In this lesson, we explore 18th-century European society and how it changed due to factors such as freer markets and population growth.
We’ll also learn about the popular culture enjoyed by those with enough leisure time to indulge in it.
18th-Century Culture and Society
Pop culture seems to change yearly. One year Celine Dion and gel pens are ‘in’ and the next year they are forgotten, replaced by Miley Cyrus and Uggs. What is stylish and what is not each year is often determined by, and reflective of, our society. Even though it seems like a completely different world, what was popular in the 18th century was also reflective of the changes that were taking place in 18th-century society.
In this lesson, we will explore that society and its changing world, and what those with the time to spend on popular culture enjoyed.
The makeup of society was changing in the 18th century, but there was still opposition from the rigidly hierarchical established powers of the day. Indeed, despite some changes, at 1800, the nobility and traditional landed aristocracy still held the political power in most of Western Europe. In addition to largely being the sole holders of political power, the nobility of the 18th century held the vast majority of the region’s wealth.
Most of this wealth (and indeed, most of its attendant prestige) derived from the ownership of land.To be a true member of the European nobility at this point, one must not have to work for a living, but must be able to live solely off the rents and profits from property, preferably land which the same family had owned for generations. In fact, some newer members of the noble classes went to great lengths to disguise newly bought land as land their grandparents and great-grandparents had owned. It should be noted that in most countries, the clergy were also considered part of the aristocratic class, and many of the clergy were second and third sons of lesser nobles, and hence unable to inherit their fathers’ lands and estates.The growth of the group the next rung down the social ladder during the 18th century is one of the most contentious subjects in European history. The urban working class (which Marxist historians term the ‘bourgeoisie’) had always existed in some form, but their growth and the growth of their respective industries had largely been hampered by long production times or the restrictive trade guilds of the cities and towns in which they often worked. The development of cottage industries (think very small-scale, in-home, efficient production of goods), and later, the advent of the Industrial Revolution changed the conditions dramatically for urban craftsmen, tradesmen, and merchants during the 18th century.
In addition to better technology, which decreased production times for their goods, portions of Europe gradually embraced freer markets, which allowed goods, people, and, most importantly, wealth to be more easily transferred. This, coupled with colonization and the opening of newer markets for their goods, allowed some of these traders and craftsmen to greatly increase their wealth in a short period of time. Many of these people used their newfound wealth to buy land and titles, essentially trying to buy their way into power and prestige. This practice was abhorred by the traditional nobility, though there was little they could do to stop it.The third and lowest social group was essentially everyone else: farmers, general laborers, and the destitute. In the 18th century, this made up by far the largest portion of the population, and as the 18th century saw an increased population boom (the European population nearly doubled from 1700 to 1800), this group only grew larger, especially in urban areas.
Life for this section of the population was hard, although it was getting slightly better. The introduction of American vegetables via trans-Atlantic trade increased the nutrition level of all Europeans, and this likely helped increase the life expectancy and quality of life of the working poor. Despite minor improvements, this group still largely lived day-to-day, working to feed their families and themselves. One poor harvest could ruin them financially, depleting what little savings they had.This reality gave women more latitude to participate in the public sphere, because they often had to help in the fields or find work outside the home to support the family. Though this happened, it was not ideal; women, if the family could afford to, were still expected to live a largely domestic life. The working poor was also entirely shut out of the political order; even in countries like Great Britain, where a representative assembly played a prominent role in governance, the right to vote was often only given to landowners.
Considering this makeup of 18th-century society, it should come as little surprise that only the aristocracy and some of the wealthier merchants had the time and resources to participate in popular culture. Indeed, a key indicator of prestige and wealth in aristocratic circles was the patronage of intellectuals, musicians, and artists. In England, for example, it was absolutely necessary for a noble family to have an Oxford academic on staff to tutor their children and bring prestige to the family through his writing and research.
Additionally, the nobility were expected to ornament themselves and their personal property with lavish displays of wealth, often by building large country homes and filling them with expensive artwork, china, and other goods from abroad. This practice – something historians often term conspicuous consumption – took advantage of the century’s freer markets and colonialism to acquire increasingly exotic items from the far reaches of the globe.
One of the main cultural pastimes of the nobility was music. The increased wealth of the period, in both the aristocratic and merchant groups, fostered the sponsorship of classical musicians and composers, and the century produced some of the more famous classical composers whose work is still known and played today. The opera houses and music halls of the era played work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, and many, many others.
High art also experienced a boom in the 18th century, as the newly wealthy snapped up exquisite work by the masters of the period to adorn their country homes and city apartments. Indeed, one of France’s greatest painters, Jacques-Louis David, was active during the French Revolution at the end of the century, painting some of the most iconic pieces of the period, including The Tennis Court Oath and The Death of Marat.
In closing, the wealth and makeup of 18th-century society was shifting more quickly than the institutions and the existing social hierarchy could adapt. While the aristocratic families occupied themselves with spending their wealth on expensive goods and lavishing patronage on the arts and humanities, newer wealth was infiltrating their circles of power through the acquisition of titles and land. And while the farming and laboring masses were less socially mobile than the urban merchants and craftsmen, their swelling ranks would also present problems for the ruling political classes. How the monarchies and governments of each state reacted to these changing social conditions often decided the state’s political stability as the century neared its close.
This lesson should teach you to:
- Identify and describe the three main social groups in 18th century England
- Discuss the popular culture of the 18th century
- Define patronage and conspicuous consumption