16th CENTURY ECONOMIC TRENDS AND PERSONA DEVELOPMENT

by

Lord Aubrey de Baudricourt

 

 

Introduction

All too often historians, and those involved in reenacting history, become concerned about historical events without questioning the underlying factors that caused them to occur. The most often ignored of these "hidden" causes is probably economics. Yet, during the Renaissance, it came to be one of the two major "influencers" of events on the world stage (religion being the other). One has but to estimate the revenues saved by the remittance of income to the Pope by the Protestant rulers to understand the effects of economics upon the policies of princes. To believe that Henry VIII, Gustavas Vasa and the Protestant princes of Germany were not influenced by the wealth to be gained by appropriating Church property in their countries is to insult the intelligence of those great (and not so great) rulers.

Not that economics as a driving force of history was something new to the Renaissance; indeed, far from it. The Romans and Byzantines had understood the importance of unimpeded trade routes and the generous flow of goods. But four major events that took place in the 15th and 16th centuries catapulted economics into a position of prominence that J-t was never again to surrender: 1) the advent of the Renaissance itself, 2) the Reformation, 3) the beginnings of Nation States and 4) the expansion of Europe into the New World and Far East.

 

The Renaissance

If we consider the Renaissance strictly a cultural phenomenon, it broadened the horizons of the inquisitive and heightened their interest in the physical world. A greater demand for books, buildings, furniture, art and clothing resulted. This, in turn, created "consumer" civilization, the first of its kind in a thousand years. As fate would have it, just as this awakening to the exotic, sophisticated and elegant developed, the world's horizons were expanded by Columbus, da Gama and the other Renaissance explorers. But that is a theme to which we shall return later.

A new richness and sophistication developed during the Renaissance that overturned the simpler standards of the Middle Ages. If the Middle Ages can be categorized as a time of castles, cathedrals and monasteries, the Renaissance became a time of palaces, country manors and villas. The change in tastes led to a change in demand and the creation of new professions, among them the architect.

 

The Reformation

It would be both cynical and untrue to say that the Reformation was sparked by the greed of princes. But the closing of the monasteries and appropriation of Church lands and properties in several of the newly Protestant countries enriched many royal coffers. This, coupled with the money no longer paid to the Popes, helped these countries support costly Courts and equally costly wars.

The Reformation also effected the financial world. Though often ignored, the Catholic Church frowned on usury if it could be considered theft or further impoverished the poor. Many of the Protestant reformers believed that interest, if not oppressive, was in accordance with Nature's Laws. Some even saw it as a just reward for the service rendered by the loaning of money.

The "Protestant work ethic" was a stimulant for the working middle class. Now that working in the service of money could also be seen as working in the service of God, the bourgeoisie was free to, in good conscience, expand its role in the newly emergent Capitalism that was emerging in the United Provinces and, to a lesser extent, England and France.

 

The Rise of Nation States

The construction of nation states, a process that would not be complete until the mid-seventeenth century, was to place vast areas under the control of individual monarches. Counties, duchies and city states were merged into single units over which universal standards of measure could be enforced. The Kings and princes began to dismantle the numerous trade barriers that the feudal system, by its very nature, had erected. Roads and canals were constructed or improved, speeding the flow of goods across the state.

The embryonic nation states of the Renaissance, better organized and resourced than the surviving city-states in Italy and the smaller states of Germany, came to dominate the European stage. The normal path for this domination was war. From 1494 to 1559 there was fighting almost every year in some part of Europe. When these wars became too large for the European stage, they spread to the New World and the Far East, as they did between Spain and Portugal in the mid 1500's and between England and Spain in the late 16th century.

This heavy reliance on war, and the expenses of their lavish Courts, left the rulers of the 16th century with Renaissance bills to be paid by feudal revenue systems. They were forced to invent new sources of income such as the sales of titles and monopolies. Such sales increased the number and scope of a late medieval/early Renaissance phenomenon-the merchant/banker prince.

