Different Views of Early Modern Europe Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Feb 18th, 2019

Aristocrat or peasant- these were only two of the classes that you could have been born into in early modern European society; you could have been born into a merchant family, a pirate family or worse yet a slave family. The class that you were born into was not always the class that you lived your whole life in but for most people this was the case.

The class that you were born into determined much about your life; such as the clothes you wore, the food you ate, the housing you lived in and the education you did or did not receive. “Social status was not an abstract idea; it permeated every detail of daily life.” (Hunt, Martin, Rosenwein, Hsia $ Smith, 2008).

This paper will look at two different authors from two different social classes with very different viewpoints of early modern Europe. The class you were born into determined in large part how you viewed your life, one of our authors was an aristocrat and the other from a merchant class family.

Both authors recorded important aspects of early modern Europe and this is what we will look at. While examining Madame de Lafayette’s view given in her novel The Princess of Cleves we will see details of the lives of the French aristocracy. The other viewpoint that we will review is presented by Daniel Defoe in his novel Robinson Crusoe. This book written by a merchant’s son about a merchant’s son touches on themes such as slavery and religion.

Madame de Lafayette, whose real name is Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, wrote The Princess of Cleves in 1678. This book was published anonymously because it was considered inappropriate for aristocratic women to appear in print. “Following the publication of The Princess of Cleves in 1678, she denied having written it.” (Hunt, et al., 2008). As we can tell from her name alone Madame de Lafayette belonged to the aristocracy, she lived in France during the late 1600’s.

There were many ways in which the aristocrats were different from the other classes. They had different clothing, the best housing, the best food and the best education. “People higher on the social ladder were more likely to sport a variety of fabrics, colors, and unusual designs in their clothing and to own many different outfits.” (Hunt, et al., 2008). The way in which an individual dressed was a clear indicator of their class.

De Lafayette also had a better education than the average citizen, a majority of whom could not read or write at all. “In France, literacy doubled in the eighteenth century thanks to the spread of parish schools, but only one in two men and one in four women could read and write. Most peasants remained illiterate.” (Hunt, et al., 2008). De Lafayette used her abilities and changed the way people viewed the world.

The novel, The Princess of Cleves, is actually a romance, but it also tells a lot about the history of France and the court of King Henri II, a lot of the characters in the book are actual historical figures such as the Duke of Nemours, Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Guise and the Cardinal of Loraine. What we gain by reading The Princess of Cleves is a portrait of the way the court reacts to some of the historical events that surrounded the court of King Henri II. One such example involves the change of power after the death of King Henri II;

“The command of the Army was given to the Duke of Guise and the care of the finances to the Cardinal of Loraine. The Duchess of Valentinois was driven from Court; the Cardinal de Tournon, the Constable’s declared enemy, and the Chancellor Olivier the declared enemy of the Duchess of Valentinois, were both recalled. In a word, the complexion of the Court was entirely changed.” (de Lafayette, 2008).

Another main theme of The Princess of Cleves is the how deeply intertwined the lives of the courtiers were with each other and the purpose of the court itself;

“Ambition and gallantry were the heart and soul of the court, preoccupying men and women equally. There were so many factions and parties, and the women played so great a role in them that love was always allied to politics and politics to love. No one was untroubled or unmoved; each considered how to advance, to flatter, to serve, or to harm; boredom and idleness were unknown, since everyone engaged in intrigue or the pursuit of pleasure.” (de Lafayette, 2008).

The above theme from The Princess of Cleves sounds very similar to the court life led by Madame de Lafayette who lived during the reign of King Louis XIV.

“Louis induced the nobles to cooperate with him and made himself the center of French power and culture. The aristocracy increasingly vied for his favor, attended the ballets and theatricals he put on, and learned the rules of etiquette he supervised-in short, became his clients, dependent on him for advancement.” (Hunt, et al., 2008).

Court life was all about intrigue and juggling to move closer to the King’s inner circle. The closer you got to the King the more privileges you received. This is the court in which de Lafayette lived her life and developed her ideas. She was an integral part of the salon scene in France during her time. The salon was a place where literature, art and other important issues of the day were discussed and debated. This is most likely the venue where The Princess of Cleves was first reviewed.

