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.

By juxtaposing those figures against other variables – principally, economic data such as wages, food prices and inflation rates – they proposed an interpretation of the dynamics of population change which has since won almost universal acceptance. Pace the old Malthusian model, Early Modern English society (and, to a lesser degree, other Western European societies) had only a moderately high birth-rate – in other words, one far lower than the possible biological maximum, or that commonly found in the Third World today. It also had a correspondingly middling mortality rate. This rough equilibrium was maintained less as a result of Malthusian calamity than thanks to another kind of check, which Malthus emphasised in subsequent editions of his Essay: deferred marriage.

This, Wrigley and Schofield held, was the basic population regulator in pre-industrial England. By world standards, past and present, the English customarily married very late: in 1700, women commonly at around twenty-five, and men some years later still. This delay served as an effective fertility curb. Pursuing their investigations of nuptiality, Wrigley and Schofield show that the source of the dramatic population rise from about 1750 lay in a change in marital habits. People began marrying earlier, having children earlier, and having them over a longer time-span: the answer, in other words, lay in fertility, not primarily in mortality.

For those, like myself, who are neither demographers nor statisticians, The Population History of England has assumed scriptural status over the last fifteen years: an account of the facts of life in that world we have lost. In the Introduction, Wrigley and Schofield announced that a further volume was on its way, to be based on even more sophisticated demographic techniques. The Population History of England had been a colossal counting exercise – totting up aggregates and then making inferences as to the social and sexual events they marked. The new work, by contrast, was to draw on a method known as ‘family reconstitution’, pioneered by the French scholar, Louis Henry.

Simply put, family reconstitution aims to exploit to the full the fact that parish registers record baptisms, marriages and burials. Where such registers have been conscientiously kept, and if a sufficient percentage of parishioners passed all their lives in their native parish, it should be possible, Henry concluded, to plot precisely when identifiable individuals got married, when their children came along, and when they died: in other words, one could move from mere aggregates to a reconstruction of the demographically significant moments in the lives of actual people. Disaggregating the trends, one could work out whether particular cohorts of individuals were marrying earlier or later, were having their children more bunched up or more spaced out, were giving birth more often, and so forth.

The sequel to Wrigley and Schofield’s original volume has now appeared. English Population History from Family Reconstitution is six hundred and fifty pages long and stuffed with graphs and tables; a fine tribute to the skills and stamina, as well as the historical intelligence, of the Cambridge Group. Much of it is given over to a thorough explanation of the raw materials used and the methodologies painstakingly devised to analyse them (computer inputting alone involved 15 million keystrokes). Wrigley et al nuke no bones about the imperfections of this information. Since it would have required an army of historians to gut all ten thousand English parish registers, the team has limited itself to 24. These were obviously chosen because they were well kept, but even they have their lacunae. Parish records in any case tell only about baptisms, marriages and burials, not about birth, copulation and death. And they provide information only about Anglicans, not the whole nation. Faced with these and other defects in the data, Wrigley and Co. have devised ways of massaging the figures: with due candour they tell us about the ‘dummy births’ they have inserted, and the multipliers they have used. Misgivings about the reliability and representativeness of the data are bound, however, to remain. For one thing, almost all the parishes investigated were villages or small towns. No Londoners, Bristolians or Brummies appear in these pages. Can we be fully confident that, when it came to sex and marriage, behaviour in the Great Wen was much the same as in Little Wallop?

Then there is the problem that family reconstitution can yield its full harvest only when individuals have stayed put in the same parish and so can be said to have been constantly ‘under observation’. But England was a mobile society, and we lose sight of those who moved out of a parish, just as we gain sight, belatedly and perhaps briefly and confusingly, of those who moved in. What if ‘movers’ were different from ‘stayers’? Might they have been footloose and fancy-free? Perhaps they married earlier (being more enterprising) – or left a trail of women holding the baby. Bastards are in any case a thorn in the flesh of family reconstitution, since with the illegitimate we lack the all-important marriage date for the mother; worse still, bastards dying before baptism generally left no mark in the records at all. Wrigley and Co. continually reassure us that the problems arising from such circumstances have been allowed for, but not everyone will be so sanguine. Still, they have given us the best body of data we are ever likely to see – indeed, they tell us, the most complete and longest demographic series reconstructable for any European nation.

