2.6 16th-Century Society & Politics in Europe

8 min readjanuary 20, 2023

Sharii Liang

Sharii Liang

Riya Patel

Riya Patel

AP European History 🇪🇺

335 resources
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The Social Ladder

Despite the religious upheaval of the time, societal classes largely remained the same. Religion was a significant factor in shaping class distinctions. The Protestant Reformation led to the split between the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations, which further reinforced the existing class distinctions. Most nobles became Protestants, while most monarchs remained Catholic. This reinforced the idea that religion and class were closely linked.
During this time period, owning land was still considered a symbol of being high class, and the aristocratic classes still received special privileges such as tax reductions and legal protection that were not granted to the lower classes. This further perpetuated the gap between the social classes and reinforced the idea that there were fundamental differences between the wealthy and powerful, and the lower classes.

Women Are…?

Prevailing ideas about gender and gender roles existed during the medieval period and were deeply ingrained in society. Men were typically seen as the breadwinners and were expected to work outside the home, while women were seen as the caretakers and were responsible for domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. This division of labor was based on the belief that men and women had different abilities and were suited for different types of work. This idea of gender roles and division of labor was reinforced by religious, social and legal structures and was a norm that persisted in many cultures and societies throughout history.
Women were expected to be the bearers of children and were responsible for educating them, no matter what class they were in. They were also expected to be submissive to their husbands and to adhere to traditional gender roles. The expectation for women to have children was particularly strong and having children was considered a duty and a measure of a woman's worth. This expectation was particularly high for noble women who, due to the availability of wet nurses, were able to have more children than poorer women. However, this did not necessarily mean that they had more freedom or autonomy in their lives, as they were still expected to abide by societal norms and their actions and behaviors were still closely monitored.
The Renaissance and Reformation raised crucial questions about educating women and what role they could play in society other than rearing children. Were women capable of being educated… were they even smart? Should they be allowed to become preachers? Generally, the answer was no, but they gained a bit more education and freedom, nonetheless.
🎥 Watch: AP European History - Reformation

Morality Above All Else

With the Catholic Church focusing on stopping the wave of anti-Catholic sentiment, cities were often left to regulate public morality. The Church had a powerful influence on society, but during this time period, they were more focused on preserving their power and countering the Protestant Reformation, rather than enforcing moral codes and regulations. As a result, the responsibility of maintaining public morality fell on the shoulders of the cities. To enforce moral codes, cities would often use public and humiliating punishments, such as whipping, branding or putting people in the stocks. These punishments were intended to publicly shame the offenders and act as a deterrent for others. The idea behind this was that by publicly punishing immoral behavior, it would discourage others from committing similar actions.
During the medieval times, society placed a strong emphasis on moral behavior and piety. To reinforce this, those who were deemed to have sinned or engaged in immoral behavior would often be publicly punished, such as being whipped, branded, or put in stocks for all to see. This was a way to shame and humiliate the offender and act as a deterrent to others. Additionally, citizens were encouraged to report any suspicious or immoral behavior to the authorities, and it was not uncommon for people to write tips for the government to investigate their neighbors or others. This type of societal surveillance and moral policing was used to maintain social order and ensure that everyone adhered to the commonly held values and beliefs of the time.

Men in the Stocks


Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Persisting medieval ideas and the turmoil of the time led a rise in accusations of The persistently medieval ideas and the turmoil of the time led to a rise in accusations of witchcraft. As society was going through many changes and tensions were high, witchcraft became a way to explain and blame the issues faced by society. As debates about women increased, so did the persecution of supposed witches. This phenomenon is known as the Witch-hunt, which was a period of persecution of people accused of witchcraft, especially in Europe and North America, between the 15th and 18th centuries. Many innocent people, mostly women, were accused and executed, like in the Salem witch trials in 1692 and the execution of Joan of Arc in 1431. These events were a result of the fear and mistrust that existed in society at the time, and they had a profound impact on the people and communities affected by them.

Community and Leisure

For peasants and the lower classes, leisure activities were often closely tied to agriculture and the religious calendar. They would often hold large public festivals to celebrate saints' days and other religious holidays, such as Saint Bartholomew's Day. These festivals could be quite unruly and rowdy, and as a result, many cities would ban religious events like Carnival in order to maintain order and public morality. In addition, religious events like Carnival were often seen as a threat to the established social order and were suppressed by the authorities.

