What were the social and political features that set urban communities apart from their rural counterparts

Although early modern Europe was predominantly a rural-based society, it is not surprising that the urban centres (which only held approximately 5% of Europe’s population in 16001) had many differences in its socio-economic and political structure in comparison to their rural counterparts. The most striking social difference between the two communities is their demographics; urban areas almost always had a higher population density than rural regions.

This essentially saw towns and cities grow into “the fundamental political unit[s] of civilised Europe”2. Between the early sixteenth century and the mid eighteenth century the population of Europe rose by massive proportions (albeit somewhat geographically unevenly). Northern countries such as Scandinavia saw by 1600 an increase by approximately 65 per cent in population, others such as Britain and the Netherlands by almost 50 per cent, whilst the remainder of Central Europe saw perhaps an increase of up to one third3.

This increase in population, coupled with a rise in migration and the impetus of trade, saw urban areas double, and sometimes even triple in population and physical size, which led to, as one contemporary noted, “a disproportionate increase in the town population… [making] urbanisation… a notable feature of the period”4. In rural areas however, the population was much more spread out and thus, unlike towns and cities (which, except for trade, could be argued to be self-sustaining), they were not independent elements and so had to rely on other villages to form a community in which all could survive.

This inherent difference is one of the key factors in helping to explain the complexity between the different political and social features between urban and rural communities. A feature that was both socially and politically unique to the rising urban areas was the “consolidation of towns… as communities with a life and structure on their own”5. This identity, based more often than not on special political privileges, was recognised via a “corporate autonomy… freeing] them from the seigneurial control exerted over the… countryside”6. This freedom from control was often exerted in forms of physical objects such as town walls7, representing jurisdictional and administrative boundaries of the town. It is important to note that during the early modern period, although there were several different types of urban areas, the intrinsic political and social systems of these areas remained reasonably synonymous.

For example both small towns (which were the most numerous throughout central and Western Europe) and large cities appeared to have a high concentration of hierarchy in society. This hierarchy differed in some respects to that found in rural society in the sense that in towns there was an inherent and fundamental distinction between citizens and non-citizens in urban life.

However in the rural areas (where the majority of the population were non-freeholders) there is evidence that migration was a common event8, resulting in (as the peasants moved from village to village) a diluting of the ‘taint’ of being a non-resident. The differences in physical sizes and populations between urban and rural areas invariably lead to the emergence of different lifestyles in each respective centre, with such lifestyles also subjected to gender, race, and social status.

Due to the nature of towns (in which town walls forced expansion of cities to rise vertically9) “city-dwellers lived in far closer contact with social groups other than their own, than did peasants… [promoting] greater social harmony than… in the countryside”10. However the consequences of such a high population in a relatively small area saw urban life as being hazardous, especially until the eighteenth century where medical advances had been made, with overcrowding making towns vulnerable to high mortality rates from fire and epidemics11.

However in the view of many who lived during the early modern period the urban lifestyle was quite often, in comparison to the rural lifestyle, seen as more privileged, with town walls offering protection in times of conflict; poor relief being, especially in Catholic Europe, readily more available through almsgiving; city-dwellers paying less to the tithes of the church; and perhaps rather significantly, direct taxation was “almost impossible to levy on… townsmen, whose assets were invisible”12.

Thus it can be suggested that the notable peasant migration towards the cities during this period was based on the assumption of obtaining such privileges noted above. Whilst it is clear that the urban and rural lifestyles differed, there was one major similarity. Both types of environment had the same type of social order, namely that of the poor and the rich (albeit the urban centre’s social system was more sophisticated). The urban poor were the “least well-adapted, least skilled, least well-rooted elements in the towns; most… ot townsmen by origin but… rural immigrants”13. The origins of the urban poor stemmed from the fact that few towns could provide enough labour for the amount of peasants streaming in from the countryside. As a result they were often forced into a life of prostitution14, crime, or begging. In contrast to the rural poor however, the urban peasants experienced a more charitable environment, with the Catholic Church regarding relief to the poor a vital function15 of its duties.

Protestant countries differed somewhat, as there was “an absence of large, well-endowed ecclesiastical corporations… [with] poor relief… not being centrally co-ordinated”16 and so other solutions had to be found17. The differences between the urban and rural rich show the extent to which the urban areas had developed. The urban rich consisted of two main classes, the ruling elite and the bourgeoisie. Whilst the rural areas certainly had skilled peasants, it could not match the scale, the influence, or perhaps most importantly, the wealth behind the urban bourgeoisie.

