|English Lee Family c. 1800 C.E.|
Population history is one of the most interesting and yet unexplored aspect of human history. Although demographic information is often provided in standard text books; little use is made of such things in terms of explaining historical phenomena.
A classic example is the remarkable surge in the population of England that began in the late 17th century, and that proceeded with only a few hiccups for a little over 2 centuries. In fact it can be argued that the population surge in fact began earlier at around 1600 C.E. This is in fact debatable given that the English population experienced significant setbacks during this time.
Just why is this important? Well because increased population growth rates provided England with the human “material”: so to speak necessary to engage in colonial expansion and further to engage in industrial and commercial expansion. In effect it helped to power the growth of England into a great power.
Of course the argument can be made that English population growth was caused by commercial, industrial expansion etc. This is of course a typical chicken and egg question. Frankly there is no way right now to resolve the question but in any case population growth indisputably was part of the process of the expansion of England into a great power and helped to keep her there. In other words population growth was part of the feedback mechanism even if it was not the originating “cause” that fuelled growth.
To see this clearly just imagine the thought experiment of England trying to maintain its status has a great power with a lower growth rate. The bottom line is that that would in all likelihood have proven impossible. The classic example is the Dutch Republic. With only c. 2 million people and by 1650 population growth ceasing and then stagnating. The Dutch Republic gradually slipped out of the ranks of European great powers. The society in many respects stagnated along with the economy. In other words the Dutch lacked the numbers to become a truly great power and this is why their status as such lasted less than a century.1
But perhaps the biggest indication of the importance of population growth in terms of providing the fuel for great power status is France. Not so much because population growth fuelled France's rise to great power status but because the slowdown in the growth of the French population growth rate had a cascade of effects that diminished Frances status has a great power. This does not mean that France ceased to be a great power. It did not. It meant that France’s relative status diminished.
Thus in 1600 France was by far the most populous state in Europe. Only The Ottoman Empire was a real rival and its population only exceeded France if you include the empire’s Asiatic and African possessions. The only potential rival in Europe was the Holy Roman Empire, and that conglomerate of disunited, states would only be a threat if united under firm centralized control. This of course made keeping the Empire disunited an aim of French policy. Spain was a rival, but the population of Spain was less than half that of France and further Spain's power was based on its access to the riches of the New World and its possessions in North and South America. The foundations of Spanish power were in effect fragile and by 1600 Spain was in serious economic decline and was beginning to suffer from declining population.2
France’s power depended upon its large population and its large abundance of varied agricultural and mineral resources. This was the reason why the establishment of France has the hegemonic power in Europe seemed so likely in the period 1600-1700 C.E. Certainly the idea that England would become Frances’s great rival again after the Hundred Years War would have seemed utterly ludicrous in 1600 C.E. For France had at c. 4 times the population of England and incomparably greater economic resources. England was at best a second level power. Her influences was based mainly on the fact of her quite good navy but other than that she was of little account in European affairs. England’s relative success in its war with Spain was mainly due to the fact that the Spanish Monarchy was distracted by several other costly and expensive wars at the same time.
France however was unable to establish hegemony in Europe and by 1800 even during the years of Napoleonic success was experiencing the beginnings of a drastic decline in population growth rates. Well behind that of England.
To put it in perspective in 1600 France had a population of 16 million and by 1800 29 million. An increase of 80% England in the meantime had 4.25 million people in 1600 and 9.25 million by 1800, an increase of over 110%. I note this excludes the populations of Scotland and Ireland which were under English control by 1800.3
Scotland was an independent kingdom in 1600 and the population numbered 700,000. Ireland in 1600 had 1.25 million people and was not well controlled by England. By 1800 Scotland now united with England had 1.25 million people and Ireland had population of 5.25 million.4
Of course these figures underestimate the actual difference in population growth. For the French figures include areas conquered and incorporated into the French kingdom, such as Artois, Lorraine and Alsace, which brought a few million people into the French kingdom.
