Population Trends

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Population Trends



Growth. The beginnings of the Renaissance coincided with one of the greatest social and economic tragedies in history. The population of Europe grew steadily through the Middle Ages and seemed to be accelerating at the dawn of the fourteenth century. Between 1250 and 1300 it grew by more than 40 percent to around seventy million people, an annual percentage rate gain of 0.41 percent. However, in 1315 a devastating famine hit

northern Europe, a sign that the fortunate circumstances producing population growth were coming to an end. After the famine ended in 1322, the population again began to creep upward, but at a slower annual percentage rate of 0.14 percent. By 1350, there were around seventy-four million Europeans, probably the greatest number there had ever been.

The Black Death. In 1347 that upward trend came to a sudden halt when the bubonic plague came to Europe from the Middle East. Unlike the famine of 1315–1315, the plague did not reap its horrible harvest and then disappear. Instead, a wave of epidemics crashed over Europe. Out-breaks hit Italy, for example, in 1347–1347, 1360–1360, 1371–1371, 1381–1381, 1388–1388, and 1398–1400. As a result, the population gains of the previous century disappeared in just two generations. There were around fiftytwo million Europeans in 1400, a drop of about 30 percent in sixty years, and an annual percentage rate decrease of 0.59 percent.

Importance. The number of people had a direct impact on the most basic categories of the economy: production and consumption. In simplest terms, expanding population was possible only if there were economic resources available to support it. The slowdown of population growth after 1300 and the severe contraction of population between 1347 and 1400 were not just because the weather turned bad and diseases struck. They were also caused by the fact that Europe had reached the limits of productivity given the economic system it had inherited from the Middle Ages. Europe was overpopulated in 1340. It would have to make some adjustments to its economic structure if it were to grow even larger.


It was the year of the bountiful Incarnation of the Son of God, 1348. The mortal pestilence then arrived in the excellent city of Florence, which surpasses every other Italian city in nobility. Whether through the operations of the heavenly bodies, or sent upon us mortals through our wicked deeds by the just wrath of God for our correction, the plague had begun some years before in Eastern countries. It carried off uncounted numbers of inhabitants, and kept moving without cease from place to place. It spread in piteous fashion towards the West. No wisdom or human fore-sight worked against it. The city had been cleaned of much filth by officials delegated to the task. Sick per-sons were forbidden entrance, and many laws were passed for the safeguarding of health. . . . Almost at the beginning of the spring of that year, the plague began to reveal, in astounding fashion, its painful effects.

It did not work as it had in the East, where anyone who bled from the nose had a manifest sign of inevitable death. But in its early stages both men, and women too, acquired certain swellings, either in the groin or under the armpits. Some of these swellings reached the size of a common apple, and others were as big as an egg, some more and some less. The common people called them plague-boils. From these two parts of the body, the deadly swellings began in a short time to appear and to reach indifferently every part of the body. Then, the appearance of the disease began to change into black or livid blotches... . And just as the swellings had been at first and still were an infallible indication of approaching death, so also were these blotches to whomever they touched. In the cure of these illnesses, neither the advice of a doctor nor the power of any medicine appeared to help and to do any good. Perhaps the nature of the malady did not allow it; perhaps the ignorance of the physicians (of whom, besides those trained, the number had grown very large both of women and of men who were completely without medical instruction) did not know whence it arose, and consequently did not take required action against it. Not only did very few recover, but almost everyone died within the third day from the appearance of these symptoms, some sooner and some later, and most without any fever or other complication. This plague was of greater virulence, because by contact with those sick from it, it infected the healthy, not otherwise than fire does, when it is brought very close to dry or oily material.

