Most townspeople could not claim the rights of citizen-burghers, but rather were town subjects without political voice. Many of these were journeymen artisans, typically young adult skilled crafts workers – unmarried, literate, and not averse to wildcat strikes and other tumults. Numerous, too, were servants in burgher households, including boy apprentices living in their artisan masters’ households. Petty merchants, transport workers, and various salaried employees figured as well, while on the margins hovered the indigent poor, including widowed parents with children, alongside the disgraced, the turbulent, and the lawless. Journeymen artisans, heirs to old traditions of insubordination, would eventually form a pioneering phalanx within the nineteenth-century labor movement. In town and village alike, charitable relief for the “deserving poor” depended principally on provisioning by secular authorities in the recipients’ native birthplace, though the Protestant churches also shepherded the indigent and needy. In Catholic lands, churchly ministrations and individual almsgiving loomed larger still.
Social mobility raised and lowered people in all classes. For the common folk, marriages into landed farmsteads, apprenticeships in better-paid crafts, and the opportunity to study for the lower clergy were the most promising social escalators. For the bourgeois and noble classes, it was moneyed marriages and princely offices that led to higher things, sometimes aided by university study or entrepreneurial intrepidity and success. Among commoners, descent into the lower depths followed especially from untimely spousal deaths where small children were present, from bad harvests and debts, and from reckless living. For men, it often ended in service among the socially scorned mercenary soldiery and for women in prostitution.