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  • Population and Society in an East Devon Parish. Reproducing Colyton, 1540–1840
  • David Levine
Population and Society in an East Devon Parish. Reproducing Colyton, 1540–1840. By Pamela Sharpe (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002. xv, 408 pp.).

Colyton proved to be a most interesting choice when E.A. Wrigley analysed its parish registers by following the Fleury/Henry method of family reconstitution. The early returns on this work were most exciting: upon the publication of Wrigley’s articles on “Family Limitation” and “Mortality”, our understanding of the population dynamics of early modern England was transformed.1 Wrigley’s early articles provided systematic evidence of late ages at first marriage for women, fertility control in the late 17th century, and surprisingly low levels of mortality. Taken together, this material provided the basis for theorizing about a “low pressure” demographic system that was quite unlike both the contemporary Third World and also the imagined organization of reproduction in the pre-modern western world. However, Wrigley’s demographic analysis was never integrated with any consideration of Colyton’s social and economic history. Pamela Sharpe has done an admirable job of addressing this lacuna.

Colyton was not a village; it was at once both a market-town and a series of deeply-rural hamlets; Colyton was also divided into several manorial regimes which breathed life on into the nineteenth century. The Elizabethan reorganization of local government, which gave primacy to parochial boundaries, thus fit uneasily on top of Colyton’s earlier systems of social, economic, religious, and political control. Furthermore, the spatial complexity of this place was enhanced by the diachronic evolution of its material structures. Colyton in the first century of this study was a wheat and wool economy, the next century was dominated by pastoral farming and intensive rural industrialization, and the final century was characterized by the deindustrialization of its lace-making industry and the emergence of a new emphasis on dairy farming alongside a revitalization of its grain-growing sector. Like many English communities of the early modern period, Colyton was socially polarized; its “openness” to immigration meant that most of the action took place on the margins so that “the interface between the rural and industrial sectors of the parish...determined the demographic history of Colyton.” (316) Its demographic history was “inseparably linked [to its economic evolution] through the nexus of the sex ratio.” (306)

Sharpe’s focus on the changing configurations of class and gender are the most significant parts of this most-excellent local study. The book’s fifth chapter, “Demographic Experiences,” is really the fulcrum on which its novelty swings. It is not so much based on a re-interpretation of Wrigley’s original statistical information as an excursion beyond it. Early industrial Colyton attracted large [End Page 257] numbers of female immigrants—using the parish register’s burial information, Sharpe makes it clear that there seem to have been four women for every three adult men from the 1630s to the 1770s. The shift away from its early wheat and wool economy and towards both pastoralism and lace-making, which took place in the 1620s, meant that Colyton had a low demand for the labour of adult males just as its new sectors had a voracious demand for women workers. So, men left and women arrived—a lot of “extra women” arrived; so many “extra women” that they transformed the marriage market. These extra “extra women” filled up the social pyramid at the bottom; their marriage chances plummeted as there were not enough men available for them to marry. Quite literally, these extra “extra women” became life-long spinsters. By linking the community’s economic evolution “through the nexus of the sex ratio”, Sharpe provides a compelling answer to one of the puzzles of Wrigley’s original analysis.

Sharpe’s clever assessment of Colyton’s sex ratio provides a useful reminder that out-migration was a significant factor in early modern England; nearly one million people—mostly male and mostly youths—slipped outside the ‘observation universe’ of demographic and economic analysis. Clearly, the maintenance of the early modern English “low pressure” system of reproduction was massively reinforced by its ability to ship...

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pp. 257-259
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