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Medieval demography is the study of human demography in Europe and the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. It is an estimate of the number of people who were alive during the Medieval period, population trends, life expectancy, family structure, and related issues. In many ways, demography was one of the most crucial factors of historical change throughout the Middle Ages.
The population of Europe was stable at a low level in the Early Middle Ages, boomed during the High Middle Ages, reached a stable peak from about 1250-1350, then a number of calamities caused a steep decline, the nature of which historians have debated. Population levels then slowly expanded, gaining momentum in the early 16th century.
The science of medieval demography relies on various lines of evidence, such as administrative records, wills and other types of records, archaeological field data, economic data, and written histories. Because the data are often incomplete and/or ambiguous, there can be significant disagreement among medieval demographers.
Demographic history of Europe
The population levels of Europe during the Middle Ages can be roughly categorized:
- 280–400 (Late Antiquity): population decline
- 400–1000 (Early Middle Ages): stable at a low level.
- 1000–1250 (High Middle Ages): population boom and expansion.
- 1250–1350 (Late Middle Ages): stable at a high level.
- 1350–1420 (Late Middle Ages): steep decline.
- 1420–1470 (Late Middle Ages): stable at a low level.
- 1470–onward: slow expansion gaining momentum in the early 16th century.
Late Antiquity saw various indicators of Roman civilization begin to decline, including urbanization, seaborne commerce, and total population. Only 40% as many Mediterranean shipwrecks have been found for the 3rd century as for the 1st. During the period from 150 to 400, the population of the Roman Empire is estimated[by whom?] to have fallen from 70 million to 50 million, a decline of almost 30%. Proximate causes of the population decrease include the Antonine Plague, Plague of Cyprian, and the Crisis of the Third Century. European population probably reached a minimum during the Extreme weather events of 535–536 and the ensuing Plague of Justinian. Some have connected this demographic transition to the Migration Period Pessimum,[clarification needed] when there was a decrease in global temperatures that impaired agricultural yields.
Early Middle Ages
A major plague epidemic struck the Mediterranean, and much of Europe, in the 6th century.
The Early Middle Ages saw a continued de-urbanization of the population, but relatively little population growth because of continued political instability with Viking expansion in the north, Arab expansion in the south and to the east Slavs and Magyars. This rural, uncertain life spurred the development of feudalism and the Christianization of Europe. Estimates of the total population of Europe are speculative, but at the time of Charlemagne it is thought to have been between 25 and 30 million, and of this more than half were in the Carolingian Empire that covered modern France, the Low Countries, western Germany, Austria, Slovenia, northern Italy and part of northern Spain. Some medieval settlements were more than relatively large, with agricultural land and large zones of unpopulated and lawless wilderness in between.
High Middle Ages
In the 11th century, agriculture expanded into the wilderness, in what are known as the "great clearances". During the High Middle Ages, many forests and marshes were cleared and cultivated. At the same time, during the Ostsiedlung, Germans settled east of the Elbe and Saale rivers, in regions previously only sparsely populated by Polabian Slavs. Crusaders expanded to the Crusader states, parts of the Iberian Peninsula were reconquered from the Moors, and the Normans colonized southern Italy. These movements and conquests are part of a larger pattern of population expansion and resettlement that occurred in Europe at this time.
Reasons for this expansion and colonization include an improving climate known as the Medieval warm period, which resulted in longer and more productive growing seasons; the end of the raids by Vikings, Arabs, and Magyars, resulting in greater political stability; advancements in medieval technology allowing more land to be farmed; 11th century reforms of the Church that further increased social stability; and the rise of Feudalism, which also brought increased social stability and thus more mobility. The bonds of serfdom that tied peasants to the land began to weaken with the rise of a money economy. Land was plentiful while labour to clear and work the land was scarce; lords who owned the land found new ways to attract and keep labour. Urban centres began to emerge, able to attract serfs with the promise of freedom. As new regions were settled, both internally and externally, population naturally increased.
Overall, the population of Europe is believed to have reached a peak of 100 to 120 million.
The population of England, around 1 million in 1086, is estimated to have grown to somewhere between 3.7 million and 5 to 7 million, although the best data comes after the first plague epidemics, and the estimates for pre-plague populations depend on the estimates of the mortality in the famines and plague.
In 1328, France (which was geographically smaller than it is today) is believed to have supported between 13.4 million people and 18 to 20 million people, the latter not reached again until the early modern period.
Late Middle Ages
By the 14th century, the frontiers of settled cultivation had ceased to expand and internal colonization was coming to an end, but population levels remained high. Then a series of events—sometimes called the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages—collectively killed millions. Starting with the Great Famine in 1315 and the Black Death of 1348–1350, the population of Europe plummeted. The period between 1348 and 1420 saw the heaviest loss. In Germany, about 40% of the named inhabitants disappeared. The population of Provence was reduced by 50% and in some regions in Tuscany, 70% were lost during this period.
Historians have struggled to explain how so many could have died. There are problems with the long-standing theory that the decline in population was caused only by a contagious disease (see further discussions at Black Death) and so historians have examined other social factors, as follows.