In comparison to the rest of the population, the bourgeoisie was by no means poor, with “even the humblest among them [able to] afford more than the barest necessities of life”18. A further characteristic, unique to urban centres, was the fact, not that the bourgeoisie were rising, but instead displayed “social mobility in action… [and was] the most dynamic element in society”19. In contrast the nobles, as depicted by one contemporary, “extolled idleness, despising trade and productive activity”20.

Their place in urban environments was fast becoming obsolete, and coincided with the increase in bourgeoisie. In England in 1688 the nobility was just 1. 5 per cent of the total population, whereas the urban middle-classes made up approximately 9 per cent, rising to 15 per cent by the end of the eighteenth century; such ratios were almost universal across Europe throughout the period with the notable exception of Russia whose bourgeoisie, by 1762, only accounted for 2. 5 per cent of the population21.

In terms of the social lifestyle of the peasantry, there was one key difference between them and the urban-dwellers, the role of the family. The family was the essential and basic economic unit with all members, young and old, male and female22, expected to provide a contribution23. These landed peasants usually had very large families and, coupled with the fall of infant mortality in the eighteenth century, explains why “the problem of the poor grew so much more acute and visible towards the end of this period; more peasant children were not being born, but more survived”24.

Contrary to the popular view, there indeed was a type of peasant akin to that of the urban bourgeoisie, landed peasants which held over roughly 65 acres (thought to be the minimum to assure economic survival in a particularly bad year). However this type of peasant was the minority; during the 1670’s in Beauvais, northern France, only 10 per cent of the peasants owned over 65 acres of land25. The role of women in society, both urban and rural, has been until recently, unchallenged. It was assumed they played simply the role of the ‘mother’.

Yet contemporary historians now debate their roles and the influence they had in social and political affairs. What surprised many was the variety of the female contribution to the labour force in early modern Europe, being found in “most spheres of employment, including arduous physical labour, such as mining, portering, refuse collection and agriculture”26. Differences however are apparent in women’s social status in the urban and rural centres. In urban surroundings “social practise at every level… often gave women an opportunity to assert their own honour”27.

Yet in rural areas such views were absent in the small and simple societies, again highlighting the different social qualities present in the two environments. Two themes play a fundamental role in understanding the change and continuity of the social and political features of the urban and rural environments, geography and time. Apart from Constantinople, the east generally did not have large urban centres. Thus the relative absence of a developed urban class made it difficult for a peasant in the east to seek alternative employment.

In addition, “the unrivalled role of the noble landowners in local and central administration… ensured that state legislation and policies were designed to preserve peasant subservience”28. Nearing the end of the seventeenth century villages throughout Europe saw the decay of the autonomous community, as the “polarisation of wealth within the village [created] a propertied… elite, and… a growing number of landless families”29. The political structure of cities and villages were similar in their basic structure.

This is due to the fact that the origins of the cities began from prosperous villages. However as time passed the structure became much more sophisticated and bureaucratic. In towns “all but a propertied minority… [had] any political power”30, with a small council governing the affairs of the town; each member assigned specific responsibilities. To obtain membership was via nomination by a larger council or assembly, often whose members were citizens with the adequate property qualifications.

Similar to that of village politics, conflicts in small towns were often resolved by personal or family contacts, only going to the courts if a solution was unobtainable. Larger cities, which were of political interest to the rulers for political and economic reasons, felt a greater and almost universal legislative and administrative intervention. It was capital cities however that became “less prone to the internal tensions of other large towns simple because of the presence of the organs of government”31 who, within such organs, were the nobles who “dominated the senior ranks of Europe’s governments”32.

In terms of the rural political structure there were two distinct areas of political control, the parish church (seen as somewhat central in defining the character of the community), and the village assembly. The assembly played a massively influential part in rural politics and society, from choosing what food to produce to having a say in marriages. Even justice was organised via the village assembly, along with interference into family life and disputes between residents.

This trend seemed to continue throughout the centuries33, and was undisturbed by the changing of the political nature of the nobles. Thus it can be seen that while the rural and urban environments differed in their respective political and social structures, much of it was from the same origins. However the gradual urbanisation of the cities and towns saw the sophistication of these structures rise to meet the demands of the growing population. As one contemporary noted, peasants and townspeople, politically, “economically, mentally, and socially… lived in different worlds”34.