Social Status and Community

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Social Status and Community

Social status was the basis of life in Europe during the Renaissance and Reformation. Since the early Middle Ages, people had been divided into three groups, called estates. Each of the Three Estates were further subdivided into many other levels. A person's rank on the social scale was determined by birth, gender, sources of wealth, occupation, political position, residency in town or country, and numerous other factors. The system was somewhat flexible, however, and people frequently moved up within their own social class, or even occasionally elevated themselves to a higher estate.

First Estate

The First Estate was comprised of the Roman Catholic clergy (church officials; also called clergymen). They were placed at the top of the social ladder because their involvement in spiritual matters was considered vital to the welfare of society. The clergy were divided into secular (unordained) and regular (ordained) branches. An ordained clergyman is one whom the church officially authorizes to perform priestly duties. These duties include holding worship services, hearing confession (church members' admissions of sin), and administering the sacraments (holy rituals) of the Catholic religion.

The secular clergy were high officials called prelates. Prelates were the pope (supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church), cardinals (officials ranking directly below the pope), and bishops (heads of church districts). Most prelates came from the ranks of the nobility, although some were from wealthy commoner families and a few had lower social origins. During the Middle Ages the secular clergy wielded extensive power, constantly coming into conflict with kings and emperors over the question of the proper authority of the church. These conflicts reached a crisis during the Renaissance and Reformation. Prelates enjoyed income from land estates, loans, taxes on clergy, and the wealth of their families of birth. Moreover, they formed the learned elite of late medieval society, until Renaissance education created a new class of scholars from the secular world.

Below the secular clergy were the regular clergy. Regular clergymen were urban priests (heads of local churches in cities), cathedral canons (heads of cathedrals, or large main churches, in cities), and parish priests (heads of town and village churches). All of these clergymen occupied a considerably lower position than the secular clergy, both within the church and in society. There was a wide gulf between high prelates and parish priests in terms of wealth and level of education. Prelates were well educated and had luxurious palaces (large homes), whereas parish priests tended to have minimal education and lived in near poverty. The regular clergy also included monks (men who live in religious houses called monasteries) and nuns (women who live in religious houses called convents or nunneries). Many monks and nuns came from noble families. In fact, unmarried sons and daughters of noblemen were able to secure powerful and lucrative positions in the church as abbots (heads of monasteries) and abbesses (heads of convents). Along with bishops, abbots and abbesses controlled vast amounts of land, received substantial donations from parishioners (church members), and made profitable investments. In addition, they had jurisdiction over many subjects and enjoyed important connections with powerful noble families.

Second Estate

The Second Estate was reserved for the nobility—emperors, kings, dukes, counts, and multiple ranks of knights. Membership in the Second Estate was originally limited to those who were born into noble families. For the most part, nobles were expected to live on the income from their land. Business, trade, and industry were considered degrading occupations. Yet there were stark contrasts among the nobility. Lords of large estates exercised considerable authority over neighboring villages and peasants, whereas some lesser noble families were barely able to maintain their social position. Noblemen were mainly concerned with exhibiting their elite status and staying in positions of power. From medieval chivalry and romance, which fascinated all European noblemen during the Renaissance, there evolved the arts of courtesy, heraldry (family insignia on armor), and emblems, as well as elaborate codes of honor. The nobility maintained elaborate courts, surrounding themselves with servants, advisers, and others who helped them create an aura of influence and prestige. They were devoted to armed combat, both for war and for leisure. They upheld the chivalric code, a complex set of social rules dating from the days of knighthood in the Middle Ages (see "Feudalism" in Chapter 1). The nobility paid great attention to manners. They cultivated body movements, facial expressions, and ways of speaking that would show their refinement and hide their emotions. Great emphasis was placed on elaborate dining rituals, the latest fashions, tournaments (games of combat between two men carrying lances on horseback), and humanist discussions—all as signs of their social superiority. Noblemen elevated themselves further by building grand castles in the mountains or expensive palaces in the countryside. In these magnificent dwellings they held banquets, staged hunts, and patronized the arts on a grand scale.

Monarchs occupy top rank

During the Renaissance and Reformation period, Europe was still fragmented into hundreds of independent states. Heading these states were various types and ranks of rulers—popes, emperors, kings, cardinals, dukes, counts, and knights—who were called princes. At the highest level were popes, emperors, and kings, who ruled as monarchs. (A monarch is the sole head of a government.) The pope was the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the ruler of the Papal States. The Holy Roman Emperor presided over his native land as well as other states within the HolyRoman Empire. Kings were leaders of territories that included smaller states or provinces headed by noblemen such as dukes, counts, knights, and (in Germany) princes. Many dukes also had power nearly equal to that of monarchs, especially in the Italian city-states (see "The major city-states" in Chapter 2).

Monarchy was the most common form of government, and most monarchs were kings. Nevertheless, not all monarchies were created equal, as they varied greatly in size and type. Some were ruled by hereditary dynasties (rulers from the same family), such as Scotland under the Stuarts, England under the Tudors, and France under the Valois. Other monarchies, such as Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, and the Holy Roman Empire, were elective. Some kingdoms were relatively uniform in language or ethnic membership, but most contained varied regions where people spoke different languages and had come together over long periods of time. Some lands were united with others under the rule of one king, which was the case of Poland and Lithuania as well as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

Many monarchies made high-flown claims to power and independence. In the early sixteenth century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; ruled 1519–56), who also ruled Spain as King Charles I (1516–56), headed the largest empire in history to that time. He saw himself occupying his thrones for the purpose of leading the Christian world against the enemies of God: Islam (a religion founded by the prophet Muhammad), the Lutherans (followers of Martin Luther, who initiated the movement to reform the church), and other heretics (those who violate the laws of God and the church). Admirers of French monarchs came close to defying their rulers, calling the king a "vicar [earthly representative] of Christ in his kingdom" or a "second sun on Earth," and even likening him to a "corporeal god" (God in human form).

Renaissance kings spent vast sums on upholding the highest image of the monarchy. They commissioned painters, sculptors, and engravers; patronized poets and playwrights; and mandated architects, heralds, and iconographers (artists who created symbols or images to celebrate the king and kingdom) to inflate the reputation of the monarch and his dynasty. Kings displayed themselves in the most magnificent of finery wherever subjects needed to be reminded of the ruler's authority and majesty (see "Life at court" section later in this chapter). However, no European monarchy of the time ever achieved absolute rule. Kings had to deal day to day with the complex and confusing machinery of government and political obligations. There seems to have been no master plan on the part of Renaissance monarchs to solve these challenges.

Kings versus popes

Kings first had to come to grips with their relationship with the church and particularly the papacy. Henry VIII (1491–1547; ruled 1509–47) took theChurch of England entirely out of the jurisdiction of the pope and made himself supreme head (see "England" in Chapter 3). The Spanish monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516; ruled 1479–1516) and Isabella I of Castile (1451–1504; ruled 1474–1504) won the right to name church officials. During the Spanish Inquisition, they had control of the highest church court in the realm, virtually independent of the pope (see "Spain" in Chapter 3). In 1516 the French monarchy negotiated a concordat (agreement) with Pope Leo X (1475–1521; reigned 1513–21) by which it could control the choicest church offices in the realm (see "France" in Chapter 3). French kings had the right to censor papal bulls (official declarations). Thus the leading western European monarchies had won significant victories over the church before the Reformation. A degree of control over the church guaranteed monarchs not only certain economic benefits but also the influential loyalty of the clergy. Loyal noblemen could also look to the crown as the source of church careers for their family and clients.

Financing the monarchy

An unceasing problem for Renaissance monarchs was finding enough money to support their administrative responsibilities and ambitions. The cost of warfare had escalated: mercenaries (hired soldiers), warships, artillery trains, musketeers (soldiers who carried muskets, a type of rifle), and fortresses did not come cheaply. Massive building programs, such as those undertaken by Henry VIII and King Francis I of France (1494–1547; ruled 1515–47), were also drains on royal treasuries. Kings met this challenge by selling royal lands and state offices. In fact, many kings invented new offices strictly for the purpose of sale. These measures opened careers for the middle class and reinforced the view of royalty as the center of authority. Loans could be obtained from banking houses or forcibly imposed on prosperous subjects. In the end, however, monarchs had to consider raising taxes.

In most countries it was recognized that a king seeking new taxation required the consent of his subjects, through the approval of a representative institution such as a parliament or a regional assembly. Parliaments and assemblies were seldom eager to see taxes raised, but at the same time they did not want to impede the legitimate demands of government. As kings developed a growing administrative framework for enforcing their wills, they also increasingly had to contend with the opinions of their subjects. Noblemen had always claimed the right to be appointed as councilors to their monarch and to take part in the rule of the kingdom. Even in the sixteenth century, when most kings had won the right to staff their councils as they saw fit, they knew they had to appoint members of old noble families who had remained loyal to them. Increasingly, however, monarchs looked outside the great families for their professional administrators and came to favor the sons of the lesser nobility and the prosperous middle class. There often was tension between the older nobility and the bureaucrats.

During the Renaissance and Reformation period, kings, royal councils, princely courts, some parliaments, and regional assemblies all gained power. No realm could function without cooperation among these various groups. Nobles continued to dominate the military and politics, middle-class professionals contributed legal and administrative expertise, and the king served as patron, negotiator, and moving force behind the growing state.

Third Estate

The Third Estate originally began with rural laborers, but it eventually grew to include commoners from both town and country. This class had a very broad range of members. At the upper level were lawyers, professors, physicians, merchants, and magistrates (judges), among others. In the lower levels were bailiffs (sheriffs' employees), soldiers, artisans, and peasants.

