The Renaissance is a term historians give to a period of time between 1300 and 1600 in Italy, England, France and Northern Europe that witnessed the emergence of capitalism and a shift away from ideas and lifestyles of the Middle Ages. Although nobles and the wealthy largely worked in the same occupations they had had during the Middle Ages, increased urbanization expanded roles for women and the emerging middle class.
Peasants and the Poor
The majority of peasants in Europe eked out a living during the Renaissance by working the fields of the wealthy. Typically, peasant families would work the same piece of land together, and while in a growing number of cases these families were able to amass capital and buy their own land, those who owned land remained the exception rather than the rule. Renaissance men and women did not share the modern idea that working is inherently better than leisure, and although peasant labor was notoriously grueling, the number of holy days and feast days on the church calendar allowed them to enjoy up to half a year’s worth of vacation time during a single year.
The Middle Class
The increase in banking and urbanization during the early Renaissance led to the emergence of a new class of people, the middle class. Because of their accumulated capital, this class of people had leisure to spend on education, which meant that they were able to get better jobs than those in the lower classes -- jobs that included banking, trading and retailing that required competence at managing and distributing goods made by others.
Noblemen and the Wealthy
Noblemen and women did not work in the conventional sense, as labor was considered beneath them. Instead, as they had done in the Middle Ages, noblemen pursued work that was appropriate to their station like managing properties; however, even in this case, they typically hired overseers to do the actual management, and the extent of their labor was to oversee the overseers. By gravitating toward occupations like governing, advising royalty and leading militaries, this small slice of the population was able to maintain a position of dominance.
Work for Women
While upper-class women generally did not work, many lower-class Renaissance women were household managers, a job that combined cooking, cleaning, feeding, washing clothes and beds and teaching children. Although men sometimes assisted in these tasks, women bore the brunt of the labor. In the cities, lower-class women might also have worked as paid assistants for someone else’s family, offering their services in cleaning and wet-nursing. Poor women who could not get work as servants, however, might have been driven to prostitution or manual field labor.
- Reuters: Why a Medieval Peasant Got More Vacation Time than You
- Learner: Renaissance: Out of the Middle Ages: The Middle Class
- Daily Life in Renaissance Italy; Elizabeth S. Cohen and Thomas V. Cohen
- Michael Hebron: Key Concepts in Renaissance Literature
- Victoria & Albert Museum: Women in the Renaissance
Boze Herrington is a writer and blogger who lives in Kansas City, Mo. His work has been featured in Cracked and "The Atlantic."