European Population Growth 1500–1800

The population of Europe grew slowly, but steadily, from ancient times until the middle of the fourteenth century. Then, between 1347 and 1351, the entire continent was ravaged by the Black Death. Recovery took, on average, between 100 and 150 years, which meant that the previous rate of population growth was resumed by the end of the fifteenth century. The period between 1500 and 1600 saw a steady increase in the population of most countries, which was then held back, in the seventeenth century, by an unusually harsh combination of plague, war and famine. During the eighteenth century there was another upward swing in the growth rate, and Europe's population almost doubled between 1700 and 1800; in this can be seen the very beginning of the population explosion of modern times. This chapter will outline some of the reasons which have been suggested for these fluctuations, although it should be emphasized that most are still tentative and open to modification in the light of future research. The final section will consider some of the effects of these changes on European economic and political developments.

The Black Death swept through a continent which was totally unprepared for its coming. The last references made by sources in Christian countries to bubonic plague had been in AD 767.1 For about six hundred years, therefore, Europe had been free from plague; this offers one explanation for the steady increase of population through most of the Middle Ages. Then, during the 1340s, the Black Death was brought from the Far East along the Mongol caravan routes, moving through the Mediterranean countries into Northern Europe, and eventually returning to Asia. It was transmitted in Europe by the black rat (rattus rattus), which acted as host to the plague bacillus (pasteurella pestis). The ground had already been well prepared by the spread of this rodent from the Mediterranean world, where it had long been established, to the northern territories, largely as a result of increased commercial contacts from the late thirteenth century onwards. Between them, the three types of plague, bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic, reduced Europe's population by between 30 and 50 per cent. England, for example, possessed 2.1 m. inhabitants in 1400, only half the figure of 1348.2

Pandemics on this scale never occurred again, and so a gradual return to the previous pattern of population growth was inevitable. On the whole, most of Europe had made good the population losses by the early decades of the sixteenth century, and was able to sustain a slow but steady growth for the next hundred years. England, for example, had 4.1 m. inhabitants in 1570 and 4.8 m. in 1600.3 Switzerland grew from 0.8 m. in 1500 to 1.0 m. in 1600; France from 16.4 m. in 1500 to 18.5 m. in 1600; and Germany, in the same period, from 12.0 m. to 15.0 m. The European total, 81.8 m. in 1500, had reached 104.7 m. by 1600.4 The most obvious changes occurred in the population of the cities. In 1500 only five urban centres had 100,000 or more inhabitants: Constantinople, Naples, Venice, Milan and Paris. By 1600 the number probably stood at thirteen, while Milan now had 180,000 inhabitants and Paris 200,000.5

Yet the population increase was not, at this stage, spectacular, for serious problems remained. Although the plague never again affected the whole continent at once, it frequently revisited individual countries and cities; Venice, for example, lost 30 per cent of her inhabitants between 1575 and 1577,1 despite the existence since 1485 of a 40-day (quarantine) regulation on all ships entering her harbour. Moreover, several new diseases appeared during the sixteenth century, including syphilis from America and typhus from the East. It is true that bad harvests were less common than they had been in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. There were still, however, many years of severe shortage which caused extensive malnutrition and loosened resistance to all infectious diseases. On the whole, Europeans were still vulnerable to sudden catastrophe.

This became particularly apparent between 1600 and 1700. The more fortunate countries like England, France and the Netherlands, sustained a continued increase, but others, including Spain and the German states, suffered considerable losses. The seventeenth century experienced, in more intensive form than the sixteenth, the three major checks on population growth: plague, war and famine.

Bubonic plague now struck Europe more savagely than at any time since the Black Death. Italy suffered severely in 1630–1, when about 30 per cent of the urban population of Piedmont, Lombardy and Venetia died, and in 1656–7, when central and southern Italy were similarly affected.7London's plague epidemics of 1603, 1625, 1636, 1637, the 1640s, and 1665, produced a total of 170,000 deaths, while Spain suffered major outbreaks between 1596–1602, 1648–52 and 1677–85,1 which did more than anything else to drag her population down by 25 per cent in the seventeenth century.6 The incidence of plague was irregular and unpredictable. It has been suggested that a large and permanent population of burrowing rodents had become infected by the late Middle Ages, in the Russian steppes,1 providing a constant source of carriers. Increased seaborne commerce and extensive military campaigns in Central Europe did the rest.