In contrast to The Princess of Cleves is the image of early modern Europe given through the eyes of a merchant’s son, Daniel Defoe. He lived in England from the middle 1600’s until 1731. The merchant class was a middle class society. “The middle classes lived primarily in the cities and town, even if they owned small country estates. They ate more moderately than nobles but much better than peasants or laborers. (Hunt, et al., 2008).

Daniel Defoe grew to become a very prolific author but is most famous for his novel Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe had a varied history; “Defoe spent time in bankruptcy, in exile, and in prison treatment. He turned his hand to various forms of commerce, in hosiery, woolens, wine, and political secrets, but most of all mad scribbling on almost any topic imaginable.” (Hunt, et. al., 2008). Like Defoe the main character in his novel also lives through many different life experiences.

Robinson Crusoe shows that Defoe clearly understood the differences in each class, unlike The Princess of Cleves which does not deal with any class other than the nobility.

This novel is rich in that it describes many different aspects of the human condition and has multiple themes, we will discuss only two of the themes of this book; slavery and religion. In the novel, Crusoe ends up living on an island for well over twenty years when circumstances change and a new character is added to the novel, this character is a black native whom Crusoe names Friday.

The relationship between Crusoe and Friday is not that of two equals dealing with each other in order to survive. Throughout their time together Crusoe gives the impression that it is his job to teach Friday how to live correctly and follow the path he teaches, he even goes so far as to have Friday refer to him as Master; “his discovery of Friday shows how the fate of blacks and whites had become intertwined in the new colonial environment.” (Hunt, et. al, 2008).

At one point in the novel Friday discovers he can see his home on expressing this to Crusoe who reflects, “If Friday could get back to his own nation again, he would not only forget all his religion, but all his obligations to me.” (Defoe, 2007).

Crusoe is a very complex individual and the novel Robinson Crusoe no less complex. One of the main themes involves the role of master and slave as shown in the relationships between Crusoe and Xury another character we meet before Friday, Crusoe and Friday, and again between Crusoe and Friday’s Father, who is called the Old Savage.

Crusoe was a slave himself at one point in the novel but escapes with Xury whom he later sells to a Portuguese ship Captain. In fact the reason that Crusoe ends up shipwrecked on an island alone in the first place is because he agreed to purchase slaves for the plantation owners in Brazil and was on a ship to complete this mission.

The next topic we will explore in regards to Robinson Crusoe has to do with religion which becomes an important part of Crusoe’s daily routine while he is living on the island for all those years. When he retrieved items from the ship that was wrecked he was very happy to have found several Bibles.

When Friday arrived on the island Crusoe felt he had an obligation to convert him to Christianity, even though it was clear that Friday had his own version of a religion.

“When I reflected, that, in this solitary life which I had been confined to, I had not only been moved myself to look up to heaven, and to seek to the hand that brought me thither, but was now to be made an instrument, under Providence, to save the life, and, for aught I knew, the soul, of a poor savage, and bring him to the true knowledge of religion, and of the Christian doctrine, that he might know Christ Jesus, “To know whom is life eternal.””(Defoe, 2007).

Religion was an important part of life in early modern Europe.

Daniel Defoe saw the changes occurring in modern Europe and welcomed them. In his article “The Social Effects of Growing Consumption” he talks about how trade and new ways of doing things are increasing the standards of living for all people. Many changes in early modern Europe contributed to higher living standards including the agricultural revolution, the consumer revolution and the use of large numbers of slaves in the Americas.

The class you were born into determined in large part how you viewed life. Madame de Lafayette and Daniel Defoe were born into different classes and their life concerns were very different. Madame de Lafayette had to worry about the way she portrayed herself to the world because of her families’ status and because she was a female author in a time when this was not acceptable or publicly acknowledged.

We do see from her novel that she had a great deal of understanding as to how the aristocracy worked and how the intrigues of court influenced the events of history. The events of history and some of the thoughts and games that brought them about are the legacy she left this world through her words.

Daniel Defoe was born into a merchant family but clearly had the opportunity to live life in more than one social station. He educated the world with his writings as well, his novel Robinson Crusoe gives a picture of a man who lives through many experiences and prospers through them all.

His world view is broader and richer than that of de Lafayette’s because it gives examples of different cultures and the way others lived such as the Brazilians, the Spaniards, and those he refers to as savages, but more complex as well. Daniel Defoe saw the changes that were occurring in history and how they affected those around him.

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