Urban society

Prior to the sixteenth century many urban members of the Third Estate gained status through international trade, manufacturing, and land ownership in town and country. From the sixteenth century on, many businessmen and industrialists turned to investing in lands and loans and pursuing careers in law. By the sixteenth century, particularly in France and Spain, members of the Third Estate were able to rise to the Second Estate by acquiring wealth. Businessmen converted their fortunes and capital investments into land holdings, which were more prestigious than money. They bought titles and adopted noble behavior. People also raised their status through outstanding public service to a ruler or the state, or by marriage into the nobility.

The middle class, which became the core of the Third Estate, began developing as a result of urbanization after the year 1000. Level of education, profession or occupation, and wealth were the primary criteria for membership in the middle class. Lawyers, government officials, physicians, and intellectuals were at the top. They were followed by merchants, masters, journeymen (workers who have learned a trade and work for other persons) apprentices (those who learn a craft from a master), urban laborers, and domestic servants. Wealthy professionals, merchants, and manufacturers formed powerful and prestigious corporations and confraternities. These professional organizations exerted political influence, performed charitable deeds, and staged elaborate pageants, all symbols of their status. Guild members followed the professionals in rank, and in some cities they exercised considerable social and political influence. In Florence, for example, the fourteen major and seven minor guilds were divided both politically and socially, but they shared business activities, economic values, and moral values.

Guild membership separated masters, journeymen, and apprentices from those in the laboring class, who were lower in status than artisans. Status was associated with active participation in the guilds and confraternities. It required both wealth and social prominence. In contrast, laborers were unorganized, had no legal rights, and at times lived on the edge of poverty. Unlike guild masters, they were prohibited by law from meeting and organizing. Yet even within the laboring class social status was attached to certain jobs. Tasks that required more physical strength than skill earned little or no respect.

Rural society

Rural society was also divided into social ranks. The first included high prelates who owned land and prominent lay families who spent part of their time in the city. The second, landlords and farmers, leased their properties from the first group. In western Europe the third group included independent peasants and peasants who rented land from landlords and relied on their own efforts for support. They were followed by the highly mobile, landless agricultural laborers, who depended on landlords for animals, seeds, and fertilizers. The position of these last two groups was always precarious because of high rents, taxes, usury (high-interest loans), crop failure, war, and epidemics. While serfdom still prevailed in some parts of western Europe, for the most part peasants achieved free status with the possibility of some mobility and the right to lease or own land. In contrast, peasants in eastern Europe were reduced to servile workers. They were deprived of any rights to land in east Germany, Silesia, Bohemia, Poland, Russia, Hungary, and Romania. Their movement was severely restricted, while their labor dues and services multiplied. Throughout Europe, the status of most country dwellers, particularly agricultural laborers, was regarded as inferior to that of townsmen. Urban dwellers often mistrusted peasants, and law codes in various cities described them as natural-born inferiors who were malicious, insolent, and stupid.


The corporations known as guilds played a significant part in urban life in Europe throughout the Renaissance. Guild members included artisans, merchants, peddlers, and shopkeepers. Originating in the thirteenth century, guilds controlled market conditions for foodstuffs, clothing, and construction. They also set standards for manufacturing. Another function of guilds was to provide training for apprentices. The training of an apprentice, which usually lasted for several years, provided the trainee not only with skills but also with shelter, meals, and lodging. Young, unmarried apprentices in particular were kept off the streets and to some extent out of trouble. Municipal authorities thus approved of guilds as protection against social unrest.

In many instances, guilds were also the basis of political life. In Florence and London, guild membership was essential to make a man eligible for office. Guilds also had a spiritual function. Members were Roman Catholic, and they met to celebrate their patron saint's festival. Each member was guaranteed a funeral, which everyone was required to attend. A guild maintained a local church through an agreement with the parish priest. Many guilds became patrons of the arts as they commissioned artists to decorate the church. The guilds tried to outdo one another with works by such masters as sculptors Donatello (c. 1386–1466) and Lorenzo Ghiberti (c. 1378–1455). The trade guilds and confraternities of Venice commissioned cycles of paintings from Tintoretto (also known as Jacopo Robusti; c. 1518–1594) and other famous artists. Beginning in 1535 the guilds of London organized the pageant for the Lord Mayor's Show.

Life at court

A ruler's court, the concept of which had developed during the Middle Ages, was the center of social and political life for the Renaissance nobility. It was based in the castle or palace of a pope, king, emperor, or duke, who was generally referred to as a prince. Most rulers were men. Salic Laws stated that only the male heirs of a ruler could take his place as the leader of a kingdom or state. Nevertheless, many women, such as Queen Isabella I of Castile and Queen Elizabeth I of England, came to power when there were no men in direct line to the throne. The court brought together numerous levels of the nobility as well as people from other social classes. A Renaissance court was typically composed of two concentric circles (one circle inside another). Within the inside circle were the councilors (members of a council) and officials whose work was directly supervised by the ruler. In the outer circle were the household officers who served the ruler's personal needs. The ruler's husband or wife had a separate household, but it too was part of the court. The function of the court was to regulate access to the ruler and to maintain the splendid surroundings and elaborate ceremonies that promoted the ruler's prestige.

Another important function was to involve rich and powerful people in the government. Because the court was the center of patronage (financial support), the atmosphere was always tense. Ministers, aristocratic and middle-class councilors, ladies of the court, secretaries, artisans, and even jesters and dwarfs jostled for favor and patronage. The ruler's household was usually presided over by a chamberlain (attendant), who organized it to give the ruler protection from the unending demands for patronage. The outer circle of the court was supervised by a steward (manager or supervisor), who kept the ruler in contact with the government and his or her subjects.

Court is status symbol

Courts became more elaborate during the Renaissance. New dynasties (rulers from the same family), such as the Sforza dukes in Italy and the Tudor monarchs in England, made their palaces and castles especially splendid to cover up the fact that they had only recently come to power. The people and the nobility were dazzled by court festivals, which were often used to make a weak ruler appear stronger. The rise of diplomacy, or political negotiation, likewise favored the growth of the court. Visiting princes or their emissaries (representatives) were treated to grand spectacles designed to impress them with the wealth and power of their host. Solemn entry processions, such as those greeting the arrival of a visiting sovereign or a bride for the prince, became occasions of spectacular display. Artists, architects, artisans, actors, musicians, courtiers (members of court), and eventually the entire populace (as spectators) cooperated in these celebrations. As rulers continued to cultivate an image of power and prestige, access to them was made more difficult. Elaborate ceremonies created distance between the ruler and visitors, further enhancing his aura. Courtiers gave great importance to dress and protocol, which revealed differences in rank and made the favors of the sovereign even more significant. The preening and display of majesty reached its peak in 1520 when Francis I and Henry VIII met at the Field of Cloth of Gold. The splendor of the French king's tent was said to outdo the Egyptian pyramids and the Roman amphitheaters, and the dress of the participants was so costly that it was said they "carried their mills, forests, and meadows on their backs." In other words, they bought clothes with the income they received from their estates.

The ceremonies of the papacy (office of the pope) were imitated by rulers' courts. The papacy had perfected its protocol (system of proper procedures) while the pope was in exile (absence from Rome, Italy, the official seat of the Roman Catholic Church) in Avignon, France, during the Great Schism (1309–1377; see "Crisis in the papacy" in Chapter 1). The papal master of ceremonies was in charge of the pope's court. One important ritual was the kissing of the pope's foot, a practice that was derived from the court of Byzantium (center of the Orthodox Eastern Church). At solemn banquets the pope was served in a ceremony that resembled the Roman Catholic mass (a worship service in which communion is celebrated). Butlers tasted his food and wine, which was then offered to him by servers on bended knee, while cardinals and other church officials either stood around or ate at lower tables. When the pope washed his hands or drank, laymen genuflected (touched a knee to the floor) and clergy stood, mimicking the ritual of the mass. The development of court etiquette was also spurred by permanent embassies (official offices of representatives of foreign countries) at the papal court. Ambassadors jealously watched the reception of rival ambassadors, and they were frequently offended at perceived slights or evidence of favoritism. For instance, at a public audience (meeting with the pope) in 1570, the pope called for a stool to seat the grand duke of Tuscany. This privilege was normally reserved for the Holy Roman Emperor, so the ambassadors of other powers stormed out in protest.

Field of Cloth of Gold

In June 1520, King Francis I of France and King Henry VIII of England met outside Guînes, France, at the Val Doré (Gold Valley). From June 7 until June 24, the kings and their courts engaged in "feats of arms" that were considered extravagant even by the standards of the Renaissance. Observers came up with the name "Field of Cloth of Gold" to describe the sight of so many luxuriously dressed nobles and servants.

The occasion was the celebration of a treaty signed by France and England in March 1520. The agreement promised a new era of harmony among the major European powers: France, England, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. Henry and his entire court set sail for France, while thousands of French laborers completed work on magnificent tents, pavilions, and stands for the spectators. The French nobility erected elaborate tents of velvet and cloth made of gold. Francis's grand tent, also made of gold cloth, was supported by two masts from a ship (poles that support sails) tied together and surmounted by a life-size statue of Saint Michael (angel of the sword). Henry outdid Francis by building a temporary palace outside Guînes with a brick foundation, walls of timber and canvas fashioned to look like brick, and large windows.