This is not to say that such an entity was new. The Bardi's had risen to wealth and power in the 14th century. But they had been decimated by Edward III's refusal to repay massive loans and the other disasters of the mid 1300's. And none of the Bardi had been titled. In 1441 the commoner Jacques Coeur had been ennobled for his financial assistance to the French crown. Jealousy by the old and established nobility lead to his downfall in 1451 and flight from France in 1454.

It was not until the Medici of Florence and the Fuggers of Bavaria that the ideal of the merchant prince was to reach its realization. The Medici came to rule Florence, supplied Popes and became the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. The Fuggers paid for Charles V election to the imperial throne and were rewarded by shares of the New World trade confirmation of the monopoly of the Tyrolean silver mines and, after 1560, patents of nobility. The Fuggers came to control Spanish custorns and Fugger operations reached from Poland to Portugal to the Papal States to the New World.

This rise of the middle class, most visible in France, marked the beginning of the modern age. Slowly at first, the working population began to gain control of the industrial means of the state in a movement that would eventually relegate the nobility to the background. In the meantime, it marked a slight softening of the class boundaries between the gentry/nobility and the wealthy upper middle class. It was still difficult to "rise above one's station" but it was not impossible.

In addition to the sales of titles and monopolies, the crowned heads of the Renaissance resorted to indirect taxes on sales, imports and exports, sales of crown property and, of course, loans from the Medici, Fuggers and the like. Some states, France and England in particular, were forced to debase their coinage to pay for the wars they fought in the first half of the century. The English penny in 1553 contained one-sixth the silver of the penny of 1509. This almost Europe-wide (only Spain resisted the temptation to cut the gold and silver content of their coins---they could afford to) devaluation was one of the two major factors contributing to the century-long steady rise in prices that cursed the 16th century. Others, like Spain and Portugal, could rely on colonial possessions. The western European states, denied an active part in the economic life of central Europe, became empire builders instead.

 

The Expansion of Europe

Spain and Portugal lead the way. Portugal, with the advantage of an early start, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and soon assumed a dominant position in the Indian Ocean. In a few years she came to control the spice trade between Europe and the fabled Spice Islands, cutting Venice out as the middleman. Sadly, Portugal's peripheral location and lack oil' trade routes with the interior, led to a concentration of the spice profits in the hands of the merchants of Antwerp. But, for a short time, Portugal prospered.

Spain, on the other hand, conquered the New World. Tobacco and potatoes came to the Old World, as did many other crops that would change forever the culinary and recreational pleasures of Renaissance Europeans. But the most important import brought back to the New World was an immense amount of silver and gold. This treasure, brought to a single point in Spain by two fleets per year, were used to finance the Hapsburg Empires wars against France, England, the Ottoman Empire, the Protestant German princes, various Italian city states and not a few internal revolts. The Kings of Spain eventually borrowed against future shipments and, when these did not match expectations, bankruptcy ensued.

But the most far-reaching effect of this influx of treasure (and the reason that I believe it to be the single most important economic factor of the Renaissance) was the so-called Price Revolution. If you compare the amount of treasure being brought to Europe from the New World to the level of prices in Europe, you will find that the increases match almost perfectly. The price of goods increased, on the average, by a factor of three between 1500 and 1600. Meanwhile wages, because of the devaluation of coinage throughout Europe, with the exception of Spain, fell by half. Thus, it can be seen, that the effects of these imports into Europe were generally negative: 1) they provided the necessary funding for Spain's relentless wars, 2) they led to a raising of prices while 3) causing a corresponding decline in wages.

 

Europe's Economy (in General Terms) 1500-1600

The first fifty years of the 16th century were "boom" years for Europe's economy. These were years of increased economic activity and accumulating wealth. Merchants from Antwerp, Venice and Seville traded across the Baltic, through Germany, into the Levant, into the New World and the Far East. The pace from 1500 to 1550 was frenzied. After mid-century it began to slow somewhat. The opening of the world by Spain and Portugal created a tremendous requirement for investment in new methods and institutions. Technological advances were required to sail the distances now demanded by the sizes of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. New nautical techniques were needed to deal with winds and currents of the Atlantic and Pacific, which were fundamentally different from those of the Mediterranean. New market structures were erected to meet changing supplies and demands as the intermittent medieval fair systems gave way to the market and bourse. Antwerp became the commercial center of Europe until its sack in 1576.

