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Daily Life in the Old Regime 329

twenty-first century are also accustomed to life in

densely concentrated populations. New York City has a

population density of more than fifty-five thousand

people per square mile, and Maryland has a population

density of nearly five hundred people per square mile.

The eighteenth century did not know such crowding:

Great Britain had a population density of fifty-five people per square mile; Sweden, six (see table 18.1).

3 TABLE 18.1 3

European Population Density

Population density is measured by the number of people

per square mile.



density in



density in

the 1990s

Dutch republic (Netherlands)



Italian states (Italy)



German states (Germany)






Great Britain









Source: Jack Babuscio and Richard M. Dunn, eds., European Political

Facts, 1648–1789 (London: Macmillian, 1984), pp. 335–53; and The

World Almanac and Book of Facts 1995 (Mahwah, N.J.: World Almanac

Books, 1994), pp. 740–839.

Life in a rural world of sparse population was also

shaped by the difficulty of travel and communication.

The upper classes enjoyed a life of relative mobility

that included such pleasures as owning homes in both

town and country or taking a “grand tour” of historic

cities in Europe. Journeymen who sought experience in

their trade, agricultural laborers who were obliged to

migrate with seasonal harvests, and peasants who were

conscripted into the army were all exceptions in a

world of limited mobility. Geographic obstacles, poor

roads, weather, and bandits made travel slow and risky.

For most people, the pace of travel was walking beside

a mule or ox-drawn cart. Only well-to-do people traveled on horseback, fewer still in horse-drawn carriages

(see illustration 18.1). In 1705 the twenty-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach wished to hear the greatest organist of that era perform; Bach left his work for two weeks

and walked two hundred miles to hear good music.

Travelers were at the mercy of the weather, which

often rendered roads impassable because of flooding,

mud, or snow. The upkeep of roads and bridges varied

greatly. Governments maintained a few post roads,

but other roads depended upon the conscription of

local labor. An English law of 1691, for example, simply

required each parish to maintain the local roads and

bridges; if upkeep were poor, the government fined the

parish. Brigands also hindered travel. These bandits

might become heroes to the peasants who protected

them as rebels against authority and as benefactors of

the poor, much as Robin Hood is regarded in English

Illustration 18.1

— Coach Travel. Horse-drawn carriages and coaches remained the primary

form of public transportation in Europe

before the railroad age of the nineteenth

century. Postal service, business, and

government all relied upon a network of

highways, stables, and coaching inns. In

this illustration, travelers in the Pyrenees

wait at a coaching station and hotel

while a wheel is repaired.

330 Chapter 18

folklore, but they made travel risky for the few who

could afford it.

The fastest travel, for both people and goods, was

often by water. Most cities had grown along rivers and

coasts. Paris received the grain that sustained it by

barges on the Seine; the timber that heated the city was

floated down the river. The great transportation projects of the Old Regime were canals connecting these

rivers. Travel on the open seas was normally fast, but it

depended on fair weather. A voyager might be in England four hours after leaving France or trapped in port

for days. If oceanic travel were involved, delays could

reach remarkable lengths. In 1747 the electors of

Portsmouth, England, selected Captain Edward Legge

of the Royal Navy to represent them in Parliament;

Legge, whose command had taken him to the Americas, had died eighty-seven days before his election but

the news had not yet arrived in Portsmouth.

Travel and communication were agonizingly slow

by twenty-first-century standards. In 1734 the coach

trip between Edinburgh and London (372 miles) took

twelve days; the royal mail along that route required

forty-eight hours of constant travel by relay riders. The

commercial leaders of Venice could send correspondence to Rome (more than 250 miles) in three to four

days, if conditions were favorable; messages to Moscow

(more than twelve hundred miles) required about four

weeks. When King Louis XV of France died in 1774,

this urgent news was rushed to the capitals of Europe

via the fastest couriers: It arrived in Vienna and Rome

three days later; Berlin, four days; and St. Petersburg,

six days.


Life Expectancy in the Old Regime

The living conditions of the average person during the

Old Regime holds little appeal for people accustomed

to twenty-first-century conveniences. A famous writer

of the mid-eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson, described the life of the masses as “little to be enjoyed and

much to be endured.” The most dramatic illustration of

Johnson’s point is life expectancy data. Although the

figures vary by social class or region, their message is

grim. For everyone born during the Old Regime, the

average age at death was close to thirty. Demographic

studies of northern France at the end of the seventeenth

century found that the average age at death was twenty.