On June 7 the kings and their courts of equal number, mounted on horseback, proceeded to the Val Doré and halted at opposite ends, as if arrayed for battle. Then, at the sound of a trumpet, Henry and Francis left their attendants behind. They galloped their horses toward each other, as if to engage in combat. Halting at a spot marked by a spear, the two kings embraced. After withdrawing to a nearby tent, they emerged two hours later and ordered their nobles to embrace one another. The "feats of arms" were meant to strengthen the embrace of reconciliation. The celebration commenced on June 9 and consisted of jousting (combat with spears on horseback), open-field tournaments, and combat on foot. The only contest between the two kings appears to have been an impromptu wrestling match, in which Francis bested Henry. The celebration was solemnized in a mass on June 23. The next day, at the conclusion of the tournaments, the kings bade farewell and vowed to build at Val Doré a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Friendship and a palace where they could meet each year. In 1521 England repudiated the treaty with France. In the aftermath the Field of Cloth of Gold appeared as an act of frivolous diplomacy.

Princes seek privacy

Kings were expected to have the most magnificent court and elaborate protocol, but territorial lords such as dukes often competed with them. Great nobles expanded their households into small courts. In his treatise on cardinals, the Italian humanist Paolo Cortesi (1465–1510) described one cardinal's palace and court that could easily employ sixty gentlemen attendants and eighty servants. Cristoforo di Messisbugo, the steward to Duke Ercole II of Ferrara (ruled 1534–1559), listed the personnel of the Ferrara court: the duke's family; court nobles, gentlemen, councilors, ambassadors, secretaries, chancellors; doctors, chaplains, and musicians; chamberlain and staff, including the master of the wardrobe and staff, valets (male personal servants), pages (youths who served knights), and doorkeepers; master of the house, steward and staff, including butlers, purveyors (food suppliers), cooks, carvers, servers, porters (baggage carriers), sweepers; master of the stables with grooms and muleteers; master of falcons and falconers, master of the hunt and huntsmen; and castellan (governor of the castle), with architects and warders (watchmen). Many clerics and noblemen endured secret misery as they lived beyond their means while trying to compete with kings. Princes themselves were constantly trying to cut down on ever-increasing court expenditures and to reduce the numbers of courtiers entitled to meals.

In the Middle Ages center of the court was the bedroom of the prince. An ambassador would initially be greeted with a formal reception in an outer chamber or a great hall and then escorted to a less public setting. A private interview in the prince's bedroom was the highest honor. During the Renaissance the prince's private study, not the bedroom, became the center of the palace. Princes found the endless ceremony tedious, and many created hideaways for themselves. As rulers sought more privacy, their households became isolated. At Rome, for example, the "palatine family," or private household of the pope, was a separate division of the curia (the papal court). Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492 ; reigned 1484–92) built Villa Belvedere, a private residence on the hill above the Vatican Palace. Seeking greater freedom from the pleadings of courtiers, the first Tudor king, Henry VII (1547–1509; ruled 1485–1509), instituted the privy chamber (private room). It was served by mere gentlemen, not nobles, and presided over by an officer unique to the English court, the groom of the stool. Kings and princes throughout Europe built hunting lodges and country villas to escape the pressures of the court. Life at court was wearying for courtiers as well. They endured long waits in cold, drafty rooms, sleepless nights in uncomfortable—and generally shared—beds, bad food, tedium, snubs, and numerous other discomforts. These problems were made even worse when a ruler's court traveled around the kingdom. There were rewards, however, such as festivities, feasts, and above all the chance for advancement, which was the whole purpose of being a courtier.

Major courts

In the mid-fifteenth century, Burgundy, now a region in eastern France, was the preeminent court headed by a nobleman. Olivier de la Marche, master of the household and captain of the guard for the duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold (ruled 1467–1477), wrote that elaborate ceremony ruled every aspect of court life. Court ideology centered on knighthood, and foreign visitors were particularly awed by the magnificent gatherings of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The order was created to integrate the great nobles into the Burgundian court, but even kings were flattered to be enrolled. By 1474 more than a thousand office-holders, most of whom had their own servants, lived at the Burgundy court at Charles's expense.

Italy had an abundance of princely courts that, as part of the Renaissance cult of magnificence, were centers of patronage and instrumental in the evolution of arts and literature. After the papacy, the leading Italian courts were those of Naples and Milan. The sixteenth-century humanist Paolo Giovio (1483–1552) thought the Renaissance had begun at the court of Galeazzo II Visconti of Milan (1321–1378; ruled 1354–78). The opulence of Visconti's court spurred the princes of Italy, including Pope Nicholas V (1397–1455; reigned 1447–55), to create equally magnificent courts. The humanist scholar Petrarch (1304–1374) was Visconti's guest for several years. Although Petrarch's fellow humanists complained of lack of leisure for their studies, they generally preferred appointments at court to university teaching. Humanists were able to promote their new educational program as schoolmasters and tutors to young princes and their noble companions. The schoolmasters could then count on being appointed secretaries to their students when the young men reached adulthood. Renaissance artists also benefited from being part of a court because they were freed from their status as mere artisans who worked under urban guilds.

While the courts of Naples and Milan were among the most significant, Asolo, the tiny court of Caterina Cornaro (1454–1510), the former queen of Cyprus, was also well known. It produced one of the most influential works of the Renaissance, Gli asolani (Asolan dialogues; 1505), by the Italian cardinal and scholar Pietro Bembo (1470–1547). Similarly, the small court of Urbino holds a lasting place in history. The court was established by Duke Federigo da Montefeltro (1422–1482; ruled 1444–82) in an exquisite palace designed by the architect Francesco da Laurana (c. 1430–1502). Urbino was featured in the immensely popular Libro de cortegiano, or Book of the Courtier (1528) by Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529), a book of advice for members of court. Equally brilliant was the Gonzaga court at Mantua, especially in the time of the famous marchioness (duchess), Isabella d'Este (1474–1539). Florence became the capital of a grand duchy (territory ruled by a grand duke) under Cosimo I de' Medici (1519–1574; ruled 1537–74). He used an extensive patronage system as a means of enhancing the power and prestige of the Medici dynasty.

Under King Francis I, France had a glorious court. Francis was know for his extensive patronage (inspired by his Italian visits) and his magnificent palaces, particularly Fontainebleau. In England the elaborate court of King Edward IV (1442–1483; ruled 1461–70, 1471–83) included the departments of the chapel, privy wardrobe, jewels, and signet. It assembled heralds, physicians, knights, esquires, carvers, servers, cupbearers, ushers, pages, minstrels, and servants. Under Henry VIII, the king's privy chamber became more public, welcoming royal favorites, many of whom served as diplomats. Under Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603; ruled 1558–1603) the privy chamber once again became private quarters. The privy chamber was staffed by women who were allowed by the queen to participate in patronage but not in politics.

In Spain the independence of the traditional nobility limited the role of the court, though King Charles I (later Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor) attempted to introduce some of the practices he had seen at the court of Burgundy. He later did so in Germany, but the Holy Roman Emperor's court always had to compete with the rich and powerful courts of kings and princes in that country. Since Emperor Maximilian I (ruled 1493–1519) spent most of his time in the relatively insignificant city of Innsbruck, his court, despite its splendor, never fulfilled the function of integrating the German nobility.

Court determines proper manners

Courts throughout Europe decided the rules of etiquette, or proper behavior, for the regions they ruled. The nobility had long sent their sons to court as pages to learn manners, which gave the court its identity and made courtiers superior to other ranks of society. The emphasis on correct manners created a highly civilized society. In Book of the Courtier, Castiglione noted that courtiers were expected to be graceful in speech and behavior, have strong morals and intellect, and cultivate a humane out-look. In spite of the emphasis on proper manners, however, members of court were extremely competitive and they went to great lengths to win the favor of the sovereign. They learned to read every nuance of a ruler's glances, and they carefully controlled their own words and gestures in order to gain advantage over other members of court. They were constantly plotting against their rivals, and they were on guard against slander and intrigue.

The court was also a place where morals were corrupted. The mistresses of Renaissance princes were often prominent at court. Madame d'Étampes (1508–c. 1580), the second official mistress of King Francis I of France, acquired so much influence that she was able to bring about the fall of the constable (public officer responsible for keeping the peace and for performing minor judicial duties) of France, Anne duc de Montmorency (1493–1567). Duke Federigo II Gonzaga (1500–1540; ruled 1519–40) of Mantua, who lived at Francis's court as a youth, made his mother, Isabella d'Este, miserable by advancing his mistress over her. Vigilant queens and duchesses did their best to protect young court ladies. The walled garden, a famous feature of the Renaissance, was originally created as a refuge for the women of the palace to enjoy the outdoors in private, free from the intrusion of men.

Life in the city

Approximately one out of four western Europeans lived in or near urban centers. The proportion was even higher in the densely populated regions of northern and central Italy, southern Germany, and the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands). The size of towns and cities differed considerably. For instance, towns were settlements of fewer than 500 inhabitants, whereas thousands of people lived in major urban centers. In the sixteenth century Venice had a population of 190,000, and Paris had 220,000 inhabitants. A small minority of cities concentrated on specialized activities such as large-scale industrial production, military training and provisioning, and maritime services for ports. Nevertheless, even the larger towns had a distinct agriculture character. During the mid-1550s in Aix-en-Provence, France, for instance, agricultural workers represented the largest occupational group. Pigs and geese were a common sight in the streets. Even within walled areas of the town, large spaces were commonly devoted to crops and orchards. The continuous stream of agricultural workers moving into larger towns and cities brought rural behavior patterns that shaped urban society, particularly among the poor.

