The Population of Europe: Early Modern Demographic Patterns

views updated


David Levine

Most of what is known about the early modern demography of Europe is derived from the analysis of parish registers. The following discussion primarily relates to the northern and western parts of Europe, and even then it is not exhaustive. Scandinavia and the northern Netherlands are completely neglected, as is the "Celtic fringe" of the British Isles. Rather than look at any particular example in detail, this article explains how parish register studies assist interpretations of reproductive patterns in the period 1500–1800.

Parish registers were the products of Renaissance and Reformation state formation. The earliest ones date from the fifteenth century, but the longest series comes from England, with some surviving from 1538, the year in which Henry VIII made it mandatory for all parishes to maintain registers of vital events celebrated in the local branch of the state church. These parochial records have been the subject of two main forms of analysis: aggregative analysis, which provides an overview of the total numbers of baptisms, burials, and marriages; and family reconstitution, which examines demographic statistics in fine detail but is limited by the reliability of the registration of vital events as well as the necessity of having long, unbroken series of primary data.

While the English record series are the longest, they are by no means the most complete. Indeed Belgian, French, and German parochial registers provide much greater detail, although these continental documents are rarely available in continuous series from much earlier than 1660. The relatively short time span of the continental documents means that the demographic profiles of only two or three cohorts can be successfully reconstituted from them for the early modern period. This is a problem because the secular trend in population growth poses difficulties in interpreting the continental results, but bearing this point in mind, it is possible to make use of the family reconstitution evidence.

Looking at the subject from another perspective, it is probably most useful to adopt a heuristic framework, in which the uniqueness of any particular study is sacrificed in getting at an understanding of the organization of the larger system to which the various national and subnational components belonged. The elements of demographic history must first be placed in a broader perspective so that the unique characteristics of the northwestern European system of family formation can be appreciated.


Between 1500 and 1750 the European population doubled from about 65 million to around 127.5 million. Most of this growth occurred before 1625. After 1750 a new cycle of expansion began, and the European population more than doubled to almost 300 million in 1900. It should also be noted that the 1750 to 1900 figures underestimate growth because they take no cognizance of mass emigration from Europe. Perhaps 50 million Europeans went overseas from 1840 to 1914. Migrants, their children, and their children's children were removed from the demographic equation. If they had stayed to contribute their fecund powers, quite likely Europe's population would have been more than 400 million in 1900. Thus, a study of early modern demography begs some important definitional questions about chronological boundaries. This discussion is confined to the period 1550–1800, but these boundaries are neither hard nor fast.

This early modern epoch includes two periods of rapid growth that bookend the several generations who lived between 1625 and 1750, when population levels were stable or, as was the case for short periods in some places, even falling. Generalized statistics are the product of a compromise, which sees compositional complexity as an essential part of the nature of early modern population dynamics.

While debate about the mechanisms of growth has been considerable, it is evident from even the briefest perusal of demographic statistics that the experience of life in the modern world is radically different from that prevailing in, to use the historian Peter Laslett's phrase, the "world we have lost." The premodern life cycle was compressed by the weight of reproductive imperatives. People born in 1750 had a life expectancy of around thirty-five years. Of 100 children born alive, almost one-half either died before marrying or never married. Survivors spent most of their adult lives with little children underfoot, so the typical woman was usually either pregnant or nursing a child from marriage right through menopause. People born in 1750 expected to die about twelve years before the birth of their first grandchild, whereas in the late twentieth century people usually lived twenty-five years after the birth of their last grandchild.

For women in particular changes in life expectations radically altered experience. In contrast to the eighteenth-century world in which women were continually a part of a family, about two-thirds of late-twentieth-century women's adult years were spent in households without children, while for nearly 60 percent of their adult years women lived without a husband.

The early modern social system adjusted to compensate for unwieldy dependency ratios. Children began working at an early age, and they and their labor were often transferred away from their family of origin around the time they reached puberty. Leaving home was a more protracted process that started earlier and ended later than in the late twentieth century because children did not move out to found their own households before they married. But they did move away from their parental homes. Perhaps one-quarter of the fifteen-year-old males born as late as 1850 lived in someone else's household, whereas in the 1990s that applied to about one in twenty. At all ages between seventeen and twenty-seven, more than 30 percent of all males were classified as neither dependent children nor household heads. It would appear that teenaged females were as likely as their brothers to leave their natal homes, some going into domestic service but most leaving to work as farm servants, apprentices, or janes-of-all-work. Initially at least, girls rarely moved outside networks described by family, kin, and neighborhood. As they grew older, women strayed farther afield. Social class and local employment opportunities also played significant roles in determining the ways in which individuals experienced systemic structures.

