Mortality, Marriage and Population Growth in England, 1550–1850 by Peter Razzell (review)
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Mortality, Marriage and Population Growth in England, 1550–1850. By Peter Razzell (London, Caliban Books, 2016) 135pp. £6.00

In this short book, Razzell presents the case for autonomous shifts in mortality as the key driving force in moving England from a population of marginally more than 2 million in 1500 to one of 16.5 million in 1851. He is skeptical of the use of parish registers for historical demographic research, at least in the manner employed by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, and by those who have adopted its methodologies to study this enormous body of data relating to baptisms, marriages, and burials. He, unlike the Cambridge Group, is [End Page 256] confident that changes in fertility were of limited significance in driving demographic growth. In one of the longest sections of the book, he purports to show that after the almost-universal marriage of women during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a decline in marital incidence left increasing proportions of women unmarried by the nineteenth century.

The book concludes with a brief discussion of how a surplus workforce created by autonomous mortality change enabled the emergence of a capitalist economy based on cheap labor. Furthermore, Razzell argues that this model of demographic change, which emerged first in England, has been recurrent in large parts of the world; mortality declines arising from autonomous medical changes enabled a population growth that also facilitated the growth of global capitalism through the exploitation of demographically generated labor surpluses.

After an initial chapter in which Razzell attempts to demonstrate the unreliability of parish registers for the generation of demographic data, there follow two chapters dealing specifically with infant and early childhood and adult mortality. To construct a measure of infant mortality, Razzell takes pains to account for the death of children who shared a forename with a sibling but had no burial record of their own. Razzell is confident that this strategy is a powerful means of correcting defective burial registrations. He estimates infant mortality to have fallen slightly in the early seventeenth century before rising to a peak by 1740 and then declining through the last two decades of the eighteenth and first two decades of the nineteenth century. The trend that he creates for early-childhood mortality is less clear-cut, but it retains remarkable stability at 105 to 107 deaths per 1,000 from c. 1660 to c. 1780 before displaying a modest drop.

What is remarkable, and not noted by Razzell, is that the Cambridge Group’s estimates of the same demographic parameters follow a strikingly similar chronological course. The worsening of infant mortality during the first four decades of the eighteenth century, and its fall in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, are features common to both bodies of research. However, whenever comparisons can be drawn, the supposedly inferior registers and methods of the Cambridge Group—afflicted, according to Razzell, by missing deaths—generate higher levels of infant and childhood mortality than Razzell’s methodology can detect for most periods.

Razzell avoids use of burial registers per se to estimate adult mortality. He prefers to employ evidence relating to fathers being present when daughters married or when sons were apprenticed to derive an alternative indicator of mortality risks among adults. He gleans from this evidence a substantial reduction in adult mortality during the eighteenth century, but this improvement for adults occurred earlier in that century than it did for the youngest age groups. Again, the work of the Cambridge Group replicates this finding about life expectancy, using completely different evidence and methods. The Cambridge Group also drew attention to a rise in adult life expectancy starting in the early eighteenth century, when varying mortality levels and trends across all age groups render the [End Page 257] conventional use of model lifetables problematical. Razzell and the Cambridge Group appear to be in basic agreement about the course of mortality change during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Razzell’s findings diverge most starkly from the Cambridge Group’s in Chapter 4. He dismisses the evidence relating to their marriage-age estimates, which proposes a substantial fall in...