Life in 16th Century France

The most significant development of the 16th century to many contemporaries was the reordering of religion and the sundering of social unity that it had once provided to European culture. It’s impossible to understand this time without taking a look at this great development. Religion was not a matter of personal preference or opinion, but was the very basis of society at this time.


The rediscovery of learning about the ancient world, printing press and all other forces that came together to create the Renaissance would also affect the Church. At the end of the 15th century and start of the 16th, Christian humanists sought to apply a new style of scholarship to the study of the scriptures in their original languages and return to the first principles of their religion. In the interests of spreading religious understanding, people began to translate the Bible into vernacular languages. At the end of the 15th century there was a popular spiritual revival of a more mystical nature as well. It would be characterized by such works as Thomas A Kempis’ “Imitatio Christi”, translated and published in every major European language. The Renaissance belief in the “perfectibility of man” would make people less content with things as they were and had been, and more interested in improving them in the here and now. No one could argue that the church was not corrupt, as they held vast wealth, exercised enormous political power and waged wars. The church was administered by holders of patronage positions that had more interest in lining their own pockets than in promoting welfare of their “flocks”. Christian humanists criticized these all-too-human failings while


striving for a purer church.

During the early years of the 16th century some great Christian humanist intellects shared their graces, such as Erasmus and Lefevre d’Estaples. Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of Francois I was a great patron. Francois was an enlightened Renaissance prince himself, he was sympathetic and once offered Erasmus the leadership of his new College de France, of which he founded to promote classical learning. The Bishop of Meaux, Guillaume Briconnet, gathered a circle of inquiring intellects and passionate, reform-minded preachers around him during the early 1520s. There was no particular intention of breaking away from the church at the time, but merely a passion for improving it.

The Gallican Tradition

Since the time of Clovis, the French Crown has had a special relationship to the church. There was no concept of church and state in France. The pope would give kings of France the title of “most Christian King”, and at his consecration, itself being a holy rite, the king would take an oath to extirpate heresy in his realm. In spite of their close relationship, or maybe even because of it, the Gallican church in France has also traditionally enjoyed more independence from the central church hierarchy, making the king’s rights to govern the church unprecedented.

In 1516, the Concordat of Bologna confirmed Francois I’s right to make appointments to benefices, but it also gave the Pope the right to veto unqualified candidates and to collect a year’s revenue from each post. Although this gave the Pope many rights, it also gave the king more. The King of France had enormous powers to dispose of the Church’s wealth and could and did use the offices of the bishops, abbots, etc…to provide sinecures for his faithful followers. This would mean that the lords of the church were usually quite worldly people. They were often pretty unfit for their offices, if spirituality and theological learning was considered a requirement. The Pope’s veto was hardly ever exercised. There was no restraint against a single person holding many simultaneous titles and there was plenty of bishops who had lived well on their revenues and never set foot in their sees. The weaving together of obligation, reward, and responsibility between the church and state made for a unique Gallican fusion of the church and state. The University of Paris (the Sorbonne) acted as a scholastic think-tank arm of the church-state complex.

Martin Luther

In 1517, a dispute about who was entitled to a cut of the revenues that were generated by itinerant papal indulgence sellers provoked the controversy that would lead to the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, to nail his 95 Thesis to the church door at Wittenburg. The upshot of his thesis was that the Christians were saved by faith and faith alone and no amount of works, including the purchase of indulgences, made any difference at all. This was a drastic enough view, but not one that was immediately perceived as having the ultimate consequences that it eventually did. The Pope, Leo X, was a fairly easy going man. He was not inclined to vigorously prosecute this first appearance of heresy. There was plenty of heterodox views in the air at the time and he thought it could be worked out diplomatically, as it would turn out, it could not.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

Luther was not immediately burned for being a heretic, but was allowed to present his case in court and had a powerful effect on the populace. He had also been a powerful patron and protector in the Elector of Saxony, who would shield him from ecclesiastical authorities. In addition, the media explosion brought on by the printing press spread his message much further than it otherwise may have gone. This made him the main focus for all sorts of religious, spiritual, political and economic discontent. The right to read and interpret the scriptures lead to the throwing off of the chains of papal and ecclesiastical authority, taking this to mean political and economic freedom as well. There were widespread revolts among the German peasantry, which had horrified Luther and many of the civil powers.

A deep belief that religious uniformity was essential for political and social stability made heterodox opinions a potential act of treason. It was not the desire of intellectual reformers to challenge civil authority, but it was a consequence. The German states were small political units, principalities, duchies, electorates and so on. All theoretically owed their loyalty to the Holy Roman Emperor as their overlord, but most exercised a fairly independent course most of the time. As leaders of these states made their choices for or against the new opinions that arose, their population went with them, like it or not. For many, the attractions of “nationalizing” church property was a powerful incentive to become a reformer. Political alliances were made and remade in the name of religion throughout the rest of the century.

The Day of the Placards

After Luther, it was more difficult to remain neutral, the hidebound, rigidly scholastic Sorbonne denounced the Circle of Meaux as heretics in 1525. Some would recant, some fled into exile, some became avowed Protestants, and some fled to the shelter of Marguerite de Navarre’s court. Through the 1520s and 1530s, lines between the Evangelical Christian humanists and the Protestants were very vague. Seminal humanists like Erasmus and Lefevre d’Estaples never left the church, as they wished to see its fundamental unity destroyed. Others became religious and social radicals.

In spite of fear being inspired by the example of Luther’s followers, the “Most Christian King” of France was fairly tolerant of the spirit of inquiry and truly valued scholarship. He generally prevented doctors of the Sorbonne from doing their worst against anyone that challenged their medieval views. However, his tolerance changed with the “Day of the Placards”.

