In medieval theory, there were three Estates or types of people: clergy, nobles and commoners.This way of looking at things survived in the seventeenth century, but had become far too simple to explain the complexities of social structure.
Some historians differ about the nobility status many parts of Europe. In France and Sweden kings asserted increasing control over the aristocracy, and allied with non-nobles to limit the power of the nobility. Elsewhere the ruler shared power with the nobles. On the contrary, in Poland , the nobles increased their power at the expense of the king and of non-nobles.
The proportion of nobles to the general population varied s across Europe. In France and England about 2% were noble (the English nobility divided themselves in a higher branch which had titles, and a lower untitled one called the gentry). In Spain, the figure was over 5% and in Castile it was around 10%, as it was in Poland. In all these places, some nobles were relatively poor, while others were extremely rich and powerful.
There was only a small number of countries in which nobles were relatively few and unimportant; one was the Dutch Republic, though it did have a very important noble (indeed, princely) family – the House of Orange. In some places (Castile, East Germany and Poland) only the nobles had full ownership of land. This was silly, as it discouraged the people who farmed the land (the peasants) from doing so efficiently, since they knew the landowners would take much the profit.
In many parts of Europe, a large incentive to become noble was to enjoy privileges including tax exemptions.
Townsmen were diffiocult to fit into the old social structure: some of them were extremely poor while others were as wealthy as the richest nobles.
Churchmen, too, varied in status. Those at the bottom of the church’s hierarchy ranked hardly above peasants, while bishops, archbishops and abbots were the equals of nobles.
Peasants varied in wealth and status depending on how much land they held, and on the conditions upon which they held it. The latter was probably the more important factor. Where tenures were insecure, peasants were unproductive. Where peasants were freest they were most productive, since they were working for themselves – as in the Dutch Republic, England, and Catalonia. It was in those places that the agricultural revolution began. Wise governments protected free peasants against local lords. Prosperous peasants were able and wiling to pay higher taxes. Where this did not happen (Castile, Poland), decay was the result.
The precise population of Europe in the 17th century could not be known. For countries such as England and France, reasonable estimates can be made from archival sources. A possible total for Europe (excluding Russia) in 1600 is 77.9, with a fall to 74.45 by 1650, and a rise to 83.5 by 1700.
During the seventeenth century in some places the population fell until 1650, but went up again in 1700.
But an attack of plague did not always reduce population for long, since by killing some people it increased economic opportunities for others. Some large towns continued to grow in the seventeenth century though they were repeatedly struck by plague. Amsterdam in the Dutch Republic lost over 10% of its population to plague in 1623-5, and again in 1635-6, and once more in 1655, and one more time in 1664.