People of different occupations, social classes, and customs were constantly brought together in large towns and cities. Each day people and goods flowed into and out of town gates. This constant activity caused serious traffic problems—we call them traffic jams today. Narrow winding streets, lined with shops and homes only inches from the curb, were not built to accommodate large numbers of pedestrians and vehicles. Adding to the congestion were colorful, noisy processions that clogged the already crowded streets at carnival time—celebrations to honor a holy day and entertain residents and guests. A frequent source of conflict was deciding who had the right of way. Wheeled vehicles carrying goods or passengers had to compete with artisans whose work spilled onto the street outside their houses, or with pedestrians swarming into streets and squares. Traffic snarls became particularly severe during the later sixteenth century, when coaches and carriages came into fashion for persons of importance. In 1610, while caught in one of the many Parisian traffic jams, King Henry IV (1553–1610; ruled 1589–1610) of France was assassinated in his coach. Laws intended to reduce congestion were passed in many cities. A one-way traffic system was introduced in Amsterdam in 1615, and attempts were made in London to license hackney (hired) carriages in order to keep down their numbers. But in both cases the rising demand for wheeled transport only compounded the problem. Eventually, wealthy residents called for the construction of new residential districts with wide streets and squares in order to get relief from the noise, congestion, and unpleasant odors of everyday life.

Center of religion, education, government

Organized religion was a major part of urban life. Church buildings dominated the skyline, and parish churches functioned as social and cultural centers. Guilds also offered spiritual and social benefits. Towns were centers of education of all kinds. Dame schools (schools run by women in their own homes) provided basic instruction in reading writing for purposes of doing business and understanding church teaching. Latin grammar schools and universities offered vocational training. There were also schools for legal professionals, craftsmen, and even paupers.

Cities were also the center of government. Urban governments legislated the conditions in which markets were held, the level of taxes to be raised, and the management of clutter in the streets. They were also faced with unprecedented levels of immigration, severe economic fluctuations, and conflicts with state authorities. Committees were set up to deal with matters such as public health, fire prevention, defense, the maintenance of order, and poverty relief. With the exception of a shrinking number of city-states, however, most urban centers lost political independence to territorial rulers. Soon princely courts replaced the traditional oligarchies (groups of leaders who ran municipal governments) and fueled a wave of construction. Throughout Europe the new symbols of authority were palaces, which expressed the dominance of princes over the cities.

Life in the country

In the sixteenth century, during the height of the Renaissance and Reformation period, Europe was overwhelmingly rural. The majority of people were peasants who lived in villages and small towns, which formed the foundation of European society. Rural communities all over Europe included many kinds of peasants who practiced trades and crafts in addition to their activities as agricultural workers. They included shopkeepers, artisans (craftsmen), traders, carters (those who transported goods), and others who catered to local and outside customers. Furthermore, the boundaries between rural and urban society were often quite hazy. All towns and cities had residents who went out to work in the surrounding fields and pastures. They could therefore be called peasants, though they were citizens of large urban communities. There was also a considerable difference between villages and cities, making it more difficult to distinguish between rural and urban society.

Peasants' status changing

Prior to the Renaissance period, peasants had lived as serfs under a social and economic system called feudalism that had dominated life in Europe throughout the Middle Ages (see "Feudalism" in Chapter 1). The serfs lived on vast estates owned by wealthy lords, where they worked the land. They were bound for life to the lord, to whom they owed obligations such as a portion of their crops in exchange for protection. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, peasants in western Europe broke free of serfdom and started producing crops for sale on the open market. A minority of these peasants became wealthy, often buying up the lands of their neighbors. Others were merchants and businessmen, leading to an increasing number of different occupations held by members of the rural community. When rich peasants or other powerful parties gained control of the local government, they often took over the village commons (public open areas), undermining

Carnival Adds Color to City Life

Foreign visitors, especially in Italian cities, frequently wrote about the spectacle of urban life in their journals. One popular topic was carnival time, when religious and civic processions poured into the streets. Often accompanied by music and dancers, these parades were colorful, noisy events that attracted townspeople and peasants alike. Carnival had a serious purpose, such as celebrating a holy day, but it also provided entertainment for both participants and spectators. Visitors commented on the relative freedom with which women circulated in public, or the way townspeople mingled with peasants. People took time to stop and stare—and to shop. Salesmen made quick profits from the medicines, perfumes, and novelty items they sold to spectators lining squares and other public places along the parade route. Townspeople considered carnival an invitation to engage in extreme behavior, and peasants welcomed the chance to take a break from work. Yet in some ways it was just part of daily life in towns, where people moved around in order to see and to be seen.

The entertainment of the street was increasingly replaced by indoor activities. This trend occurred primarily because the urban elite classes wanted to separate themselves from the poor and the socially inferior. They held dances and gambling parties, which were often as elaborate as the street spectacles. Dances were held in town halls. In Nuremberg, Germany, the list of those permitted to take part in the dances became the legal basis for membership in the elite. Gambling could take place in comfortable and attractive surroundings that excluded the poor and the disreputable, who played cards in taverns. New forms of entertainment also developed, particularly at the end of the Renaissance: opera, theater, private poetry readings, and discussion groups.

the old village communities. Royal governments further weakened the villages by finding pretexts to seize and sell communal lands.

Although peasants valued stability and self-sufficiency, they had regular contact with the outside world. They were highly mobile, often moving to other villages and rural regions, or to towns and cities. Usually they moved to take advantage of economic opportunities or to seek marriage partners. Those most likely to migrate were the landless and the young. Throughout Europe, a substantial proportion of peasant boys and girls went through a period of domestic service as a phase in their lives before settling down as adults. These adolescent servants usually found jobs with families in neighboring villages, but sometimes they ended up in regions far from their birthplace. Adult peasants frequently took seasonal jobs, harvesting crops in distant parts of their own country or even in foreign countries. During slack periods of the agricultural calendar, many peasants became muleteers (mule drivers) or carters. These occupations often took them to distant locations and sometimes enabled them to find better work situations.

Villages have own government

Villages were governed by local assemblies (representative bodies) who elected their own officials and drew up their own local laws. Village self-rule was tolerated by outside political authorities such as church officials, noblemen, and town leaders. They realized that local people needed to make certain decisions pertaining to their own lives. Typically, the village assembly met in the local church, under a large tree, or in some other public place. Elected officials often displayed political skill, both within the village and in dealing with external authorities. In theory, participation in the government was open to all local citizens on equal terms. With the passage of time, however, village councils throughout Europe tended to fall under the domination of wealthy local landowners or merchants.

Through local assemblies and governing councils, peasant villagers regulated the use of resources such as forests, pastures, and farming lands. The aim was to protect and guarantee equal access to these lands. The local community also took charge of building and maintaining roads, wells, ovens, and other projects that benefited the village. Almost everywhere, peasant communities shared land, work, and products. These communities coexisted with private estates owned by noblemen. The community structure of the village gave it a leadership role in the defense of peasant rights. Village governments were active in hundreds of peasant rebellions. Many of these uprisings, such as the Germans Peasants' War (1524–26), became quite violent (see "German Peasants' War" in Chapter 5). However, the uprisings nearly always began as protests against violations of peasants' rights. Typically, peasant revolts were provoked by the growing power of the nation-state, which demanded higher taxes. In the end, the state's superior military forces usually crushed peasant armies. But the victorious state often introduced reforms that satisfied some of the major peasant grievances.

Social outsiders

During the Renaissance and Reformation period, Muslims, Jews, and slaves lived outside the mainstream of society in western Europe. They experienced legal restrictions, economic hardship, and segregation. Women, too, stood in a group apart. A woman's status mirrored first that of her birth family and later, if she married, that of her husband (see "Women in the family" in Chapter 13).


During the Middle Ages, European Muslims (followers of Islam, a religion founded by the prophet Muhammad) lived primarily in Spain. They were descendants of Muslim Arabs and Berbers (wandering tribes) called Moors, who invaded the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in 712. At the time of the Moorish invasion, Christianity was the dominant religion. The Moors established a new culture on the Iberian Peninsula, but the Christians recaptured Spain in 1085. In 1233 Pope Gregory IX (before 1170–1241; reigned 1227–41) established the Inquisition (now known as the medieval Inquisition; see "Inquisition" in Chapter 1). This official church court was charged with finding and punishing heretics (those who did not adhere to the laws of the church), namely Jews and Muslims. During the Inquisition thousands of non-Christians were killed by mobs, while thousands more tried to save their own lives by converting to Christianity. "Converted" Muslims who still secretly practiced Islam were called Moriscos.

More than two hundred years later, in 1474, Pope Sixtus IV (1414–1484; reigned 1471–84) gave Spanish monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile permission to conduct the Spanish Inquisition, separate from the medieval Inquisition. In 1502 Moriscos in Castile were given one last opportunity to make a sincere conversion or leaving Spain. This policy continued for more than twenty years. Then on December 9, 1525, King Charles I gave a similar choice to Moriscos living in Aragon. The following year he established an Inquisition court at Granada, a heavily Muslim province, as a final effort to force Moriscos to accept Christianity or leave the country. The church then sent Franciscans and Jesuits (members of Catholic religious orders) into Granada and Valencia to apply pressure on the Moriscos. Many Moriscos paid considerable sums of money to Catholic Church officials so they could stay in the country. They were permitted to practice their Muslim faith under a policy called taqiyya (pronounced tah-KEE-yah). By the mid-1500s, between 350,000 and 400,000 Moriscos were living in the Spanish provinces. The majority of Moriscos were farm laborers, though many worked in various trades such as the silk and leather industries. Others had even entered the ranks of nobility.

