Why Mr Fax got it wrong

Roy Porter

  • English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580-1837 by E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Davies
    Cambridge, 657 pp, £60.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 521 59015 9
  • The Savage Wars of Peace: England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap by Alan Macfarlane
    Blackwell, 427 pp, £45.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 631 18117 2

Published two hundred years ago this year, An Essay on the Principle of Population made the Rev. Thomas Robert malthus into the man of the moment. Malthus’s principle – that population inevitably outruns food resources – was heralded by some as the decisive scientific refutation of the mad perfectibilist schemes of the French Revolutionaries and their English confrères like William Godwin, and damned by others as hardheartedness incarnate. Marie Antoinette had just told the poor to go and eat cake: Malthus trumped her, apparently sentencing them to death by starvation – and all on the strength of the ‘facts’. No wonder Thomas Love Peacock satirised him in Melincourt as ‘Mr Fax’, although we owe the ultimate put-down to William Cobbett: ‘I call you Parson.’

The war of words died down, but Malthus did not go away. His vision of nature as ceaseless struggle became a major inspiration for Darwin’s theory of natural selection (Darwin described it as ‘the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms’). And he was to be adopted as the founding father of population studies: the ‘Malthusian trap’ became for demography what the double helix is for genetics. Whenever numbers increased too fast, the positive checks of war, famine and epidemic would make their cull.

This grim model long dominated scholarly thinking on the population history of pre-industrial Europe. Rural society was assumed to have had an extremely high birth-rate, which seemed to make sense, since children were economically useful, while illiterate peasants could not have known about birth control. Hence – since production could never keep up with reproduction – it followed that such societies must have suffered a correspondingly high death-rate. And, sure enough, from the Black Death onwards, Europe had been pestilence-ridden; and war had been rife. France, a relatively advanced country, had undergone decimating famines well into the 18th century. Yet this Malthusian trap had finally been sprung: from the beginning of the 19th century the major Western societies had sustained the rising populations without which industrialisation would have been unthinkable.

How had the great escape come about? Explanations typically looked to a relaxation in the regime of death. Exactly how or why people had stopped dying in such numbers no one knew, but the explanation was bound to lie in the death-rate, since the Malthusian model presumed that the birth-rate was always close to its ceiling.

For the last thirty years, this population model has been under fire. One attack came from the historical demographers, analysing parish registers with the aid of computers. Social historians, too, have made their contribution, probing the structure and dynamics of traditional village society, and the behavioural codes it adopted in the matter of sex, marriage, inheritance and the family. While much of the spadework was done by French scholars, Peter Laslett’s The World we Have Lost (1965) was a penetrating attempt to revise the English picture.

Authoritative documentation of this new way of thinking came with Tony Wrigley and Roger Schofield’s The Population History of England (1981), a product of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. Grounding their national projections on a comprehensive scrutiny of the registers of over four hundred parishes, Wrigley and Schofield established for the first time reliable and precise aggregates of deaths, births and the numbers of those alive at any given time between 1541, just after the Henrician Act requiring the keeping of parish registers, and the coming of civil registration at the dawn of the Victorian age.

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