The demographic keystone of the early modern system of marriage and family formation was that, uniquely, northwest Europeans married late. More precisely, the link between puberty and marriage was dramatically more attenuated in northwestern Europe than elsewhere. The identification of this austere, Malthusian pattern was the greatest achievement of the first generation of scholarship in early modern historical demography. Basing his conclusions on fifty-four studies describing age at first marriage for women in northwest Europe, Michael Flinn showed that the average fluctuated around twenty-five. While Flinn did not provide measurements to assess the spread of the distribution around this midpoint, other studies determined that the standard deviation was about six years, which means that about two-thirds of all northwest European women married for the first time between twenty-two and twenty-eight. The small number of teenage brides was counterbalanced by a similar number of women who married in their thirties. Perhaps one woman in ten never married; in the demographer's jargon, that tenth woman was permanently celibate. These statistics provide a single measure which distinguishes the creation of new families in northwestern Europe from that in other societies.


Perhaps the closest analogy to the European experience is nineteenth-century Japan, where a fault line divided the early-marrying eastern half of the country from the later-marrying western parts. Marriage among young Japanese women was not linked to puberty. In the eastern region Japanese women married in their late teens and early twenties, while in the west brides were more likely to be in their early to middle twenties. The control of fertility in early modern Japan was, however, only partly the result of this gap between puberty and marriage; it was also partly the result of deliberate infanticide. Taken together the slightly later ages at marriage and stringent controls within marriage kept the population from overwhelming a slow incremental gain in per capita income. A larger proportion of the Japanese population was released from primary food production to work in rural, domestic industries than in any other preindustrial social formation outside northwestern Europe. In contrast, historical demographic studies of pre-1900 China established that the age at first marriage for Chinese women was close to puberty.

A uniquely late age at first marriage for women, that is, in relation to puberty, seemingly was a part of northwestern European family formation systems for most of the millennium. The origin of this system of reproduction is the key unanswered question arising from several decades of intensive statistical studies. Yet paradoxically, further statistical studies cannot yield an answer. Rather, the answer lies within the social contexts of marriage and family formation.

The early modern marriage strategy was vitally important for two reasons. First, it provided a safety valve or margin of error in the ongoing adjustment between population and resources that characterized the reproduction of generations and social formations. Second, it meant that women were less dependent and vulnerable insofar as they were marrying as young adults, not older children.

As noted above, early modern Europe experienced not one constant rate of population growth but an oscillation, that is, fairly rapid growth of about 1 percent per annum between 1500 and 1625 and again after 1750 interrupted by more than a century of rough stability. Yet it is not likely that the outer limits of growth were ever approached. Even during the periods of fastest growth, a prolonged period of celibacy existed between puberty and marriage; premarital intercourse and pregnancy were the experience of a minority, albeit a large minority at the end of the eighteenth century; and the cultural practice of prolonged breast-feeding (which is associated with anovulation during the first six months after giving birth) meant that intervals between pregnancies were hardly shorter than in the intervening generations of population stability or decline.

The safety margin may have bent, but it never came close to breaking. In comparison with what we know is humanly possible in terms of reproductive rates, the fastest early modern growth levels pale into insignificance, around 1 percent per annum as opposed to over 3 percent per annum in parts of the Third World at the end of the twentieth century. The early modern population grew, but it grew slowly.

In a stable population, about three-fifths of all families were likely to have an inheriting son, while another fifth had an inheriting daughter. About one-fifth of all niches became vacant in the course of each generation. In a growing population, marginal groups, such as noninheriting children, felt the full force of the nonlinear implications of population growth. This is a crucial point. Increasing population produced a disproportionate rise in their numbers. In a schematic way, this fact suggests that villagers who were over and above replacement were presented with two stark alternatives: they could either wait in the hopes of marrying into a vacated niche, or they could emigrate, that is, they could move socially down and physically out of their native land. This second alternative was the stark reality presented to generations of their predecessors, for whom noninheritance meant downward social mobility and demographic death.

Cottage industries were a godsend for these noninheriting, marginal people. The luckiest ones subsidized the formation of a new household without having to leave their native hearths. Others not as lucky moved to the villages and towns where protoindustry was located. There they set up on their own and supported themselves with income derived from their labor and with common rights to keep a cow, a pig, and perhaps even a garden where, after 1700, they grew potatoes. With a little money they built their new homes, usually one-room shacks called "one-night houses" because they sprang up overnight.

Many marginals moved to the cities, where charitable endowments were concentrated. But early modern urban migration was something of a zero-sum strategy because the urban counterweight played a significant role in the early modern demographic equation. Early modern cities ate up the surplus population of the countryside because they consistently recorded more deaths than births. The seventeenth-century London growth, for example, consumed more than one-half of the surplus sons and daughters produced by the rural population of England. Only in the second half of the eighteenth century did London replenish its native population without immigration. As cities cleaned up and virulent epidemics lost their potency, the urban populations of the industrial era grew by leaps and bounds.