In the mid-1500s tensions increased between Spain and the Ottoman Empire, a vast Muslim kingdom in parts of Asia and North Africa. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians had feared that the Ottomans would take over Europe. In Spain, Christians were becoming impatient because only a few Moriscos had actually converted. Moriscos were also fiercely opposing the efforts of the Inquisition. On December 24, 1568, Moriscos in Granada staged a rebellion and continued to fight Spanish armies for nearly two years. During the standoff, in 1569, King Philip II (1527–1598; ruled 1556–98) ordered all Moriscos—including those who were not involved in the conflict—out of Castile, Estremadura, and central Andalusia. More than eighty thousand people were deported. Government and church officials then debated what to do about Moriscos in the rest of Spain. Some contended that conversion was the best policy. Others proposed measures such as genocide (mass killings of members of a specific group) as well as the less extreme solution of deportation to the New World (the European term for North and South America). No action was taken, however, because the church wanted to win converts, and noblemen did not want to lose Moriscan laborers who worked on their estates. By the early seventeenth century, however, Spanish people had become convinced that Moriscos were plotting with Muslim and Protestant enemies to overthrow the Catholic state. On April 9, 1609, King Philip III (1578–1621; ruled 1598–1621) signed a decree of expulsion. From 1609 until 1614, between 300,000 and 350,000 Moriscos were forced to leave Spain. Most settled in North Africa, while others went to Turkey, France, and Italy. Children, slaves, and "good Christians" numbering in the tens of thousands were allowed to remain in Spain.


Jews had lived in western Europe since ancient times, but throughout the centuries Christians had become increasingly hostile toward them. This attitude was heavily influenced by the mistaken belief that Jews were the murderers of Christians (and the killers of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity). This notion was called the blood libel. According to the blood libel, Jews killed Christian boys to use their blood for "magical" rituals such as circumcision (removal of the fore-skin of the penis) and the baking of un-leavened bread, or matzos, used for the Passover holiday (matzos, a form of un-leavened bread—bread without yeast—are eaten during the celebration of the ancient Hebrews' liberation from slavery in Egypt). Circumcision and the baking of unleavened bread were ancient practices of the Jewish religion, but Christians associated them with sorcery (use of magic to activate evil spirits). Although there was no basis for the blood libel, Christians throughout Europe intensely feared Jews. Between 1290 and about 1655, Jews were not legally allowed to live in England. After riots against Jews in Spain in 1391, Jews were massacred and all survivors were forced to convert to Christianity. These New Christians, the conversos (converted), were known as Marranos, the Spanish word for pigs. In 1475 in Trent, Italy, the Jewish community was destroyed after someone accused Jews of murdering a Christian boy. All the males were executed on a charge of ritual murder, and women and children were forced to convert.

Christians were also suspicious of Jewish money lenders who became prominent in Italy during the Renaissance. A significant number of money lenders were Jews because anti-Semitism, or prejudice against Jews, restricted Jews' job opportunities and forced many to go into fields like money-lending, which mainstream society considered an undesirable profession. Some Catholic preachers linked blood libel with money lending. The Italian priest Bernardino da Feltre (1439–1494) said that money loaned to Christians by Jews was like blood flowing in the veins, and that Jews were like gangrene poisoning, which had to be cut out. In Germany, Jews were viewed as an evil force that undermined the unity of the state. Since the state was considered the Corpus Christi (body of Jesus Christ), Christian reactions against Jews were frequently violent and resulted in riots.

After the Protestant Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century, Catholic suspicions of Jews were matched by Lutheran ones. Martin Luther (1483–1546), leader of the Reformation and founder of Lutheranism, initially wanted to convert the Jews. His goal was not so much to win new converts as it was to challenge the teachings of the Catholic Church by demonstrating the superiority of Lutheran doctrines. When his quest failed, he lashed out against Jews with an anti-Jewish tract titled Von den Jügen und jren Lügen (The Jews and their lies; 1543). This work was not about the failure of his conversion efforts but was instead an expression of his suspicions of Jews. In a later tract he stated his concerns about negative Jewish influences on new Protestant groups such as the Sabbatarians. The Sabbatarians were a Protestant group who, like the Jews, observed the Sabbath on Saturday, in strict obedience to the fourth commandment in the Old Testament of the Bible (often called the Hebrew Bible).

Renaissance attitudes toward Jews were often shaped by humanists who based their ideas on ancient texts, which they were reading for the first time. Ancient Roman law, which had been adopted by the Holy Roman Empire as the set of laws for all of western Europe, contained statutes against Jews. Humanists were also influenced by legal scholars at the University of Padua in Italy. These scholars advocated separating Jews from Christians in order to prevent what was called the pollution of Christians and Christianity through any form of contact with Jews. By contrast, some of the greatest Renaissance legal experts, associated with the University of Perugia in Italy, supported a more moderate approach that balanced Jewish privileges with certain restrictions. Jewish privileges were quite limited, however. For instance, the general view was that Jewish children should be "saved" at any price, including forcibly baptizing them as Christians, even if their parents did not give approval.

Jewish communities

In the fifteenth century Jews were living in Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Low Countries, and Germany. There were no Jewish communities in England and France. By the late sixteenth century, however, Jews were being forcibly converted to Christianity or driven out of Europe. In 1492, during the Spanish Inquisition (a Catholic Church court established to seek out and punish non-Christians), all unconverted Jews were expelled from Spain (see "Roman and Spanish Inquisitions" in Chapter 7). In 1497 the Jews of Portugal were converted, then forced out of the country by the Portuguese Inquisition in the 1530s. The Jews of Sicily, which was under Spanish rule, were forced to flee, and those of the Kingdom of Naples were ousted by 1541. Jews living in Germany were either driven out or subjected to constant attack. Jews of the Low Countries lived under cover as Christians until the seventeenth century.

Any Jews remaining in Europe lived exclusively in northern and central Italy. They formed communities based on a condotta, a limited contract allowing small groups of Jews to settle in a city and establish banks for providing loans to the poor. These contracts obligated the bankers to remain in the town for periods of five to ten years and were regularly renewed. Jewish communities were restricted mainly to larger cities. They were kept out of most towns for centuries, and some towns never accepted them. Jews settled in Venice proper in 1516, but only within the quarter long known as the Ghetto Nuovo (the origin of the term "ghetto."). In the 1530s the pope issued charters of privilege allowing Portuguese Jews to settle in Venice and Ferrara in order to promote commerce and international trade. Jewish refugees from Spain settled in 1541 in the Ghetto Vecchio. Eventually they were joined by Portuguese refugees.

Court Jews

During the Renaissance many Jewish merchants and traders served on the courts of Italian rulers. Through their connections with Jewish traders in the Ottoman Empire, European Jews were ideally suited to supply armies with grain, timber, horses, and cattle. They also supplied rulers with diamonds, precious stones, and other luxury items. Jews were valued for what were perceived as good organizational skills. Rulers turned to individual Jews who were able to offer reliable, speedy, and extensive supplies of foodstuffs, cloth, and weapons for the army, the central instrument of the prince's power. Court Jews were often employed as tax administrators and court minters (those who made coins), and they engaged in secret and delicate diplomatic efforts on the ruler's behalf. Forming strong personal bonds with the ruler, court Jews were entrusted with arranging transfers of credit and providing assistance to the ruler.

Court Jews were especially prominent in the states of the Holy Roman Empire following the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), a conflict that involved all of the major powers of Europe. The war had left the Holy Roman Empire seriously weakened, and rulers within the empire needed people who were loyal to them. Jews with extensive trading and political connections were attractive figures. Some rose to positions of unique influence and affluence and were regarded as indispensable by their ruler. A typical example was Samuel Oppenheimer (c. 1630–1703), who served in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705; ruled 1658–1705), a member of the Habsburg dynasty based in Austria. In the early 1670s, only a few years after Leopold had expelled more than three thousand Jews from Vienna, Oppenheimer helped supply the Habsburg army. Awarded the title of imperial military factor, Oppenheimer developed an extensive operation that included many agents, contractors, and subcontractors throughout the empire and beyond. These connections enabled him to provide substantial supplies and foodstuffs to the Austrian armies and huge sums of money to the emperor. He also engaged in diplomatic activity on the emperor's behalf. Oppenheimer's activity, like that of some other court Jews, was performed in the face of adversity, as various forces within the Habsburg court plotted against him and tried to curtail his power.

Between 1591 and 1593, the grand duke of Tuscany brought a similar group into Livorno. Jews in this city handled a large percentage of Tuscan commerce with North Africa through the eighteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century, about 60 percent of Italy's 20,000 Jews lived within the Papal States (territory ruled by the pope), primarily in Rome, Ancona, and Ferrara. The Jewish community of Rome, which dated back to the ancient period, were given papal privileges as early as 1402. Roman Jews were allowed to collect funds from Jews throughout northern Italy. Most important, they were considered cives Romani, or Roman citizens. During the Renaissance, many Jews held positions in rulers' courts, becoming highly influential and successful.

Jewish autonomy ended

The Italian Jewish communities were essentially collections of individuals who were given authority by outside rulers to administer Jewish internal affairs—and to collect taxes. They were allowed to base their communities on Jewish law, but their autonomy (right to self-rule) was limited. For instance, the pope was constantly interfering in the work of Jewish tribunals (courts), even to the point of instructing these tribunals how to interpret Jewish law. In 1631 Venetian authorities discovered that Jewish statutes threatened to excommunicate (expel from the community) Jews who turned to non-Jewish courts. The Venetians then accused the Jews of trying to operate their own republic within the Republic of Venice.

Jewish community life was affected by the Roman Inquisition (see "Roman and Spanish Inquisitions" in Chapter 7). In 1555 Pope Paul IV (1476–1559; reigned 1555–59) established a ghetto in the Papal States. The following year he attacked Jews of Portuguese Christian origin, burning twenty-five of them at the stake. As a result, people fled to larger communities and many others converted, which was the pope's goal. A second and even greater dislocation took place in 1569, when Pope Pius V (1504–1572; reigned 1566–72) forced the Jews of the Papal States to live solely in Rome and Ancona, and in the French papal possessions around Avignon. The flourishing Jewish community of Bologna came to an abrupt end. Jews were also expelled by secular leaders of various small settlements in the Italian northeast, such as Vicenza, Treviso, and Cividale. For the remainder of the Renaissance and Reformation period, Jews in western Europe were confined to the ghettos of Italy.