In the early morning of Sunday, the 18th of October 1534, Parisians and many other citizens of northern France awoke to find the city plastered with broadsides (posters) that denounced Catholic mass as “an insufferable abuse”. They condemned the Eucharist in some very vitriolic language and threatened the priesthood for “disinheriting” kings, princes and their sons by its practice. One of the broadsides appeared on the king’s bedroom door. This was not just a theological debate, but was an attack on the fundamental social fabric. It would confirm the popular suspicion that “Lutherans” were not only heretics, but also rebels and traitors.

A few culpable parties were rounded up and burned for these actions. Francois I responded to the challenge of his dual role as head of state and the church in France. They’d do so by holding a massive procession of Holy Eucharist through Paris, in which all royal and parliamentary institutions participated. Sporadic suppression of Protestantism followed, but was all very inconsistent. Rabelais would write his satirical works at this time as well and managed to never be burnt for them, while others went to the stake for much less.


In the wave of suppression that followed the Day of the Placards, one of the exiles was an evangelical humanist by the name of Jean Cauvin, latinized as Calvin) from Noyon in Picardy. He had studied law and made a bit of a name in humanist circles with a work on Seneca.

During 1536, Calvin published in Latin, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” in Basel. He sojourned in

Jean Calvin
Jean Cauvin

Strasbourg from 1538 through 1541, refining his thoughts on how to create God’s kingdom on earth and ultimately landed in Geneva. The “Institutes” was published in French in 1541 and had the most profound effect of any book besides the Bible on the development of Protestantism in France. Ironically, the first edition of the book was dedicated to King Francois, perhaps in hopes that the generally open-minded king could still be persuaded to adopt the formed religion.

Calvin didn’t really add anything particularly new to Protestant theology in the “Institutes,” but he gave a much more logical and analytical structure to its doctrines. His book was an effective educational tool and was intended to be the foundation for a new kind of Christianity, and by implicating a more godly new society. Calvinism is strongly identified with the “Doctrine of Predestination,” but this was not really a novel view. It was implicit in St. Augustine’s work from centuries before. It was Calvin’s legalistic explanation of the significance of it and other standard articles of Protestant confession that made the difference.

It’s an intense irony that citizens of Geneva, a people who were so determined to be free from an oppressive church hierarchy, who held as an article of faith the priesthood of all believers and also were fanatical about the liberty to study and interpret the scriptures for themselves. They should have established a theocracy where the Kingdom of God was so rigidly enforced that staying up after 9pm in a public inn was a crime.

Incidentally, the Lutherans and Calvinists came to despise each other. Montaigne recounts the story of visiting a town in Germany and having an interesting discussion with a pastor of a church there. He was really curious about the other’s beliefs and never passed up on the opportunity to talk to Lutherans, Jews, witches, and anyone else of interest. This Lutheran pastor held that he would rather celebrate the mass of Rome than so much as walk into the service of the Calvinists.

The Council of Trent

Eventually, the church mobilized itself to deal with the splintering of its authority and held the Council of Trent. It’s purpose was to try and define a common ground of belief and practice for all Christians, and attempt to heal the schism. The council opened in 1545 in the last years of Francois’s reign and met for eighteen years, during which it solved nothing. There was only little hope that the Protestant views would be truly accommodated and honestly debated. The end result was that Trent ended up reinforcing the more uniquely Catholic aspects of religion in contradiction to the Protestant practice.

The Gallican church would play next to no role in the Council of Trent and refused to register its decrees. During its early years of convocation, the Papacy was dominated by Hapsburg political influences. The Valois were at war with the Hapsburgs throughout the reign of Francois I and his son Henry II and the papal/French relations were then at a very low point. The Gallican church was very prickly about their rights and didn’t acknowledge that the Pope or Council had any right to interfere in the internal affairs of the Church of France.

The Counter-Reformation

The Council of Trent had tried to address some of the abuses of the church. It called for a more effective,

Ignatius Loyola
Ignatius Loyola

educated and involved clergy. The church’s most effective tool would come into being at this time. A Spanish bravo was wounded by a cannonball in 1521 and in his frustration at never being able to follow the noble profession of arms again turned to the comfort of religion. Ignatius Loyola applied a very military sensibility to the development of spirituality and founded the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits took education of the laity and the common clergy as one of their special goals. They answered to no earthly power but the Pope and served as the premier strike force of the Counter-Reformation. By 1559, they had become a world power.

There were several other notable saints of the Counter-Reformation. Some had responded to the “faith not works” challenge of the Protestants by finding a new vocation in social justice. Vincent de Paul and Francis de Sales were greatly devoted to caring for the poor. They founded orders with the mission at the time when an emerging capitalist economy was adding to the social wreckage. Poverty and homelessness were great at this time of growing wealth and power for the elite, and with this brand of counter-reformation the Catholics would choose to stand on the side of the meek and humble. Henry IV had strongly approved of St. Francis de Sales.

St. Theresa of Avila
St. Theresa of Avila

There had been a Counter-Reformation revival of Catholic mysticism, another reaction to the desire for a more personal relationship with God. St. John of the Cross probed “The Dark Night of the Soul,” St. Theresa of Avila explored “The Interior Castle” where God was dwelt and reformed the Carmelites. She also spread the contemplation at the same time that her countryman Loyola was spreading orthodoxy by whatever means necessary. Women would play a major role in the Counter-Reformation, just as they did in the Reformation. Some had been public leaders themselves, but most were leaders of a quieter sort. They’d patronize the saints, thinkers and preachers, motivated their families and acted in their communities.

