Cities and Countryside in 16th-century Europe

In 16th century Europe, only 2% of the population lived in cities of more than 40,000 inhabitants. Major urban centres began to emerge on an eminently rural continent.

| 23/06/2021 | Last update:


How were rural and urban communities distributed in the 16th-century Europe? Only 2% of the population lived in towns of more than 40,000 inhabitants. Europe was largely rural, although important urban commercial centres were beginning to emerge in the northern parts of the continent (the Netherlands and England) and northern Italy.

Cities and citizens: the urban growth model

Cities during Early Modern times were the engine of change of the system. Nonetheless, in quantitative terms, cities played a modest role. Only 2% of the European population lived in cities with more than 40,000 inhabitants in 1500, while 9.5% lived in towns with 5,000 inhabitants. At the top of the pyramid were the rich (10-15% of the urban population) who accumulated the grain reserves. And at the bottom of the pyramid was the poorest sector (5%) comprising widows, orphans and those living on alms. The other 80% of the population consisted of urban workers.

In cities like Lyon or Antwerp, artisan workers spent 75% of their income on food. And every time there was an episode of crisis, the poor increased. In Lyon in 1586, 6,000 people were begging for food from the Aumône Générale (a charitable institution).

The urban expansion of cities in the 16th century was a consequence of demographic growth and new productive activities, such as trade, which encouraged the establishment of new inhabitants in urban centres.

The most important urban regions up to 1500 were:

To these three urban centres developed between the 12th and 14th centuries, which were dedicated to trade through the great European trade areas of the Baltic and the Mediterranean, a third trade centre on the Atlantic was added in the 16th century.

Economic success

Sixteenth-century Europe had three major trading cities of economic importance: Antwerp (Northern Europe), Venice (Mediterranean) and Seville (Atlantic).

La ciudad de Amberes, Braun y Hogenberg (1572)
The city of Antwerp, Braun and Hogenberg (1572)

The city of Antwerp grew from 40,000 inhabitants in 1500 to 90,000 in 1560. Its main economic activity was trade, centred on the English lock trade between Germany and Italy. It was a low-interest financial centre (20-10%, 1510-1550); it attracted merchant colonies. Pepper and silver brought success, but the Dutch Revolt of 1568 brought disaster (sack 1576, closure of the Scheldt 1585).

As a consequence of the war, Amsterdam took over as the main northern city (13,500 inhabitants in 1520 to 60,000 in 1600): the link between the stately east and the commercial west.

Plano de Venecia en el 1600
Map of Venice in the 1600s

Venice was the most important city in northern Italy. In 1560, it had 170,000 inhabitants. It had a thriving trade in spices (competition from Portuguese routes and Turkish pressure). Envied manufacturing centre: fleet of the Holy League. Plains industry grew from 1,300 pieces per year (1513) to 27,000 (1592).

Imagen de Sevilla en el siglo XVI
16th-century image of Seville

Further south on the continent was the city of Seville, which, thanks to trade with America, became a major centre. In 1550, it had 65,000 inhabitants, which grew to 90,000 in 1590. Symbiosis between Andalusian aristocrats and merchants. Influx of money, stimulation of luxury manufacturing: important guilds (embroiderers, silversmiths, engravers and painters).

European capitals

During the 16th century, the process of political centralization was still at a very early stage. Madrid, which was not the seat of Philip II‘s Royal Court until 1561, was home to 30,000 people in 1540 and 65,000 in 1597. Moreover, the new capital of the Hispanic monarchy was parasitic, in the sense that it consumed resources without producing them.

London grew from 80,000 inhabitants in 1540 to 200,000 in 1600. The royal administration fed the city’s economy. But it was also a major production centre. In the 16th century, London alone accounted for 50% of the country’s growth.

Paris was already an important political centre before 1500. At that time, it had 200,000 inhabitants, 30,000 of whom were university students. It was a parasitic and convulsive capital. It had food resources 40 km away. And it was a centre of religious conflict.

Roma 1493
Illustration of Rome from “The Nuremberg Chronicle”, an illustrated history of the world published in 1493.

Another type of city was the religious capital, a driving force for new ideas. Rome, seat of the Catholic Church, grew from 54,000 inhabitants in 1527 to 105,000 in 1600. It was home to 40 cardinals with an entourage of more than 10,000 attendants. At the time, the city had more palaces and gardens than workshops. It was a cosmopolitan city, thanks to the arrival of pilgrims: 400,000 in 1575, more than half a million in 1600.