In the early eighteenth century, London's population was about equal to the population of all other English cities combined. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, sprawling conurbations existed in the West Midlands around Birmingham, on Mersey-side around Liverpool and Manchester, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and on Tyneside. These new conurbations sprouted up in hitherto rural areas. Manchester, for example, had 2,500 inhabitants in 1725, when Daniel Defoe rode through, and nearly 1 million in 1841, about the time that Friedrich Engels moved there. In addition many older cities, like Leicester, Nottingham, Bristol, and Norwich, doubled or trebled in size. This broadly based growth was possible because the urban death rate began closely to approximate its birthrate. By the end of the eighteenth century, indigenous populations grew not only in the cities but also in the countryside, whose surplus population had previously been the sole source of urban population increase. The push from the countryside and the pull of the cities were as important as the ability of the cities to nurture their native populations and free themselves from their dependency on immigrants.

For marginal people lifetime moves into the proletariat comprised the dominant social experience. While their actions may have consisted of efforts to retain or recapture individual control over the means of production, they were swimming against a powerful historical current that ultimately pulled most of them down into the ranks of the landless. If boom times were like a siphon sucking population out of rural cottages, then protoindustrial communities were like sponges soaking up these footloose extras. Overall, with a few notable exceptions like Amsterdam and London in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or the industrializing regions in the eighteenth century, the rate of urbanization was not much greater than the overall rate of population growth. On the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, for example, Paris contained about 3 percent of the French population, which was hardly different from its proportional significance at any point in the previous 250 years.


The second aspect of this early modern system of family formation to some extent has been doubly obscured, first by a scholarly emphasis on early modern prescriptive literature and later by the historiographical concern with the gendering actions put into discursive practice by historical patriarchs. While it is true that all women were denied equality with men in early modern society, an emphasis on this inequality has eclipsed a comparative appreciation of the relative independence and self-control northwestern European women experienced. Their marriages were almost never arranged; their choices of partners resulted from courtship and negotiation rather than parental dictates. A large proportion of the population was landless and therefore unlikely to need parental approval except insofar as those people retained connections with their families. Furthermore, most of these landless young women moved away from the parental home after reaching puberty, and many lived away for a decade or longer before marrying. While landless women were not freed from either poverty or a dependent status, they were independent in the sense that parental authority was neither a constant nor a supervening day-to-day reality in their lives. They were not masterless to be sure—almost all such women lived in man's household—but it stretches credulity to assert that men unrelated to them took a paternal interest in their courtship activities.

Women were theoretically free to choose their mates according to the dictates of their consciences, as was the rule of the Christian church, but they were also free to choose within the dictates of the social reality of their lives. They were not subject to the veil, nor were their public movements kept under surveillance by chaperones. They largely controlled their own destinies by deciding on their own partners. The prescriptive literature of the time took cognizance of this dimension of early modern women's independence only so as to castigate those who prenuptially became pregnant and to blame the victim for the crime. The literature regarded these women with a mixture of fear and loathing because their independence threatened to turn the patriarch's domestic world upside down. Prescriptive literature is always a better guide to the concerns of the social controllers than to the social reality of control. The well-attested fact that early modern women were courting and marrying when they were adults means that the prescriptors' discursive vision of helpless dependency is an inadequate guide to social behavior. Furthermore that vision tells us nothing about the motivation of the women in question. Women were proactive in deciding whom they married, where they married, and at what age they married. This proactivity is strikingly different both from the marital arrangements common for most women in most other parts of the world and from the more restricted range of actions allowed their social betters, whose marriages were often social alliances in which they were not always willing players.

The early modern demographic system turned on women's late age at first marriage, and like the spokes on a wheel, other aspects of early modern demography were arrayed in relation to the hub. Geographic mobility was largely a premarital matter. Fertility was largely a postmarital matter, as was mortality in that one-half of all deaths were those of infants and young children. Of course, epidemic mortality was unconnected to this system of family formation, while density-dependent mortality, characteristic of urban areas and rural regions with polluted water supplies, was only indirectly linked to it. Before unraveling the interconnections between marriage, fertility, and infant mortality, it is helpful to examine the issue of mortality in more detail.


For more than half of the early modern period, epidemic mortality was directly connected to the recurrent outbreaks of plague that had been a deadly scourge since 1348. The final plague visitation occurred in southern France at the beginning of the 1720s. The plague did not simply peter out; its destructiveness persisted at a high rate almost until the eve of its disappearance. The great London plague of 1666 bears witness to the continuing impact of the bacillus more than three centuries after its first appearance. Quarantine was effective, but seemingly bacteriological changes were even more important in its disappearance, just as similar bacteriological mutations between the plague bacillus and its host had signaled its onset in southern Asia in the 1330s.

