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Henri IV - An unfinished reign

The people of France

Section 1/2

Demographically speaking, the kingdom of France stood head and shoulders above its European neighbours. With nearly eighteen million inhabitants within the boundaries established by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), France was the most populous country in Europe, ahead of the Holy Roman Empire and the Italian peninsula (some twelve million each), the Iberian peninsula (approximately nine million) and England (fewer than four million). The population density was about 35 people per sq. kilometre, except in those areas that were a part of what Laurent Bourquin has termed " dense Europe " – the Paris region, northern France and the Channel coast – where it exceeded 50 people per sq. kilometre.

Overall, the 16th century was a period of strong population growth for the kingdom. This can partly be explained by the country's expansion; the integration of new territories such as Brittany, the Three Bishoprics (Metz, Toul and Verdun), Calaisis, Bresse, Bugey and Gex automatically swelled the number of inhabitants. The main reason, however, lies elsewhere. The 16th century was what historians call a recovery period: the population was gradually returning to the levels it had known prior to the 14th century, when it suffered the combined devastation of the Black Death (1347–1352) and the Hundred Years' War.

There were several stages in the progression from fifteen million inhabitants at the end of the 15th century to eighteen million by 1610, the year of Henri's death. There was strong growth in the first half of the 16th century, swelling the population to the level attained in 1347. Growth then slowed, and even stagnated, in the second half of the century, which was marked by eight Wars of Religion. Under Henri IV, the return of peace, fewer major epidemics and the possibility of larger and better harvests brought a renewed upswing. Later, this positive demographic trend would be blunted by the return of the plague in the early years of Louis XIII's reign.

Related multimedia

Title: Woman nursing an infant

Woman nursing an infant, faïence d’Avon
© RMN / Gérard Blot
Comment:
There were several stages in the progression from fifteen million inhabitants at the end of the 15th century to eighteen million by 1610, the year of Henri's death. There was strong growth in the first half of the 16th century, no doubt due to the fact that people were better fed and had better resistance to diseases. By 1560, the population had more or less reached the level attained in 1347. Growth then slowed, and even stagnated, in the second half of the century, when the violence and chaos that characterised the Wars of Religion brought with them crises of subsistence and increased vulnerability to illness. The return of peace to the kingdom brought about a renewed upswing.
Caption:
Woman nursing an infant, faïence d’Avon, 17th c. Musée de la Renaissance d’Écouen © RMN / Gérard Blot

Title: Map of the kingdom of France at the end of the 16th century

Map of the kingdom of France at the end of the 16th century
© Archives nationales
Caption:
Map of the kingdom of France at the end of the 16th century, Nova Totius Galliae Descriptio

Title: Mention of the birth of Henri IV

Mention of the birth of Henri IV
© Archives départementales des Pyrénées-Atlantiques
Comment:
Demographic data for the 16th century is patchy, and it is difficult to speak with confidence about the subject. Although the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, which had been signed by François I in 1539, made it mandatory to keep registers of graves nd " registers […] of baptisms, which shall list the time and the hour of the birth ", the practice was slow to catch on and uneven depending on the region. Given the lack of data, historical demographic studies can only be carried out at a local or provincial level. Nevertheless, they do provide us with an idea of the kingdom's situation at the time of Henri IV.
Caption:
Mention of the birth of Henri IV (Registre des Établissements de Béarn, volume V, f° 220, manuscript), Archives départementales des Pyrénées-Atlantiques (côte: C. 682).

Title: Wedding Scene in the Basque Country

Wedding Scene in the Basque Country, painting
© Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée
Caption:
Wedding Scene in the Basque Country, painting attributed to Francisco Vasquez (or Bazquez de Mendieta), 2nd half of 16th century. Album no. 5 of the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro © Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée

Title: Massacre of the Triumvirate

Massacre of the Triumvirate, painting
© Musée départemental de l’Oise, 45.6 / Jean-Louis Bouché
Caption:
Massacre of the Triumvirate, painting by the school of Nicolo Dell’Abate, ca. 1562

Title: Massacre of the Triumvirate

Massacre of the Triumvirate
© Musée départemental de l’Oise, 45.6 / Jean-Louis Bouché
Caption:
Massacre of the Triumvirate (detail), painting by Nicolo Dell’Abate, ca. 1562

Section 2/2

Although they were not all peasants, the vast majority of France's population lived in the countryside. Throughout the 16th century, only 10% of the population were located in urban areas, and most of these lived in small cities with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. Paris was the sole exception. Between the beginning and the end of the century, the population of the capital rose by more than 50%, going from 200,000 to some 300,000 residents. This made Paris the largest city in Europe, bigger than both Naples and Constantinople. In the 16thcentury, Paris dominated France's urban network, just as it continues to do nearly five centuries on. The other cities in the kingdom paled in comparison: Lyons, in second place, could barely muster 70,000 inhabitants by the end of the century. It was followed by Rouen (approximately 60,000), Bordeaux (between 40,000 and 50,000), Toulouse (some 40,000) and Marseille (around 30,000).

For the lion's share of Henri IV's contemporaries, life remained difficult, despite the progress that had been achieved during the king's reign. Life expectancy was barely over 25 years and infant mortality rates reached shocking levels – one baby in four did not survive to see its first birthday, and one child in two did not reach the age of eleven. Both country- and city-dwellers were extremely dependent on weather conditions for their survival, and those in the country were often the first victims of the endless violence that characterised the Wars of Religion, particularly as troops on both sides lived off the land.

Related multimedia

Title: The pleasures of the countryside

The pleasures of the countryside, tapestry
© RMN / Gérard Blot
Caption:
The pleasures of the countryside, tapestry, 16th c.

Title: View of Nérondes

View of Nérondes : bulwark, towers, houses
© BnF
Caption:
View of Nérondes, Loire, birthplace of Pierre Cotton, drawing by Étienne Martellange, 1610 , Loire, birthplace of Pierre Cotton, drawing by Étienne Martellange, 1610

Title: Spring

Spring, painting by Brueghel the Younger
© RMN / Jacques Quecq d'Henripret
Caption:
Spring, by Brueghel the Younger, oil on wood, 16th–17th c. Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille

Title: Wedding Dance

Wedding Dance, painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder
© RMN / A. Danvers
Caption:
Wedding Dance, by Jan Brueghel the Elder, oil on copper, 16th c. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux

Title: City of Bordeaux

City of Bordeaux
© BnF
Caption:
"Declaration of the most noteworthy sections and sites of the present portrait of the city of Bordeaux" by Élie Vinet, 1565, Bibliothèque nationale de France, RES 4-LK7-1112 A

Title: City of Troyes, Hôtel de Ville

Henri IV in front of the Hôtel de Ville of the city of Troyes
© Médiathèque de l’agglomération troyenne
Caption:
City of Troyes, Hôtel de Ville. Gouache depicting Linard Gontier's stained glass windows (16th c.), by Alfred Gaussen, 1852

Title: Rebus about the hardships of France

Rebus about the hardships of France
© BnF
Caption:
Rebus about the hardships of France, engraving by Jacques de la Carrière, 1592. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des estampes et de la photographie, inv. Qb 1 1592
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