Also taking a stronger interest in family life was the post-Trendentine Church. They took interest in the roles of husband and wife, parent and child and the responsibilities of the parents to train their children up in the faith. They began opposing excesses of Carnival and other types of pagan “laxity” that was part of everyday life and started promoting a more watchful sexual morality. Many of the “family values”that we now think of as characteristically “Catholic” were formed at this time and was in response to the Puritan tendencies of the Protestants.

The Demographics of Dissent

For a long time, historians have debated about who the Protestants were, why the new faith appealed to them, and where the social/religious fault lines lay and why. Marxists saw a class struggle between lower orders and the elite and others saw a conflict between a feudal Catholicism and a capitalist Protestantism. Yet others appealed of a more “rational” religion to better educate minds during a time of social flux.

Recent scholarship on this subject has finally provided some hard data. Protestantism in France had more of an appeal in towns than it did in the countryside, except in the South, which had a long tradition of anti-clericalism, heresy, and independence from the crown. In towns, artisans and learned professionals made up a disproportionate number of the Huguenots. When and why this term was coined for the French Protestants is still unknown. They were overwhelmingly more literate than the general population, which was really important for a religion that had so strongly emphasized Bible study. Members of new trades, such as printing and bookselling, as well as the newly prestigious trades of painting and goldsmithing and new manufacturing technologies like silk-making were more likely to take to Protestantism than the members of the older, more tradition-bound trades. As a whole, these were artisans, just with more education, independence and entrepreneurial spirit than the average person. At least these generalizations are true in the regions of France where these kinds of trades were strong. Regional context varies and popularity, or lack therefore, of reformed religion needs to be weighed against local condition. However, for the most part, the Huguenot artisans were working in the trades that their fathers never knew of.

Observers have always noted a certain congeniality between Protestantism and capitalism, even though great banking families and merchant houses had first emerged in the Italian city-states, a Catholic region where the church was a strong native industry that the reform never had a chance in. The sober, industrious lifestyle that was followed by most Protestants went well with the demands of making money in trade and in industry. It depends on whether or not you think this is a good thing, but some have seen in the Protestant work ethic the sublimation of people who have no absolution, no ritual means of forgiveness, and who must therefore throw themselves into their worldly labor to forget. Economically, the northern countries and the Atlantic-based trade prospered at this time. Many of the nations on the economic upswing were Protestant. In the Netherlands, the southern towns of Antwerp, where Catholicism was imposed by the Spanish, lost out to the growing economic power of the Protestant northern provinces as many of the refugees fled the Spanish wars to make a new life in places like Amsterdam. The towns and provinces that had preferred doing business rather than enforce religious purity on their subjects would do better in the emerging modern world.

French Protestantism would never have the amount of potent social force it became if it had remained a religion of artisans. In the 1550s and 1560s, a large number of noble elites were attracted to it. Calvin made a concerted effort to recruit them and sent Geneva-trained French evangelists into the country with the mission of influencing the powerful decision-makers. Quite often, these decision-makers were reached through the influence of their mothers and wives.

Marguerite de Navarre
Marguerite de Navarre

Marguerite de Navarre’s early humanist patronage blossomed into a full-fledged Protestant conviction in her daughter, Jeanne d’Albret, the Queen of Navarre, Duchess d’Albret, Countess of Bearn and Vicomtesse of Foix. Jeanne brought with her waffling and opportunistic husband, Antoine de Bourbon, and they raised their son Henry de Navarre in the religion and made the reformed faith the state religion within her territories. This rock of reform made for a powerful base in the Southwest, where the Huguenots had enjoyed a more popular support system than anywhere else.

Among other noteworthy converts was Prince de Conde, another Bourbon and Prince of the Blood; and the Chatillon brothers, Gaspard de Cologny, Odet Cardinal de Chatillon, who’d never give up his cardinal’s hat, and Francois d’Andelot. Many of the nobles no doubt took this course out of opportunism, loyalty to their patrons, and similar motives. However, some like Coligny seem to have been genuinely motivated by their personal conscience.

The judges of the parliamentary court were an elite group that was initially attracted to religion. This was particularly threatening to the social order, and Henri II would take steps to deal with it. One of the famous early Protestant martyrs was Anne du Bourg, a Protestant magistrate who had defied the king in the Parliament of Paris. Anne was burned for this in 1559. Significantly, the charters were not just for heresy but also for sedition and lese majeste.

That year also saw the untimely death of Henri II, which would set the stage for the transformation of the social issues of the Reformation, into full on civil war.

Children and Family

Children were certainly authentic, especially since a woman was likely to have a new one every year or so. However, sadly, the odds were only 50/50 of the new arrival surviving childhood. Childhood in this time was nothing special. A child was dressed like a miniature adult and was expected to behave as such too. They were small people and had no rights. In a peasant family, children would work in the field or the kitchen as soon as they could. Children of artisans and merchants had learned their parent’s trade. Sons of the nobility learned to be warriors and courtiers, and would learn first hand about the nature of service. Henry IV, who was a very indulgent father, is reputed to have told the dauphin that “I am the master and you are the valet,” he also recommended regular beatings, as when the dauphin was king there would be no one to correct him. The daughters of the nobility had learned to be accomplished and attractive pieces for the game of marriage politics. The noble or upper class mothers would rarely even raise their own infants. As they had been in England, an infant would be turned over to a wet nurse immediately. Depending on their social status they may have had a lot nurses to attend to them, and they also may have been sent to foster homes, especially if they were of a very high rank. At the foster home they were raised by pages and learned all about the courtly arts. Henry IV’s grandfather fostered him out to a country squire in Bearn, to be raised “bare-foot and bare-headed” among the people, in the belief that this would make a man out of him.