Plague was the most prominent and most deadly epidemic disease. But a veritable portfolio of epidemic diseases—"ague," bronchitis, chicken pox, convulsions, croup, infantile diarrhea, diphtheria, "dropsy," dysentery, "fevers" of many types, "flux," gonorrhea, influenza, malaria, measles, pneumonia, smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, typhus, and whooping cough, to mention some of the worst offenders—attacked the population of early modern Europe. What is most peculiar about this onslaught is that peaks in mortality occurred unpredictably. Unlike the plague, which killed its victims, most of these other diseases undermined people's general health, with relatively few deaths attributable to their direct impact. Still the population's resilience was severely tested. When infectious epidemics occurred in tandem with famine or warfare—conditions of social disintegration—death rates skyrocketed.

The Black Death was the worst microparasite in early modern times, but warfare was the most deadly form of macroparasitism. Nowhere was this more true than in Germany, where the Thirty Years' War brought spectacular devastation. Estimates vary, especially locally, but the carnage appears to have been especially intense in the duchy of Württemberg, where the population dropped from 450,000 in 1618 to 166,000 in 1648. No single experience can be generalized to the German population as a whole; rather, different regions suffered different disasters at different times. Analysis of local studies from early modern Germany explains how the causal arrows flowed from mortality to family formation and therefore structured the operation of the demographic system.

In the Hohenlohe district the net loss of 33 percent during the Thirty Years' War underestimates the massiveness of population movements. By 1653 few families could trace their ancestors back to the sixteenth century in their native villages. Some fell victim to war-related plague and famine, while others were bled white by taxation and their farms bankrupted, causing them to flee from the region. While the upper sections of the rural social structure remained intact, the social pyramid lost its massive base. The marginal elements in society played a key role in the first cycle of early modern population movements. Growth was concentrated at the bottom of the social pyramid in the century after 1525, and during the Thirty Years' War, when this excess population was lost, the marginal lands on which they had squatted reverted to waste.

Another Württemberg village, Neckarhausen, was similarly devastated during the Thirty Years' War. Its population was over five hundred at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but by 1650 it had fewer than one hundred villagers. The early-seventeenth-century level was not reached again until the 1780s. In fact Neckarhausen's post–1648 evolution was a reversal of pre–1618 Hohenlohe. Late-seventeenth-century Neckarhausen was dominated by respectable hausvaters, or heads of families, but the systemic tendency for growth to create a subpeasantry and a significant number of wage laborers became the hallmark of its eighteenth-century population. This systemic tendency gave free rein to the emergence of "minifundia" (dwarf holdings) because subdivision of the land had created a pool of surplus labor. To some extent this labor was engaged in land reclamation projects and was deployed on the commons, but mostly it was drawn into rural weaving and other crafts. These people were progressively marginalized. Although they were fully integrated into the village power structure in 1700, by 1780 only two of twenty-three officers were petty commodity producers, and all local officials were in the top quartile of taxpayers.

Indirectly, then, disease and warfare created or took away opportunities for family formation. The system tottered but never cracked. Indeed, this play within the system is the crucial point. Late age at first marriage for women made it possible to adjust the population and resources equation in the face of massive devastation without abandoning the prudential character of delayed marriage. No evidence suggests that German patriarchs responded to these massive population losses by marrying off their daughters at puberty or that German matriarchs abandoned their practice of prolonged breast-feeding.

The population dynamic was kept in an exquisite balance through the prudential check of delayed marriage. If circumstances warranted, that is, if age at first marriage for women dropped a year or two or if more women ultimately married, then over the course of a couple of generations small shifts could lead to monumental changes in the rate of growth. Who decided if circumstances warranted? Not makers of social policy or prescriptive patriarchs. Anonymous women and men for their own reasons decided to marry a few months or a few years earlier than their parents had. On an individual level this was small stuff. On a broader level, when individual behaviors in warranted circumstances are aggregated, the scales on the balances shift to search out a new equilibrating point. But those involved in this social drama made choices consciously without cognizance of their demographic implications. Moreover their choices were essentially traditional in the sense that they were made with reference to expectations that depended upon the contingencies of the time.

At the end of the early modern period, Germans policed the marriages of the poor. The poor continued to court and to initiate sexual relations at much the same ages as their parents and grandparents, but while their relationships were consummated, they were not consecrated. Consequently the rate of illegitimacy rose sharply. By the next generation the meddling ceased, and the illegitimacy rate plummeted. The rate of reproduction was hardly changed by the administrative dynamics, which were significant to policymakers but were largely ignored by the objects of their policies.


Birthrate is itself the product of length of marriage and fertility rates per year of marriage. Even small changes in those variables, when aggregated and allowed to multiply over several generations, had profound implications.

