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Overpopulaton and Aging in 17th England

Tue Jul 30 07:26:59 1991

The standard source for Eng. population in 16th and 17th centuries is still E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, *The Population History of England 1541-1871:A reconstruction* (London 1981: ISBN 0-7131-6264-3). Their back projection results (table A 3.3) give the following estimates (which I have rounded to 3 digits):

    1541, 2.77 million;

    1560, 2.96 m.;

    1600, 4.07 m.;

    1650, 5.22 m.

So a perception of overpopulation in the earlier 17th century was not unfounded. The consensus of views now seems to be, however, that the mid-17th century population peak was slightly lower than the medieval one (whether one puts that c. 1300 or c. 1340), and perhaps than the population of 4th-century Roman Britain.

    On p. 176 there is a discussion of the birth and death figures. What stands out, they say, is the early instability of the series of deaths. Several years with unusually high totals in the 1540s. Although deaths appear to be running at a relatively low and fairly constant level fom 1550 to the mid 1580s, the series is disturbed by a catastrophic surge of mortality in the late 1550s and a plague outbreak of 1563. In the 'disturbed' quinquennia of the 1540s and early 1560s the birth/death ration is just under 1.3; in the late 1550s 0.813; in 1550-4 and 1565-84 the ratio was between 1.449 and 1.578. Between 1585 and 1640 (though it seems that big epidemics were less serious than in mid-century) the underlying trend in deaths began to rise more swiftly than that of births. The 'violent and frequent upsurges in ... deaths .. before 1565 look as if they may have been the last throes of a late-medieval regime of widespread epidemic mortality'.

    Fisher suggested flu as the main killer in the late 1550s. Anyone who has worked, as I have, with large series of probate data from the 1550s and 1560s knows the reality of the trends W. and S. discuss. The epidemics have been very useful to economic and architectural historians.

    The real question is: why did these epidemics suddenly disappear? Improvements in housing (chimneys, proper ceilings and partitions, etc.) would have reduced vulnerability of the rural population to respiratory infections and to infestation of houses by rats and their fleas, but we now know that these changes took place gradually over some two centuries; they are certainly not rapid enough to explain the change in mortality regime.

    There may have been an earlier change in the fertility regime. Razi's research suggested that the eventual effects of the 14th-c plagues on the demographic structure of Hales-owen precluded long term population surges by 1400 (in contrast with the immediate post-famine and post-1349 periods). Dyer's investigations into peasant family sizes on the bishopric of Worcester estates suggest an increase from just over 4 per household in the 15th century to over 5 by the earlier 16th. On the other hand, Poos's investigations of Essex tithing data, and Derek Keene's work on London, suggest population decline from 1300, with no long-term recovery from the trough until the 1560s. This is in considerable contrast with Guy Bois's results for Normandy.

Christopher Currie