In western Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, slavery was practiced mainly on the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. Even there, however, slavery was never crucial for social and economic development, and it did not exist on any great scale. Nevertheless, varieties of slavery were present. There were two distinct types of slavery: agricultural (rural) and domestic (urban). Some rural slaves worked in manufacturing on country estates. Much of the employment of domestic slaves was unproductive labor, for slaves were usually assigned as servants, guards, and sexual partners for masters. Most of the ordinary manufacturing of goods for everyday consumption took place in workshops within the homes of artisans. In these workshops a few domestic slaves could aid their artisan owners. Small-scale slavery, in which a few slaves were added to the urban or rural households as domestics and additional workers, was characteristic of both Renaissance Europe and the Islamic world. Gang slavery, which we associate with the slave system in the New World, was not present at all in Europe.

Slaves in Renaissance Europe came from two sources: birth to slave mothers or capture in warfare or raids. They were of many nationalities, and not exclusively African. When slaves entered western European households, they lived under the control of their masters, who legally had the power of life and death over them. Masters could sell, transfer, and move their slaves at will and could use them as sexual partners. Captives were often ransomed or exchanged. Despite their lack of legal standing, many slaves took advantage of laws that permitted them to attain freedom in several ways. For example, slaves could become free through self-purchase or by their master's gift during his lifetime or following his death. Freemen and free-women suffered legal limitations, but children born to them were fully free.

Slavery Shapes Europe

During the thousand years from the end of the Roman Empire to the beginning of European expansion in the Atlantic Ocean, slavery was practiced in the Christian world. It was encouraged by European contact with the highly developed slavery system run by Muslim traders in Africa. The growing influence of Roman law, which contained regulations on slavery, provided a ready-made set of rules to be put into force when slavery became economically beneficial to Europe. The resurgence of slavery in the sixteenth century was due to the creation of the sugar plantation system in the New World. Sugar growing and refining required intensive labor, but there were not enough Native American or European workers to meet the needs of Spanish and Portuguese plantation owners. Portuguese traders therefore turned to slave-trading networks that were already operating along the West African coast. They captured thousands of Africans and transported these human cargoes across the Atlantic. The persistence of slavery throughout the Middle Ages thus helped shape the colonial societies in North and South America, and, in very real ways, influenced the evolution of modern society throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Italy needs workers

Slavery increased during the fifteenth century as a result of numerous plague epidemics that swept Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and killed one-quarter to one-third of the European population (see "Black Death" in Chapter 1). As a consequence of the high death rate, European workers who might otherwise have become household servants found good jobs in the countryside or the cities. Death struck poor and rich alike, but many of the elite who survived increased their fortunes by receiving inheritance money from relatives who had died due to the disease. Slavery grew largely because additional workers and domestics were needed. The unrestricted importation of slaves from outside Italy was permitted by the government of Florence beginning in 1363, with the sole requirement that the slaves be of non-Christian origin. Perhaps as a result of the large influx of slaves over the preceding two decades, Venice prohibited slave auctions in 1366. Venetians were still permitted to import slaves, though all sales had to be by private contract.

Genoa continued to receive enslaved Tatars (a tribe from east central Asia), Russians, and Circassians (a group of people from the Caucasus, a region in southeast Europe) during this period, but their numbers declined in the second half of the fifteenth century when access to the Black Sea was cut off. The Genoese rectified the situation by going to the western Mediterranean. From North Africa, Spain, and Portugal, Muslim slaves were purchased in increasing numbers. In order to distinguish among Islam's varying ethnic groups, the Genoese categorized their slaves by skin color—white, black, indaco (indigo), lauro (mulatto), and olivegno (olive). Relatively few black slaves reached Genoa or other northern Italian cities, though they were fairly common in southern Italy and Sicily.

Eventually non-Christian slaves were forbidden in Italy, so the Venetians turned to indentured servants to meet the demand for domestic servants. Known as "souls" (anime) by the Venetians, these indentured servants were predominantly young, purchased from their parents in Dalmatia, Albania, Istria, and Corfu by Venetian ship masters. Distinguished legally from ordinary slaves and bound only for a defined period of service, servants could buy back their freedom if they had the money. Although Venetian law prohibited their exchange or sale to another master, the Venetian government had to ensure that they were not taken elsewhere in Italy, where they were in danger of being sold into perpetual slavery.

African slave trade

The situation was similar in Spain and Portugal. The Iberian states were part of the European world, where slavery gradually declined as serfdom and free labor grew more available at the end of the Middle Ages, in the fourteenth century. Yet, unlike the rest of western Europe, many Iberian kingdoms remained frontier states well into the sixteenth century sharing borders with non-Christian states whose inhabitants could be raided or enslaved with complete legality. This condition meant that slavery persisted there longer and more vigorously than elsewhere in Christian Europe.

The Portuguese and Spanish developed a large-scale trade in African slaves. Many of the African slaves went to the Atlantic islands, and many more went to the Americas as the pace of development increased there in the sixteenth century. Other black slaves ended up in Europe, causing changes in the ethnic composition of the servant population of several European regions. Blacks had been present in Europe in small numbers since the Roman period. From the ninth century, if not before, Muslims brought African slaves across the Saharan Desert for sale in the ports of the Mediterranean. Aside from Italy and the Iberian countries, however, blacks remained rarities in Europe until much later.

The Portuguese were the main slave traders of Europe in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. By the 1480s the Portuguese monarchy had established a Casa dos Escravos (slave house) in Lisbon to administer the trade. By the mid-sixteenth century, black slaves and freemen made up some 2.5 to 3 percent of the total Portuguese population. Only a minority of the Africans in the Portuguese slave trade actually arrived or remained in Portugal. Portuguese traders supplied slaves to the new Portuguese plantations in São Tomé (an island off western Africa), the Cape Verde, and Madeira (an island in the east Atlantic Ocean). They also sold slaves to African rulers and merchants at São Jorge da Mina. The Portuguese sold other slaves to Castilians in the Canary Islands off the coast of northwest Africa. Of those who were taken to Portugal significant numbers were later delivered elsewhere in Europe, particularly to Spain but also to Italy.

Greatest number in Seville

The greatest number of slaves were held in Seville, Spain. Slavery had been a feature of the life of Seville since Roman times. By the thirteenth century, while still under Muslim control, the city had large numbers of slaves. Between the time of the Christian reconquest of the city in 1248 and the mid-fifteenth century, most of the slaves in Seville were Muslims, captured in the constant warfare between Christians and Muslims.

African slaves became more common in the fourteenth century as Spanish and Italian merchants purchased them in North African ports. By the middle of the fifteenth century, black slaves arrived in Seville by sea or overland from Portugal. Once in Seville, most of the newly arrived slaves were sold to private buyers. Seville had no regular slave market, unlike Lisbon, where slaves were sold at the Casa dos Escravos. Slave dealers in Seville took their human merchandise through the streets and arranged sales on the spot, making private arrangements with prospective purchasers. The buyers, at least in the period from 1484 to 1489, were predominantly from the artisan class. Age, sex, and physical condition determined the prices slaves would bring. Children brought the lowest prices because, before they could be put to work profitably, they needed lengthy care and training, and they were subject to disease and death.

Most slaves in Seville were used as domestic servants. Well-off families usually had at least two slaves. Wealthier families owned greater numbers, much as their contemporaries in Italy did. Slaves were also used in smaller numbers for income-producing ventures, such as the soap factory of Seville and the municipal granary (a place where grain is stored). Slaves were employed as porters and long-shoremen, as retail sellers in the streets and plazas, and as assistants for shopkeepers and merchants. Some of the slaves acted as agents for their merchant-owners, and in some cases slaves ventured on business trips to the Spanish settlements in the Americas. Slaves were excluded from membership in the crafts guilds, though some did work as helpers for guild masters.

Mediterranean Europe had other cities in which slavery flourished in the period, even if they were not so racially mixed as Seville. One of those cities was Valencia, a major center for slavery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Slaves were not so numerous in Valencia as they were in Seville, but they were more varied in their ethnic origins. Most Valencian slaves were Muslim in origin, either from Spain itself or from North Africa. Non-Muslim slaves came from many other places, brought to Valencia by the slave traders. Within the western Mediterranean, the Balearic Islands also served as a hub of the Christian slave trade and as a place where slaves were used.

Social problems

Like societies in the past, people living during the Renaissance and Reformation period experienced social problems. Two of the most prevalent were poverty and crime.


In the great cities of Europe, between 50 and 70 percent of the population could be classified as destitute. They suffered from financial hardship, lack of political power, and lack of social esteem. About 4 to 8 percent of the people were dependent on relief. They included the very young, the aged, invalids, and those who were mentally afflicted or physically impaired. Some were beggars, some were infants in the care of wet nurses, and some received relief in their own homes. In famine years their numbers swelled due to an influx of refugees from the devastated countryside, who struggled toward city gates in a desperate quest for food from granaries and alms from citizens.

Beyond the helpless and destitute lay a much larger circle of ill-paid laboring poor, comprising journeymen and their families, porters, and other casual workers. Among them were women who took on spinning and other tasks in the textile trades, widows burdened with young children, agricultural workers living within town walls, and unemployed servants. Dependent on irregular, seasonal work, they had no extra money or savings. Poor people could scrape out a living for much of the time, but sudden rises in the price of bread would immediately plunge them into reliance on charity. They were known to tax collectors as miserahili, people who have nothing, and they comprised at least another 20 percent of the urban population.

