Work and Leisure

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Work and Leisure



Different Patterns. In the contemporary world, families in urban areas and in most parts of the developed world rarely work as a unit; economically, families are units of consumption—buying items they use as a group such as cars, houses, and food—rather than units of production. They are also bound together by emotional ties, expected to develop love for one another and to engage in leisure-time activities together. This model is in many ways the reverse of the pattern in Renaissance and Reformation Europe; in that era, most families were units of production, raising crops or making items together. (In this way, they resemble families in less-developed areas in which most people still make their living by farming.) During what little free time they had, family members generally sought out their peers, rather than other family members, for recreational activities.

Child’s Play. Though work began at an early age for most children, very young children and older children during nonwork hours played with toys and engaged in games that were not that different from modern devices. They had dolls, balls, hoops, tops, sticks, and marbles. Because the houses of the poor were small, children played outside much of the time. Adolescents often congregated together in single-sex groups, the girls most likely in someone’s house or yard and the boys in the streets or alleys. Boys were often given toy weapons for both play and practice, and girls were given dolls to train them for their later roles as mothers; even girls who entered convents at a young age, and thus were expected to remain unmarried and childless, played with and owned dolls. From evidence in Florence, girls in convents viewed these dolls as representing the infant Jesus, and saw caring for them as a sign of religious devotion.

Entertainment. There were no large-scale public games or professional entertainments in Europe during this period, as there had been during the Roman Empire, but traveling entertainers occasionally sang,

danced, and performed plays or puppet shows at markets or fairs. By the sixteenth century in some cities of Europe these traveling players had settled into permanent acting troupes operating out of theaters, such as those made famous by Shakespeare’s plays, or in the courts of Europe’s monarchs. Attending the theater was not an option for most people, however, whose opportunities to see or hear any professional entertainment were very limited.


Festivals and celebrations in the Renaissance occasionally got out of hand and led to tragedy. The following is the report of events at a 1393 wedding, recorded by the French royal chronicler Jean Froissart.

There was in the. king’s household a $arman squke . . . who, thought of the following piece of pleasantry, to arouse the king and the ladies.... For the ball that night, he had six cloth coats made and then had them covered with: flax that looked like hair in shape an4 color. He dressed the king in one, [four young nobles in others].... and the sixth one he wore himself. When they were all dressed up by having the coats sewed around them, they appeared to be wild men (homines sausages), for they were covered with fur from head to foot. This masquerade pleased the king greatly, and he expressed his pleasure to his squire. It was so secretly contrived that no one knew anything about it but the servants who attended on them.

Sir Evan de Foix [one of the masqueraders] . . . . said to the king;

“Sire, I advise you to give strict orders that no one come near us with torches, for if but a spark falls on the coats we are disguised in, the flaxen fur will catch ire, and we will burn up before anyone can do anything about it.” In God’s name,” the king said, “you speak wisely and well, and it shall be done.”.... Then he sent for one of the sergeants at arms who was on duty at the door and told him: “Go to the ballroom and in die king’s name command that all the torches be placed on the far side of the room and that none of them come near the six wild men who are:about to enter.” 0t was done, but] soon after this, the duke of Orleans entered, attended by four knights and six torches. He knew nothing of the king’s orders or die six wild men who were about to make their appearance. First he watched the dancing and die women, then he began dancing vigorously himself....

At this point die king of France made his appearance with die five others, all dressed like wild men and covered from head to foot with flaxen fur as fine as human hair. No one present could recognize them. Five of them were attached to one anodier and the king came in first and led the others into the dance. When they entered the hall, everyone was so intent an watching diem that the order about torches was forgotten. Fortunately the king left his companions and, impelled by his youth, went to show himself off to: the ladies; passing first in front of the queen, he went along next to the duchess of Berry, who was his aunt arid younger than he was. For fun the duchess took hold of him and wanted to know who he was, but die king stood there and would not give his name. ’You won’t ever escape me,” die duchess said, “unless I know your name first.”

Just then die other five wild men met a great accident caused by the duke of Orleans ., . who was too eager to know, who they were. As the five were dancing, he lowered the torch that one of his servants held in front of him, bringing it so close that the flame ignited the flax. And flax, as you know, cannot be put out once it is afire. Moreover, the flames heated die pitch widi which the flax was attached to die cloth. The costumes diernselves soon burst into flame, for they were covered with pitch and flax, were dry and delicate, and were all yoked together.

Those who wore them Were in agony and began to cry out horribly, The situation was so dangerous that no one dared to get near them., although several knights did come up and try to .strip the burning costumes off them, but the pitch burned their hands and disabled them for days thereafter. One of the five, Nantouillet, figured that the bar must be nearby, so he broke away and threw himself into a washtub full of water for rinsing out cups and plates. This saved him; otherwise he would have been burned to death like the others, and he still was badly injured.

Source: Jean Froissait, Chroniques, translated in Thomas johnes, Chrvnicks of England, France, Spain; and the Adje’ming Countries, volume 2 (London: W. Smith, 1839), pp. 532-533.

Time for the Soul. The one leisure-time activity that families often engaged in together was worship. Well-to-do fathers often held morning and evening prayers, or, after the development of the printing press, read out loud to the entire household—servants included—from the Bible or other religious literature. Families attended church services together, the wealthier of them often sitting in special family pews. Religious ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms, and funerals marked major family events, and in Catholic areas the anniversaries of family members’ deaths were also the occasion of special ceremonies. Particularly after the Reformation, time spent not working was supposed to be spent in training the soul, whether in the family group, the larger congregation, or, if one were literate, reading and praying on one’s own.

Festivals. Religious holidays also provided an occasion for community-wide festivals. Most areas celebrated specific saints’ days, which were also often linked to important points in the agricultural cycle such as harvest or planting. The whole community would turn out for the festivals, which offered social companionship and a break from the bleakness of work. At festivals and weddings, people of all social classes often engaged in wild public parties and celebrations, wearing costumes and playing games; occasionally these activities led to tragedy. Protestant and Catholic reformers often criticized the drinking, gambling, and dancing that accompanied festivals and weddings, and occasionally succeeded in having festivals prohibited and weddings restricted to solemn ceremonies in a church. In a few instances, such as in Geneva under John Calvin’s governance, reformers also banned certain leisure-time activities that occurred outside of festivals, such as gambling, cardplaying, and plays.

Controlling the Disorderly. Religious disapproval of raucous recreational activities was accompanied by a growing distaste on the part of upper- and middle-class people for public drinking and brawling. Historians have labeled this view the “reformation of manners” or the “civilizing process,” which they also trace through long-term changes in habits of eating, washing, blowing one’s nose, spitting, and urinating. These natural functions were increasingly regarded as inappropriate in public by upper- and middle-class Europeans, who began to see polished manners as a sign of their superiority over the common masses. They increasingly carried out their bodily functions and their recreational activities in private, the first in their own homes and the second either in the home or in palaces or other exclusive sites separated from the general public. Events such as those described at the royal wedding of 1393 would have been unusual, almost unthinkable, for a party involving upper-class people in 1600. For members of the elite, family quarrels and concerns also gradually became private matters, to be kept out of the public eye and away from public institutions such as courts whenever possible.


Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London: Temple Smith, 1978; New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, translated by Edmund Jephcott (New York: Urizen, 1978).

Ralph A. Houlbrooke, The English Family, 1450-1700 (London & New York: Longman, 1984).