“Childhood,” was when a child was in the hands of domestic women. It would last until one became seven years of age. At this point, the upper class females may be sent to a convent for their education until they were called back home to marry a man that they had never met, or had been told to take the veil and save the family the expense of her dowry. An upper class male would be put in the hands of a “gouveneur” and may be sent to a “college” or was tutored at home. They would be taught Latin, some philosophy, rhetoric and more. If one attended school their hours were long, discipline was harsh, the food was bad, and heating was rare to have. All of this was thought to be good for one’s character, if they didn’t die under the regime. Until his death, even the formidable Cardinal Richlieu was a little afraid of his old schoolmaster. This emphasis on a formal education for the nobility was new at this time.

Upon the age of fifteen or so, a noble boy was sent to learn traditional arts of his class, such as riding, swordsmanship, dancing, and the arts of war. As peace returned to France, academics would open for this purpose, but it was often learned in another noble house. A son of a rising magistrate class would probably go away to study law.

Of course, among the peasantry, education was never much of an issue. Among artisans, education was acquired at home or in an apprenticeship, although a boy may be able to attend a cathedral school and join the clerical ranks, in newer trades, like printing, literacy was rising rapidly.

Only the children of the upper classes would marry very young, as dynastic obligations were one of their social duties. In the lower classes children didn’t marry as young, and weren’t married until a man had either acquired a piece of land to work or was established in a trade. A woman and her family needed the time to save money for her dowry which made her marriage later as well. When times were rough, marriages were long-delayed, when times were good, marriages happened earlier and produced large families. The frustrations of young artisan men in cities who had not yet acquired rights to a shop and family were often channeled into guild confraternities, “abbeys of misrule” and similar youth societies. Young men in a village also had their group of activities, which included the “charivan,” the carnival-like mockery of hen-pecked husbands, newlyweds and others. At the time of the civil wars, this sort of frustrated young man had made useful cannon fodder in the infantry, a new role for a man of his class.

What young urban and rural women had thought is largely unrecorded. What we do know is that they had helped out at home or went to work as domestic servants. Since women laborers had earned sixty percent of what a man did for the same work, they had made up the bulk of the servant class and were often the majority of hired farm workers as well. These women were not delicate. Of those working in agriculture, only plowing and harvesting with a scythe were exclusively male. There were, however, some trades that were dominated by women, such as embroidery. Some young women would enter an artisan apprenticeship as the men had. During hard economic times, however, women’s trades and carrying on of a man’s trade by his widow came under pressure from the frustrated journeymen who had thought they were being robbed of economic opportunities by the women in the public workforce.

At the time marriages were usually arranged, especially in the upper classes, where dynastic fortunes were at stake, though they were less arranged among the humble. Since a man needed to be economically established before marrying, they usually married younger women, whose chief assets were a satisfactory dowry and their potential of bearing a child. In children, death was common enough that a man might go through several wives. Then again, age difference, especially through the artisan class, might leave a fairly independent younger widow to carry on her husband’s business. Marriage was primarily for economic and business relationships, not for sentimental reasons. Therefore, they were carefully contracted as though they were any other business deal. However, the anarchy of the wars had introduced certain irregularity into affairs, so kidnapping of heiresses was not unheard of. Because of this, laws had been passed making clandestine marriages performed without the consent of the parents was illegal. The church had naturally objected to this civil interference in their affairs, and in response, the custom of publishing bans, a public announcement of a couple’s intent to marry, was introduced.


Men had certainly dominated the public space of the outward business of war and politics at this time in France. It’s largely their names and deeds that are recorded in history for us. Women had usually wielded their influence behind the scenes, around the family hearth, over the backyard fence, and at the town well. They would labor in public also, often as agents and partners of their husbands, or in their steads when they had become a widow. Women have always been responsible for the business of everyday life. They would have children and raised families. A woman would feed, cloth, provide shelter for her family, and ultimately healed the human race. Their work in a wage-based economy tends to be dismissed as being of little value, but the average farmer or artisan of the past would have known how necessary a woman was to have around.

The 16th century would produce a large number of notable women who were heads of state and had made a notable impact through the public sphere. Some of these women included Queen Elizabeth I of England, the Queen Mother Catherine de’ Medicis of France, Queen Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre, and Mary, Queen of Scots. All of these strong women had to deal with being both a sovereign and a woman, each would find a way to live as both.

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I had remained a Virgin Queen, politically anyhow, and used her marriage prospects as her diplomatic tools in retaining England’s, and her own, independence in the meantime. She was certainly one of the key shapers of the national character of England.

Catherine de’ Medicis was a quiet queen during her husband’s lifetime, and faded

Catherine de Medici

into the background as Henry II devoted himself to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. When she had inherited the kingdom as regent for her sons, Catherine maintained a strict public image of the proper, severe, widow protecting her children. She was hated by many for her deviousness in spite of how much she did care for her children, but she would manage to balance the crown of France between three powerful factions for thirty years.

