In my last two pieces for CapX, I sketched out the miserable existence of our ancestors in the pre-industrial era. My focus was on life in the city, a task made easier by the fact that urban folk, thanks to higher literacy rates, have left us more detailed accounts of their lives.
This week I want to look at rural life, for that is where most people lived. At least theoretically, country folk could have enjoyed a better standard of living due to their “access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity,” which the anthropologist Jason Hickel praised in a recent article in The Guardian. In fact, the life of a peasant was, in some important aspects, worse than that of a city dweller.
Before industrialisation, European society was bifurcated between a small minority of the very rich and the vast majority of the very poor. Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a military engineer during the reign of Louis XIV, estimated that the French population consisted of 10 per cent rich, 50 percent very poor (fort malaise), 30 percent near beggars and 10 percent beggars. Likewise, Francesco Guicciardini, an Italian historian and friend of Niccolò Machiavelli, wrote that “except for a few Grandees of the Kingdom [of Spain] who live with great sumptuousness, one gathers that the others live in great poverty”.
Indeed, a census taken in the Alencon area of the Alsace region in France at the end of the 17th century found that of the 410,000 inhabitants, 48,051 were beggars. That amounts to about 12 per cent of the population. “In Brittany, of a population of 1,655,000, there were 149,325 beggars, or about 9 per cent.” Out of the English population of 5.5 million at the time of Henry VIII, 1.3 million (i.e., nearly a quarter) were described as “cottagers and paupers”. By implication, rural cottagers and urban paupers were deemed to have shared similar standard of living. The vast majority of these wretches lived in the countryside.