Key Vocabulary

Protestants are a diverse group of Christians who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church during the 16th century. They include denominations such as Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans.
Wet nurses were women who were hired to breastfeed and care for infants, particularly among the wealthy and noble classes. The practice was common in the past, but has become less so in modern times.
Preachers are individuals who give sermons or speeches in religious settings, such as churches or temples. They may also be known as ministers, priests, or rabbis, depending on their religion.
Public morality refers to the commonly held beliefs and values about what is right and wrong in a society. It can include ideas about sexual behavior, drug use, and other issues.
Pious refers to a person who is devout and religious, and who often practices their faith in a very committed and serious way.
Witchcraft is the practice of using magic or supernatural powers, often for religious or spiritual purposes. It has been the subject of much fear and persecution throughout history.
Carnival is a festive season that occurs before the start of Lent in the Christian calendar. It is characterized by parades, costumes, and other celebratory events, and is often associated with Mardi Gras.
Saint Bartholomew's Day refers to August 24th, the feast day of Saint Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. The day is celebrated by some Christian denominations, but is also remembered for the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572, in which thousands of French Protestants were killed.

Continuities and Changes

Economic and intellectual developments from 1450-1648 had a significant impact on social norms and hierarchies in 16th century society and politics. The economic developments such as the growth of trade and commerce, the expansion of markets, and the rise of capitalist systems, led to the emergence of a new merchant class, which challenged traditional social hierarchies and created new forms of social mobility. Additionally, the increased wealth and resources that came with these economic developments also led to a greater focus on leisure activities and the arts, which in turn, influenced social norms and cultural practices.
On the intellectual front, the Renaissance, with its emphasis on humanism and the classical tradition, led to a questioning of traditional beliefs and values, and a reevaluation of societal norms. This was reflected in the increased emphasis on education and the spread of new ideas and knowledge, which also contributed to the changes in social norms and hierarchies.
In terms of continuities, established hierarchies such as social classes, nobles and peasantry, were still firmly in place and held distinct roles and privileges. Rural and urban households also continued to exist, with rural households primarily engaged in agricultural work and urban households involved in trade and commerce. Leisure activities were also still organized around the religious calendar, with church authorities enforcing norms and shaping cultural practices.
However, there were also changes in 16th century society and politics. Debates about women's roles and their place in society emerged, with some advocating for greater rights and opportunities for women. Government also began to regulate morals, with laws and policies aimed at controlling behavior and enforcing social norms. Accusations of witchcraft also became more common, with many people being tried and executed for alleged involvement in witchcraft.
Economically, the growth of trade and commerce led to the development of new financial systems and the emergence of a new merchant class, which had a significant impact on the economy and politics of the time. The expansion of markets and the rise of capitalist systems also led to the growth of industry and manufacturing, which in turn, led to an increase in the standard of living for many people.
Intellectually, the Renaissance led to the rediscovery of classical knowledge and the spread of new ideas and perspectives in fields such as art, literature, science, and philosophy. This had a profound impact on society and culture, and led to a reevaluation of traditional beliefs and values. The increased emphasis on education also led to the development of new forms of learning and the spread of knowledge, which in turn, led to the growth of a more informed and educated population.
In terms of politics, the growth of commerce and industry led to the emergence of a new merchant class, which had significant political power and influence. The Renaissance also led to a greater emphasis on individualism and humanism, which in turn, led to a questioning of traditional forms of government and the emergence of new forms of political thought.
In summary, economic and intellectual developments from 1450-1648 had a significant impact on 16th century society and politics, affecting social norms and hierarchies, economy, culture, education, and politics.
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🎨Unit 1 – Renaissance & Exploration
⛪️Unit 2 – Reformation
👑Unit 3 – Absolutism & Constitutionalism
🤔Unit 4 – Scientific, Philosophical, & Political Developments
🥖Unit 5 – Conflict, Crisis, & Reaction in the Late 18th Century
🚂Unit 6 – Industrialization & Its Effects
Unit 7 – 19th Century Perspectives & Political Developments
💣Unit 8 – 20th Century Global Conflicts
🥶Unit 9 – Cold War & Contemporary Europe
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