There was also an outer circle of craftsmen, shopkeepers, and minor officials, who had no real financial security in the face of illness or disaster, such as a plague epidemic. They were probably the people described by Carlo Borromeo (1538–1584), archbishop of Milan, when he visited Varese, Italy, in 1567. Borromeo mentioned seeing people who had some possessions but needed assistance because they had many children who they could not support. Those in the outer circle of poverty would never have begged openly, but few would have refused charitable contributions toward their daughters' marriage portions, or dowry (the amount of money or goods that a woman had to bring to a marriage).

Levels of poverty

Most societies recognized levels of poverty, which were created by the superior classes. A privileged group of "shamefaced poor" generally claimed the largest allowances and enjoyed the most discreet and considerate treatment from charitable associations. They included nobles or burghers who were threatened not with starvation but with loss of honor because they could not afford to maintain the lifestyle appropriate to their social position. In fifteenth-century Florence the "shamefaced" also included respectable artisans and shopkeepers. They resembled the "house poor" of sixteenth-century Germany or the "decayed households" in sixteenth-century England.

The "poor of Christ" were identified by the Catholic Church as those who represented the suffering Christ. It was thought that these people could transform earthly donations into heavenly treasure. They included widows and orphans as well as those who patiently accepted their misfortune and disability. In Catholic countries members of certain religious communities deliberately renounced all worldly goods. They were also considered the "poor of Christ," especially if, like the strict Franciscans (members of the order of Saint Francis of Assisi), they owned no property and lived by begging. Special hospitality was given to pilgrims who took long, grueling journeys to the great religious centers of Rome and Loretto in Italy and Compostela in Spain. There was little room, however, for such claims by the religious poor in Protestant societies. Their practices were perceived as mistaken attempts to pursue salvation through socially useless "works." Those who were poor through no choice of their own, however, received assistance from the Protestants. Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), the Swiss religious reformer wrote that voluntary poverty is simply a human act, whereas involuntary poverty follows the will of God. No doubt the largest body of poor people at any one time consisted of ordinary laborers who had no wealth or property and had to rely on their own physical strength for survival.

Below the laboring poor were the outcast poor, such as vagrants (wanderers), beggars who were not actually poor (they found it easier to beg than work), and brothel prostitutes (women who lived in houses that specialize in selling sexual favors). Widely accepted, at least from the thirteenth century, was the notion that not all the poor were the poor of Christ. In literature of the fifteenth century these people were depicted as being part of an organized anti-society, devoted to tricking the pious and stealing the alms of the truly poor. Prostitution, while to some extent licensed in Spanish and Italian towns, and in France and Germany before the coming of Protestantism, was at the same time stigmatized. In Dijon, France, in 1554 it was considered a form of female vagrancy. During the sixteenth century the outcast poor were increasingly portrayed as brute beasts. According to this view, they could be made human only by the Christian teachings of which they were woefully ignorant. As habitual sinners mired in sloth and vice, they were lost souls in need of redemption. This redemption could be achieved by confining them to an institution where they were forced to live like monks and nuns.

Formal and informal charity

Poverty was alleviated in numerous informal ways. People gave small gifts to beggars, and neighbors and families helped one another. Landlords and farmers sold grain to the local poor at less than the current market prices. Alehouse keepers and bakers gave generous credit. In addition to these forms of relief, most towns and some townships and villages maintained confraternities (religious brotherhoods), hospitals, and credit institutions. Management of these institutions gave well-to-do, leisured citizens the opportunity to improve their social standing by becoming patrons of the poor. Many wealthy people provided beds or pensions for their own favored dependents, and some were commemorated for their good works. Hospitals employed a large staff in relation to the number of inmates, and there was often no great difference in wealth between the poor admitted to the hospitals and the ward attendants who looked after them.

Confraternities help poor

Catholic cities generally contained large numbers of confraternities and a much smaller number of sororities for women. Most of these confraternities and sororities were societies of laypersons who followed a rule similar to that practiced by official religious orders. Laypersons were taught how to gain salvation (forgiveness of sins) by practicing good works and correcting their faults. Among these good works were acts of mercy prescribed in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Saint Matthew (a book in the New Testament of the Bible): almsgiving, caring for the sick, visiting prisoners, and taking in strangers. Catholic Church tradition had added another act of mercy, burial of the dead. This pious duty usually involved financing masses (Catholic religious services) for the souls of the departed. Those suffering the pains of Purgatory (the region between heaven and hell) were considered worthy recipients of charity from living people. In addition, presiding at masses provided welcome employment for impoverished priests. After the Black Death (a prolonged plague epidemic in Europe; see "Black Death" in Chapter 1), at least in Italy, it also became increasingly common to give relatively large sums as dowries for the marriage of poor girls of good reputation.

Confraternities functioned partly for the benefit of their own members and partly for the benefit of outsiders. From the late fifteenth century, there were increasing numbers of devout confraternities that directed much of their energy outward, toward people too poor or disreputable to belong to a religious brotherhood. Among these groups was the Compagnia del Divino Amore (Company of Divine Love) in Genoa, Italy, and elsewhere. Confraternities could be socially exclusive clubs, or they might embrace everyone in a community or parish, making only modest demands on people's time and purses. In the Spanish town of Zamora in the late sixteenth century, there were 150 confraternities serving at most 8,600 residents, or one organization for every fourteen households. There were five for clerics, ten for nobles, and more than a hundred for commoners.

Although confraternities were mostly confined to artisans and people above them socially, it was possible—as in the Italian cities of Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice—to organize confraternities of approved beggars, especially blind and lame ones. Elected officers were in charge of fair distribution of alms collected on the street by the more skillful and appealing beggars. In sixteenth-century Bologna, Italy, street porters and others formed a Company of the Poor for the purpose of attracting rather than dispensing charity. The wealthier confraternities did not confine themselves to outdoor relief. They were quite capable, for example, of running hospitals or almshouses (poorhouses), and could be dedicated to almost any charitable or pious purpose.

Hospitals aid the sick

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, hospitals provided shelter but not necessarily medical care. To provide hospitality was not their only task, for they might also serve as general almshouses to their communities. Infants in their care were placed in foster homes, often in the nearby countryside. Three major functions of hospitals were the reception of pilgrims, the care of orphans and abandoned children, and the care of old people and widows. Attention to the sick went hand in hand with caring for the poor and helpless: people were poor because they were sick, and sick because they were poor. Certain hospitals, among them Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, enjoyed a high reputation for the quality of their medical care. Some kept wards specifically for the "shamefaced poor." Hospitals were unlikely to attract well-todo people, even those who needed sophisticated medical treatment not available in their homes.

In the late Middle Ages, innumerable small hospitals were founded by private individuals, lay and clerical groups, and associations such as confraternities. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many large cities in Spain, France, and northern Italy attempted to draw most of their local hospitals together in a single organization run on the community's behalf. They did this to promote efficiency and avoid corruption. In Italy at least, responsibility was taken from unsupervised wardens and given to boards of governors recruited from the principal social orders in the city.

Pawnshops for the Poor

In addition to assisting the poor through confraternities and hospitals, many towns ran credit institutions. During the fifteenth century, Italian towns especially attempted to provide small loans at controlled rates of interest for the "poor of money," people who had goods to pawn. These people were distinct from the "poorer poor," who had no goods. Town officials might license a Jewish pawn broker, or establish a cut-rate Christian pawnshop known as a monte di pietà (mount of mercy), or they might resort to both methods. Similar pawnshops arose in Spain and the southern Low Countries. In the seventeenth century so-called prêts charitables were opened in France. They served not only as pawnshops but also as disaster banks, from which the commune (town government) was entitled to borrow in emergencies. In country districts the equivalents of the urban monte di pietà were grain banks, which lent seed corn to peasant farmers. These loans were backed by guarantees from the farmers' more prosperous neighbors.

However, these metropolitan superhospitals seldom succeeded in drawing all hospitals under their wings, and before long new institutions were added. Among them were plague hospitals, which were in part quarantine centers for people and goods suspected of being contaminated by the plague. Hospitals for "incurables" originated about 1500 during a virulent outbreak of sexually transmitted disease. These institutions soon began to deal with other conditions that required prolonged treatment. From about 1560, hospitals designed to admit all beggars in the city began to be erected, amid much controversy over the desirability of keeping destitute people away from the public gaze. Certain cities staged "Triumphs of Charity" processions, which involved assembling local beggars and marching or carting them off to their new quarters, accompanied by a selection of their benefactors. Some triumphs were short-lived. In Rome, for instance, few such hospitals possessed the resources to carry out effective housing of the poorest of the poor.

Poor relief reforms

From the early sixteenth century many town councils and some state governments endeavored to establish a more rational and coordinated system of poor relief. Their schemes had several common characteristics. They aimed to suppress or restrict public begging, encouraging each town to look after its own poor people and turn others away. Many governments organized censuses (official counts) of the poor and set up work programs for the unemployed. Another goal was to provide trade training for beggar children and orphans. Several Protestant towns in Germany dissolved Roman Catholic religious institutions. They then put the property and money into Common Chests controlled by boards of laymen, which were used for the education and relief of the deserving poor. Some Catholic cities also attempted to pool resources and establish centers for poor relief. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries public authorities became increasingly involved as poor relief agents. Many towns ran public granaries as a defense against famine. Efforts were made to control disease by controlling the outcast poor. Catholics and Protestants alike condemned idleness and undisciplined begging, but each religious group had its own type of institution. Catholic confraternities disappeared from Protestant towns, which ran public agencies, while the great beggars' hospitals continued their work in Catholic cities.


There was no uniform system of justice during the Renaissance and Reformation period. Europe was fragmented into hundreds of states, and each state determined its own laws. In general, however, laws were created by the common will of the people, by church courts, and by the government. Criminal behavior was divided into two categories: crimes against persons and crimes against property.