Jeanne d'Albret
Jeanne d’Albret

Jeanne d’Albret was a rock and moral fortitude. As the Queen of Navarre in her own right, she had established the Reformed religion in her own lands and offered protection and patronage to many Protestant thinkers, preachers and theologians. Jeanne was probably never really happy with her husband, Antoine de Bourbon. She was one who had provided the backbone to the cause when her husband had lacked one. She was not a particularly warm mother either, and still managed her son Henri de Navarre’s career very well until her death. Jeanne died shortly before Henri’s marriage to Marguerite de Valois, which she had negotiated with Catherine de’ Medici. It was widely rumored at the time that Catherine had poisoned her.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was really a tragic queen. She was compelling in beauty, sincere and persuasive in her

Mary Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots

person and was adored by French Catholics. As the child bride of Francois II of France, Mary was little more than a tool of power for her family, the Guises. When she had taken up the reigns of government in Scotland after her husband’s death, she made good use of her personal charisma to govern, but had ultimately failed to control the fractious Scottish lairds. Her marriages were personal and political disasters. When the lairds had rebelled against her last husband, Bothwell, who was the murderer of Mary’s previous husband, Danley, she made a fatal mistake of fleeing to Queen Elizabeth for refuge as a sister sovereign. As a Catholic and the next heir to the throne of England, Mary was a magnet for intrigues, whether she wanted to be or not. Elizabeth would imprison Mary for twenty years before she finally sent her to the block in 1587.

However, the lives of these famous women in history doesn’t necessarily reflect the experiences of the average woman of the time. As always, a woman’s life experiences varied by their social class. In the nobility, a woman’s main duty was to make dynastic marriages, serving as a pawn for her family’s political and social ambitions. The marriages of the class were as much a woman’s job as the command of troops were her brother’s. Women of the noble class had often married at a young age, and many of these women had functioned as partners in a political enterprise. Many of the leading Huguenots were brought to their convictions by their mother or their wives. The women of the House of Guise were just as formidable as their more heroic men.

A woman of urban artisan and the merchant classes was usually a “silent” partner in the family business, even though she may not have held an “official” position. Keeping work and family separate was a luxury for the lower and middles classes who could rarely afford to do so. Among the lower classes, women have always worked and since women were paid less than a man and were usually more reliable as they were less prone to go get drunk on their wages, women were often more preferred for hired farm work and certainly for domestic work. Women have always been the majority of household servants, when a family from the country was in need of money, they had often sent their daughters out to service or to day labor.

Marriage was often delayed among the non-noble classes, as a woman couldn’t marry until she and her prospective husband could afford to establish themselves and set up a household. This would mean that a man had to have some land to farm or had a mastership in a trade. A woman needed to have a dowry, which was usually her share of the family inheritance, and had to have her own earnings. Since land had mostly descended in the male line, a daughter’s share was in moveable goods and money that would go with her upon her own marriage. During hard times, birth rates would tend to fall because marriages were delayed even longer than normal. It was a means of productivity of crops, goods and children for the future. Being personally happy in the sense that we imagine today wasn’t expected, although naturally a companionable partnership with someone who didn’t beat you was a good thing. Women did have to endure the fact that legally and socially, men were in charge. They had their ways of taking the sting out of this, but a husband had the right to beat his wife and was able to get away with murder in case of adultery. Women exerted a lot of their social control in a village or urban neighborhood by means of gossip. Old wives knew everything and often the fear of social censure kept some of the more fractious elements in line, but this did not always work as it was supposed to.

Sex was considered a special province of women. In the medieval times, women were the carnal, lustful ones, men were spiritual ones who were victimized by their temptations. After all, they were the descendants of Eve. In art, the asexual beauty of the celestial angel was best represented by a young boy. In the Victorian era, the idea of the delicate, sexually naive “angel in the home” did not exist. The double standard certainly did though, a woman’s honor resided in her sexual exclusivity. Married men were constantly afraid of being cuckolded and seemed to have thought that this was almost certainly expected. Given a woman’s voracious appetites, a lot of this, to our eyes, is certainly men projecting their own desires onto women and blaming women for their own actions. The idea of a raped woman had invited it was certainly common.

Women were also a part of the armies of the day, though not combatants, but as support services that were necessary for any army. There were no field hospitals and soldiers depended on their camp followers to take care of them when they were sick or wounded. Fighting men counted on their women to help them carry their gear while on march, they’d also help put up tents and cooked the meal at the end of the day. They would provide usual sorts of comfort that men had expected of them. Consequently, many of these women were carting babies along with fifty pounds of clothes, tents and cookware along with them. In spite of their usefulness, the camp followers were certainly often despised by society, even by those who benefited from their services. Puritanical leaders had often wanted to get rid of them and considered them a source of disorder, but until standing armies were organized with steady pay, medical services, and reliable logistics supports, this couldn’t happen.

Going to a convent was another option for women, for the most part, the best position in the convent was only open to women of high birth, poorer women could join as lay sisters. The lay sisters did most of the domestic work of running the convent, but the choir was largely for those in the upper class. Some women had exercised their vast political and social influence from convents. This was more true in the past than it was in the 16th century, as trends to enclose women and encourage them to pray and not study books had increased. However, a contemplative nun like St. Theresa of Avila had a big impact on the Counter-Reformation. St. Vincent de Paul had organized an order of women to do gritty social work among the poor. Hospitals were still staffed by nuns and the idea of such an institution being secular only came about after the Reformation, when the government of Protestant area had to take over the social functions of the church. When the convents where the Reformation had taken hold were closed, many women considered it a considerable loss. Protestants had thought that they were “liberating” the nuns, but a number of them had probably not felt that subjecting themselves to a husband and having a dozen children or so was an improvement in their lot. In the Protestant countries, single women with a vocation ended up being spinster aunties and governesses, with their status considerably less than what it would have been.