Source: Boccaccio, in Medieval Culture and Society, edited by David Herlihy, (New York: Walker, 1968), pp. 351–351,

Population Theory. At the end of the eighteenth century, the basic dilemma of population was explained by English social scientist Thomas Malthus. He described a notion of a “Malthusian trap”: natural population can grow exponentially, as parents can have many children who, in turn, have many children, and so on, but foodstuffs can only grow arithmetically, as each bit of unused land is brought into cultivation until all of the arable land is taken up. Unless one comes up with a way of increasing the productivity per acre of land, population will have to fall. There is a great deal of evidence that late-medieval Europe was experiencing just this kind of Malthusian trap. Marginal lands, the ones that were least likely to generate large harvests, had been brought into cultivation in the 1300s because all of the most productive land was already in cultivation. By 1400 when the population fell, the marginal lands were abandoned by farmers and reclaimed by the woods. In some parts of Europe, whole villages disappeared, never to return. The fact that European population seemed to adjust itself in accordance with the basic principles of ecological balance has led historians to speak of an “auto-regulatory system” of population. Birth and death rates would each adjust to ensure that population did not exceed the capacity of production.

Economic Impact. This point, however, also indicates the silver lining in the terrible tragedy that befell Europe between 1350 and 1400. For those people who managed to survive the Black Death, and the generation that followed, there were favorable opportunities to accumulate wealth. Land was relatively abundant and labor was hard to find, so wages went up for the average worker and agri-cultural productivity per person increased. Once the shock of the demographic crisis was over, there was room for optimism. The basic principles of the Malthusian cycle began to take root again. More abundant food and better wages encouraged parents to have more children. More children meant increasing pressure on the job and land markets, which increased the likelihood of another catastrophe unless further adjustments in the economic system took place.

Trends after the Black Death. The impact of this new cycle can be seen in the population trends of the 1400s and 1500s. During the 1400s, European population began to increase again, faster than it had done in the first half of the fourteenth century, but much slower than it had at the end of the thirteenth century. By 1500, the population had increased by almost 30 percent to sixty-seven million, an annual percentage rate increase of 0.25 percent. (Note that even though the increase from 1400 to 1500 and the decrease from 1340 to 1400 are both 30 percent, that does not mean that the population was the same in 1500 as it was in 1340. The decrease in 1340–1400 was 30 percent of seventy-four million, while the increase in 1400–1500 was 30 percent of just fifty-two million.) After 1500, the growth accelerated slightly more, to an annual percentage rate of 0.29 percent. There were already complaints about overpopulation in some parts of Europe. By 1600, Europe had surpassed its late-medieval population peak and had about eighty-nine million people. The “extra” fifteen million people in Europe in 1600 in comparison to 1340 indicate that some adjustments in the economic and social structure had taken place since the tragedy of the 1350s. Yet, the population trends also showed that Europe was once again coming to the limits of its economic capacity. There was no major demographic catastrophe to compare with the Black Death in Europe after 1600, but the population basically stopped growing. The annual percentage increase in population was just 0.07 percent for the seventeenth century.

Visual Image. A graph of the population pattern for Europe during the Renaissance and Reformation would look vaguely like a square root symbol. First, there was a short but steep downward slope, the collapse caused by the Black Death. Then, there was a longer, but slightly less steep, upward slope, the recovery of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Finally, at the end of the Reformation, there was a leveling off at a plateau, the stagnation of the seventeenth century.

Changing Center of Gravity. The numbers for Europe as a whole tell one story about the relationship between population and the economy for the period from 1350 to 1600; but there is an even more-striking story if the numbers are examined in a little more detail. Population statistics between 1350 and 1600 mirrored a fundamental shift, in Europe’s economic center, from a Mediterranean to an Atlantic economy. The economic and cultural hub of Europe from ancient times through the Middle Ages was the Mediterranean. In 1200, almost 75 percent of Europe’s population lived south of the Alps. More people lived in Italy than lived in Germany, Britain, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia combined. Both southern and northern Europe suffered from the effects of the Black Death, but southern Europe suffered more. Despite the Black Death, Northern Europe’s population experienced accelerating growth between 1200 and 1500, while Southern Europe’s growth decelerated.

Leading Sector. Even in 1600, more than half of Europe’s population still lived south of the Alps, but the balance was much more even than it had been in the Middle Ages. Northern Europe had grown to be an equal economic partner with the Mediterranean. Most of the most important economic transformations of the Renaissance and Reformation made the Atlantic economy the leading sector of the economy.


Michael W. Flinn, The European Demographic System, 1500–1820 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

Douglass C. North and Robert Paul Thomas, The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

James D. Tracy, Europe’s Reformations, 1450–1650 (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Litdefield, 1999).

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Population Trends

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