So what does English Population History demonstrate? It comes more as a relief than a let-down that, with a few minor exceptions, its findings bear out the conclusions of the earlier volume. That can hardly be a surprise, given that both draw on much the same raw data and employ broadly similar avenues of approach. On topic after topic, great and small, the new material is systematically juxtaposed against the earlier findings. For instance, the old aggregative methods had revealed a disproportionate number of deaths in late winter and spring, and fewer in high summer. The family reconstitutions confirm this. On nuptiality, too, in the book’s own words, ‘the main findings will occasion little surprise.’

Not all is familiar or predictable, however. The finer texture of the information, and the precision of the manipulations, permit some new elucidations. For example, Wrigley and Schofield had detected a noteworthy dip in the death-rate from around the 1730s. This is borne out by the new book, although it is now clear that it did not apply equally among all age groups, but to adults alone: rates of neonatal and infant mortality were not falling at all – a morbidity puzzle which is left to subsequent researchers to solve. No attempt is made to disguise the fact that dramatically new conclusions are not being advanced – rather the authors stress that the value of this exercise lies in serving as a double check; it is a work of confirmation and consolidation.

One cannot help feeling twinges of disappointment about this. The Conclusion tells us of an initial hope that the family reconstitution method would throw light on the interplay of demographic, economic and social forces in specific communities: was Hodge down in Devon marrying earlier than his dad because his prospects were brightening, because customary village constraints were weakening, or because he didn’t give a damn (Malthus’s nightmare), since the Poor Law would in any case keep him? We are told, however, that, after all, there was no time or room for such explorations. We are also told, at numerous points, that (alas!) limitations of space preclude full discussion of the significance of some titbit of demographic behaviour. All such matters will have to be postponed – getting the figures straight must take priority, and as yet ‘the surface has hardly been scratched.’ The trouble is that we were told the same fifteen years ago.

Luckily, those who are impatient to see the dry bones live do not have to wait for a further instalment from this source. Another Cambridge historian (or historian-anthropologist) has no such qualms about theorising about the fates of whole countries – indeed continents. Alan Macfarlane is well known for his bold theories about the forces shaping past societies, already advanced in such books as The Origins of English Individualism (1978) and Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction, 1300-1840 (1986), to say nothing of pioneering studies of Nepal.

The Savage Wars of peace in effect takes up the challenge of interpreting the English demographic pattern as established by Wrigley and Co. But it is far more besides, because Macfarlane sets his study in the wider context of his pet theme of ‘English exceptionalism’ – and now of ‘Japanese exceptionalism’, too. How, he asks, does demographic behaviour, and the social constraints which shape it, explain why it was England which became the first industrial society? And why does the emergence of industrial society in Japan bear so many resemblances to the path taken by England?

Macfarlane approaches these key questions from various angles. The fact that both are offshore islands is held to be of cardinal importance – geographical good fortune enabled both nations to develop along lines quite distinct from the adjacent mainland. Each, moreover, found a way of its own of escaping from the Malthusian trap which for so long blighted the growth prospects of much of Europe and equally of China, where population pressures have perennially been dire.

Macfarlane’s explanation of the English situation is wholly consistent with the Cambridge Group’s findings. From early times England enjoyed a lowish birth-rate and a lowish death-rate. Why? Because a precocious market society had evolved, which became accustomed to adjusting family size to economic opportunities and social slots – in other words, the English got used to regarding children as commodities with a market value.

As for Japan, its island status enabled it to escape war and epidemics, while highly efficient farming helped keep famine at bay. Above all, the Japanese perfected the use of preventative checks. They cultivated fertility control, not (as in England) by late marriage but by the use of protracted breast-feeding, with all its contraceptive effects, by the effective employment of abortion and even infanticide, and perhaps by the early termination of marital sexual relations. Macfarlane sets these features of Japanese society in the context of its strict system of social regulation, in a way which affords illuminating comparisons with England. He offers an eye-opening account of adoption customs, sexual mores, gender roles, hygiene and public health practices and, not least, explains Japan’s success in creating a model of disciplined agricultural production out of a barren terrain.

Britain and Japan attained similar goals, via somewhat different routes. The upshot was that when economic opportunities offered themselves in England towards the end of the 18th century, the nation had already accumulated ample capital – it had enjoyed capital growth without demographic growth – and was ready to embark on a population take-off which escaped any Malthusian check. A century later, when industrialisation was imported from abroad, Meiji Japan, too, was in a position to launch itself into industrial growth.

Each of these books in its way presents a compelling reading of the lost world which gave birth to our own. Each of them implies also that ‘Population Malthus’ got it right: not the apocalyptic Parson, who preached famine and pestilence, but the astute observer of parish life.