Early Modern Social Context of Religion

  January 25, 2022   Read time 3 min
Early Modern Social Context of Religion
The sixteenth century witnessed a general though uneven expansion of this regional economy. Arable and pastoral farming extended further into the waste, cultivation intensified, sheep multiplied in number.

The tin, fish and cloth industries grew in size, and the volume of trade must have increased: under Henry VIII the cloth customs of the Devon ports averaged almost £1,500 per annum. Devon in fact ranked among the wealthiest counties of Tudor England. This expansion is attributable in part to technical innovations, like the introduction of shaft-mining to supplement the traditional 'streaming' of tin; but the primary stimulus was provided by a significant growth of population.

The number of able-bodied men to be mustered in Devon rose from 11,720 in 1524 to some 17,000 in 1569-70 - by which date the region's population had probably passed the 250,000 mark. The causes of this demographic upsurge included immigration from other counties, and from across the Irish and English Channels, as well as a reduction in epidemics. (Though still terrifying, as at Exeter in 1570, plague was increasingly localized.) The consequences included not only an expanding pool of labour but also a rising consumer demand for food, clothing and other commodities.

Most of this population still lived in rural settlements, ranging from isolated farmsteads or hamlets to larger nucleated villages. A few dozen towns could each number their inhabitants in hundreds, while Exeter, Plymouth, Barnstaple, Totnes, Liskeard, Bodmin and probably others could boast more than a thousand. Exeter, the largest, contained some 8,000; it ranked fifth or sixth among England's provincial cities. The population of a settlement might be boosted by its administrative functions, as at Exeter, or by its monastic associations, as at Tavistock, but the determinants of size were primarily economic.

Single farmsteads or hamlets were most common in districts like the Dartmoor borderlands, where farming was predominantly pastoral; nucleation was better suited to highly cultivable areas like the Vale of Exeter. Towns generally owed their size to industry or commerce. Many contained forges and workshops, and most organized weekly markets and annual fairs in addition to the daily trading of their shops and stalls. Farm produce was marketed in most towns, but other commodities had more specific outlets. Fish was particularly traded at Plymouth, tin at Ashburton, and cloth at Exeter, Tiverton, Cullompton, Crediton, Totnes, South Molton and elsewhere. Many of the largest towns were ports: Exeter, Plymouth, Barnstaple and several others were enriched primarily by maritime trade.

Communication between settlements was still hindered by extensive areas of moor, marsh and woodland. The region's topography and climate also ensured that roads were seldom straight, smooth or dry. Nevertheless the major towns were linked by main roads, and a network of secondary roads, lanes and trackways traversed most of the region. These were supplemented by bridges - like the stone structures surviving at Staverton and Holne - and by ferries across the chief estuaries. Such routes carried men and women on foot or on horseback, as well as livestock, pack-horses and horse- or ox-drawn wagons. The extant itineraries show that travel could be relatively rapid. It was fastest by boat or ship, either along the numerous navigable rivers of the South-West or along its extensive coastlines.

Most inhabitants of the peninsula earned their livelihood in economy-related occupations. These included the direct exploitation of natural resources, particularly by farming but also by fishing, quarrying and mining; the processing of raw materials, in the form of carpentry, masoncraft, smithing, leather-working, baking, brewing, butchering, or the manufacture and tailoring of cloth; and the distribution of finished products, by shopkeeping, commercial activity and related enterprises. The occupations of a smaller number were not directly economic: these ranged from the Church and the law to domestic service.
Participation in more than one activity remained frequent, many tinners and cloth-workers, for example, doubling as small farmers. Distinct from all occupational groups stood the leisured and the unemployed. The former, consisting mainly of the nobility and gentry, depended primarily upon the receipt of rent. The latter, consisting largely of the sick, the old and the very young, depended upon public charity or familial support.