Although excluded from any liturgical role in the church, religion in the family had often been a woman’s province. Both sides of religious turmoil created opportunities for women to exercise a larger role in their homes and communities as religious leaders. Noblewomen who patronized d’Estaples, Beza and Calvin were essential to the success of Protestantism in France. Many ordinary Protestant women took delight in having the opportunity to exercise their minds in the study of the scripture. This was taken as a bad sign to some, if women could so upset the natural order as to debate the scriptures and theology, could the end of the world be far off?

Women had taken up large proportions of the new religion, something that had happened in past religious movements as well. People thought that until they were put in their place by a hierarchy trying to make itself respectable. A young religious movement eager for converts could provide a lot of freedom to act, think, challenge their old roles, to do something glorious and meaningful, and to become martyrs and saints. Protestants were a “people of the book,” it is likely that the new religion had appealed to women’s intellects, as it let them learn more and live in a world that allowed for more meaning for themselves than pots of burnt porridge and crying babies. The priesthood of all believers included them and they would make the most of this new style of living while they still could.

Those women of the Catholic faith during the counter-reformation would have opportunities as well. They chose either the path of mystical devotion or social service. Although the contemplative and active life would make them seem like they couldn’t be more opposed, they were still offered a scope of a larger identity. The internal war of a mystic was no easier and no less glorious than the conquest of the world, and women who took to the streets to save foundlings and orphans were also performing missions for God.

The third option for a woman who wanted more independence was in the field of prostitution. In the earlier years of the 16th century, it was not uncommon for a town to support a municipal brothel as a way of containing possible public disorder. However, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation both demanded a more exacting public morality and many of the brothels were closed over the course of the years, probably not to the women’s benefit. In public, the brothel protected women from abusive customers and provided food, shelter, and medical care for them. On the street, a woman had none of these. The ordinary prostitute’s life out in the public space provided no man to protect her, made her vulnerable to violence and disease, not to mention periodic social persecution. However, the life of the upper class courtesan could be quite comfortable, though such success was much more rare. The greatest beauty was usually found among the prostitutes. To be beautiful, these women needed to eat and dress well and lived in fine houses, all things they had acquired came through “gifts” from their patrons.

When all else had failed, the lower class women that had taste for adventure could run away and pass as a man. We still do not know how often this actually happened, but there are tantalizing little clues that were left for us. Although it seems improbable to us since women so often wear men’s traditional clothing today, such as trousers, gender signals were given by the clothing and roles which had probably made it easier then. If one was dealing with a person wearing trunk hose and carrying a musket, then the person must have been a man, even if he was a tad short and had a squeaky voice.

We cannot discuss the history of women during this time without discussing the craze for burning witches. This was a trend that seems to have been seriously fanned by the printing press. The publication of the witch hunter’s guide, the “Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches)” at the end of the 15th century, and its popularity in print had probably caused a great deal of harm. Enlightened Renaissance scholars like Jean Bodin wrote seriously on the subject of witches, and a few philosophers found any conflict between science and magic. Persecution of witches is a subject that deserves a huge amount of historical examination. It’s clearly a social force that was directed against women who had comprised the overwhelming number of victims, but what this means about the pressures that society was feeling isn’t clear.

For an example, witches appear to have been mostly older women, usually widows and had often lived alone. Sometimes these women would have property, but sometimes they were beggars. Older women with property were an obvious target for greed, while poor women seemed to have been victimized because their begging was a nuisance. “She asked me for a pan of milk, and when I would not give it to her, she cursed by cow” seems to have been the sort of evidence against them. Both kinds of women were part of the general population trends. The population growth of the 16th century would increase the number of indigent poor, overwhelming charitable institutions that would normally care for them and making people afraid and angry towards them. The population increase had also added to the number of discontented young men unable to buy a shop or farm in order to establish themselves and marry, which would make old widows controlling these resources a target. Sometimes sexual violence and jealousy would form a part of these attacks.

However, there were villages that not a single adult woman was left alive after witch-hunters had been by, which would seem to be socially quite counterproductive. Some of the dead were no doubt young mothers whose loss would impact the viability of the next generation. A society composed only of men is a tad sterile, so woman-hating was a bizarre phenomenon that involved a great deal of double thinking, another treatise well beyond our scope.

Women have always practiced “traditional medicine,” as it was part of a housewife’s expected regimen, some were even specialists. Some of their herbs and potions had actually worked, but these were viewed as hedge witchery by scholars who knew all about the circulation of the four humors and how they related to the planets. These superstitious charms could be harmless enough, but if one can cure, one can harm as well. Midwives knew all the mysteries of birth, a subject of which had only started peaking the interests of educated men. Women were, at times feared and suspected of being able to cause miscarriages and abortions as well. It’s an unclear line between medicine and magic of what was quite normal, but the practices could be turned against a woman. Even if they weren’t witches, women were always being suspected of poisoning their husbands if he had died suddenly. Part of the fear was that women who were responsible for maintaining all fundamentals of life had the power to subvert it as well.

Whether or not witches thought of themselves as witches is quite unclear. Most would confess under torture, which can hardly be considered objective. Confessions all ended up sounding a lot alike because, for the most part, they were prompted out of the same books.

Witch-hunters were frequently jurists from the cities who were well educated and cosmopolitan. They would travel from cities to create order in the countryside and the rural people in villages that they would visit lived in a very different world than they had come from. A world of superstition, ancient semi-pagan customs, and primitive, poorly-understood forms of religion. They had concrete, non-intellectual, non-reflective ways of acting, feeling and thinking that the average university-educated magistrate couldn’t understand. For many of the magistrates, contact with the rural culture was an absolute shock. The countryside of the remote areas had seemed to be teaming with superstitions, deviltry and fear. The interest that was shown in the upper classes in the customs and personal habits of the poor and rural peoples was a new thing that was fueled by the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and the growth of the state. Some viewed witch burning as a part of an attempt to exterminate an old, native, peasant culture and replace it with a new one that was more suitable to the modern state that wanted a unified national culture.