Data for Sweden in 1755 give an average life of thirtythree. A comprehensive study of villages in southern

England found a range between thirty-five and fortyfive. These numbers are misleading because of infant

mortality, but they contain many truths about life in the


Short life expectancy meant that few people knew

their grandparents. Research on a village in central

England found that a population of four hundred included only one instance of three generations alive in

the same family. A study of Russian demography found

more shocking results: Between 20 and 30 percent of all

serfs under age fifteen had already lost both parents.

Similarly, when the French philosopher Denis Diderot

in 1759 returned to the village of his birth at age fortysix, he found that not a single person whom he knew

from childhood had survived. Life expectancy was significantly higher for the rich than for the poor. Those

who could afford fuel for winter fires, warm clothing, a

superior diet, or multiple residences reduced many

risks. The rich lived an estimated ten years longer than

the average in most regions and seventeen years longer

than the poor.


Disease and the Biological Old Regime

Life expectancy averages were low because infant mortality was high, and death rates remained high throughout childhood. The study of northern France found

that one-third of all children died each year and only

58 percent reached age fifteen. However, for those who

survived infancy, life expectancy rose significantly. In a

few healthier regions, especially where agriculture was

strong, the people who lived through the terrors of

childhood disease could expect to live nearly fifty more


The explanation for the shocking death rates and

life expectancy figures of the Old Regime has been

called the biological old regime, which suggests the

natural restrictions created by chronic undernourishment, periodic famine, and unchecked disease. The first

fact of existence in the eighteenth century was the

probability of death from an infectious disease. Natural

catastrophes (such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755,

which killed thirty thousand people) or the human violence of wartime (such as the battle of Blenheim in

1704, which took more than fifty thousand casualties in

a single day) were terrible, but more people died from

diseases. People who had the good fortune to survive

natural and human catastrophe rarely died from heart

disease or cancer, the great killers of the early twenty-

Daily Life in the Old Regime 331

3 TABLE 18.2 3

The Causes of Death in the Eighteenth Century Compared with the Twentieth Century

Deaths in Edinburgh in 1740

Deaths in the United States in the 1990s







Consumption (tuberculosis)


Heart disease








Fevers (including typhus and typhoid)





Old age


Pulmonary condition







Source: Data for 1740 from John D. Post, Food Shortage, Climatic Variability, and Epidemic Disease in Preindustrial Europe (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press,

1988), p. 241; data for the United States from The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1995 (Mahwah, N.J.: World Almanac Books, 1994), p. 959.

first century. An examination of the 1740 death records

for Edinburgh, for example, finds that the leading

causes of death that year were tuberculosis and smallpox, which accounted for nearly half of all deaths (see

table 18.2).

Some diseases were pandemic: The germs that

spread them circulated throughout Europe at all times.

The bacteria that attacked the lungs and caused tuberculosis (called consumption in the eighteenth century)

were one such universal risk. Other diseases were endemic: They were a constant threat, but only in certain

regions. Malaria, a febrile disease transmitted by mosquitoes, was endemic to warmer regions, especially

where swamps or marshes were found. Rome and

Venice were still in malarial regions in 1750; when

Napoleon’s army marched into Italy in 1796, his soldiers began to die from malaria before a single shot had

been fired.

The most frightening diseases have always been

epidemic diseases—waves of infection that periodically

passed through a region. The worst epidemic disease of

the Old Regime was smallpox. An epidemic of 1707

killed 36 percent of the population of Iceland. London

lost three thousand people to smallpox in 1710, then

experienced five more epidemics between 1719 and

1746. An epidemic decimated Berlin in 1740; another

killed 6 percent of the population of Rome in 1746. Social historians have estimated that 95 percent of the

population contracted smallpox, and 15 percent of all

deaths in the eighteenth century can be attributed to it.

Those who survived smallpox were immune thereafter,

so it chiefly killed the young, accounting for one-third

of all childhood deaths. In the eighty years between

1695 and 1775, smallpox killed a queen of England, a

king of Austria, a king of Spain, a tsar of Russia, a queen

of Sweden, and a king of France. Smallpox ravaged the

Habsburgs, the royal family of Austria, and completely

changed the history of their dynasty. Between 1654 and

1763, the disease killed nine immediate members of the

royal family, causing the succession to the throne to

shift four times. The death of Joseph I in 1711 cost the

Habsburgs their claim to the throne of Spain, which

would have gone to his younger brother Charles. When

Charles accepted the Austrian throne, the Spanish

crown (which he could not hold simultaneously) passed

to a branch of the French royal family. The accession of

Charles to the Austrian throne also meant that his

daughter, Maria Theresa, would ultimately inherit it—

an event that led to years of war.

