Destitution, Drink, and Death: The Lives of the Poor in the Art of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The lives of the poor in early modern Europe tended to be tiresome, often grueling, and largely devoid of any lasting influence (individually). However, it’s not through the testimonies of the poor themselves that this interpretation has emerged. Understanding the lives of the poor (at that time) from their point of view is a task which almost seems self-contradictory. None of the ‘poor’ at this time — with very few exceptions — had the means to record a detailed account of their existence (if they did, that would require a degree of literacy and wealth which would exclude them from being poor). Therefore, it’s from the accounts of others, be they government officials, clergymen, or members of the ‘middling sort’, that such an account has to be put together. Contemporary artwork is one very valuable source in this regard. Artwork is crucial in understanding the very bedrock of life at the time, it’s the best way to get a sense of what things actually looked like. However, little artwork in the early modern period concerned itself with the poor. That’s where Pieter Bruegel steps in.

Born some time between 1525 and 1530, Bruegel’s artwork largely focused on the Dutch peasantry at the time. In fact, Bruegel was nicknamed ‘Peasant-Bruegel’ (distinguishing him from his two children) as a result of this focus on the poor in his art. Bruegel was not himself poor. Far from it, he was an educated and fairly wealthy man and this comes through in the moral messages behind nearly all of his artwork. When it comes to understanding the experiences of the poor in early modern Europe, and specifically the Netherlands, Bruegel’s artwork is a goldmine.

Pieter Bruegel, The Blind Leading the Blind (1568)

Many of his paintings portrayed the destitute. Beggars, in particular, feature in multiple paintings of his. Most obviously, his painting The Beggars (1568) portrays five disabled men (and behind them a beggar-women) who are wearing various items of note. One wears a cardboard crown, another a paper military cap, a third wears a beret, the fourth a peasant’s cap, and the final one dons a bishop’s mitre. The social commentary behind this decision, and there certainly is one, is contended. It’s possible that Bruegel is mocking the artificial distinction of class and the disabilities are representative of moral corruption, which was rife at all levels of society. Similar figures appear in Bruegel’s The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559) which features multiple disabled characters. One receives money from a generous stranger. Here, the public’s view of the poor — and specifically the disabled — can be seen. At the time, the idea of ‘God’s Poor’ and ‘The Devil’s Poor’ was still strong and disabilities were often seen as a punishment for sins. Importantly, Bruegel never explicitly sympathizes with, nor openly condemns, beggars and the disabled (although we can assume that a man of his background would probably not pity them much). Other disabilities are portrayed in Bruegel’s work. In The Blind Leading the Blind (1568), Bruegel depicts a line of six blind men in convey as the two men at the front fall over. The message here isn’t subtle as the title is a direct reference to the Biblical parable of the blind leading the blind. Interestingly, the blind men don’t seem to be impoverished, appearing well-dressed. Bruegel’s paintings are an important reminder that the disabled destitute were around in the past. It’s easy to assume that anyone significantly disabled would have died in childhood (and many did) but Bruegel’s works are a reminder that this was not the case. Of course, not the vast majority of the poor were able-bodied and Bruegel does shed some light onto the bleak experiences they suffered through for most of the year. In Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), a labourer can be seen watching two bears dance — a reference to the proverb that symbolizes starvation. In The Gloomy Day (1565) a less explicit but perhaps more depressing view of peasant suffering is conveyed. The weather is rough, but suggests that worse is yet to come. The mountainous landscape in the background, with snow-covered peaks stretching across the horizon, is an unsettling kind of picturesque and borders on the sublime. Although an inn and church can be seen, the area is far from busy. The trees are leafless and skeletal, a shipwreck can be seen in the background, and the sky is covered in grey clouds. Bruegel’s art, then, clearly depicts the misery of the disabled and impoverished, regardless of his personal opinions of them.

Pieter Bruegel, The Peasant Wedding (1567)

Contrary to popular conception, peasant life in early modern Europe wasn’t merely perpetual suffering. Peasants still found time to celebrate and have fun. Bruegel’s gallery features a variety of these activities. Perhaps the most famous is The Peasant Wedding (1567). An attempt to accurately re-create the scene of a Flemish peasant wedding feast, if you look past the peculiar third foot under the food-laden door acting as a makeshift tray. The painting is surprisingly detailed. The food is typical of peasant feasts, consisting of bread, porridge and soup. Two pipers provide music, a dog is fed scraps, a young child can be seen licking a plate in the foreground, and a ban in the background helps himself to an excessive amount of drink. Similarly, The Peasant Dance (1567) depicts a group of peasants dancing. A man in the foreground plays on a pipe, a jester can be seen in the background, as can an inn and a church. You can almost hear the noisy festivities. However, more than just a useful image of peasant celebrations, this painting actually criticises their behavior. The church behind them is ignored, despite the cause for their celebration being a Saint’s day. A man in red, representing Lust, kisses a woman; a man beside the pipe-player wears a peacock in his hat, representing Gluttony. Similar criticism of such celebration is evident in The Wedding Dance (1566) where an unruly crowd of people (not all peasants, however) drink, dance, and kiss in defiance of strict moral laws of the time. Again, the role of loud celebration as a distraction from the harshness of life is very clear.

Pieter Bruegel, The Triumph of Death (c. 1562)

Poverty and death were, and still are, intrinsically linked. However, Bruegel’s most death-centered work makes a point of showing the triviality of class and wealth in the face of mortality. His painting The Triumph of Death (c. 1562) can correctly be described as a memento mori, a reminder of the viewer’s own mortality and the inevitability of death. However, Bruegel goes a little further than merely adding a skull or a few skeletons, as was often the case with these types of paintings. Bruegel’s depiction of death’s ‘triumph’ is much more reminiscent of a painting of a battle or massacre, although it exceeds both of those in its gore. Bruegel leaves little up to the imagination: an army of skeletons, some on horseback, push crowds of people into a giant coffin. The dead and dying cover the ground. A dying king can be seen reaching for his gold coins, a nonsensical action in the face of death and a reminder of man’s greed. Elsewhere, a soldier lies dead — any semblance of order gone — and a cardinal is mockingly killed. A pilgrim can be seen getting stabbed in the neck, a man lies drowned in the river, and others are pushed in. On the right of the image, a dinner party is interrupted and a maiden assaulted sexually by a skeleton, a cruel punishment for the perceived sexual immorality which often followed such gatherings. A jester tries to hide under the table, scrambling over playing cards and a game of backgammon. Apart from the obvious destruction in the foreground is a sense of overwhelming despair which only increases upon further examination of the painting. An army of death can be seen brandishing arms and ready to attack, the sea is full of wrecked ships, a naked man is hunted by the hounds of death, another is hanged from the gallows, others from posts or trees, some men can be seen being burnt at the stake, one blindfolded individual is in a prayer-like position as the sword’s blade imminently begins its descent, and the sky is orange with flames. This is, then, the only regard in which the poor and rich were — and still are — entirely equal: death.

The experience of the poor in early modern Europe can certainly be analysed through Pieter Bruegel’s works. Whether his aim is to criticise them, mock them, show them suffering, or show them celebrating, Bruegel’s unrivaled focus on the poor in his artwork allows for an interesting, if somewhat cartoonish, view of the lives of the destitute at the time.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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