The most astonishing aspect of the early modern system of family formation comes from the evidence pertaining to fertility. In analyzing fertility, fecundity, and sterility, historical demographers use the concept of "natural fertility," which is at best a tendentious abstraction. It is also misleading. Louis Henry's original formulation of the concept was aimed at determining a precontraceptive equilibrium, but he emphatically recognized that this equilibrium had almost nothing to do with maximum fertility levels. According to Henri Léridon, the biological maximum for women who remain fecund and exposed to risk from their fifteenth to their forty-fifth birthdays and who do not breast-feed their children is seventeen or eighteen children. Any population would have some sterile women. But most of the difference between Léridon's biological maximum and observed total fertility rates can be accounted for by referring to cultural and historical factors, such as the age and incidence of nuptiality; breast-feeding practices; abortions, both spontaneous and calculated; starvation-induced amenorrhea; coital frequency; rates of widowhood; remarriage; and separation or desertion.

So-called natural fertility in early modern Europe was the product of starting and spacing methods of regulation. This measurement is better called "cultural fertility," since the historical demographers' statistics show that childbearing was well within the calculus of conscious choice throughout the quarter-millennium of the early modern period for which demographic statistics are available.

Starting and spacing are also important methods of fertility control. In premodern populations stopping, that is, contraception, was probably the least-chosen method. Indeed, little evidence of the practice of systematic contraception exists. On the other hand, the early modern period yields a great deal of evidence of deliberate attempts to control fertility through starting at later ages. It seems age at marriage was consistently a decade or more later than menarche. Absolutely no evidence confirms the onset of puberty among early modern women, which presents a problem in discussing early modern marriage and fertility patterns, especially the hiatus between puberty or menarche and marriage. Most people writing on the subject simply ignore their own ignorance.

Historical demographers' statistical analysis of fecundity and birth intervals testifies to the fact that spacing was widely practiced as fertility control. A crucial component of this spacing behavior, the lengthening of birth intervals, was prolonged breast-feeding, which, as has been noted, inhibits ovulation during the first six months after a woman gives birth. While its contraceptive protection declines thereafter and unexpected pregnancies become increasingly more common, it is a fairly reliable method of birth control for the group if not for individuals. The demographic implications of breast-feeding have rarely been studied outside the narrow confines of statistical measurements, particularly regarding connections between early modern breast-feeding practices and the exercise of domestic power by women. Curiously, historians of nineteenth-century women have been more interested in this subject as it pertains to arguments about the principles and practices of "domestic feminism."

The early modern population, therefore, tended to control its fertility by means other than stopping, which is not to say that this population had no stoppers. Fecundity ratios measure the proportion of fecund women who bore a first child, a second, and so on. Some women stopped bearing children before they reached age forty, which is considered the average age of menopause, although evidence for the physiological end of fecundity is as scarce as for its beginning at menarche. Why did these women stop bearing children? In most family reconstitution studies that have investigated fertility profiles, women who married in their early twenties were on average under forty when they gave birth to their last child, whereas women who married for the first time when they were over thirty gave birth to their last child when they were several years older. Was this difference a matter of physiological sterility or cultural choice?


Demographers employ complex formulas to analyze population dynamics. For historians it is enough to know that a given rate of population growth can be the result of a number of different combinations of marriage rates, fertility, and life expectation at birth. For example, an early modern population with a total fertility rate of 5.5 and a life expectation at birth of thirty yields the same growth rate as a modern one with a total fertility rate of 2.1 and a life expectation at birth of seventy-five. In both cases births and deaths cancel one another, resulting in neither growth nor decline.

After a reasonably long period of time, even a minute shift in the birthrate, which includes marriage ages for women, marriage frequencies, and premarital and postmarital fertility, or the death rate could yield significant results. Substantial shifts could have explosive results in the short term. In another example, an unchanging total fertility rate of 6.0 combined with a doubling of life expectation at birth from 24 to 48 would instantaneously transform a population from no-growth into doubling every thirty years. Such is the prolific power of compound interest.

Two model populations, peasant and proletarian, illustrate the dynamics of population growth. No allowance is made for illegitimacy in these model populations. In the observed conditions of the 1750–1880 period, the proletarian population was supercharged by the additional impetus for growth provided by premarital births and bridal pregnancies.

The main characteristic of the peasant population was that the age at first marriage for women was almost a decade after puberty, 25. Their husbands were usually about the same age. In this peasant population model, life expectation at birth ["e°"] was 39.32 years, which corresponds to an infant mortality rate of 188 per 1,000 and a 61 percent survival rate from birth to the average age at first marriage for women. The "life expectation at birth," "age-specific mortality rates," and "survival ratios" draw information from Sully Ledermann's collection of life tables (Ledermann, 1969, p. 155).

The average woman and man, having survived to marry at 25, could expect to live to about 60. For calculating the rate at which these populations reproduced, adult survival is nearly as important as the fertility of those who remained in fertile conjugal unions. The prospect of a marriage being broken by death was the product of two adult mortality experiences, those of the woman and the man, interacting with each other. The result was far greater than would at first seem to be the case. Of course, the actual situation was immeasurably more complicated since desertion cannot be measured but obviously represented a form of "marital death." Anything that kept husbands and wives together had a stimulating impact on the birthrate.

