French Lifeways - France, circa 1600
France in 1600 was a crossroads for the peoples and cultures of western Europe, including the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy. France's geography and climate varied widely, from the woodland heaths of the northwestern region to the rocky coasts of Normandy to the sultry climate of the Mediterranean region. As elsewhere in Europe, French population levels were still recovering from the devastating effects of the Black Death and other plagues of the 1400s. Geographic mobility was an ever-present feature of French society in this period. Refugees from pestilence, famine and religious upheaval moved ceaselessly across the landscape from region to region, and from rural to urban centers.
This painting is attributed to Louis Le Nain, one of three brothers who depicted scenes of French peasant life in the 1600s. Although rather idealized (the pigs and poultry outside the cottage suggest that this family is relatively well off, for example), the painting effectively communicates the agrarian setting in which most French people lived in this period. The average French peasant farmed small amounts of land. Unlike the serfs of the medieval period, these French peasants were not tied to the land; many owned the small plots they tilled. Heavy taxes and tithes to support the Crown, aristocracy and Church burdened tenant farmers and freeholders alike. Although children of wealthy families might marry at very young ages, the children in this painting would likely marry later. Economic circumstances typically delayed the age of marriage among French peasants. Many men did not marry until their early thirties; women might marry somewhat earlier. Birth control was virtually unknown and unpracticed. Women generally had several children, but high infant mortality rates depressed population growth. This woman is fortunate that so many of her children are living and healthy.
Although certain regions specialized in various foods and other agricultural products, grain was the main staple in the diet of every French person. Yields barely kept pace with demand; this triggered great and immediate suffering when periodic drought, excessive rains or extreme heat or cold destroyed crop yields. Global cooling in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries triggered a "Little Ice Age," in which glaciers advanced, crop yields fell and many people starved. The least prosperous ate coarse black bread. The poorest virtually never ate meat; others ate it only rarely. A shortage of salt raised its cost and made preserving meat impossible for the poorer elements. Dairy products such as butter and cheese were prized but similarly unavailable to most. Diseases caused by dietary imbalances were common. Cooks used grease to flavor thick pottages made from bread cooked together with cabbages and root vegetables. Poor as well as rich ate wild fruits such as berries and sour apples.
The better-off ate a variety of fruits, vegetables and meats, although food choices varied by season. Menus were monotonous by modern standards, even among the wealthy. Among the more prosperous, joints of meat and pastries stuffed with fruit were the most common methods for preparing food. The cost of sugar limited its availability to the wealthy. Rich and poor drank fermented beverages as water was thought to be an unhealthy choice. Already by this time various regions were known for different sorts of wine. A drinking song popular in Amiens in 1600 suggests that most people preferred wine to beer or cider when they could get it:
"Gaudeamus [goodmen], let's make good cheer, Let's drink down the wine and leave the beer."
Clothing at this time was primarily designed to protect the wearer from the cold that was a feature of everyday life in most seasons, both indoors and out. Rich and poor wore clothes of wool and linen; lighter-weight clothing made for warmer weather was virtually non-existent. The cut and quality of garments varied according to the means of the wearer. Those who had them layered on additional garments in winter. Clothing conveyed status; the wealthy wore more elaborate clothing and used more costly materials. The clothing the people wear in Le Nain's painting is typical of that worn by relatively well-off French peasants. Older girls and women covered their hair with caps and, if they owned one, a hat. They wore against their skin a long, shirt-like garment known as a shift or chemise. A short, closefitting jacket covered the shift above and a skirt-like garment called a petticoat went to the ankles. Boys wore a long shirt that doubled as a nightshirt and an undergarment. A waistcoat and knee-length breeches covered the shirt. Long stockings covered the legs. We can not identify by dress whether the young child sleeping on the woman's lap is a boy or a girl. Parents dressed young children alike for the first several years of life, until boys received their first pair of breeches and girls began dressing like their mothers.
French life in 1600 was intensely communal. Communities enforced age-old customs and standards by policing individual behavior. Lines between public and private life were blurred or virtually non-existent. A man who beat his wife, a scolding woman, or an argumentative couple might be paraded through the street or handled roughly in public rituals known as charivaris, or rough music. These rituals simultaneously affirmed common standards and regulated the behavior of individuals that threatened the community.
Ancient rituals and celebrations also reinforced community bonds and standards. The liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church and pre-Christian celebrations such as the solstice, the coming of spring, and the harvest reinforced the rhythms of daily life and the endless cycle of death and renewal. Unlike England, the French monarchy remained staunchly Catholic following the Protestant Reformation of the previous century. The Reformation, however, ushered in years of conflict and political turmoil as French Huguenots and French Catholics clashed in the Wars of Religion. Struggling to maintain royal authority and keep religious factions from tearing apart the country, the Crown officially tolerated dissenting Protestant sects through legislation such as the Edict of Nantes. Violence nevertheless repeatedly erupted between Catholics and Protestants throughout the seventeenth century.
Although approximately 85% of the population lived in the countryside in 1600, many people inhabited larger towns and cities. These cities played a key role in shaping French society and government. They were centers for law courts and government officials as well as culture and fashion for France's elite. Paris contained over 400,000 souls by 1600, making it the largest city west of Istanbul. Lyons, the second-largest city contained about 100,000 people; other large towns numbered as many as 10,000 people. Nobles, clerics, shopkeepers, tradesmen, thieves and transients lived in crowded enclaves that swelled still larger when social upheaval and natural disasters such as drought drove desperate men, women and children from the countryside to walled cities in search of food and safety. Crowded and unsanitary conditions produced an extremely high death rate, especially during the epidemics and plagues that periodically ravaged urban centers.
French society in 1600 was hierarchical and patriarchal. Although some women, especially widows or those in religious orders, wielded a degree of authority, women in general enjoyed few rights. The status of the family into which a person was born determined his or her place in society. That society was organized around the "Three Estates" of the Middle Ages: those who prayed (the Church,) those who fought for the king (the nobility) and those who labored (peasants, artisans and tradespeople). Those who worked the land paid heavy taxes as well as giving over large portions of their crops to landlords and to the Church. Towns and cities also were expected to pay heavy levies to support the government and the Church. Their status exempted all nobles from taxes. Nobles were expected, however, to aid the king and serve him in time of war. Serving as an officer in the king's army in the frequent wars between France and her enemies provided opportunities for advancement and royal preferment. Would-be nobles might also support the Crown by purchasing prestigious offices and appointments, a practice that would become still more common through the 1600s into the 1700s.
France in 1600 was still a country of diverse and semi-autonomous regions, but the monarchy was on its way to becoming the social and political center. During the religious turmoil of the Wars of Religion, the Crown gained power and centralized authority at the expense of the nobility. The highest-ranking aristocrats spent much of their time at court to ensure their continued favor in the eyes of the king. Day laborers, peasants, and tradespeople endured crippling taxes and levies that supported the lavish lifestyle of the royal court and raised the money for nobles to buy lucrative government offices. Members of the minor nobility struggled both to gain royal favor and maintain their titles even as their numbers grew. The desire among members of the French nobility to provide for their heirs and the ambitions of well-to-do merchants to elevate themselves and their families into the ranks of the nobility would play an important role in the settlement of New France. Meanwhile, political, economic and religious turmoil placed Le Nain's idealized version of rustic life increasingly beyond the reach of most French peasants.