Although smallpox was the greatest scourge of the

eighteenth century, signs of a healthier future were evident. The Chinese and the Turks had already learned

the benefits of intentionally infecting children with a

mild case of smallpox to make them immune to the disease. A prominent English woman, Lady Mary Wortley

Montagu, learned of the Turkish method of inoculating

the young in 1717, and after it succeeded on her son,

she became the first European champion of the procedure (see document 18.1). Inoculation (performed by

opening a vein and introducing the disease) won acceptance slowly, often through royal patronage. Empress

Maria Theresa had her family inoculated after she saw

four of her children die of smallpox. Catherine the

Great followed suit in 1768. But inoculation killed some

people, and many feared it. The French outlawed the

procedure in 1762, and the Vatican taught acceptance

332 Chapter 18

[ DOCUMENT 18.1 [

Mary Montagu: The Turkish Smallpox Inoculation

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762) was the wife of the

British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. While living in Constantinople, she observed the Turkish practice of inoculating children with

small amounts of smallpox and was amazed at the Turkish ability to

prevent the disease. The following excerpts are from a letter to a friend

in which Montagu explains her discovery.

Mary Montagu to Sarah Chiswell, 1 April 1717:

I am going to tell you a thing that I am sure will make

you wish yourself here. The smallpox, so fatal and so general amonst us, is here entirely harmless [because of] the

invention of “engrafting” (which is the term they give it).

There is a set of old women who make it their business to

perform the operation. Every autumn in the month of

September, when the great heat is abated, people send to

one another to know if any of their family has a mind to

have the smallpox. They make parties for this purpose,

and when they are met (commonly 15 or 16 together),

the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of

the best sort of smallpox [the fluid from a smallpox infection] and asks what veins you please to have opened. She

immediately rips open that which you offer to her with a

of the disease as a “visitation of divine will.” Nonetheless, the death of Louis XV led to the inoculation of his

three sons.

While smallpox devastated all levels of society,

some epidemic diseases chiefly killed the poor. Typhus,

spread by the bite of body lice, was common in squalid

urban housing, jails, and army camps. Typhoid fever,

transmitted by contaminated food or water, was equally

at home in the unsanitary homes that peasants shared

with their animals.

The most famous epidemic disease in European history was the bubonic plague, the Black Death that

killed millions of people in the fourteenth century. The

plague, introduced by fleas borne on rodents, no longer

ravaged Europe, but it killed tens of thousands in the

eighteenth century and evoked a special cultural terror.

Between 1708 and 1713, the plague spread from Poland

across central and northern Europe. Half the city of

Danzig died, and the death rate was only slightly lower

in Prague, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. Another epidemic spread from Russia in 1719. It reached the port

large needle (which gives no more pain than a common

scratch) and puts into the vein as much venom as can lie

upon the head of her needle, and after binds up the little

wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner

opens four or five veins. . . .

The children, or young patients, play together all the

rest of the day and are in perfect health till the eighth day.

Then the fever begins to seize them and they keep to

their beds for two days, very seldom three days. They

have very rarely above 20 or 30 [smallpox sores] on their

faces, which never leave marks, and in eight days time

they are as well as before their illness. . . .

Every year thousands undergo this operation . . .

[and] there is no example of any one that has died of it.

You may believe I am very well satisfied of the safety of

the experiment since I intend to try it on my dear little

son. I am a patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England. . . .

Montagu, Mary Wortley. The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley

Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband. 3 vols. Oxford, England: Clarendon

Press, 1965.

of Marseilles in 1720, and forty thousand people perished. Russia experienced another epidemic in 1771,

killing fifty-seven thousand people in Moscow alone.

Public Health before the Germ Theory

Ignorance and poverty compounded the dangers of the

biological old regime. The germ theory of disease

transmission—that invisible microorganisms such as

bacteria and viruses spread diseases—had been suggested centuries earlier, but governments, scientists,

and churches dismissed this theory until the late nineteenth century. Instead, the dominant theory was the

miasma theory of contagion, holding that diseases

spring from rotting matter in the earth. Acceptance of

the miasma theory perpetuated dangerous conditions.

Europeans did not understand the dangers of unsanitary

housing, including royal palaces. Louis XIV’s palace at

Versailles was perhaps the greatest architectural ornament of an epoch, but human excrement accumulated

in the corners and corridors of Versailles, just as it accu-

Daily Life in the Old Regime 333

mulated in dung-heaps alongside peasant cottages. One

of the keenest observers of that age, the duke de SaintSimon, noted that even the royal apartments at Versailles opened out “over the privies and other dark and

evil smelling places.”