Women were generally less literate than men were. Those that were literate had most likely put their pens to use keeping family accounts and writing letters to keep up the web of the social fabric. A few prominent women wrote memoirs, someone like Catherine de’ Medici had voluminous correspondence that has been preserved through time. However, only a few books or left thoughts and experiences to the posterity, meaning that even in the midst of the Renaissance, one has to dig for their history like one was looking for Troy.

Women’s Clothing

A woman’s clothing would start with their underwear, which was a chemise or smock. The chemise was a

example of a chemise

nightgown-like undergarment, usually made of white linen. It may have shown slightly above the bodice or through the sleeves, but was the underclothing and therefore was normally hidden from view. Typically, the chemise was worn with a partlet. Italian women had used a smock style of chemise. The smock was a garment that gathered to a solid band. The average woman’s chemise was a very ancient design, being made tunic-like of a square and ungathered pieces. What would come after the undergarments would depend on the social class.

In the lower class, women would where a garment, maybe a kirtle over their underwear. The kirtle was a one-piece, sleeveless dress. Over top the kirtle was an overdress or gown, which had a bodice that was attached to a skirt. A gown would open up the front and was laced together. The sleeves may have then been attached by pins. Even the poorest of women had been expected to have a little “pin-money” for those “so-necessary” pins to keep their clothes together. Although this was the style of the 1560s and 1570s, the lower class people’s clothing had changed much more slowly than the upper class fashion.

Within the upper class, women would probably wear a “pair of bodies”, also known as a corset, and a variable number of petticoats over top their chemise. The corset was boned in order to give the proper flat-chested, long-waist look without wrinkles. Boning was done with caning or rushes. Over top the corset and petticoats they’d wear a gown. This was made of one piece of material, with skirts sewn to the bodice, but it didn’t usually lace up the front. Instead, it was more likely to have fastened almost invisibly up the back side. The bodice had “princess seams” shaping its back, it’s opening was often along one of these seams or may have opened down the front of the skirt to show petticoats or a special “forepart” underneath.

The skirts of gowns were very full, with multiple petticoats underneath and often padded out at the hips with a bum roll. It may have also been hiked up and tucked in at the waist to show the petticoats. Working women wore their skirts above their ankles and often as high as the mid-calf, as they couldn’t afford to be tripping on them around the hearth.

Queen Elizabeths Farthingale dress
Queen Elizabeth dress, a great example for a farthingale

The 1590s saw the arrival of the drum farthingale for upper class women, which looked like a platter around a woman’s hips. The skirt would fall straight to the floor from the edges of the farthingale. A lot of the time a flounce was pinned around the edge of the “platter”, how this was constructed is debatable, but it might have been an overgrown bumroll. The more traditional cone-like farthingale was still worn in Spanish-influenced territories, including the Imperial states, but was out of fashion by this time in France.

Women of the middle to upper-class had also, at times wore loose overgowns, which were more like a long robe, with no waist or belt, over top a kirtle. This would have been a rather comfortable and warm style of clothing in the winter. Men would also wear the same type of overgown, usually at home or as a magisterial robe. The women of the time would also wear ruffs like men, with or without partlets. It was a maiden’s privilege not to cover this area. Elizabeth of England had made a point of this. They wouldn’t wear the falling collar as much as men did during the time though. The upper class did wear dramatic; stiff, fan-like collars that were wired to the side and back edges of the bodice, sometimes with veils flowing out behind them.

Women had also worn capes of various kinds. The “Mary Stuart” style was a heart-shaped outline around the face and is at times still worn today. Wearing the hair brushed up over pads to make a kind of beehive was also a trendy aristocratic style. A more modest version of this is still worn as well. Close curls were also worn, long hair would be gathered into a bun in the back of the head, and was usually covered with a small cap or net of sorts. Women had also worn men’s style hats over their caps, a scandalous fashion development according to some people at the time. A woman would rarely have her hair completely uncovered, but an older or widowed woman would be more likely to have her hair fully covered. A working woman would probably have a kerchief or headcloth that covered her hair. Another, quite common style of the time was to wear the hair braided and wrapped circularly around the back of the head, then cover the braids with a small cap or cloth that may have been woven into the braids.

Knee-high stockings underneath a woman’s skirt was also worn and were held up by simple garters. Women may have also worn knee-length drawers for comfort and warmth, they were made crotchless for convenience. The custom of wearing drawers seems to originate from Italy but was not necessarily widespread elsewhere.

A gentlewoman traveling outdoors would commonly wear a mask that covered the entire face. It was often made of black velvet to protect her delicate complexion from the elements. A woman could also be seen wearing a traveling cloak. A working woman was often seen wearing an apron, which may have been nothing more than a piece of cloth, tucked into the waistband of her skirt. The upper piece of it might be pinned to her bodice. Like her brothers, a working woman’s wardrobe was not likely to change quickly or very much from what it had been for many years.