Warfare by itself rarely acts as a decisive check on population growth. But, as an agent for spreading disease and bringing famine, it can have deadly regional effects. The Thirty Years’ War (1618– 48) reduced the population of Germany from an estimated 21 m. to 13.5 m., and Bohemia's from 3 m. to 0.8 m.7 The main factors were the spread of plague, typhus, dysentery and other diseases by the many rampaging armies, and the neglect of agriculture which caused a considerable decline in harvest yields. Poland experienced similar problems when she became the battlefield for the armies of Brandenburg, Sweden, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Between 1578 and 1662, for example, her population slumped from 3.2 m. to 2.25m.6

Famine re-established itself as a major threat in the seventeenth century, and its impact on areas devastated by war or ravaged by plague can well be imagined. Even the most powerful state of Europe was adversely affected. During the second half of the century, France experienced severe hunger in 164652, 1660–2, 1674–5, 1679 and 1693–4,6 while bad harvests after 1700 produced starvation on an unprecedented scale, resulting in a decline in population from 21 m. in 1700 to 18 m. in 1715.8 It was fortunate, indeed, for France that the famine and wars of the last years of Louis XIV's reign were not accompanied by plague.

During the first half of the eighteenth century Europe reverted to the pattern of the sixteenth century. A slow increase was made possible by a slight improvement in ecological conditions. The most beneficial change was undoubtedly the gradual disappearance of the plague in Western Europe, although it continued as an unwelcome visitor in Poland and Russia. Several reasons have been advanced for the decline of this menace. One is that the black rat was gradually replaced after 1600 by the brown rat. Although the newcomer was no less vulnerable to plague fleas, it harboured a flea which was less deadly as a plague vector than that of the black rat.9 The human contribution to the elimination of plague was the use of brick and tiles, rather than wood and thatch, in the construction of houses, which kept rats away from people to a greater extent. It is no coincidence, therefore, that after the Great fire of 1666 and the subsequent rebuilding programme, London never experienced another plague epidemic. The plague did not disappear at once from Western Europe, for there were recurrences in the Mediterranean area, as for example in Marseilles in 1720. Its decrease was, however, sufficiently rapid to enable the transfer of attention and concern to the other complaints like smallpox and typhus.

From the mid–eighteenth century the population growth accelerated in most countries. Spain increased from 8.0 m. in 1756 to 104 m. in 1787, and England from 6.5 m. in 1750 to 9.6 m. in 1800.8 Europe as a whole progressed from 118 m. in 1700 to 140 m. in 1750 and 187 m. in 1800.10Again, the pattern varied, with England assuming a much faster rate than France, whose annual increase had passed its peak. There is little doubt, however, that most countries now experienced the beginning of their population explosion. The main reason was probably an increase in fertility (the number of births), and a less savage rate of mortality, for which the following explanation is usually given. In times of plague and famine, marriages had been less frequent than in normal years. Once the crisis had passed, marriages, and consequently births, rapidly increased, although subsequent disasters would cull the population and cancel the sudden growth. As catastrophes become less common in the first half of the eighteenth century than they had been in the seventeenth, marriages were less likely to be deferred and the birth rate climbed steadily by mid–century. This time, the culling process was much less severe than it had been in the past, and the new adult population was substantially larger. This greatly increased the fertility rate for the next twenty years, and the process was repeated. The one exception to this rapid increase seems to have been France, where primitive forms of birth control were now being practised.

The new population was sustained by an increase in food supplies, for which three reasons have been advanced. The first was another slight change in the climate. This became less harsh after the terrible winter of 1708–9, and fewer harvests were ruined as a result. The second was the onset of the agrarian revolution in Britain and its subsequent spread to other parts of Europe, making crop rotation more scientific and resulting in larger yields. The third was the greater exploitation of vegetables of American origin, including maize, the potato, the pumpkin and various types of bean.11Although these vegetables had been introduced into Europe in the sixteenth century, it had taken nearly two hundred years to overcome the strong initial resistance to their partial replacement of traditional European staple crops.