The great cities of Europe were filthy. Few had

more than rudimentary sewer systems. Gradually, enlightened monarchs realized that they must clean their

capitals, as King Charles III (Don Carlos) ordered for

Madrid in 1761. This Spanish decree required all

households to install piping on their property to carry

solid waste to a sewage pit, ordered the construction of

tiled channels in the streets to carry liquid wastes, and

committed the state to clean public places. Such public

policies significantly improved urban sanitation, but

they were partial steps, as the Spanish decree recognized, “until such time as it be possible to construct the

underground sewage system.” The worst sanitation was

often found in public institutions. The standard French

army barracks of the eighteenth century had rooms

measuring sixteen feet by eighteen feet; each room accommodated thirteen to fifteen soldiers, sharing four or

five beds and innumerable diseases. Prisons were

worse yet.

Another dangerous characteristic of Old Regime

housing was a lack of sufficient heat. During the eighteenth century the climatic condition known as the Little Ice Age persisted, with average temperatures a few

degrees lower than the twentieth century experienced.

Winters were longer and harder, summers and growing

seasons were shorter. Glaciers advanced in the north,

and timberlines receded on mountains. In European

homes, the heat provided by open fires was so inadequate that even nobles saw their inkwells and wine

freeze in severe weather. Among the urban poor, where

many families occupied unheated rooms in the basement or attic, the chief source of warmth was body heat

generated by the entire family sleeping together. Some

town dwellers tried heating their garrets by burning

coal, charcoal, or peat in open braziers, without chimneys or ventilation, creating a grim duel between freezing cold and poisonous air. Peasants found warmth by

bringing their livestock indoors and sleeping with the

animals, exacerbating the spread of disease.

In a world lacking a scientific explanation of epidemic disease, religious teaching exercised great influence over public health standards. Churches offered

solace to the afflicted, but they also offered another explanation of disease: It was the scourge of God. This

theory of disease, like the miasma theory, contributed

to the inattention to public health. Many churches organized religious processions and ceremonies of expia-

tion in hopes of divine cures. Unfortunately, such public assemblies often spread disease by bringing healthy

people into contact with the infected. Processions and

ceremonies also prevented effective measures because

they persuaded churches to oppose quarantines.

Churches were not alone; merchants in most towns

joined them in fighting quarantines.

Medicine and the Biological Old Regime

Most Europeans during the Old Regime never received

medical attention from trained physicians. Few doctors

were found in rural areas. Peasants relied on folk medicine, consulted unlicensed healers, or allowed illness to

run its course. Many town dwellers received their medical advice from apothecaries (druggists). The propertied classes could consult trained physicians, although

this was often a mixed blessing. Many medical doctors

were quacks, and even the educated often had minimal

training. The best medical training in Europe was found

at the University of Leiden in Holland, where Hermann Boerhaave pioneered clinical instruction at bedsides, and similar programs were created at the College

of Physicians in Edinburgh in 1681 and in Vienna in

1745. Yet Jean-Paul Marat, one of the leaders of the

French Revolution, received a medical degree at Edinburgh after staying there for a few weeks during the

summer of 1774.

Medical science practiced curative medicine, following traditions that seem barbaric to later centuries.

The pharmacopeia of medicinal preparations still favored ingredients such as unicorn’s horn (ivory was usually used), crushed lice, incinerated toad, or ground

shoe leather. One cherished medication, highly praised

in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1771),

was usnea, the moss scraped from the scalp of prisoners

hung in irons. The medical profession also favored

treatments such as bleeding (the intentional drawing of

blood from a sick person) or purging the ill with emetics and enemas. The argument for bleeding was derived

from the observation that if blood were drawn, the

body temperature dropped. Because fevers accompanied most diseases, bleeding was employed to reduce

the fever. This treatment often hastened death. King

Louis XV of France was virtually bled to death by his

physicians in 1774, although officially he succumbed to

smallpox. As Baron von Leibnitz, a distinguished German philosopher and scientist, observed, “[A] great

doctor kills more people than a great general.”

The treatment given to King Charles II of England

in 1685, as he died of an apparent embolism (a clot in

334 Chapter 18

Illustration 18.2

— An Eighteenth-Century Hospital.

This scene of a German hospital ward in

Hamburg depicts many aspects of premodern medicine. Note the mixture of

patients with all afflictions, the nonsterile conditions, the amputation of a leg

on a conscious patient, the arrival of a

daily ration of bread, and the administration of the last rites to a patient.

an artery), shows the state of learned medicine. A team

of a dozen physicians first drew a pint of blood from

his right arm. They then cut open his right shoulder

and cupped it with a vacuum jar to draw more blood.

