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  • Population, Welfare and Economic Change in Britain 1290-1834 ed. by Chris Briggs, P. M. Kitson, and S. J. Thompson
  • Neil Cummins
Population, Welfare and Economic Change in Britain 1290-1834. Edited by Chris Briggs, P. M. Kitson, and S. J. Thompson (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2014) 345 pp. $45.00

This edited volume contains eleven chapters about aspects of English demographic and economic history. The title promises a long view, and the content delivers. Beginning with reflections on the intellectual legacy of Hajnal’s famous essay on marriage, the collection presents new estimates of the population density of England by county and examines the individual legacy of location for mortality.1 The core and backbone of this book, however, is welfare. The chapters compare welfare in northern Europe with that of southern Europe, and analyse it in England as well—welfare for the elderly, “indoor” versus “outdoor” relief, poor corporations, and almshouses. The book concludes with a robust comparative treatment of serfdom in England and Russia, a detailed study of peasant mentality via a choice/constraint framework, and a close look at the effect of English “individualism” on business formation (and demise).

Highlights are Bruce M. S. Campbell and Lorraine Barry’s geographical analysis of English population density in 1290. Figure 2.3 is a powerful image contrasting England in 1290 with England in 1801— highlighting the disappearance of the east-west gradient in population [End Page 436] density (70). The data and the questions that it raises will stimulate research for years to come.

Rebecca Oakes’ chapter about how location of origin affected mortality at Winchester College and New College, Oxford, exploits fascinating data with a clever set-up; the fragmentary college records are enhanced by population-density data taken from the 1377 poll tax. Of particular interest to the non-specialist is Julie Marfany’s north-south comparison of welfare in early modern Europe, which contains a valuable discussion of hospitals, family, charity, dowry funds, and almshouses.

Tracy K. Dennison contrasts serfdom in England with serfdom in Russia, unpacking what serfdom actually entails and delineating how institutions can superficially appear similar despite the different implications for those living under them. Shelaigh Ogilvie’s chapter is a strong assessment of overarching hypotheses about peasant life, which she robustly demolishes with masterly reference to the micro-study literature.

The contributions fall into several methodological categories: two expansive, conceptual and empirical overviews that serve to frame the macro-historical context; two comparative analyses—between northern and southern Europe in the case of welfare and between eastern and western Europe regarding medieval serfdom. The major share of the book, however, is devoted to the presentation of new data and new cases from micro-historical work. (The binding literally disintegrated as I was reading. Thankfully, the book is available online at Potential readers can obtain individual chapters of interest as digital copies.)

As a whole, the major import and success of this book lies in its close incorporation of macro- and micro-history. It often raises questions about the limitations of major macro-theories via the use of examples from the level of individuals. In modern economics, institutions are increasingly identified as the fundamental cause of long-run economic growth. This view asserts that the world failed to achieve economic growth before the Industrial Revolution because the institutions were wrong. However, institutions themselves are humanly devised. Institutions are both the rules of the game and the fluid reflections of popular consent. We still know little about how they are formed, implemented, and changed. In this regard, consider this quotation from Ogilvie: “The seventeen female gypsies hanged after a summary trial in eighteenth century Franconia for no crime other than their itinerant way of life would have been surprised to learn, had they been able to read Schlumbohm or Foucault, that the migration ordinances of the early modern Francoinian legal system were ‘laws that were not enforced’ and merely served symbolic purposes in the assertion of sovereignty by a ‘theatre state’” (300). [End Page 437]

Neil Cummins
London School of Economics


1. John Hajnal, “European Marriage Patterns in Perspective,” in David V...


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