The paupers and peasants of the Renaissance

The 16th century might seem to be overflowed with magnificent Tudors, curly Italian Renaissance nobles, finely dressed reformers or colorful mercenaries. But the finest woolen, the golden brocade and the velvet was dedicated for the privileged few. Most people in Europe were of the more simple kind.

Although 16th century is a period known for it’s experimental playfulness when it comes to fashion among both highborn and low, that doesn’t mean the strict medieval rules surrounding clothing and fabrics in any way disappeared. On the contrary. The newly found consumerism did force the higher classes in society to enforce strict sumptuary laws, making sure the the finest accessories and fabrics remained a privilege for the chosen few. Breaking these sumptuary rules in the lower classes meant either a loss of property (the garment being confiscated) or a fine, working as a strain on a member of the working classes. A person of lower status could not purchase the “rights” to a specific item or material.

Sumptuary laws “regulated clothing, ornamentation, food, drink, and other forms of luxury, imposing a hierarchy of consumption. These laws prohibited certain ranks of persons from wearing specified cloths, garments, or ornamentation. Typically, the rarest furs were reserved for royal families, lesser furs for nobles, and inferior furs for commoners”. An English proclamation of 1559 stipulated:

“None shall wear in his apparel any cloth of gold, silver, or tinsel; satin, silk, or cloth mixed with gold or silver, nor any sables; except earls and all of superior degrees.”

In England 1510, for example, “Parliament passed an extensive and detailed law regulating the wearing of all sorts of fabrics and of trim from fur to gold and silver. This law was amended and added to in 1514 and again in 1515 and 1553”.

This meant that commoners most definitely couldn’t, and wouldn’t, dress as extravagant as the nobles or classes above them. Lower classes, such as laborers and apprentices would wear linen, a light, cool fabric derived from the flax plant, wool, or sheepskin.

But how did the commoner, and the truly poor, dress and look like during the 16th century? This question intrigued me to look into depictions of the 16th century paupers and peasants. (As my collection of depictions from this period is predominately northern European, it’s reflected here as well). Enjoy:

Three Peasants In Conversation by Albrecht Dürer, 1497

“Three Peasants In Conversation” by Albrecht Dürer, 1497


“Amorous Peasants”, by Albrecht Durer, ca 1500.


“Three pilgrims at the crossroads”, by Hans Burgkmair, 1508.

"The Beggars". Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, 1494–1533) Date: ca. 1509

“The Beggars”. Lucas van Leyden, 1509


“Resting pilgrims”. Lucas van Leyden, 1508.

Gypsies in the Market Hans Burgkmair, 1510.

“Gypsies in the Market”. Hans Burgkmair, 1510.


“The Milkmaid”. Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, 1494–1533) Date: 1510

Duerer, Die Marktbauern - Duerer, Peasants at the Market/Engr./1519 -

“The Peasant and His Wife at Market”, by Albrecht Durer, dated 1512


“Peasant Couple Dancing”, Albrecht Dürer, 1514


“Bagpiper”. Albrecht Dürer, 1514,


“The Pedlar”. Hieronymus Bosch, 1516

“Cripples, beggars and street musicians”. Bosch, Hieronymus c. 1450 – 1516. (also attributed to Pieter Brueghel (or Bruegel) the Elder).

“Cripples, beggars and street musicians”. Bosch, Hieronymus c. 1450 – 1516. (also attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder).


“The Peasant and His Wife”. Albrecht Dürer, 1519


Sorgheloos (“Carefree”) in Poverty, 1510–20. Netherlandish


“The Beggars”. Lucas van Leyden, 1520.


“Dancing farmer couple “Niklaus Manuel gen. Deutsch. 1518/1520

A Peasant Woman Carrying a Jug. Sebald Beham (German, 1500-1550), 1520.

“A Peasant Woman Carrying a Jug”. Sebald Beham (German, 1500-1550), 1520.


“Two peasants on the way to the market” attributed to Hans Weiditz , 1521.


“Farmer love couple”, Hans Sebald Beham, 1521


“Bauer” (Farmer), Niklaus Manuel gen Deutche.

Bettler (Begger), Niklaus Manuel gen Deutche.

“Bettler” (Begger), Niklaus Manuel gen Deutche.


“Old woman with drop spinnel”, Urs Graf. 1519/1521.

The Dentist. Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish1494–1533)

“The Dentist”. Lucas van Leyden (1523)

The Surgeon. Lucas van Leyden, (Netherlandish 1494–1533), 1524.

“The Surgeon”. Lucas van Leyden, 1524.


“The Musicians”. Lucas van Leyden, 1524.


“The Pensive Carpenter”, 1530. Albrecht Altdorfer


1535, the ‘Kirchweihfest’ (The Parish Fair)

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1535, the ‘Kirchweihfest’ (The Parish Fair)

"Dancing beggars", 1538, Cornelis Massijs

“Dancing beggars”, 1538, Cornelis Massijs


“December” from Golf Book (Book of Hours). 1540.

Woodcut by Cornelis A. Teunissen, 1541

Woodcut by Cornelis A. Teunissen, 1541


“The Peasants’ Feast or The Twelve Months”, Hans Sebald Beham. 1546-1547


“Peasants’ Brawl”, Hans Sebald Beham. 1546-1547


“The Peasant Banquet”. Sebald Beham, 1546/1547.

Studies pf Peasants ca 1550, Pieter Brugel


“The Sleeping Peddlar Robbed by Monkeys”. 1562

Three blind pilgrims holding staffs and moving to right, after Pieter Bruegel the elder. 1566.

Three blind pilgrims holding staffs and moving to right, after Pieter Bruegel the elder. 1566.


A woodcut of Der Rebmann (the vine-dresser) using a fork hoe in Jost Amman’s 1568 “Das Standebuch”.

The Drunkard Pushed into the Pig Sty. Made after 1568, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

“The Drunkard Pushed into the Pig Sty”. Made after 1568, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The Blind Leading the Blind. Pieter Bruegel, 1568.

“The Blind Leading the Blind”. Pieter Bruegel, 1568.


“Summer”. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568.

The Beggars. Pieter Breughel, 1568.

“The Beggars”. Pieter Breughel, 1568. (On the back of the painting is an inscription in Flemish: Cripples, take heart, and may your affairs prosper.)


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