Crimes against persons

Crimes against persons were frequent, and the seriousness of such crimes varied with the level of importance of the victim. Monarchs, for example, were considered far more important than the general population. The reason was that substantial power was given to a monarch by Roman law (the Codes of the ancient Roman Emperor Justinian). Roman law was introduced in the late Middle Ages in an attempt to apply a single system of laws throughout western Europe. With the growing acceptance of Roman Law, assassination, attempted assassination, and conspiracy against a monarch's government were considered especially serious crimes.

Other forms of crimes against persons ranged from verbal insult (a speech act that was legally recognized as violence) to assault and murder. In Italy, some types of verbal insult were accompanied by various acts, such as placing animal horns over a person's doorway, smearing excrement over a door, or posting signs in public places. A chance encounter between enemies on a public plaza could lead to an exchange of insults. At such a point, each man was determined to defend his own honor, and violence usually erupted.

Feuds and Outlaws

One of the most highly organized forms of violence was feuding, or acts of violence between prominent families. Governments tried to stamp out feuding because it threatened the stability of the state. Venice eliminated feuding among its ruling families by the end of the thirteenth century, and England stamped out feuds in the sixteenth century. Feuding persisted elsewhere during the Renaissance, especially in mountainous areas, remote regions, and along borders between states.

The main participants in feuds were adult male members of a family or clan. Boys and women were typically not attacked. Feuding murders were usually committed in public, rather than in ambushes at night, so the murderer could make himself known. The code of feuding was based on hunting customs, so that victims were sometimes treated as if they were hunted prey. They were butchered like animals and fed to dogs. Feuds among aristocratic families could sometimes trigger widespread social violence. An example was a devastating peasant revolt in Friuli, Italy, in 1511. Feuding families employed armed guards called bravos, who engaged in organized violence not only against their employer's enemies but also against helpless peasants and citizens.

Goverments combated feuding by sending the guilty parties into exile. But this punishment simply encouraged men to become outlaws—exiles who survived by turning to robbery, murder for hire, or smuggling. In Italy networks of exiles constantly agitated to return home, creating a kind of rebel force that lurked along the borders of virtually every state. Some of these outlaw-exiles were hired as soldiers in the armies of warring princes. During the last half of the sixteenth century the increased use of the rapier sword and the pistol made combat much more deadly. Whereas warring families previously had had street fights and brawls, they now were staging duels, which were conducted according to highly complex rituals. The dueling fad spread from Italy to the rest of Europe as warring families and clans abandoned group violence in favor of this more controlled method of settling feuds.

Not even the poorest Europeans engaged in violence without the use of some kind of weapon. Every man who was not a cleric (member of the clergy)—and an unarmed man was always assumed to be a cleric—carried at least a cudgel (club) wherever he went. If a confrontation occurred in a large city such as sixteenth-century Florence, where all weapons were banned within the city gates, then both men and women fought with anything at hand. They used rocks, pots and pans, and other items that could inflict injury, but they never simply fought with their fists. The Italian countryside of the sixteenth century had a true "arms race," as warring groups made or obtained firearms.

The rape of women was also considered a violent crime. Then, as now, rape was a display of male power over women. The major difference was that during the Renaissance era, when family feuds were involved, rape could be part of the violence used to carry out a vendetta (planned revenge).


The criminal justice system dealt with crimes of violence by imposing various penalties, often in combination. Flexibility was the rule. Fines were imposed on those convicted of minor violations, but the level of punishment could escalate sharply if the crime was linked to a serious flare-up of a vendetta. Even a verbal insult, if it led to injury or death during a vendetta, could be punished with fines that matched the severity of injury. The most severe penalty was death.

Complicating matters everywhere in Europe was the fact that an accused person could easily evade punishment by fleeing the court jurisdiction where the crime was committed. There was a risk involved, however, for those who fled. They were automatically banned from the area, deprived of the protection of law, and subject to being killed or captured by anyone without recourse (the right to defend themselves). But this was a risk worth taking, because a fugitive from justice could avoid spending a long time in jail before trial. In effect, the justice system was forced to bargain with the accused so he would return. At times a suspected criminal could even negotiate a lesser punishment as a condition of return. Such a deal might include a limited period of exile (forced absence from his home region), payment of a fine in money or kind (for example, personal property), or some combination of these penalties.

In northern Europe there was a growing reliance on a system called afflictive penalties, which was supposed to make punishments equal for rich and poor alike. Thus the rich were prevented from getting off with lighter punishment because they could more easily pay fines. After the 1530s the city of Florence increasingly imposed exile, known as confino, for a fixed period somewhere within the state, such as in the town of Livorno. Execution was reserved for the rare career criminal, for the worst murderers, and for bandits involved in brigandage (plundering of property). When caught, brigands were immediately hung in groups.

Crimes against property

Crimes against property were less frequently committed than crimes against persons. Such offenses were many and varied, but they were clearly on the increase throughout the sixteenth century, when more laws dealing with these crimes went on the books. Theft covered a broad range of violations, from stealing a fish or a loaf of bread at market to the occasional fraudulent bankruptcy. The latter was considered a form of theft, comparable to a failure to pay off a legitimate debt, and was a jailable offense. In the countryside, highway robbery was a special problem since, unlike theft in the city, it was invariably done with the aid of a deadly weapon. Highway robbery differed from brigandage in severity and frequency. Brigandage was widespread in the sixteenth century. It had to be treated as a military problem, because of the number and size of the bands of brigands. The usual solution was to organize an expensive temporary search party to hunt down the thieves.

Beginning in the sixteenth century in Florence, royal decrees established new types of property crimes. After 1537 fishing and hunting were declared off-limits to those without permits in large areas of Tuscan forests and rivers. These lands had formerly been open to everyone for gaming and fishing but were now reserved only for aristocrats. The motivation for creating these reserves was twofold: to establish hunting as an activity associated with the aristocracy, and to create monopolies on fish and game, which would be sold to supporters of the powerful Medici family. This practice was adopted by the nobility of other northern European countries. French nobles, for example, annexed land for their own private use.

Other categories of crime against property were created when property owners tried to protect new uses of their land. One example was converting land to pasture for raising sheep or for planting mulberry trees to cultivate silkworms. Violators—for instance, poor people who used the land for farming—were punished by criminal courts instead of civil courts. Wealthy people preferred criminal courts because civil procedures were too long and too expensive, and the outcome was less certain than in criminal courts.

Criminal justice system

European systems of criminal justice dealt differently with commoners and aristocrats. Distinctions were made between people according to their social status, and criminal courts recognized these distinctions. Another important factor was the severity of the crime.

The courts dealt with all classes and persons except for church officials and members of the royal family. A member of a royal family seldom committed a crime. When he did, it was usually one of violence and was swept under the rug. Aristocrats, such as those linked to the Medici regime in Florence, committed crimes, but the Medici rulers dealt with them outside of the regular system or by manipulating the system. Sometimes aristocratic criminals were ignored. Women did not appear in court nearly so frequently as did men. They were accused of a very limited range of crimes, most often fights with other women, small thefts, and other nonviolent offenses. They were given the same kinds of punishment as men, usually fines or confino. The most serious crime of which women were accused was infanticide (killing their children). However, prosecutions were rare because it was a difficult crime to prove in either civil or church courts.

Crimes against the regime, such as conspiracy (plot against a government), assassination, or attempted assassination, were the most serious crimes. Viewed as crimes against the royal person—who is the state—such offenses were punished by execution, imprisonment, or long periods of exile. Crimes of the poor against the wealthy, usually property crimes, were punished with fines, or exile within the state, or both. Crimes among persons of the same social status, notably the poor, were given these same penalties. The authorities found crimes of violence between feuding families particularly disturbing but punished them with fines or exile. They often suspected foreigners of thievery, since most professional thieves came from countries outside the one in question, and the punishment was execution or banishment. The occasional thrill-seeking noble might also become a thief.

Inquisitorial procedure adopted

By the sixteenth century, the legal codes of northern Europe and Spain followed the Italian codes by adopting Roman law. They investigated alleged crime through inquisitorial (from the Latin inquirere, inquisitum, to inquire into or to search for evidence) procedure. This system was adopted first by the Roman Catholic Church to deal with heretics (those who violate the laws of the church). Inquisitorial procedure was used by Italian communes (town governments) in the twelfth century, and by the sixteenth century it was common throughout western Europe. Under this system government officials conducted the entire investigation in order to establish the facts and find the objective truth. They were usually successful. Exceptions occurred when the ruler had a personal stake in the outcome. Occasionally a case might prove embarrassing or inconvenient to the prince. Then the accused might be murdered in his prison cell, or taken into exile without benefit of a trial.

Difficulty in financing the justice system played a crucial role in determining its character and operation. Those accused of crimes were usually held for long periods of time in uncomfortable public jails because they could not afford bail. The law required them to pay their own jail expenses, but most could not do so. Hence, the government had to support the prisoners, but very little state funding was granted for this purpose. Thus, those in jail, whether guilty or innocent, suffered hunger and other discomforts. The Florentines dealt with the problem by clearing the jails every six or nine months by releasing those unable to pay their fines.

The use of torture to obtain confession was common when no other reliable evidence could be found, usually in cases of professional theft. Torture was intended to shorten the time that people spent in jail, which reduced costs. The courtroom was often simply a place where lawyers exchanged documents, and hardly any examination of witnesses and oral arguments took place. The justice system therefore did not offer adequate protections for the accused. The overall quality of judges was uneven. Men without legal training served as judges in England, Germany, and Florence. Trained legal professionals presided in the French criminal justice system, which had adopted the inquisitorial procedure.

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