Charles then received an emetic to induce vomiting,

followed by a purgative, then a second purgative. Next

came an enema of antimony and herbs, followed by a

second enema and a third purgative. Physicians then

shaved the king’s head, blistered it with heated glass,

intentionally broke the blisters, and smeared a powder

into the wounds (to “strengthen his brain”). Next came

a plaster of pitch and pigeon excrement. Death was

probably a relief to the tortured patient.

Hospitals were also scarce in the Old Regime.

Nearly half of the counties of England contained no

hospital in 1710; by 1800, there were still only four

thousand hospital beds in the entire country, half of

them in London. Avoiding hospitals was generally safer

in any case (see illustration 18.2). These institutions

had typically been founded by monastic orders as

refuges for the destitute sick, and most of them were

still operated by churches in the eighteenth century.

There were a few specialized hospitals (the first children’s clinic was founded at London in 1779), and most

hospitals typically mixed together poor patients with

a variety of diseases that spread inside the hospital. Patients received a minimal diet and rudimentary care but

little medical treatment. The history of surgery is even

more frightening. In many regions, surgeons were still

members of the barbers’ guild. Because eighteenthcentury physicians did not believe in the germ theory

of disease transmission, surgeons often cut people in

squalid surroundings with no thought for basic cleanliness of their hands or their instruments. Without antisepsis, gangrene (then called hospital putrefaction) was

a common result of surgery. No general anesthetics

were available, so surgeons operated upon a fully conscious patient.

In these circumstances, opium became a favorite

medication of well-to-do patients. It was typically taken

as a tincture with alcohol known as laudanum, and it was

available from apothecaries without a prescription. Laudanum drugged the patient, and it often addicted survivors to opium, but it reduced suffering. Many famous

figures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries died,

as did the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1792, “all but

speechless from laudanum.”


Subsistence Diet and the Biological

Old Regime

The second critical feature of the biological old regime

was a dangerously inadequate food supply. In all regions of Europe, much of the population lived with

chronic undernourishment, dreading the possibility of

famine. A subsistence diet (one that barely met the

minimum needed to sustain life) weakened the immune

system, making people more vulnerable to contracting

diseases and less able to withstand their ravages. Diet

was thus a major factor in the Old Regime’s high mortality rates and short life expectancies.

Daily Life in the Old Regime 335

Most of Europe lived chiefly on starches. The biblical description of bread as “the staff of life” was true,

and most people obtained 50 percent to 75 percent of

their total calories from bread. Interruptions of the

grain supply meant suffering and death. In good times,

a peasant family ate several pounds of bread a day, up

to three pounds per capita; in lean times, they might

share one pound of bread. A study of the food supply

in Belgium has shown that the nation consumed a per

capita average of one-and-a-quarter pounds of cereal

grains per day. A study of eastern Prussia has shown

that the adult population lived on nearly three pounds

of grain per day. Peasant labors there received their entire annual wages in starches; the quantity ranged from

thirty-two bushels of grain (1694) to twenty-five

bushels of grain and one of peas (1760).

Bread made from wheat was costly because wheat

yielded few grains harvested per grain sown. As a result,

peasants lived on coarser, but bountiful, grains. Their

heavy, dark bread normally came from rye and barley.

In some poor areas, such as Scotland, oats were the staple grain. To save valuable fuel, many villages baked

bread in large loaves once a month, or even once a season. This created a hard bread that had to be broken

with a hammer and soaked in liquid before it could be

eaten. For variety, cereals could be mixed with liquid

(usually water) without baking to create a porridge or


Supplements to the monotonous diet of starches

varied from region to region, but meat was a rarity. In a

world without canning or refrigeration, meat was consumed only when livestock were slaughtered, in a salted

or smoked form of preservation, or in a rancid condition. A study of the food supply in Rome in the 1750s

has shown that the average daily consumption of meat

amounted to slightly more than two ounces. For the

lower classes, that meant a few ounces of sausage or

dried meat per week. In that same decade, Romans consumed bread at an average varying between one and

two pounds per day. Fruits and fresh vegetables were

seasonal and typically limited to those regions where

they were cultivated. A fresh orange was thus a luxury

to most Europeans, and a fresh pineapple was rare and

expensive. Occasional dairy products plus some cooking fats and oils (chiefly lard in northern Europe and

olive oil in the south) brought urban diets close to

twenty-five hundred calories per day in good times. A

study of Parisian workers in 1780 found that adult

males engaged in physical labor averaged two thousand

calories per day, mostly from bread. (Figures of thirtyfive hundred to four thousand are common today

3 TABLE 18.3 3

Food in the Budget of a Berlin Worker’s

Family, c. 1800






Other vegetable products


Animal products (meat and dairy)



Total food






Heating, lighting


Clothing, other expenses


Total Nonfood


Note: Figures exceed 100 percent because of rounding.