Industry in the 16th century was, for the most part, concentrated in a corridor running from Tuscany to Flanders. Southern England, Holland, northern France, northern Italy and central Spain were the major textile centers, with the areas around Naples, Lisbon, Granada and Prague being somewhat less important producers. Metallurgy was centered in Brussels, central Spain, Sweden, Verdun and the mountains south of Prague.

Spain, despite its material wealth, could no longer sustain itself. She had not developed herself economically, believing that monetary wealth was a replacement for such development. Her population was decimated by plagues in the 1590's, and this, coupled with tremendous financial problems, led to a barely perceptible decline by 1598. France, wracked by a series of costly religious civil wars, was also economically on the ropes. Her recovery in the 17th century was nothing short of a miracle. Italy and the Mediterranean tied to the Hapsburg Empire and Spain, followed them into decline. Towards the end of the century the European economy slowed considerably. Storm clouds gathered as the flow of treasure from the New World slowed but the crisis was not to strike until the 17th century.

Holland, through the use of advanced financial and technological methods, managed to escape much of the ruin that began in the last decade of the 16th century. Indeed, the Dutch republic stood at the door of a half-century of triumph that would see her replace Portugal as the dominant power in the Indian Ocean, plant colonies in the Caribbean and found New York City. But, due to little foresight on her own account, the future belonged to England.

 

16th Century Economics and Persona Development

The Renaissance is a fascinating time in which to "live". The scope for persona development is, in my opinion, far less limited than that of earlier periods. Many factors contribute to this. These include the ability for worldwide travel, new wealth, increased sophistication and a loosening of the boundaries between the upper and middle classes. And the economic trends of the times contributed to all of these factors. With these factors in mind, I shall describe how seven basic persona types were effected by Renaissance economics.

The great landed nobility and landed gentry continued to serve as the ruling class during the Renaissance, just as they had been during the Middle Ages. In some countries, such as England and, later France, civil wars had lessened their number-- but not their power. It would await the rise of the middle class for these two classes to be fatally weakened. During the Renaissance they became more sophisticated and wealthy, as their states became more sophisticated and wealthy. They developed a taste for luxury items such as books, spices and silk. Many amassed impressive libraries and collections. Humphrey of Gloucester, younger brother of Henry V was known as an educated and refined man and served as the prototype of the new type of noble--the ones who could read the books that they collected.

As the influx of silver and gold from the New World caused a steady increase in prices and as the value of money eroded over the century an economy based on mobile money began to replace that based on land holdings and control of industry by the guilds. The great landed nobles found a knowledge of business and finance increasingly important and the successful ones invested in the new economic system. The unsuccessful ones found themselves squeezed between the kings and the business controlled cities.

The Reformation also offered opportunities for personae originating in Protestant countries. The nobility and gentry in these countries often enriched themselves and the Crown at the expense of the Church. Many family fortunes and not a few peerages and knighthoods were based upon service to the Crown in the delicate struggle between Church and State.

As the boundaries between the upper and middle class soften a new phenomenon came into existence---the financier and merchant-prince. Ennobling for service had been a relatively common thing during the Middle Ages, and it continued during the Renaissance. Charles Brandon was made the Duke of Suffolk for services to Henry VIII. But now the rich man could do it as well. Thus, a persona could spring from wealthy merchants recently inducted into the gentry or nobility as well as those who were born into it. Some of the gentry, such as Raleigh and Drake, prospered in part because they were able to give their Queen a good economic return upon her investments in their undertakings. A financier persona would also do well. Some of the basic tenets of the Protestant revolution removed the negative aspects of money handling and lending. Even non-merchant personae would be aware of the "capitalist revolution" that was taking place around them and would understand at least some of the fundamentals of a fluid money economy.

