Life in Renaissance London for the average person, or commoner, was quite different from what one might expect. Although it might appear that the Renaissance would not affect the average citizen, in fact, the average citizen was greatly impacted by the Renaissance Age, the beginning of capitalism, advancements in technology, exploration, and a revival of cultural movement. The Renaissance “began in Northern Italy about 1350 right after the Black Death had ravaged the country” (Kehoe, Damerow & Duvall, 1997) and spread out from Italy across the whole of Europe; it lasted from the 14th century until the 17th century. Queen Elizabeth I, herself London born, became “queen of England at the age of 25. She ruled from 1558 to 1603” and it was her death that is often considered to mark the end of the Renaissance period (Elizabeth I, Patron of the Renaissance, n.d.).
It is important to note that the Renaissance followed close on the heels of the bubonic plague; known as the Black Death, killed between “one third and one half” of the population of Europe as it ravaged the land (Kehoe, Damerow, & Duvall, 1997). In spite of this, life went on, and the decimation of Europe’s population worked to spark a variety of advances in society, culture, and technology that may not otherwise have been possible. By 1600, “the population of London…stood at about 200,000,…making it perhaps the largest city in Europe…(and) in London, (as) in other large European cities, a distinctly urban way of life developed in the Renaissance era” (City Life in Renaissance Europe, p. 486).
Advancements in technology moved forward at a rapid pace during this time, and “in 1440, German inventor Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press process,” a process that was used until the late 20th century (The Great Idea Finder, 2007), and advancements in sailing allowed for countries to expand far beyond their borders, prompting such events as the discovery of America by Spain. The Renaissance did not bring about only technological advances, but societal advances as well. Voting based on property was introduced; “women…could not vote, but neither could most men. Property was the main consideration and individual home ownership was rare” for the commoner, with most of the property being in the hands of the wealthy or the landed gentry (Judkins, n.d.). The beginning of capitalism is to be found in the Renaissance, along with the formation of holding companies and the process of risky trade.
Music, art, and theatre played large roles in society’s development as well, and it was during this time that Shakespeare’s plays first became popular, playing for hundreds on London’s Globe Theater. In fact, it must be said that “England, and especially London played a big part in this era” through its contributions of leadership, Queen Elizabeth I, the architecture of the time, such as that of the Globe Theater, and literature, as with the works of Shakespeare (Dean, n.d.).
In spite of the contributions of London to the Renaissance, life was not always easy for the average person in London during this time. Walking was the predominant method of transportation, given the narrowness of the streets, with river travel being the second most popular and almost impossible on days when plays were being performed. Unemployment was rampant in those who thought that they might find their future in London, and “many newcomers to London struggled to find jobs and shelter. Some turned to crime to make a living. Others became beggars. However, it was illegal” for anyone not disabled or sick to beg, with the punishment being a public whipping or jail time (City Life in Renaissance Europe, p. 486). The wealthy individual in London may find themselves sitting down to dinner at a table laden down with “several kinds of meat, bread, and a variety of vegetables, served on silver or pewter tableware” but the poor, on the other hand, rarely had any form of meat available to them, and “their meals (typically) consisted of a pottage – a kind of soup – of vegetables” eaten from a trencher, which was either a “hollowed out slab of stale bread or wood” (City Life in Renaissance Europe, p. 486).
During the Renaissance London experienced a shift, leaving behind that of the medieval ages and moving forward in all areas, including religious, economic, and artistic progress. The arts started to become available to all, regardless of social class or stature, and a premium was placed on knowledge and enlightenment. England too benefitted from the advancements in sailing, and the East India Trading company started to flourish, increasing the prosperity of the area. There was good with the bad, cities were dirty, overcrowded, and water was often contaminated with sewage or illness causing bacteria.
The Renaissance was a special and unique era in world history, and the average London citizen experienced great levels of change and upheaval during the Renaissance, as society worked to push forward to the edges of what was known and beyond. Many of the changes that started in the Renaissance are still with us today, and have had untold effects on the lives of individuals the entire world over; whether it be the knowledge gained to this day from Shakespeare’s works, the influences of economy an commerce on our lives today, or the technologies, art, and even colonialism, it must be said that all individuals across the world have been affected by the changes that occurred during the Renaissance, and many have been directly affected by the changes affected by Renaissance London.