Source: From data in Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life

(New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1981), p. 132.

among males doing physical labor.) Urban workers often spent more than half of their wages for food, even

when they just ate bread. A study of Berlin at the end of

the eighteenth century showed that a working-class

family might spend more than 70 percent of its income

on food (see table 18.3). Peasants ate only the few vegetables grown in kitchen gardens that they could afford

to keep out of grain production.

Beverages varied regionally. In many places, the

water was unhealthy to drink and peasants avoided it

without knowing the scientific explanation of their

fears. Southern Europe produced and consumed large

quantities of wine, and beer could be made anywhere

that grain was grown. In 1777 King Frederick the Great

of Prussia urged his people to drink beer, stating that he

had been raised on it and believed that a nation “nourished on beer” could be “depended on to endure hardships.” Such beers were often dark, thick, and heavy.

When Benjamin Franklin arrived in England, he called

the beer “as black as bull’s blood and as thick as mustard.”

Wine and beer were consumed as staples of the

diet, and peasants and urban workers alike derived

336 Chapter 18

Illustration 18.3

— Alcohol. Alcohol consumption rates

during the eighteenth century were

higher than they are today. Drinking to

excess was one behavior pattern that cut

across social classes, from the taverns in

poor districts advertising “dead drunk for

a penny” to the falling down drunks of

the upper class depicted in Hogarth’s “A

Midnight Modern Conversation” here.

Note that smoking pipes is nearly universal and that women are excluded

from this event. See also the chamber

pot in the lower right corner.

much of their calories and carbohydrates from them,

partly because few nonalcoholic choices were available.

The consumption of milk depended upon the local

economy. Beverages infused in water (coffee, tea, cocoa) became popular in European cities when global

trading made them affordable. The Spanish introduced

the drinking of chocolate (which was only a beverage

until the nineteenth century) but it long remained a

costly drink. Coffee drinking was brought to Europe

from the Middle East, and it became a great vogue after

1650, producing numerous urban coffeehouses. But infused beverages never replaced wine and beer in the

diet. Some governments feared that coffeehouses were

centers of subversion and restricted them more than the

taverns. Others worried about the mercantilist implications of coffee and tea imports. English coffee imports,

for example, sextupled between 1700 and 1785, leading

the government to tax tea and coffee. The king of Sweden issued an edict denouncing coffee in 1746, and

when that failed to control the national addiction, he

decreed total prohibition in 1756. Coffee smuggling

produced such criminal problems, however, that the

king legalized the drink again in 1766 and collected a

heavy excise tax on it. Even with such popularity, infused beverages did not curtail the remarkable rate of

alcohol consumption (see illustration 18.3). In addition

to wines and beer, eighteenth-century England drank

an enormous amount of gin. Only a steep gin tax in

1736 and vigorous enforcement of a Tippling Act of

1751 reduced consumption from 8.5 million gallons of

gin per year to 2.1 million gallons during the 1750s.

The Columbian Exchange and the European Diet

The most important changes in the European diet of

the Old Regime resulted from the gradual adoption of

foods found in the Americas. In a reciprocal Columbian

exchange of plants and animals unknown on the other

continent, Europe and America both acquired new

foods. No Italian tomato sauce or French fried potato

existed before the Columbian exchange because the

tomato and potato were plants native to the Americas

and unknown in Europe. Similarly, the Columbian exchange introduced maize (American corn), peanuts,

many peppers and beans, and cacao to Europe. The

Americas had no wheat fields, grapevines, or melon

patches; no horses, sheep, cattle, pigs, goats, or burros.

In the second stage of this exchange, European plants

established in the Americas began to flourish and yield

exportation to Europe. The most historic example of

this was the establishment of the sugarcane plantations

in the Caribbean, where slave labor made sugar commonly available in Europe for the first time, but at a

horrific human price (see map 18.1).

Europe’s first benefit from the Columbian exchange

came from the potato, which changed diets in the eighteenth century. The Spanish imported the potato in the

sixteenth century after finding the Incas cultivating it in

Peru, but Europeans initially refused to eat it because

folk wisdom considered tubers dangerous. Churches

opposed the potato because the Bible did not mention

it. Potatoes, however, offer the tremendous advantage

of yielding more calories per acre than grains do. In

much of northern Europe, especially in western Ireland

Daily Life in the Old Regime 337

MAP 18.1

— The Columbian Exchange —

and northern Germany, short and rainy summer seasons

severely limited the crops that could be grown and the

population that could be supported. Irish peasants discovered that just one acre of potatoes, planted in soil

that was poor for grains, could support a full family.