The expansion of Europe into the East and the New World offers wonderful opportunities for persona development. The first is the explorer persona. Driven, in part, by the search for trade routes to the riches of the East, Spain and Portugal sent forth numerous expeditions. The English and French followed shortly afterwards. The foundation of the explorer persona's reason for existence might be religious, the search for adventure or the search for wealth, both persona and for his home country. Either way he too understands the importance and power of money and can feel how the economic winds are effecting Europe.

Because of Spain and Portugal's strangle hold on the trade routes to and from the East and the New World, English, French and other non-Iberian explorers were often reduced to the role of privateer or pirate. This became particularly attractive later in the century, once both nations had established rich cities or trading centers in the region, although French pirates were raiding Spanish ships bringing gold and silver from Mexico as early as 1521. Grenville, Drake, Raleigh, Frobisher, Strozzi and many other mariners became wealthy as pirates or privateers preying on the wealth of Spain and/or Portugal. In many cases it brought social advancement as well as wealth from a grateful Crown.

The Renaissance offered the soldier an expanded role as well. For the first time in a thousand years he is a professional, a part of a nation's standing army. Instead of serving as a forty days a year vassal to some great lord or King, the soldier is now a paid (at least in theory) servant of the crown. He might serve as far afield as Mexico, Peru, India, the Celebes and the Philippines, particularly in Spanish and Portuguese. His chance for personal wealth and prosperity, though not great, is far better than it had been in the past. This is due, in no small part, to the increased wealth of his potential enemies and paymasters. The soldier also has a much better chance of seeing much of Europe in his campaign towards wealth and higher social status. Hapsburg armies fought in Italy, against the Turks, in France, in Germany, in Hungary, in Ireland and in Holland. In these days, while honor was still important to the soldier, money and social advancement were also important. Blaise de Monluc, a member of the minor gentry, was knighted by the King of France and made a Marshal of France for service to the Crown that took him to Italy and also involved him in many of the battles during the French Religious Wars.

Another personal type new to the Renaissance and made possible or at least strengthened by the economic events of the 16th century is the colonial administrator. This would be primarily a Spanish or Portuguese persona, since the only non-Iberian colonies in the 16th century were the ill-fated English Virginia colony and the French Huguenot colony in Florida. The colonial administrator is very concerned with the economics of trade between his colony and the home country. The terms of trade between the two, particularly with Spain, wag most often unfavorable.

Finally, a professional class arose during the Renaissance quite separate from the guild system. Guilds were in decay, as the upper middle class city dwellers began to gain control of the means of industrial production. The guilds had not been organized in such a way to take advantage of the newly developed capitalistic system and paid the price for it. The new professionals, including printers architects and financiers, were prepared to grasp the reins and became a vital part of the economic development of Europe, even as they were effected by that development.

In conclusion, economics, as a small but integral part of all that made the Renaissance a turning point in Western history, can serve as a tool in persona development. Understanding the economic trends of the time and how they would have effected the personae that we portray will help us to make them more three dimensional and well rounded. The economics of the 16th century offer us more options for persona development and a vehicle for making the persona more complex and believable.

But, it is also important to remember that we are the Society for Creative Anachronisms, not Compulsive Accuracy. Guilds are an important part of the SCA and to leave one because it does not fit the time period of the persona would be foolish. Delaying extravagant garb until your status in the SCA matches that demanded by the type of clothes you wish could leave you waiting at the sewing machine for a long time. History (and economics) should, in the end, be your guide, not your master.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Braudel, Fernand, Civilization & Capitalism l5th-18th Century, Volume I: The Structures of Everyday Life, Harper and Row Publishers, New York City, New York, 1985.

Braudel, Fernand, Civilization &. Capitalism l5th-18th Century, Volume II: The Wheels of Commerce, Harper and Row Publishers, New York City, New York, 1986.

Braudel, Fernand, Civilization & Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Volume III: The Perspective of the World, Harper and Row Publishers, New York City, New York, 1906.

Braudel, Fernand, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume II, Harper and Row Publishers, New York City, New York, 1976.

Heaton, Herbert, Economic History of Europe, Harper & Brothers, Publishers, New York City, New York, 1936.

Kennedy, John, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Random House, New York City, New York, 1987.