Men’s Clothing

A man’s suit consisted of a doublet, jerkin, and hose. He wasn’t really dressed without having a cloak and hat being worn. Underneath this he would wear a long shirt and sometimes drawers.

peascod waist doublet
Doublet with peascod waist

There was a wide variety of styles for men. A heavily padded, peascod doublet would reach it’s popularity in the 1580s and doublets had started to become more natural looking in the later 1590s. They still had a pointy waist and skirt of tabs most of the time, but there were other styles that had emerged. The level of waists were, at times, worn throughout this time by the practical people, especially those in the lower classes. A doublet with a more natural waist, comfortable sleeves and a deep skirt, reaching to mid-thigh like a “Beefeaters”, of which was appropriate for the working-class to wear. A doublet with a very narrow, almost vestigial, skirt was also worn by men, especially the Venetians, at the time. Sleeves were usually fitted, with buttons up the back of the arm near the cuff. There was normally a wing or roll at the shoulder junction of the sleeves. Big, puffy leg-o-mutton-like sleeves too were worn, often with a narrow-skirted-Venetian breeches look to them. The jerkin was sleeveless and was cut to fit over the doublet and was often worn open. Collars were very high during the 1570s, reaching up and around a man’s ears, but since then they became more reasonable.

Hose were quite varied in their style as well. There were two parts to them, the upper hose and nether hose. The basic styles for upper hose of this sort were knee-breeches and often were worn by the Venetians. Both were paned trunk hose and short trunk hose that were either paned or plain with canions. Nether hose were the other style of hose and looked more like stockings or tights to us today.

Knee-breeches came in several styles. They were very full throughout, very tight and very gathered. They were gathered at the top of the breeches and narrow at the knee, like an inverted pear or turkey-leg. They might also button or hook at the knee, either on the outside or inside of the knee. They might even be left open and would be worn with over-the-knee lengh stockings that were either tucked inside or pulled over the breeches, then held up by garters. They could also be quite ostentatious, or might be simple with bands and a buckle, the stockings tops rolled down over to hide them, like those of the 1920s flappers. Both sailors and laborers often wore breeches that were very loose the whole way down and left open at the bottom, falling to about mid-calf. Codpieces were not worn with any of these styles, but were still worn with others.

Paned trunk hose were puffy shorts that were made of strips of material laid over a lining cloth that had shown through the panes. These were worn for the majority of the century. The fashionable line of paned trunk hose would reach to the mid-thigh and were padded to a bell-like shape, as opposed to the onion or pumpkin shape that had previously been popular. They would be worn with nether-hose, which were long stockings, like tights. Codpieces may still be found with these, but were starting to go out of style.

Men also wore very, very short trunk hose, sometimes little more than a padded roll around the hips may have been attached, and were worn with canions. Fitted bicycle-shorts-like extensions would come to around the knee, like knee-breeches, they were worn with stockings. The stockings worn with these may have been pulled up under or over canions and gartered. The trunks might have been paned or unpaned.

Both ruffs and falling bands, which people commonly think of as “musketeer” or “puritan” styles of collars, were also worn by men, sometimes both were worn together. At the wrist one may have had ruffs or cuffs, with cuffs becoming more popular through the century. Lace had also started to be used more with collars and cuffs.

The shirt underneath all of this, was basic. The front and back would gather to a neck band, possibly with a gusset on the side of the neck and square-cut sleeves that were gathered into a wrist band with a gusset underneath the arm. Fancy collars and cuffs were often separate from the rest of the clothing, or it may have been attached by a button onto the bands of the shirt. There were also simple fold-over collars that were worn.

A gentleman would have worn a cloak and a hat. There were a number of cloak styles. There was the short Dutch cloaks, Spanish cloaks, which were short with a large decorative hood that hung down the back, and French cloaks, a la reitre, very long and often had a shoulder-length mantle over it. Cloaks had commonly been worn over one shoulder, leaving the sword arm free. Cloak ties and clasps were rarely seen, which draped the cloak rakishly and keeping it from falling off must have been an important social skill. At times a cloak would have hanging sleeves attached to them, making it hard to tell the difference between them and a coat or cassock, a loose-fitting, no waist, hip-length garment with sleeves. The cassock was, at times, open on the sides and was usually put on over the head. It did not button all the way down either. A loose coat of this kind was quite popular amongst sailors.

A flat, beret-like cap was worn throughout most of the 16th century, started to go out of style by the end. A tall-crowned, flat-top hat, the forerunner of the “pilgrim” hat, had become the height of fashion by that time. This style of cap was often worn with a feather or decorative hatband.

For riding, boots were worn. Shoes were considered appropriate for the indoors. Heels were just coming into fashion and a trendy shoe, cut with a tongue with side-latches fastened over the instep with a bow was also often worn. A slashed slipper-like shoe that was popular in the previous century was now going out of style.

Men, at this time were wearing beards almost universally. They’d cut them in different styles, of which some were the “van dyke”-like style, spade, square, and “pique-devant”. Mustaches were not worn just on their own. Men’s hair had been cropped closely to their heads in previous decades, but was starting to get longer in style.

A working man had looked much as they did in the previous hundred years. Peasants could still be found wearing “joined hose” (tights), with a codpiece, or straight, loose trousers falling to the mid-calf, with a loose coat over their shirt. The shirt would hang down to the mid-thigh and was belted with a bit of cord. This whole effect is very medieval-looking.


The French lived a life quite similar to other cultures in Europe, but they had some circumstances occurring that would lead their lives to be different in many ways as well, due much to religious changes through the country. How people lived at this time was changing quickly, not just in France though. Many more changes were yet to come, and a lot of people would start leaving for the New World.


2 thoughts on “Life in 16th Century France”

  1. As always, you sum up a time and place so well, combining the religious and political lives with an insight into the everyday. A very interesting and informative read indeed. You might be very interested in this film, set around the events of the St Bartholomew’s day Massacre, in 1572.
    It is beautifully made, and very authentic in period detail.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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