In each of the five-year marriage intervals, about 5 percent of women and a similar number of men died. Combining male and female chances of survival produces an estimate that 90.7 percent of marriages survived this first five-year period. Of these survivors, 95 percent of both men and women survived the next five-year period, so 81.8 percent of the original marriages remained intact for ten years, until the woman was 35. In the third five-year period, 89.1 percent of the surviving marriages made it through, so 72.9 percent of the original marriages remained intact after fifteen years.

The implications of this mortality regime are apparent when connected with fertility levels. In this peasant population married life is divided into three five-year stages, from marriage at 25 to menopause at 40. Demographers usually calculate marital fertility as the number of live births per thousand years lived by women in each age cohort. Thus, among 1,000 women aged over 25 and under 30, the expectation is for 450 live births, which is translated as an age-specific fertility rate of 450/1000. Among the next two stages the potential age-specific fertility rates are as follows: 30–34 = 340/1000; 35–39 = 167/000. As with all the demographic information set forth, these age-specific fertility rates are guesses based on reported results from family reconstitution studies, with the following points in mind. The women between 25 and 29 presumably breast-fed their children, and the contraceptive effects of suckling combined with other factors to yield a birth spacing of three years. Further arbitrary adjustments to the age-specific fertility of more mature women gave weight to the duration effect that had an impact on coital frequency and secondary sterility. For this reason, fertility in the second and third cohorts was lowered by 25 percent and 50 percent respectively.

If this average woman lived in a fecund conjugal union from marriage to menopause (from 25 to 40), she had the potential to give birth to 4.79 children. However, the above exercise in survivorship suggested that not all women lived from marriage to menopause in a fecund conjugal union. Allowances for the impact of adult mortality on marital fertility can be made first by establishing a midpoint marital survival for each five-year cohort and second by adjusting the potential age-specific fertility by allowing for fertility depletion caused by adult mortality and the interruption of a fecund conjugal union. Remarriage is not considered in this schema because men were more likely to remarry than women, and the salient issue in this exercise is the experience of adult women. In addition, no allowance is made for children born out of wedlock. The adjusted fertility is:

AgePotential FertilityMarital Survival RatioChildren Born
25–394.79 4.21

In this peasant population mortality not only cut deeply into the potential fertility of adults but also sharply curtailed the life expectations of those children born to surviving married couples. Almost 61 percent survived to twenty-five, reducing the adjusted fertility figure of 4.21 to 2.56 surviving children. No allowance is made for the fact that men were less likely to survive to their average age at marriage, twenty-six. In a certain sense, ignoring the sex-specific character of survival compensates for not incorporating some allowance for remarriage into the algorithm. Of these survivors, 90 percent probably married, suggesting that 2.30 children in the next generation would marry.

Given the parameters of mortality, nuptiality, and fertility outlined above, at what rate did this peasant population reproduce? The length of each generation can be determined by finding the midpoint in an adult woman's fertility career, that is, her median birth, which was somewhat earlier than the middle of her childbearing years. Each first-generation couple had 2.3 marrying children, so every 30 years this model population grew by 15 percent. The first generation of 1,000 marriages, that is, 2,000 adults, had 2,020 children after 24.5 years (2020/2000 = 101 percent = 1 percent above replacement). In turn this suggests an annual rate of growth of something on the order of 0.47 percent and a doubling of the original population every 150 years.

In contrast to the peasant population, the proletarian population married earlier and more frequently and remained in stable fecund unions longer, so that they had more children. These differences are important because marriage was the linchpin in the demographic system of early moderns, although it was a flexible system that could accommodate divergent interpretations. Why did proletarians marry earlier, or why did European peasants marry at late ages? For both proletarians and peasants living in northwestern Europe, marriage was decisively separated from puberty, even though marriage continued to be closely connected with the formation of a new, independent

e° (Ledermann)39.32 (153)39.32 (153)
Marriage age ♀2522
Marriage – Menopause ♀ Survival Ratio.85.84
Potential Fertility (Rate per Thousand)
15 – 19n/a (n/a)n/a (n/a)
20 – 24n/a (n/a)1.40 (450)
25–292.25 (450)2.25 (450)
30–341.70 (340)1.70 (340)
35–39.84 (167)1.25 (250)
Total Fertility4.796.60
Marital Survival Ratio
Children Born
Total 15–394.045.61
Survival Ratio (Birth–♀ Marriage).61 = 2.56.62 = 3.48
% Marriage90% = 2.3095% = 3.30
Generational Replacement115%165%
Generational Interval3027.5
Annual Growth Rate0.47%2.4%
Doubling (in Years)15029.1

household. So both peasants and proletarians married as young adults, and they married as independent individuals. It is imperative to connect these cultural parameters with the opportunities for household formation so as to understand the factors that made marriage relatively difficult for peasants, who had to wait to inherit a niche in the local economy, and relatively easy for proletarians, who married earlier and more frequently because wage laboring afforded them freedom from patriarchal intervention. The vast secular boom of the late eighteenth century, the product of industrialization and population growth, radically increased the demand for wage labor. Hence the likelihood increased that a young couple could begin life together without hindrance from patriarchal authorities. If young people waited until they were in their twenties to begin courtship, they did not have to wait to inherit a niche. Proletarians were better able to take advantage of opportunities to begin their married lives according to the dictates of their own reason and social experience.

