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  • Birth Control: The Political-Economic Rationale behind Jean Bodin’s Démonomanie
  • Gunnar Heinsohn and Otto Steiger*

1. The Rationale behind Jean Bodin’s Invention of Political Economy

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Figure 1.

World population growth. Decline of European population (so-called European population catastrophe) after the great plague of 1348, with the steep rise of population (so-called European population explosion) since the end of the fifteenth century, whose causes are considered inexplicable. Compiled after Tak, Haub, and Murphy 1979; as reproduced in European Demographic Information Bulletin 1979.

The European population catastrophe and the breakdown of feudal villenage economies—due to the “little” Ice Age and the great plague of early modern times (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) and to the influx of enormous amounts of gold and silver from the Americas (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries)—triggered the awakening of economic theorizing, later termed mercantilism. This resulted in the view that a country’s wealth is created by an abundance of gold and silver and a vast workforce.

This new combination of economic and political argumentation is [End Page 423] evident in the writings of the eminent French scholar Jean Bodin (1530–1596), who first created a coherent system out of the idea of producing wealth by increasing population and by controlling the influx of precious metals. 1 Before the onset of the great plague in 1348, France—with approximately nineteen out of seventy-five million Europeans—was the most populous nation in Europe. Around 1450, this powerful nation had fallen to twelve million people, that is, it had lost nearly 37 percent of its inhabitants (Ott and Schäfer 1984, 50). Even by the middle of the sixteenth century, the population of France was only about 17.5 million, even less than its level of the early fourteenth century. The memory of this demographic crisis was still fresh in Bodin’s lifetime and haunted political advisers all over Europe.

Never before Antoyne de Montchrétien’s (1575–1621) Traicté de l’oeconomie politique of 1616 “had the words ‘political’ and ‘economy’ been put together” (Bridel 1987, 546). He paid respect to Bodin, who had dismissed the classical Greek concept of pure economics as utterly insufficient because it had not dealt with the family as a source of labor. For that reason Bodin ([1606] 1962, 1) made an important addition to the subject in his Six livres de la République ([1576] 1961; translated in 1606 as The Six Bookes of a Commonweale): “A Commonweale is a lawful government of many families and of that which to them in common belongs, with a puissant sovereignty. This definition omitted by them which have written of a Commonweale, we have placed in the first place” (emphasis added).

So it was not arbitrarily that Bodin ([1606] 1962, 8) devoted the first substantial chapter of his Commonweale to the family:

A family is the right government of many subjects or persons under the obedience of one and the same head of the family; and of such things as are to them proper. The second part of the definition of a Commonweale by us set down concerns a family, which is the true seminar and beginning of every Commonweale, as also a principal member thereof. So that Aristotle following Xenophon, seems to me without any probable cause, to have divided the economical government from the political, and a city from a family: which can no otherwise [End Page 424] be done, then if we should pull the members from the body; or go about to build a city without houses.

(emphasis added)

Montchrétien ([1616] 1970, 122) concurred with Bodin by suggesting the need for public and economic spheres alike to “flourish and be fertile.”

In contrast to Bodin and Montchrétien, Xenophon and Aristotle had not been faced with the problem of a steep and sudden population decline, and there was no reason for them to analyze population as a subject of economics. On the other hand, classical economists, no longer faced with a population catastrophe, wrote their treatises in the middle of the European population explosion, which culminated at the end of the eighteenth century. They were not even...

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pp. 423-448
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Archived 2005
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