A classic Malthusian argument has been put forward that Europe was overpopulated: even in good times it was barely able to feed its population. Grain yields in the 14th century were between 2:1 and 7:1 (2:1 means for every seed planted, 2 are harvested. Modern grain yields are 30:1 or more.) Malnutrition developed gradually over decades, lowering resistance to disease, and competition for resources meant more warfare, and then finally crop yields were pushed down by the Little Ice Age.
An alternative theory is that, by 1250, the population peaked and competition for resources meant that there was a great imbalance between property owners and workers. The money supply was fixed (being commodity money), so it could not expand with increased economic activity. Rents went up, and wages sank. The unequal distribution of wealth increased between rich property owners and poor tenant farmers. The conditions of the poor became so bad that they achieved net zero population growth. The economic conditions of the poor also aggravated the calamities of the plague because they had no recourse, such as fleeing to a villa in the country in the manner of the nobles in the Decameron. The poor lived in crowded conditions and could not isolate the sick, and had weaker immunities from a lacking diet and difficult subsistence lifestyle as well as sanitation. After the plague and other exogenous causes of population decline lowered the labor supply, wages increased. This increased the mobility of labour and a redistribution of wealth; however, this did not happen right away because property owners resisted change through wage freezes and price controls. The wage freezes and price controls were partly responsible for popular uprisings, such as the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, and not until the later 15th century did the lower classes start to gain benefits. By 1500, the total population of Europe was substantially below that of 200 years earlier, but all classes overall had a higher standard of living.
Regardless of the cause, populations continued to fall and remained low into the 16th century.
Science and art of medieval demography
Medieval demography is a fairly new area of study.[unreliable source?] The sources traditionally used by modern demographers, such as marriage, birth and death records, are generally not available for this period, so scholars rely on other sources, such as archaeological survey, and written records when available.[unreliable source?]
Examples of field data include the physical size of a settlement, and how it grows over time, and the appearance, or disappearance, of settlements.[unreliable source?] For example after the Black Death the archaeological record shows the abandonment of upwards of 25% of all villages in Spain. However, archaeological data are often difficult to interpret.[unreliable source?] It is often difficult to assign a precise age to discoveries. Also, some of the largest and most important sites are still occupied and cannot be investigated. Available archaeological records may be concentrated on the more peripheral regions, for example early Middle Ages Anglo–Saxon burials at Sutton Hoo, in East Anglia in England, for which otherwise no records exist.
Because of these limitations, much of our knowledge comes from written records: descriptive and administrative accounts. Descriptive accounts include those of chroniclers who wrote about the size of armies, victims of war or famine, participants in an oath. However these cannot be relied on as accurate, and are most useful as supporting evidence rather than being taken factually on their own.
The most important written accounts are those contained in administrative records. These accounts are more objective and accurate because the motivation for writing them was not to influence others. These records can be divided into two categories: surveys and serial documents. Surveys cover an estate or region on a particular date, rather like a modern inventory. Manorial surveys were very common throughout the Middle Ages, in particular in France and England, but faded as serfdom gave way to a money economy. Fiscal surveys came with the rise of the money economy, the most famous and earliest being the Domesday Book in 1086. The Book of Hearths from Italy in 1244 is another example. The largest fiscal survey was of France in 1328. As kings continued to look for new ways to raise money, these fiscal surveys increased in number and scope over time. Surveys have limitations, because they are only a snapshot in time; they do not show long term trends, and they tend to exclude elements of society.
Serial records come in different forms. The earliest are from the 8th century and are land conveyances, such as sales, exchanges, donations, and leases. Other types of serial records include death records from religious institutions and baptismal registrations. Other helpful records include heriots, court records, food prices and rent prices, from which inferences can be made.
- Historical demography
- Classical demography
- Early modern demography
- Crisis of the Late Middle Ages
- Dark Ages (historiography)
- Life expectancy
- List of famines
- List of disasters
- Little Ice Age
- Medieval household
- Migration Period
- Mongol Empire
- Slavery in medieval Europe
Major writers on medieval demography
- The citation combines sources from David Herlihy article "Medieval Demography" in the Dictionary of the Middle Ages (see Bibliography this article), and from Josiah C. Russell, "Population in Europe", in Carlo M. Cipolla, ed., The Fontana Economic History of Europe, Vol. I: The Middle Ages, (Glasgow : Collins/Fontana, 1972), 25–71
- Hopkins, Keith Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400)
- Berglund, B. E. (2003), "Human impact and climate changes—synchronous events and a causal link?" (PDF), Quaternary International 105: 7–12, doi:10.1016/S1040-6182(02)00144-1.
- Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe, ISBN 0-691-03780-9
- Russell, Josiah Cox, 1972. Medieval Regions and their Cities, p. 122.
- Russell, J.C., 1958, "Late Ancient and Medieval Population," in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 48 no. 3, p. 106.
- Herlihy, David (1989), "Demography", in Strayer, Joseph R., Dictionary of the Middle Ages 4, New York: Scribner, ISBN 0-684-17024-8.
- Biller, Peter (2001), The Measure of Multitude: Population in Medieval Thought, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-820632-1.
- Hollingsworth, Thomas (1969), Historical Demography, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-0497-5.
- Russell, Josiah (1987), Medieval Demography: Essays, Ams Studies in the Middle Ages 12, New York: AMS Press, ISBN 0-404-61442-6.