Table 1 represents a highly schematic simulation exercise that demonstrates the massive shifts in annual rates of growth resulted from relatively small demographic changes. The exponential power of compound interest is so cumulatively overwhelming that, had the annual rate of reproduction of the proletarian population prevailed from the Neolithic to the industrial revolutions, the human population of the world in 1750 would have been far greater than the ants on the earth, the birds in the air, and the fish in the seas. In fact the rates of growth suggested by the proletarian population model have approximated reality during only two periods in human history. The first was in Europe and its overseas colonies during the first half of the age of mass modernization, between 1750 and 1870, and the second was in the late-twentieth-century Third World. Possibly something similar occurred in the two centuries before the Black Death.

If in 1750 the European population had shifted completely from the peasant model to the proletarian one with its propensity to double in number every 29.1 years, the original 127.5 million Europeans living in 1750 would have been replaced as follows:


Obviously not all Europeans conformed to the model, and only 70 percent might be classified as proletarians. Even if only the proletarian component of the 1750 population had conformed to this model, the replacement would have occurred in the following way:


Many European proletarians changed their behavior. The study of Shepshed captured one such community (Levine, 1977). It would be a mistake to generalize, but even if only a fraction of the original 89 million proletarians completely took on these characteristics or if all took on some of the changes outlined in the two simple models, that would explain the observed growth within the parameters of the model propounded by the so-called theory of protoindustrialization.

In Shepshed the age at first marriage for women dropped more than in the simulated populations. Seventeenth-century brides in this Leicestershire village were, on average, almost 28.1 years old, whereas their great-granddaughters, who married framework knitters in the early nineteenth century, were 22.3 years old. This 5.8-year fall in the age at first marriage for women is almost twice the size of the drop suggested in the simulation exercise. Furthermore age-specific fertility rates rose slightly, while illegitimacy levels skyrocketed. On the other side of the vital equation, adult mortality levels improved in the period after 1750 over those before 1700. Infant and child mortality rates rose noticeably, so life expectation at birth dropped from about 49 before 1700 to 44 after 1750.

Franklin Mendels and others argued for the "prolific power" of protoindustrial populations. Not all the European peasants who were displaced from their pays or heimat—their land, their home—took on the characteristics suggested by this simple model. But even if only some of them did so it would account for the impact of new forms of social production on systems of reproduction and family formation, which by itself completely explains the growth of the European population. That is all Mendels claimed, in a modest version.

Finally, the crucial lesson of this schematic simulation is that the key issue confronting the student of early modern demography concerns the ways in which population growth was thwarted by its imbrication in the social world. Therefore, rather than adopting a modernist perspective that focuses on growth and studies its individual components at the expense of understanding the operation of the whole mechanism, early modernists would do well to give attention to the interaction of late marriage, culturally controlled fertility, the urban counterweight, recurrent warfare, and swinging bouts of epidemic mortality. Those factors combined to keep population and resources in a rough balance during the early modern period.

See alsoProtoindustrialization; The City: The Early Modern Period (in this volume);Patriarchy; The Household; Courtship, Marriage, and Divorce; Illegitimacy and Concubinage (volume 4); and other articles in this section.


Abbott, Andrew. "Transcending General Linear Reality." Sociological Theory 6 (1988): 169–186.

Anderson, Michael. "The Emergence of the Modern Life Cycle in Britain." Social History 10 (1985): 69–87.

Appleby, Andrew. "Epidemics and Famine in the Little Ice Age." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 10 (1980): 643–663.

Davis, Kingsley, and Pietronella van den Oever. "Demographic Foundations of New Sex Roles." Population and Development Review 8 (1982): 495–511.

De Vries, Jan. European Urbanization, 1500–1800. Cambridge, Mass., 1984.

Drake, Michael. Population and Society in Norway, 1735–1865. London, 1969.

Dupâquier, Jacques, et al. Histoire de la population française. Vol. 2: De la renaissance à 1789. Paris, 1988.

Durand, John D. "Historical Estimates of World Population: An Evaluation." Population and Development Review 3 (1977): 253–296.

Fildes, Valerie. Wet Nursing: A History from Antiquity to the Present. Oxford, 1988.

Flinn, Michael W. The European Demographic System, 1500–1820. Baltimore, 1981.

