Earth was seen as preparation for the afterlife. Since anyone might fall ill suddenly, the ars morendi writings emphasized the importance of making a "good death." The ill person was advised to confess to a priest, forgive friends and family gathered around the deathbed, and dispose of his or her personal belongings and wealth. One was also expected to make charitable donations or other financial compensation for past sins. These popular literary works stressed acceptance of death and planning for it as a way to control the unpredictable timing of one's demise. Making a good death helped the individual gain entry into purgatory (a region between heaven and hell) rather than be condemned to hell.

Visual imagery in northern Europe emphasized a darker sense of death than did the artistic representation of Italy and Spain. In France and Holland, the "dance of death," with its grim reapers and skeletons, became popular in the fifteenth century. Northern European artists also developed a form of tomb sculpture that portrayed an image of the living person placed over a decaying corpse. This type of representation emphasized the belief that death triumphed over all persons regardless of wealth or status and reminded viewers that the physical organisms of the body did not last as long as the soul.

Attitudes and beliefs drawn from ancient philosophers were once again taken up by Renaissance Europeans. These attitudes were generally interpreted in ways that supported traditional Christian beliefs. Christian teachings were mixed with ancient Stoic philosophy. Stoic philosophy emphasized the importance of fulfilling one's duty to the living and also stressed disciplined behavior. Renaissance thinkers claimed that mourners should control their sorrow through self-discipline. Comfort for their loss could be taken in work, duty, literary expression, and the Christian faith. Throughout the fifteenth century humanists in particular supported more restrained forms of mourning for both women and men.

Wills and bequests

The testament, or will, was a legal document witnessed by a notary that gave instructions about a person's wishes after his or her death. The will allowed a person to express wishes about the distribution of personal property, as well as instructions about burial. The ars morendi suggested that drawing up a last will was an important step in planning for a good death. Despite this advice, the vast majority of Europeans died without leaving a testament. Local customs therefore determined what would happen to their mortal remains and worldly goods. Normally wives were buried in the tombs of their husbands, and close relatives inherited property. Burial in one's local parish church or cemetery was the norm in the absence of other instructions.

Still, many thousands of testaments survive from the Renaissance period. These legal documents provide important sources for examining the social values of the time. Studies of French and Italian urban wills, for instance, reveal that more men than women left wills. In Italy during the 1300s and 1400s, wills made by women (mostly widows) were never more than 30 percent of the surviving documents. The transmission of property in these wills varied according to geographical location, class, gender, religious beliefs, and time period. Over the course of the Renaissance era, many people left great sums of money to buy a tomb or fund a memorial mass (Catholic religious service) to ensure that future generations would remember them. In some central Italian cities, men favored making large donations to one institution rather than several small contributions to charities. Most of these institutions helped poor young girls find husbands. In other cities, however, there was an opposite pattern of giving, with men splitting up their contributions into several donations. Women, especially widows, liked to give their money to nunneries (religious houses for women) at a rate much greater than that of men. They may have done so because they were related to nuns in particular convents or because they wanted to support the institutions. Scholars have yet to evaluate all the information available in these documents.

Rituals of death

Between 1300 and 1600 there were two main directions in the rituals surrounding death, mourning, and remembrance. The first trend was toward increased ceremony in funeral rites, especially in regions that remained Catholic after the religious reforms of the sixteenth century. This trend actually began in the early fourteenth century, predating the first outbreak of the plague in 1348. However, high death tolls from the plague gave greater significance to new forms of ceremony and ritual. Wealthy merchants, landowners, and aristocrats spent ever larger sums on funeral processions. They purchased such items as an expensive cloth to drape the bier (the stand on which a coffin is placed), a rich outfit in which to be buried, a great number of paid mourners and candles, and elaborate mourning clothes for relatives. Funeral pomp declared one's social status and may have helped some accept their own mortality. The funerals of ordinary people like artisans, small merchants, and shopkeepers also became more elaborate. This new flamboyance was also expressed in larger numbers of commemorative masses said for the deceased, which was believed to shorten the stay in purgatory. The beautiful family funeral chapels decorated in new Renaissance style were part of this new emphasis on ceremony.

Protestants stress simplicity

The second major trend in death rites during the Renaissance period ran exactly counter to the first. After the rise of Protestantism in the sixteenth century, a more reserved ceremonial style was seen in those regions of Europe that had rejected Catholicism. Protestants had to develop new liturgical and ceremonial practices that better fit their beliefs. English Protestants tried to balance an appropriate, dignified display of social status without the pomp shown in Catholic ceremonies. Protestant preachers emphasized simple funeral ceremonies that focused attention on the afterlife. They also advised mourners to engage in only brief periods of grieving and rejected commemorative masses along with the concept of purgatory. By 1600 the ways in which Europeans buried and remembered their dead provided important clues about their deepest religious beliefs and helped distinguish Catholics from Protestants in everyday life.