It was long customary among historians and political writers to deplore low pre-industrial living standards. This resulted in part from industrialization-friendly modern liberalism, and in part from class-conscious Marxism. It also reflected a tendency to project the widespread poverty occasioned by urban proletarianization in the nineteenth century farther back into the early modern period. Structural poverty did indeed afflict those at the bottom of the pre-industrial social scale, but it was far from the common fate, even if it ballooned in times of war and food shortages. Only a small percentage of the population lived in want unrelieved by access to garden land, livestock-holding (if only a cow or a goat), occasional labor, and family or communal support.
Pre-modern average life expectancy within whole countries was low, but for the roughly three-quarters of the population who successfully ran the perilous gauntlet of infant and childhood diseases, longevity in later years improved notably. Epidemics – especially of smallpox and respiratory disease – and, for women, child-bearing dangers swept away many adults. Death lurked in anyone’s shadow, but often he proved patient in claiming his harvest. There were numerous patriarchs and matriarchs.
Many people lived humbly, but not miserably. Many possessed claims on communal or seigneurial resources, such as grazing and firewood rights and jobs providing various payments in natura (including food), which modern social and economic history finds easier to overlook than laboriously translate into assets alongside what were often, for workers, modest money wages. Except in crisis years – which might affect the average individual once, twice, thrice in life (or even never) – village farmers and urban craftsmen ate, dressed, slept, raised their children, celebrated their holidays, and passed the stations of life in a decency that does not deserve the condescension of posterity.
To acknowledge this is not to exaggerate feudal benevolence, though this certainly manifested itself, if irregularly. It recognizes, among other things, that ordinary people, though accustomed to bow to authority, understood something of self-defense, especially at the level of the village commune or guild corporation. This they staged through sometimes generations-long appeals to the law and, more summarily, through strikes, boycotts, or rougher forms of insubordination which, when collective, were much harder to quell through judicial or military punishment than individual rebelliousness.