Between 1600 and 1800 there was no growth in the size of England and Wales so any population growth was entirely by natural increase. The resulting increase increase of the population of the British Isles was from 6.20 million people to 15.75 million in a now politically united British Isles. What those figures reveal is that the demographic strength of England / British Isles had grown in relation to France. A large part of the demographic growth of English power that was due to the absorption of Scotland and a much more firmly controlled Ireland. And unlike Scotland, Ireland experienced a truly spectacular increase in population that proportionally greatly exceeded even that of England. This of course helped set up Ireland for the catastrophe of the Irish famine of 1845-1851 C.E. Still England / Wales properly experienced growth that more than doubled its population in 200 years.5
To put this into more perspective in 1500 C.E., the French kingdom had a population of c. 12 million. During the 16th century the French kingdom experienced little territorial expansion so the overwhelming majority of any population increase would be natural. Has indicated above in 1600 C. E., the population of the French kingdom was 16 million. That was an increase 33.3%. England in 1500 had a population of c. 3.75 million and as indicated in 1600 a population of 4.25 million. This was an increase of 13.3%. Obviously England was demographically falling behind France during that century. Further the figures reveal that English attempts to become a great power lacked a demographic base from which to mount such a challenge.6
Between 1600 C.E. and 1700 C.E. France with its annexations and population increase increased in population from 16 million to 20 million. An increase of 25%. England in the meantime was starting to have a demographic surge. The population increased from 4.25 million to 5.75 million. And increase of c. 36%.7
It should be pointed out that all figures before 1700 are dubious. In fact it is likely that the demographic surge in England in fact started c. 1700. It appears that the above figures do not take enough cognisance of the 17th century crisis that severely constrained population size during the 17th century. In particular the following figures needs to addressed. It appears that in the first half of the 17th century the population of England did in fact grow for the most part until the devastation of the English Civil war and related conflicts brought disaster to the four parts of the British Isles in the period 1640-1652 C.E. The population likely declined during this time period. However after it was over the population continued to be subject to climatic and other stresses the result of which was not just no population increase by 1700 but in fact a slight decline in population.8 Here are the figures:
1651 – 5,228,481
1661 - 5,140,743
1671 – 4,982,687
1681 – 4,930,385
1691 – 4,930,502
1701 – 5,057,790
Those figures indicate a stagnant slightly declining population for the 17th century or at least it’s second half. Regarding after 1700 C.E. The following figures are available.
1711 – 5,230,371
1721 – 5,350,465
1731 – 5,263,374
1741 – 5,576,197
1751 – 5,772,415
1761 – 6,146,857
1771 – 6,447,813
1781 – 7,042,140
1791 – 7,739,889
1801 – 8,664,490
Those figures indicate a later beginning to the surge in population growth in England. Further it must be remembered that this demographic surge did not just increase the population of England but it also provided the basis for the extensive and relatively intensive English oversea colonization efforts. A very large number of those “extra” births eventually went overseas. Unlike in France were overseas colonization until the 19th century was a pretty rare affair. In fact from the figures the English population increase 1700 - 1800 C.E. was over 3.6 million or an increase of c. 70%! France in the meantime increased in population from 20 to 29 million an increase of 48%. Of course this not take into account the populations of Ireland and Scotland.11
This demographic surge helped to provide the numbers etc., which enabled to English to retain and expand their status as a great power. Without it, it would have been impossible. The French in the meanwhile did not experience a “surge” like the English did and fell behind relatively. The demographic impetus was less for the French than for the English.
In the 19th century the surge continued and helped fuel both British imperial expansion and emigration. Even so the population increased in the following manner:
1801 – 8,664,490
1851 – 16,736,084
During the same time the population of Scotland doubled from 1.5 to 3 million and the population of Ireland although slipping because of the famine was still 6.5 million in 1850. England’s population increased by c. 80% between 1800 – 1850. 13
In the meantime France’s population increased from 29 million to 36 million during the same time. An increase of c. 23%.14
By another set of figures England’s population was c. 18 million in 1850 and 33 million by 1900. An increase of over 80% again. Meanwhile in France the population increased from 36 million in 1850 to 41 million in 1900. An increase of less than 14%. In fact the English population increased by more than 300% between 1800 and 1900, but the population of France increased by less than 40%!15
Thus the different demographic histories of England and France do help to explain the outcome of the struggle between England and France given that France did not seem to have the same demographic dynamism behind it that England did. Even so it must be remembered that France remained a great power and a hugely significant cultural and economic / military power.
1. McEvedy, Colin, & Jones, Richard, Atlas of World Population History, Penguin Books, London, 1978, p. 62-65. The population stayed at 2 million from c. 1650-1800. For the Dutch golden age see Schama, Simon, An Embarrassment of Riches, Vintage, New York, 1997.
2. See Goubert, Pierre, Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen, Vintage Books, New York, 1972, Elliott, J. H., Imperial Spain: 1469 – 1716, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1972.
3. McEvedy et al, pp. 41-44, 55-60. All percentage calculations in this posting are mine.
4. IBID, pp. 45-48.
5. IBID, pp. 41-49.
6. IBID, pp. 41-44, 55-60.
8. Parker, Geoffrey, Global Crisis, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 2013, pp. 324-395.
9. Daunton, Progress and Poverty, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995, Statistical Appendix 1 Population, (b), p. 574.
11. Footnote 6.
12. Footnote 9.
13. Footnote 4.
14. McEvedy et al, pp. 55-60.
15. IBID, pp. 41-44.