Two examples of the changes brought by population growth to the economic life of Europe can be cited. The first was the increased pressure on land and foodstuffs, which combined with the influx of American bullion into Europe to create the Price Rise. The price index, taken as 100 in 1471–2, grew slowly to 111.5 (1473–86) and fell slightly to 106–6 (1487–1514), before soaring to 161–6 (1515–54), 265.2 (1555–75) and 627.5 (1590–8).12 The second was a basic change in the pattern of trade in the late sixteenth century. The countries of Southern Europe, including Spain, were no longer able to feed their growing populations and became dependent on other sources of grain supply. In acting as middlemen, bringing grain from the surplus–producing areas of Northern Europe to the needy states of the Mediterranean, the Dutch established themselves as Europe's major traders, building up a merchant fleet which was larger than those of all other European countries combined.

Population growth and contraction were closely related to the political fortunes of many European states. Spain in the sixteenth century was a major European power partly because she had a healthy rate of population growth, while her decline in the seventeenth century was undoubtedly connected with a serious population contraction due largely to plague. France replaced Spain as the greatest power on the Continent by the middle of the century and managed to sustain a slight population growth, with the exception of the period 1700–15. England's political and military importance had greatly increased by 1700, and during the eighteenth century she became one of the world's superpowers. This would have been impossible had her population not increased substantially (from 4.8 m. in 16003 to 6.5 m. in 1750 and 9.6 m. in 1800).8 Russia, comparatively insignificant for much of the seventeenth century, became an integral part of the diplomatic scene in eighteenth–century Europe, and gained more than any other state from the numerous wars of the period. Her population, a mere 15.5 m. in 1600, had struggled upwards to 17.5 m. by 17004and, partly because of natural increase and partly thanks to territorial acquisitions, had risen to 27 m. by 1780.9 Sweden, with a tiny population in the seventeenth century, could not sustain herself as a major power at a time when armies were growing ever larger in size, and her decline was sealed by an estimated loss of 30 per cent of her male population13 in the struggle with Russia between 1700 and 1721. Prussia had the similar disadvantage of a small total population, but the Hohenzollern dynasty managed to remedy this and make Prussia a major power in the eighteenth century by developing a bureaucracy geared to maintaining the army. Prussian militarism was, therefore, partly the outcome of a population deficiency.

It has been suggested that the upward movement of population had some influence on the development of the Enlightenment, which originated in England in the late seventeenth century and spread to France in the eighteenth. The philosophers’ belief in the attainability of the perfect human society must have been encouraged by the reduction of natural calamities soon after 1700. Condorcet, Turgot and Goodwin all emphasized that human progress in the future would encompass the arts, sciences and political institutions, and that a steady population growth would be essential for a healthy society. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the notion of crisis through overpopulation crept into European thought. By 1798 the idealistic optimism of Condorcet and Mercier was replaced by the warnings of Malthus that the relationship between people and resources would eventually reach a critical stage. Indeed, his assertion that resources increase only by arithmetical progression while population increases by geometrical progression has been widely held down to the present day.

European population changes should not be seen in total isolation from those in other parts of the world. Europe was continuously affected by diseases emanating from Asia, and she herself had the most terrible impact on the virgin continent of America, which had been cut off for millennia from any extensive contact with the rest of the world. As Spain acquired colonies and spread her cultural and religious influences, she also transmitted disease on a massive scale. The Conquistadores infected thriving Indian civilizations in Mexico and the Andes with smallpox and other diseases previously unknown to the American continent. As a result, Cortes was able to conquer Mexico with six hundred men, while Pizarro captured Peru with even fewer. Other adventurers hacked their way into the interior, spreading measles, typhus and influenza, and wiping out their opponents. The demographic effect was appalling. Recent estimates place the American Indian population on the eve of the Spanish Conquest at 100 m.,14 with the Andes and Mexico possessing about 25 to 30 m. each. By 1568 the population of central Mexico had been reduced to 3 m. and, by 1620, to 1.6 m.14 A century after the Conquest the Indian population had declined in many areas by 95 per cent, a loss far worse than that caused in Europe by the Black Death. It is hardly surprising that the Spaniards, who had some natural immunity acquired from continuous contact with the diseases in Europe, should have dominated Central and South America so effectively. As they opened up and exploited the continent's resources, however, they became increasingly concerned about the declining pool of labour, and so resorted to importing negroes from West Africa. The slave trade, to which most maritime countries in Europe (particularly Britain) eventually contributed, caused another massive upheaval; between 30 and 40 m. people had been removed from their homeland by the nineteenth century,15 in what must have been the greatest forced population movement in history.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!