Urban social groups

Craft and unskilled workers

Craftsmen formed a social group of skilled workers who were grouped into guilds. During the 16th century, the number of craftsmen and guilds increased. They could participate in local politics (municipal governments). In the large towns, the most specialized craftsmen were to be found. In medium-sized towns, guilds united related trades.

The basic functions of the guilds were:

The craftsmen had at their disposal a large group of unskilled labourers and servants, who worked in their workshops under the orders of the master.

The guilds were represented in the municipal governments. In London, the 12 major guilds elected a representative who met with the other local councillors at the Guildhall, the old London Guildhall.

The 16th century saw an increasingly aristocratisation of municipal power (establishment of the nobility in the cities). The process of noble urbanization.

The bourgeoisie, an entrepreneurial group

Any inhabitant of the city could be considered bourgeois (etymologically it means inhabitant of the burgh, walled city). But if we talk about a social group, the bourgeoisie was the urban elite made up of merchants, jurists, doctors, craftsmen… It was an open group, with many members with peasant or artisan origin. There was an important international merchant community in the ports or in the industrial and commercial centres.

The bourgeoisie settled in the cities, where they consolidated their social status in three ways:

The establishment of this powerful social class in the cities was an opportunity for the monarchy. The Royal Treasuries earned large sums of money through the sale of public offices, venality (local offices, lower administration). In France, between 1550 and 1600, 50,000 new absentee beneficiaries appeared. In 1604, a tax was introduced which allowed those who paid it to obtain the right of hereditary transmission of their offices (the Paulette).

Did the bourgeoisie betray?

Did the progressive aristocratisation of the bourgeoisie, who wanted to emulate the nobility (sumptuary laws: France, 13 edicts, 1540-1615) by dressing, building palaces or obtaining public office, make them distance themselves from their economic responsibilities?

The bourgeoisie, as a social class engaged in labour, trade and finance, had the capacity to generate wealth (the popular sectors did not have this capacity and the aristocracy had immobilized their wealth). If the bourgeois renounced their functions and became a rentier class like the aristocrats, who would be the engine of change in modern societies?

The French historian Fernand Braudel introduced the concept of the “betrayal of the bourgeoisie”, especially for the territories of Castilla and Italy (other historians also extend it to the case of France and Northern Europe). Braudel claimed that in Venice the textile industry and trade with the Levant was in difficulties because the bourgeoisie was investing in land and buying property in the “terra ferma”. The merchant oligarchy was becoming the new “patriciate”, with aristocratic and rentier status. Thus, the bourgeoisie, abandoning their entrepreneurial ideal, were losing their class identity.


The aristocratic nobility was the point of reference for all social groups. The bourgeoisie, lacking class spirit, wanted to emulate them. But what percentage of the population did the aristocracy represent? Between 1 and 2% of the total. In some countries, such as Hungary and Poland, it could be as high as 10%.

Vestuario típico de la nobleza francesa el 1500
Typical costume of the French nobility in the 1500s

The justification of noble origins that many families made in modern France was based on old medieval titles that ensured the descent of their members from ancient Frankish, Gascon and Norman lineages. The social function of the nobility followed the feudal pattern, that of fighting and preserving the military ideal. This gave them rights and exemptions, such as the right to bear arms, the use of coats of arms, to be judged by their peers and not to pay indirect taxes.

The nobility controlled the military force: they took part in armed processions and in the mobilization of vassals. They were not always at the service of the king’s wars (private wars and display of power). In 1500, the royal armies were still composed mainly of feudal levies. In 1532 1/3 of the English army was contributed by the titled aristocracy. The conquest of Portugal (1580) was made with 50% aristocratic troops.

The economic foundations of the nobility

At the end of the 16th century, there were few nobles with titles of medieval origin; many had acquired the title thanks to rewards granted by kings for their participation in wars (e.g. the civil wars of the 15th century). Urban oligarchies, with a more nobilium lifestyle, wished to be selected by the kings to enter the social class of the nobility.

How was the noble aristocracy perpetuated?

