Research Exemplars

From its beginnings in the study of the fertility and mortality of individuals, historical demography has evolved steadily toward the consideration of entire social structures and their dynamics in time and space. In this section, we consider two exemplars of research on opposite sides of this continuum between the micro- and macrodemographic focuses. The first example indicates how the study of individual records from village populations of the past can be made to yield surprisingly revealing evidence of individual behavior. The second illustrates the study of large populations as demographic systems where the impact of social and economic forces plays out in combination with marriage customs, rules of inheritance, and patterns of employment on a climatic and epidemiological backcloth.

Microdemography: Knodel and the German Family Genealogies

John Knodel, one of the members of the European fertility project who had analyzed the aggregate statistics for Germany during the 19th century (Knodel 1974), set out to explore the local features of fertility and mortality changes at the microlevel with the help of a remarkable source: village genealogies compiled by local German historians and genealogists on the basis of official statistics and church records and encompassing the vital events of all families that resided in a particular village. The data analyzed by Knodel comprise 14 villages and cover over 11,000 couples married between 1700 and 1899, and their 55,000 children (Knodel 1988: 20). They appear to be of high quality and completeness and allow remarkably detailed and sophisticated analysis on the basis of a large number of cases.

Knodel devotes a considerable part of his attention to issues of measurement and definition, looking for the best way of teasing out relevant sociological or biological indices to explain the findings. In addition to the measurement of fertility and child mortality that we shall discuss further below, his analyses pertain to such topics, among others, as the seasonality of vital events, maternal mortality, marriage, widowhood and remarriage, bridal pregnancies, prenuptial births and illegitimacy, along with their relevant differentials by region, social class, and religion. The approach focuses on individuals and families, and the social and economic structure of Germany is only treated in passing.

Infant and child mortality levels showed little evidence of a trend before 1900, but there were important differentials between the villages that are part of the sample. Infant mortality was highest in Bavarian villages and lowest in East Frisian villages, with Baden and Waldeck villages occupying an intermediary position. There was direct survey evidence, collected in the late 19th century to investigate mortality differentials, that women avoided breast-feeding their children in Bavaria and in other parts of southern Germany. This suggested that child feeding patterns provided an explanation of mortality differentials. Two analytical techniques confirmed such an explanation. First, the interval between confinements was considerably reduced in Waldeck and the East Frisian Villages when the first child had died during the first month of life, a circumstance that would interrupt suckling in populations that would commonly practice breastfeeding. In Bavaria, however, the reduction corresponded only to the expected duration of the nonsusceptible period after a birth (Knodel 1988: 547). A second confirmation of the role of infant feeding came with the use of a biometric technique devised by the French demographer Jean Bourgeois-Pichat in 1952 to isolate the effect of endogenous mortality (i.e., deaths linked to the lack of viability of the child and to the risks of delivery) from later mortality during the first year of life. The technique uses a mathematical scale to linearize the cumulated number of deaths by month; the intersect of the line with the vertical axis for age zero provides an estimate of endogenous mortality, while the slope measures exogenous mortality. For the German villages, endogenous mortality is rather uniform, but the points line up in the expected manner only for the East Frisian villages. For Waldeck, they deviate upward in a way that suggests excess mortality at the end of the first year, often associated with weaning after six to nine months. For Bavaria, on the contrary, the slope of the line is very steep and deviates downward; this would be a pattern in which mortality rises steeply during the early months of infancy but becomes more normal in later months (Knodel 1988: 52).

Knodel was initially drawn to the topic of breast-feeding by his concern for explaining differentials in natural fertility before the onset of the secular fertility transition. Bavaria, with its customary avoidance of nursing, had one of the highest fertility rates in Europe as well as very high mortality. Other factors affecting fecundity prior to the advent of birth control are less easy to identify, although there was a clear, and in some villages considerable, rise in fecundability between the mid-18th and the mid-19th century, perhaps as a result of changes in nutrition during that period (Knodel 1988: 285-286). This rise makes it more difficult to identify the time of the beginning of the fertility transition because it operates in the opposite direction of the effect of family limitation to maintain relatively stable levels of aggregate marital fertility (as measured for instance by the index Ig). Knodel uses other indexes to date the beginnings of family limitation: the Coale-Trussel m index of family limitation based on the age pattern of marital fertility; the age of mother at last birth; and parity progression probabilities. The analysis leads to the conclusion that the villages differed greatly in the date when family limitation appeared and that it became noticeable in some regions at the beginning of the 19th century (Knodel 1988: 317). There was little evidence of effective spacing of births (Knodel 1988: 348).

