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9-08-2015, 18:16

Population growth

What caused the rise in food prices in the eighteenth century? Contemporaries often blamed “hoarders and speculators,” and killed individuals suspected of withholding grain or fl our from the market. Bad harvests and diffi culties in getting large amounts of grain from one place to another were more signifi cant factors than the actions of real or imagined speculators, however. Even more important was a steady growth in population, especially after mid-century. The slow growth of the European population in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – an increase of about 20 percent over each century – turned sharply upward, with the population of Europe as a whole nearly doubling from 1750 to 1850. As in the sixteenth century, more people meant a greater demand for food, and thus higher prices (see fi gure 31). This explanation only leads to a second question: why did the population go up? Historical demographers have analyzed all kinds of records to determine the reasons for this dramatic upsurge. They studied age at marriage, wondering if people were marrying earlier, which in an era before effective birth control meant they were having more children. This was true in a few places, such as England, where in many areas there were more opportunities for rural women to gain paid employment at a young age and so start saving money for dowries earlier. England experienced the fastest demographic growth, with its population tripling, from 5.8 million in 1750 to 16.6 million in 1850. In both England and Europe as a whole, however, declining death rates were more important than rising birth rates as a cause of population increase. Why death rates went down – thus making life expectancy go up – is a complicated question, and historians point to a number of interrelated factors. Though public health measures such as improving the quality of the water supply and building sewer systems for waste were less effective than their builders hoped, they did help reduce outbreaks of typhoid fever, dysentery, and other intestinal diseases. (Intestinal diseases are the seventh leading cause of death worldwide today, mostly in parts of the world that continue to lack clean water or adequate sewers.) Draining swamps and marshes reduced the fl y and mosquito population, which lessened outbreaks of malaria. Contagious diseases tend to hit infants and children particularly hard, so that the slight reduction in their occurrence decreased infant and child mortality faster than the mortality of adults. Improved child-rearing practices, including longer nursing and more frequent changes in clothing, may have also lessened child mortality. Most contagious diseases grew only slowly less virulent, but the bubonic plague disappeared from western and central Europe in the eighteenth century. There were serious plague epidemics throughout the seventeenth century, including a devastating outbreak in London in 1665 to 1666 that may have killed more than 100,000 people. An outbreak in southern France also killed a similar number in 1721, but this was the last appearance of the plague west of the Ottoman Empire. The cordons sanitaires that had fi rst been set up around uninfected cities were extended to whole regions. Ships traveling from Syria or the Ottoman Empire were forced to wait before unloading cargo or passengers, and the border between Ottoman and Habsburg territories along the Danube was patrolled with an eye to disease control. Such quarantine measures could not be foolproof, of course, given the amount of trade and smuggling, but they helped. Changes in building styles, including wider streets and housing made of brick, stone, or other sturdy materials that were more diffi cult for rats and other vermin to enter, may have also helped end the plague and lessen other contagious diseases. In London, 80 percent of the city was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, just a few months after the plague had died down. Many residents interpreted the conjunction of the two events as a clear sign of God’s wrath, but the fi re allowed the city to be rebuilt in a slightly less crowded pattern. Some medical historians have suggested that changes in the nature of the rat population or in rats’ immunity to the disease may also have played a role in ending the plague in western Europe. Epidemiologists are not sure why similar changes did not have the same impact in eastern Europe and the Near East, however, so the disappearance of the plague remains somewhat of a mystery. Many contagious diseases, including diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and measles, remained common, sometimes fl aring up into epidemics that killed thousands of people. Smallpox proved to be the most deadly of the European diseases carried to the New World, and remained a killer in Europe throughout the eighteenth century; the inoculation procedures discussed in chapter 8 were limited to some parts of the Ottoman Empire and England, and had little impact on the population of Europe as a whole. Epidemic typhus, a disease spread by fl eas, lice, ticks, and mites, actually increased in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in crowded cities and among war refugees. In addition to a slow decrease in the rates of death from contagious diseases, new foods and changes in eating patterns may also have increased longevity. Ever larger fi shing fl eets brought back thousands of tons of fi sh from the Grand Banks of the Atlantic, which was sold fresh, pickled, salted, and smoked, increasing the amount of protein in people’s diets. More farm animals meant more meat, especially in northern Europe, which was already one of the most carnivorous parts of the world. Climatic conditions improved slightly after a cooling trend in the seventeenth century, which brought increases in grain production and fewer disastrous harvests. Increased planting of vegetables, including spinach, asparagus, lettuce, artichokes, peas, and green beans, helped to vary and enrich people’s diets. Sunfl owers, brought by the Spanish from South America, joined olives in southern Europe as a source of cooking oil, and corn (maize), also brought from Mexico, became popular in Spain, Italy, and the Balkans. During the seventeenth century, Europeans recognized that the tomato, another New World plant, was not deadly, and began planting it as a food crop as well as a garden ornamental. Suspicion of the tomato came in part because of its relationship to deadly nightshade, a highly poisonous plant, and the most important New World foodstuff was another relative of nightshade, the potato. Potatoes originated in the Andes, and Spanish sailors carried – and ate – them on their way back to Europe. There they met great disdain. Potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible and grew underground, so they were seen as vaguely demonic, and people hated the way they tasted. Potatoes, like turnips, were fi ne for animals (and slaves in the New World), but not people in Europe. This lack of interest changed slowly when people realized they could be grown on extremely poor soil and were easy to harvest and store; a fi eld planted with potatoes could feed two or three times the number of people that could be fed by the same fi eld planted with grain. By the late seventeenth century, potatoes were an important crop in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Ireland, where they fed both animals and people. Agricultural historians estimate that, by 1800, the Irish diet included an average of ten potatoes per person per day, or 80 percent of people’s caloric intake, not including the milk, cheese, and meat that came from animals fed on potatoes. The rulers of Prussia, especially Frederick the Great, recognized potatoes would grow equally well in the cool summers and sandy soil of Prussia, and ordered farmers to plant them, as did the kings of Sweden and Norway. The War of the Bavarian Succession in 1778–9, between Prussia and Austria, has been nicknamed the “Potato War” because the primary tactic involved gaining the food supply of the opposite side rather than actual battles, and Prussian troops spent their time harvesting potatoes. Antoine-Auguste Parmentier (1737–1813), a French army doctor and agronomist who had been imprisoned by the Prussians during the Seven Years War, promoted potato cultivation in France, persuading Marie Antoinette, so the story goes, to wear potato fl owers in her hair and inviting local notables to all-potato dinners. (There are several soups and side dishes named in his honor, all containing potatoes.) Potatoes are actually more nutritious than grain because they have higher vitamin and mineral content. The potato crop is also more reliable year to year, as it is less likely to be destroyed by hail, drought, or unexpected early frosts. (Like grain, potatoes are subject to blight; the worst blight was in the 1840s, which destroyed the crops in many European countries, most famously in Ireland, where more than a million people died of famine and disease, and a quarter of a million emigrated.) The harvest is thus more regular year to year, which evens out the available food supply. Changes in the nature of warfare may also have reduced death rates. The devastation of the Thirty Years War led military and political leaders to put more emphasis on provisioning their troops, which lessened the amount of food and other supplies that armies would confi scate from the countryside through which they moved. Armies were larger in the eighteenth century and their weapons were deadlier, but they were more separated from the civilian population, so that their impact in terms of the spread of disease and the intentional or accidental killing of civilians was smaller. Mass migrations because of warfare were fewer in the eighteenth century than earlier – and non-existent in Britain, which fought no major wars on its own territory – which meant fewer abandoned fi elds and years in which nothing was planted. Historians debate exactly which of these factors – more and different food, better transport, more land under cultivation, fewer epidemics, improving public health measures, different patterns of warfare – was the most important, but there is no debate about the actual trends. Mortality crises, in which death rates shot up for weeks, months, or years because of famine, disease, or war, decreased in their intensity, so that the difference between maximum and minimum death rates decreased. Life expectancy increased slowly and steadily, from twenty-eight to thirty-four in France during the period 1750 to 1850, thirty-seven to forty in England, and thirty-seven to forty-three in Sweden.