Nobility and business

Were the nobility fit for work, and could they participate in trade and business activities? The Italian jurist Benvenuto Stracca stated in his “Tractatus de Mercatura”, 1575, that yes: the nobility could participate in the management of international trade operations but could not engage in buying and selling activities. Nevertheless, according to the “dérogeance”, to get involved in matters incompatible with the noble estate meant the loss of noble status.

Yet, a progressive acceptance of the aristocracy’s involvement in previously restricted affairs was welcomed, especially among the new nobility who had risen from the world of commerce. Moreover, the monarchies were directing the nobility’s fortunes towards trade and manufacturing.

It was a different acceptance depending on the territory. In England, in 1550, there were nobles who became entrepreneurs, miners or industrialists, and became involved in large-scale trade.

The difficulties of the aristocracy

Aristocracy and wealth (treatise writers: inheritance). Society in transition from feudalism to capitalism. In Poland or in Castile, it was inevitable to find the figure of the poor nobleman. Decreasing income: recourse to leasing rather than direct cultivation, which provided yields well below prices. Lavish spending and inflation: courtship, banquets, construction, clothing and luxury goods; urbanization and service in embassies and the army.

Result: grand nobles in debt. Kings legally prevented the loss of land (entailed by entailed estates in Castile). Pensions, tax exemptions and legal immunity were granted.

The marginalized. A view of the poor in the Early Modern Age

In 16th-century European society, an important group of marginalized people emerged within urban society (idlers, beggars, slaves, migrants and refugees). Poverty became an essential social element; 5/10% of people were poor. Poverty was highest in urban areas. It was a time of structurally deficient situations (bad harvests or a negative conjuncture causes great havoc). Between 1550-1600, the fall in real wages caused poverty levels to rise. Precarious family situation: men were the main family labour force. His disappearance brought poverty to widows, children, the sick and the elderly.

The view of poverty changed. In the Middle Ages it was positive, as the poor were seen as exercising charity (the mischievousness of the false poor). At the beginning of the 16th century, the view of poverty became negative. Begging increased. The Reformation brought about policies of policing the poor, social control of the phenomenon.

In his work “De Subventione pauperum” of 1526, the religious Joan Vives proposed the institutionalization of charity:

Between 1522 and 1554, 60 cities (mainly in Germany and the Netherlands) reformed the system concerning the relief of the poor. In France, the Aumón générales were created for public assistance. In England, the Poor Law was published in 1548: the English parliament generalized a system of parish-based relief.

The outcasts were:

The rural world. Social unrest

Funcionarios reales poniendo orden en una revuelta
Royal officials bringing order to a riot

Rural areas were not exempt from revolts or riots throughout the 16th century. Peasant revolts could also spread to the towns. They were not the exclusive preserve of the working classes, as the ambitions of other social groups could be mixed in (the people were more driven than driven). These revolts were not intended to subvert social hierarchies, rather to react to immediate injustices. They wanted to re-establish old norms and values.

Review of the main peasant revolts of the 16th century, in three main groups.

Revolts against the overlords

The origins of these revolts can be traced back to the rejection of increased seigneurial pressure for new tax privileges and jurisdictional rights. They were rather complex revolts with different leaderships and motivations: religious in origin through the preaching of Thomas Müntzer in Mulhouse, or communitarian in origin in the Tyrol following Michael Gaismair.

Common demand: abolition of feudal serfdom; some rebel fronts obtained concessions from their lords.

Revolts against hunger

These revolts were urban in character, and in 1590 revolts took place all over Europe, from the Ukraine to Finland and England. In France, several small urban revolts took place.

Of all of them, the following stand out for their importance:

Anti-tax revolts

Of particular note are the revolts in:

The banditry

Banditry as a phenomenon of the popular classes, which expressed themselves in the form of criminality against:

Crime and repression

It is difficult to measure the actual level of crime in pre-industrial societies: it is considered to be much higher in urban areas than in rural areas (according to criminal sources). In rural areas, there was more discretion in the prosecution of crime (we do not know whether the offender belonged to the community or was just passing through). Robbery and theft were central in the countryside: in the Essex courts (1559-1603) 2/3rds of the charges.

Problems of housing, food and employment drove up crime rates in the towns.

All articles of the course: Early Modern History in Europe

History of Early modern EuropeEarly modern Europe: an introduction16th century economy: the colonial expansion, agriculture and tradeCities and Countryside in 16th-century EuropeRenaissance and Humanism in Europe

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