Social Institutions and Structures of Peasants in Early Modern Europe

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Peasants such as Martin Guerre had their lives built around several social institutions and basic structures. The Early Modern period, 1450-1789, was a period marked by political change, social conservatism, religious fundamentalism, and a distinct social hierarchy. Martin Guerre and other peasants were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, working the land and doing manual labor, in Martin’s case fighting in a war for Spain. The Return of Martin Guerre shows in great detail how peasants lived their daily lives such as on page 44 where Bertrande says her and Martin passed their time by, “Like true married people, eating, drinking, and sleeping together.” The life of an average peasant in early modern Europe was influenced by several key institutions and structures such as the church and their duty to God, their labor and economic standing, and marriage and their family.

Religion was a critical part of peasant life in the early modern era and is a major defining actor in the time period. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses against the Catholic Church weakened Papal authority over much of Europe, with the exceptions of Spain and France, which were two of the main Roman Catholic strongholds in Europe during the Protestant Reformation and the two nations in which the Return of Martin Guerre takes place. Despite the novel taking place in France however, it does shed light on how far Protestantism had spread by the 1560s as many peasants had left Artigat for Protestant towns and how Le Carla, a town nearby, had become a “bastion of the Reformed Church.” Davis also believes that Bertrande and Arnaud may have been influenced by Protestantism as the Bishop of their diocese was thought to have been a Protestant sympathizer and that they named one of their children Abraham after the prophet from the Old Testament. It is apparent in the novel though that religion has lost a lot of its former influence in Europe, at least for the time being, due to the Protestant Reformation as none of the Catholic priests in either Artigat or Bajou had a major role in the trial of Arnaud despite them being one of the 180 witnesses interviewed. However, Davis claims that this may have been because the two judges in charge of the trial, “Jean de Coras and Francois de Ferrieres had been attracted to Protestantism in 1560 and who became its staunchest supporters in the Parlement of Toulouse.” While Arnaud was found guilty of the crimes by the Protestant judges, it is rather telling that Coras left the Catholic priests testimony out of the official record and shows that religious tensions were high at the time.

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While religion did not play a large role in the trial of Arnaud according to the court records Davis used to write the Return of Martin Guerre, it did play a large role in the lives of peasants during this time period. The Protestant Reformation brought massive changes to the cultures of many European nations including the nations in the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, the British Isles, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, and parts of France, the nation where the novel takes place. While France was still a predominately Catholic nation, there were large sects of Protestants, primarily Calvinists, scattered throughout the nation. Many peasants and members of the French middle class converted to Calvinism during the 16th century as the saw the corruption among the Catholic clergy and noblemen. This led to widespread violence and civil war throughout France in what would be later called French Wars of Religion. These conflicts were not limited to France however as the similarly occurred in Germany, England, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. Between 1524 and 1525, 300,000 peasants in various German states rose up in support of Martin Luther’s 95 theses and attempted to overthrow the Catholic aristocracy. While they failed and 100,000 peasants were slaughtered, major religious change had been set in motion in Central Europe. However, religion was not the only cause of the Peasants’ Rebellion, as poor working conditions and an economic class struggle.

The financial role peasants played in the 16th century helped transform European economics and abandon the manorial system in favor of a consumer-based economy. All across Europe as the population recovered from the Black Death, demand for goods, particularly agricultural products, increased while production and supply could not keep up demand. This led to food shortages all across Europe as peasants could not produce enough food. This caused resulted in the cultivation of less fertile lands which led to a decrease in production and population decline due to starvation. As the population declined, food production balanced out with the new, decreased population level realizing that with steady population growth, old economic and agricultural methods would no long be efficient. As agricultural methods became more advanced, fewer peasants needed to work in fields while simultaneously resulting in increased food production. As fewer peasants were working in agriculture, many shifted to artisan and service jobs such as mining, blacksmithing, carpenters, and other service jobs. For example, more than 200 crafts were practiced in the Hessian city of Frankfurt. Many peasants joined the military as well, such as Martin Guerre who joined the Spanish Army in the 1550s. The rise of the consumer economy among peasants and the lower class helped establish European dominance of the world economy by 1750 and assisted in the rise of mercantilism and the colonization of the New World.

One of the most basic unit of social structure is marriage and family which especially true during the early modern period. In the Return of Martin Guerre, the main reason Bertrande allowed Arnaud to pretend to be Martin and went along with the lie was because, “Bertrande’s status was much reduced by these events… Of the alternate traditions in civil law, it was a harsher one of Justinian that prevailed. The Parlement of Toulouse cited it in judging a marriage case in 1557: ‘During the absence of the husband, the wife cannot remarry unless she has proof of his death… not even when has been absent twenty years or more… And the death must be proven by witnesses who give sure depositions, or by great and manifest presumptions.’” The government and society placed great expectations and overbearing laws during the early modern period such as the court case in 1557 which severely restricted martial rights of women in the era. The family of a peasant also affected his economic strategy and capital. Peasants who worked in agriculture needed to grow crops which could not only sustain his family but also produce enough to sell and make a profit. For example in rural southern France and Italy the climate and soil made it possible to grow olives, grapes, and fruit while a family that lived nearby a metropolitan area could practice market agriculture and mass produce lower quality food and sell it for cheap while still making a substantial profit. In addition, the size, age, social status, current economic status, and physical ability of family members affected economic strategy as well. A family with children going through adolescence would be more financially successful than a family with young children as there are more members who could actively work. The family was the most important factor in a peasant’s life as it was an expectation that men and women would get married and have children, but also greatly affected a peasant’s economic strategy.

Between 1450 and 1789, peasants and the lower class had several basic social institutions and structures that guided their lives. Religion, economic standing and labor, and their family regulated how peasants lived their daily lives. The Return of Martin Guerre demonstrates how the Protestant Reformation and the ongoing economic revolution were changing the world and how strict the traditional family structure was regulated by law. While Martin Guerre and other peasants were at the bottom of the social hierarchy during the early modern period, this would soon change as after the economic rise of the lower class in the 1600s, European monarchs would try to reestablish their direct rule over subjects. However as German peasants revolted in the Peasants’ Rebellion, the French lower class would also seek massive political change in 1789.


  1. Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Harvard University Press, 1983.
  2. Engels, Friedrich. The Peasant War in Germany. London, 1850.
  3. Kriedte, Peter. Peasants, Landlords, and Merchant Capitalists: Europe and the World Economy, 1500-1800. Berg, 1990.
  4. Musgrave, Peter. The Early Modern European Economy. St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

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Social Institutions and Structures of Peasants in Early Modern Europe. (2022, Feb 15). Retrieved from

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