METHODS AND ANALYSIS 12 The demographic transition model

The dramatic growth in population that began in the early modern period was not limited to Europe, of course. A graph of the world’s population would be very similar in shape to that shown in fi gure 31 for Europe, although the dates would be slightly different. Historical demographers have found that population growth around the world follows a pattern they term the “demographic transition.” Initially birth rates and death rates are both high, so that there is equilibrium (Stage 1 on the graph). Then death rates go down steeply, generally as a result of public health measures, and there is a rapid rise in population (Stage 2). Then some decades or even centuries later, birth rates begin to decline as a result of delayed marriage, contraception, and other changes in sexual practices, and population increase slows (Stage 3). Finally both birth and death rates level off at a much lower level than they were before the transition, and there is equilibrium again (Stage 4). In Europe, the demographic transition occurred fi rst in northern and western Europe and then in eastern and southern Europe. It began in much of the developing world only in the twentieth century with the spread of vaccines, antibiotics, and DDT spraying. Toward the end of the twentieth century, birth rates in some countries of Europe (and a few other countries around the world, such as Japan) had declined so much that they were below death rates. When this happens, the average age of the population begins to go up, and population levels can only be maintained through immigration. Declining death rates had other effects besides increasing the total population. They gradually regularized the process of life, so that death became associated with aging, rather than being something that occurred randomly. Infant and child mortality slowly declined, so that the most perilous years of life – the period in which the greatest percentage of the population died – were no longer the fi rst fi ve. Even more dramatic was a decrease in mortality among older children and adolescents. In 1750, a ten-year-old child in France had a one in four chance of dying before his or her mother; by 1850 this had declined signifi cantly (and today it is about one in sixty). Most people aware of the growing population in the eighteenth century saw this as a cause for celebration. Mercantilists regarded it as an economic plus because more people meant both more workers and more consumers. The Physiocrats, a group of French economists in the middle of the eighteenth century, opposed the mercantalists’ stress on trade, and emphasized agriculture as the source of all wealth. They thought that all restrictions on agriculture, including price controls and tariffs, diminished national wealth and sickened the body politic just as blockages and clots sickened a human body; they popularized the phrase laissez-faire (“leave alone”). But the Physiocrats too saw an increase in the rural population as largely benefi cial, because it offered the possibility of increasing agricultural surplus, the true source of any nation’s prosperity. They did worry that the growth in population might outstrip any surplus, however, an idea that was stated even more strongly by the English economist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). In Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Malthus argued that population increases geometrically while food supply increases arithmetically, so that population will always outstrip food supply. He looked to history as well as mathematical models for his proof, noting the many times that famine, disease, and war had served as a check on population growth. He was not sure when European society would reach what later economists called the “Malthusian limit” and suffer a catastrophic collapse, but he was sure it would happen, unless moral restraint or “vice” (by which Malthus meant contraception) prevented it.

 

 

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