Flinn, Michael W. "The Stabilization of Mortality in Pre-industrial Western Europe." Journal of European Economic History 3 (1974): 285–318.

Goldstone, Jack A. Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. Berkeley, Calif., 1991.

Gordon, Linda. Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America. New York, 1976.

Hanley, Susan B., and Kozo Yamamura. Economic and Demographic Change in Preindustrial Japan, 1600–1868. Princeton, N.J., 1977.

Hareven, Tamara K. "The History of the Family and the Complexity of Social Change." American Historical Review 96 (1991): 95–124.

Hayami, Akira. "Another Fossa Magna: Proportion Marrying and Age at Marriage in Late Nineteenth-Century Japan." Journal of Family History 12 (1987): 57–72.

Henry, Louis. "Some Data on Natural Fertility." Eugenics Quarterly 18 (1961): 81–91.

Herlihy, David. "Family." American Historical Review 96 (1991): 1–16.

Hohenberg, Paul M., and Lynn Hollen Lees. The Making of Urban Europe, 1000–1950. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Kamen, Henry. "The Economic and Social Consequences of the Thirty Years' War." Past and Present 39 (1968): 44–61.

Knodel, John. "Breast Feeding and Population Growth." Science 198 (1977): 1111–1115.

Knodel, John. "Natural Fertility in Pre-industrial Germany." Population Studies 32 (1978): 481–510.

Knodel, John, and Etienne Van de Walle. "Breast Feeding, Fertility, and Infant Mortality: An Analysis of Some Early German Data." Population Studies 21 (1967): 109–131.

Ledermann, Sully. Nouvelles tables-types de mortalité. Paris, 1969.

Lee, James Z., and Wang Feng. One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700–2000. Cambridge, Mass., 1999.

Léridon, Henri. Human Fertility. Chicago, 1977.

Lesthaeghe, Ron. "On the Social Control of Human Reproduction." Population and Development Review 6 (1980): 527–548.

Levine, David. Family Formation in an Age of Nascent Capitalism. New York, 1977.

Levine, David. Reproducing Families: The Political Economy of English Population History. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Levine, David. "Sampling History: The English Population." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 28 (1998): 605–632.

Lorimer, Frank. Culture and Human Fertility. Paris, 1954.

Lynch, Katherine A. "The Family and the History of Public Life." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 24 (1994): 665–684.

McEvedy, Colin, and Richard Jones. Atlas of World Population History. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1978.

McLaren, Angus. Reproductive Rituals: The Perception of Fertility in England from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century. London, 1984.

McNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, N.Y., 1976.

Mendels, Franklin F. "Industrialization and Population Pressure in Eighteenth-Century Flanders." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1969.

Mendels, Franklin F. "Proto-industrialization: The First Phase of the Industrialization Process." Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 241–261.

Robisheaux, Thomas. Rural Society and the Search for Order in Early Modern Germany. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Sabean, David Warren. Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen, 1700–1870. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Smith, Daniel Scott. "Family Limitation, Sexual Control, and Domestic Feminism in Victorian America." Feminist Studies 1 (1973): 40–57.

Smith, Daniel Scott. "A Homeostatic Demographic Regime: Patterns in West European Family Reconstitution Studies." In Population Patterns in the Past. Edited by R. D. Lee. New York, 1977. Pages 19–51.

Smith, Thomas C. Nakahara: Family Farming and Population in a Japanese Village, 1717–1830. Stanford, Calif., 1977.

Tilly, Charles. "Demographic Origins of the European Proletariat." In Proletarianization and Family History. Edited by David Levine. Orlando, Fla., 1984. Pages 1–85.

Tilly, Louise. "Women's History and Family History: Fruitful Collaboration or Missed Connection?" Journal of Family History 12 (1987): 303–315.

Wall, Richard. "The Age at Leaving Home." Journal of Family History 3 (1978): 181–202.

Watkins, Susan Cotts, Jane A. Menken, and John Bongaarts. "Demographic Foundations of Family Change." American Sociological Review 52 (1987): 346–358.

Weir, David. "Rather Never Than Late: Celibacy and Age at Marriage in English-Cohort Fertility, 1541–1871." Journal of Family History 9 (1984): 340–354.

Wrigley, E. A. "Fertility Strategy for the Individual and the Group." In Historical Studies of Changing Fertility. Edited by Charles Tilly. Princeton, N.J., 1978. Pages 135–154.

Wrigley, E. A. "A Simple Model of London's Importance in Changing English Society and Economy, 1650–1750." Past and Present 37 (1967): 44–70.

Wrigley, E. A., and R. S. Schofield. The Population History of England, 1541–1871. Cambridge, Mass., 1981.

Wrigley, E. A., R. S. Schofield, Ros Davies, and Jim Oeppen. English Population History from Family Reconstitution, 1580–1837. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

About this article

The Population of Europe: Early Modern Demographic Patterns

Updated About content Print Article