German peasants learned that they could grow potatoes

in their fallow fields during crop rotation, then discovered an acre of potatoes could feed as many people as

four acres of the rye that they traditionally planted.

Peasants soon found another of the advantages of the

potato: It could be left in the ground all winter without

harvesting it. Ripe grain must be harvested and stored,

becoming an easy target for civilian tax collectors or

military requisitioners. Potatoes could be left in the

ground until the day they were eaten, thereby providing peasants with much greater security. The steady

growth of German population compared with France

during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (with

tremendous historic implications) is partly the result of

this peasant decision and the educational work of

agronomists such as Antoine Parmentier, who showed

its merits in his Treatise on the Uses of the Potato. Just as the

potato changed the history of Germany and Ireland,

the introduction of maize changed other regions. Historians of the Balkans credit the nutritional advantages

of maize with the population increase and better health

that facilitated the Serbian and Greek struggles for


Famine in the Old Regime

Even after the introduction of the potato and maize,

much of Europe lived on a subsistence diet. In bad

times, the result was catastrophic. Famines, usually the

result of two consecutive bad harvests, produced starvation. In such times, peasants ate their seed grain or

338 Chapter 18

harvested unripe grain and roasted it, prolonging both

life and famine. They turned to making bread from

ground chestnuts or acorns. They ate grass and weeds,

cats and dogs, rodents, even human flesh. Such disasters were not rare. The records of Tuscany show that

the three-hundred-year period between 1450 and 1750

included one hundred years of famine and sixteen years

of bountiful harvests. Agriculture was more successful in

England, but the period between 1660 and 1740 saw

one bad harvest in every four years. France, an agriculturally fortunate country, experienced sixteen years of

national famine during the eighteenth century, plus local famines.

The worst famine of the Old Regime, and one of

the most deadly events in European history, occurred in

Finland in 1696–97. The extreme cold weather of the

Little Ice Age produced in Finland a summer too short

for grain to ripen. Between one-fourth and one-third of

the entire nation died before that famine passed—a

death rate that equaled the horrors of the bubonic

plague. The weather produced other famines in that

decade. In northern Europe, excess rain caused crops to

rot in the field before ripening. In Mediterranean Europe, especially in central Spain, a drought followed by

an onslaught of grasshoppers produced a similar catastrophe. Hunger also followed seasonal fluctuations.

In lean years, the previous year’s grain might be consumed before July, when the new grain could be harvested. Late spring and early summer were

consequently dangerous times when the food supply

had political significance. Winter posed special threats

for city dwellers. If the rivers and canals froze, the

barges that supplied the cities could not move, and the

water-powered mills could not grind flour.

Food supplies were such a concern in the Old

Regime that marriage contracts and wills commonly

provided food pensions. These pensions were intended

to protect a wife or aged relatives by guaranteeing an

annual supply of food. An examination of these pensions in southern France has shown that most of the

food to be provided was in cereal grains. The typical

form was a lifetime annuity intended to provide a supplement; the average grain given in wills provided

fewer than fourteen hundred calories per day.

Diet, Disease, and Appearance

Malnutrition, famine, and disease were manifested in

human appearance. A diet so reliant on starches meant

that people were short compared with later standards.

For example, the average adult male of the eighteenth

century stood slightly above five feet tall. Napoleon,

ridiculed today for being so short, was as tall as most of

his soldiers. Meticulous records kept for Napoleon’s

Army of Italy in the late 1790s (a victorious army) reveal that conscripts averaged 5′2″ in height. Many famous figures of the era had similar heights: the

notorious Marquis de Sade stood 5′3″. Conversely,

people known for their height were not tall by later

standards. A French diplomat, Prince Talleyrand, appears in letters and memoirs to have had an advantage

in negotiations because he “loomed over” other statesmen. Talleyrand stood 5′8″. The kings of Prussia recruited peasants considered to be “giants” to serve in

the royal guards at Potsdam; a height of 6′0″ defined a

giant. Extreme height did occur in some families. The

Russian royal family, the Romanovs, produced some

monarchs nearly seven feet tall. For the masses, diet

limited their height. The superior diet of the aristocracy made them taller than peasants, just as it gave

them a greater life expectancy; aristocrats explained

such differences by their natural superiority as a caste.

Just as diet shaped appearance, so did disease. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies led to a variety of afflictions, such as rickets and scrofula. Rickets marked

people with bone deformities; scrofula produced hard

tumors on the body, especially under the chin. The

most widespread effect of disease came from smallpox.