A recurrent theme in demography has been the relation between child mortality and reproductive behavior. The decline of fertility occurs generally earlier than that of child mortality, which remains high until the end of the century and is therefore unlikely to have been a factor in the fertility transition. As expected within a natural fertility framework, Knodel finds little evidence of replacement of a dead child before the decline of fertility. Toward the end of the period, he finds that the behavior of couples conforms to a parity-specific adaptation of reproductive behavior: those experiencing high mortality are less likely to use family limitation (Knodel 1988: 440-442).

Macrodemography: The Cambridge Group and the Social History of England

The descriptive work of Louis Henry and his colleagues and European epigones had shown that fertility in the past was high, that mortality was dominated by crises, that marriage was late and permanent celibacy frequent. Michael Flinn (1981) attempted a description of these elements as a ''demographic system.'' The great merit of the Cambridge Group was to place that system in the historical context of an economy and a society, The World We Have Lost to use the title of Peter Laslett's influential work of 1965. ''The fascination of work on population history stems from its central position in the fabric of social and economic life in the past'' (Wrigley and Schofield 1981: 483). The true monument in this enterprise was the reconstruction of the English population between 1541 and 1871, which has served as the sturdy trunk on which various other studies of the socioeconomic structure of England could be grafted. It is significant that the work of the Cambridge Group that involved family reconstitution (Wrigley et al. 1997) was published much later and has received less attention. The project was an example of team work, not only by the close association of Wrigley and Schofield with other historians and demographers at the Cambridge Group, but also by their reliance on local historians for the collection and analysis of parish data and the use that independent researchers have made of their data.

Wrigley wrote about Malthus, and edited his complete works. In his work with Roger Schofield (1981), he followed in the footsteps of Malthus in exploring the interaction of the demographic and the socioeconomic systems and in demonstrating the relevance of behavior at the individual and family levels to explain the great secular waves of aggregate population growth in England. In the concluding chapter of The Population History of England (fittingly subtitled ''a dynamic model of population and environment''), the authors present a schematic view of a homeostatic population equilibrium in the Malthusian tradition, first through the operation of the positive check of mortality, and second through that of the preventive check of marital restraint (Wrigley and Schofield 1981: 457-480). The central element in the model consists of a feedback loop where favorable food prices and the resulting real wages make it easier to contract marriages and hence increase fertility and population size. This in turn causes scarcity of food, increasing food prices and reducing real wages, thus reestablishing the equilibrium. Because the impact of nuptiality on fertility and population size takes a long time to work itself out, sizable lags are expected in the interaction of the variables. Moreover, there are secondary feedback loops that complicate the picture: through mortality in the early stage of the model corresponding to the Elizabethan period, and through the demand for labor outside of agriculture that becomes important during the stage corresponding to the industrial revolution. The examination of series of a realwage index and crude marriage rates suggest indeed that the two series are correlated, with a lag.

The work raises the question of the uniqueness of the English situation. In an article published two years after the monumental Population History of England, Wrig-ley (1983) resolved the following ''conundrums'': Why was the growth of the English population during the 18th century faster than that of other countries of western Europe, and accelerating? Was it due to a decline of mortality or to a rise in fertility? The reconstruction of the population suggested that the expectation of life at birth had increased from 32.4 years in the 1670s and 1680s to 38.7 in the 1810s and 1820s, while the gross reproduction rate increased from 1.98 to 2.94. The fertility increase contributes two and a half times as much as the decline of mortality to the increase in the growth rate. To account for the fertility rise, the main proximate determinant was nuptiality.

The fundamental role played by nuptiality (both the age at marriage and the proportion never marrying) is indeed the most important finding, and it served as a unifying principle for many streams of research on the population of England and, consequently, of Europe, from Hajnal's European marriage pattern to Laslett's household constancy over time. It lies smack in the Malthusian tradition, and its focus is on secular changes.

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