Early modern society was divided into the three estates: clergy, nobility, and commoners, the latter of which included merchants, townspeople, and the overwhelming majority, the peasantry. Within those estates, family, religion, and landed wealth shaped social practices, and inequality of wealth prevailed within each estate. The poor were viewed as objects of charity or dangerous idlers requiring social control, such as disciplinary measures or confinement. Social values and communal norms were sanctified by religion. With the advent of the Reformation, new Protestant denominations clashed with the Catholic Church and with each other to establish new religious practices and social values.
Marriage and family life were constrained by the values of the community. Men and especially women of all estates followed closely prescribed norms. Gathering resources to create a new household often required young adults to work and save for a period of years, and a late age of marriage for commoners (the European family pattern) tended to limit demographic growth. In preindustrial Europe, women’s and men’s work was complementary rather than separate, as peasants worked communally to bring in the harvest or artisanal women oversaw journeymen
and apprentices, kept the books, and marketed the product. Despite female involvement in movements of cultural and social change, gender norms continued to stress women’s intellectual inferiority and their duty of obedience to fathers and husbands, as well as limit their access to institutional power. The Protestant Reformation placed new emphasis on the individual’s direct relationship to God and the role of women in the family as mothers and assistants in religious instruction and schooling, while excluding them from clerical roles. Social and economic stresses along with negative gender stereotypes led to witchcraft persecution, which victimized elderly women in particular in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Demographic growth spurred social change in the 18th century. The Enlightenment brought a new emphasis on childhood as a stage of life, and the ideal of companionate marriage began to compete with arranged marriages. The French Revolution formally ended the division of society into three estates and continued to challenge traditional society throughout the 19th century; though remnants of the old order persisted into the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution created a division of social classes based on new criteria of capital and labor. The revolutionary emphasis on liberty galvanized many excluded groups to take an active role in politics, and the language of natural rights spurred the development of movements of equality, such as feminism and the end of feudalism and serfdom. The growth of the middle classes in the 19th century tended to anchor men and women in “separate spheres” and elevate women’s role in the home into “the cult of domesticity.” Early industrialism negatively affected the working classes and, more generally, shifted the family from a unit of production to one of consumption.
By the late 19th century, a new mass society had emerged defined by consumerism, expanding literacy, and new forms of leisure. The “woman question” that had emerged in the 17th century took on a new intensity as women sought economic and legal rights. World War I profoundly affected European society by conclusively ending the residual hold of old elites on power and democratizing society through shared sacrifice, represented by female suffrage in many nations. Between the wars, Soviet communism theoretically endorsed equality, yet women often performed double duty as laborers and mothers, while kulaks were considered enemies of the state and thus liquidated. On the other hand, fascist regimes re- emphasized a domestic role for women and created states based on a mythical racial identity. After World War II, the welfare state emerged in Western Europe with more support for families, choices in reproduction, and state-sponsored health care. Economic recovery brought new consumer choices and popular culture. In the Soviet bloc, family life was constrained and controlled by states dedicated to heavy industry rather than consumer goods, though basic needs such as housing, health care, employment, and education were provided within an authoritarian context. The end of the Cold War and the rise of the European Union brought some shared social values to light, as well as contested issues of immigration, guest workers, and the shifting religious and ethnic balance of Europe. Immigrants sometimes challenged secularism in European life and reasserted their religious values. European society has become, with fits and starts, a pluralistic one.
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