As its name indicates, the disease often left pockmarks

on its victims, the result of scratching the sores, which

itched terribly. Because 95 percent of the population

contracted smallpox, pockmarked faces were common.

The noted Anglo-Irish dramatist Oliver Goldsmith described this in 1760:

Lo, the smallpox with horrid glare

Levelled its terrors at the fair;

And, rifling every youthful grace,

Left but the remnant of a face.

Smallpox and diseases that discolored the skin such as

jaundice, which left a yellow complexion, explain the

eighteenth-century popularity of heavy makeup and artificial “beauty marks” (which could cover a pockmark)

in the fashions of the wealthy. Other fashion trends of

the age originated in poor public health. The vogue

for wigs and powdered hair for men and women alike

derived in part from infestation by lice. Head lice

could be controlled by shaving the head and wearing

a wig.

Dental disease marked people with missing or dark,

rotting teeth. The absence of sugar in the diet delayed

tooth decay, but oral hygiene scarcely existed because

Daily Life in the Old Regime 339

3 TABLE 18.4 3

A Comparison of Life Cycles

Life cycle characteristic

Sweden, 1778–82

United States (1990 census)

Annual birthrate

34.5 per 1,000 population

15.6 per 1,000 population

Infant mortality (age 0–1)

211.6 deaths per 1,000 live births

9.2 deaths per 1,000 live births

Life expectancy at birth


36 years

71.8 years


39 years

78.8 years


44 years longer (45 total years)

72.3 years longer (73.3 total)


46 years longer (47 total years)

78.9 years longer (79.9 total)

Life expectancy at age 1

Life expectancy at age 50


19 years longer (69 total years)

26.7 years longer (76.7 total)


20 years longer (70 total years)

31.6 years longer (81.6 total)

Population distribution

Annual death rate

ages 0–14 ϭ 31.9%

ages 0–19 ϭ 28.9%

ages 15–64 ϭ 63.2%

ages 20–64 ϭ 58.7%

ages 65+ ϭ 4.9%

ages 65+ ϭ 12.5%

25.9 deaths per 1,000 population

8.5 deaths per 1,000 population

Source: Swedish data from Carlo M. Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution (New York, N.Y.: Norton, 1976), pp. 286–87; U.S. data from The World Almanac

and Book of Fact, 1995 (Mahwah, N.J.: World Almanac Book, 1994), p. 957; and Information Please Almanac, Atlas, and Yearbook 1994 (Boston, Mass.:

Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993), pp. 829, 848, 850–52.

people did not know that bacteria caused their intense

toothaches. Medical wisdom held that the pain came

from a worm that bored into teeth. Anton van

Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch naturalist who invented the

microscope, had seen bacteria in dental tartar in the

late seventeenth century, and Pierre Fauchard, a French

physician considered the founder of modern dentistry,

had denounced the worm theory, but their science did

not persuade their colleagues. For brave urban dwellers,

barber-surgeons offered the painful process of extraction. A simple, but excruciating, method involved inserting a whole peppercorn into a large cavity; the

pepper expanded until the tooth shattered, facilitating

extraction. More often, dental surgeons gripped the

unanesthetized patient’s head with their knees and

used tongs to shake the tooth loose. Whether or

not one faced such dreadful pain, dental disease left

most people with only a partial set of teeth by their



The Life Cycle: Birth

Consideration of the basic conditions of life provides a

fundamental perspective on any period of the past. So-

cial historians also use another set of perspectives to examine the history of daily life: an examination of the

life cycle from birth to old age (see table 18.4). Few experiences better illustrate the perils of the Old Regime

than the process of entering it. Pregnancy and birth

were extremely dangerous for mother and child. Malnutrition and poor prenatal care caused a high rate of

miscarriages, stillbirths, and deformities. Childbirth was

still an experience without anesthesia or antisepsis. The

greatest menace to the mother was puerperal fever

(child-bed fever), an acute infection of the genital tract

resulting from the absence of aseptic methods. This disease swept Europe, particularly the few “laying-in” hospitals for women. An epidemic of puerperal fever in

1773 was so severe that folk memories in northern Italy

recalled that not a single pregnant woman survived.

Common diseases, such as rickets (from vitamin deficiency), made deliveries difficult and caused bone deformities in babies. No adequate treatment was

available for hemorrhaging, which could cause death

by bleeding or slower death by gangrene. Few ways existed to lower the risks of difficult deliveries. Surgical

birth by a cesarean section gave the mother one chance

in a thousand of surviving. Attempts to deliver a baby

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