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  • Mortality, Marriage and Population Growth in England, 1550-1850 by Peter Razzell
  • Jean-Marc Rohrbasser
Razzell Peter, 2016, Mortality, Marriage and Population Growth in England, 1550-1850, London, Caliban Books, 135 p.

It is the stated ambition of this book not only to present long-term trends in English population changes over three centuries but also to explain them by way of a thesis caught up in a vast, centuries-long debate on the relations between demographic change and economic development. The author's aim is to achieve a synthesis that supports the claim that fertility did indeed fall during the eighteenth century and that falling mortality was the main driver of population growth in England during the period.

This thesis aims among other things to validate the idea that demographic changes are largely independent of economic development, a position most notably argued by the economic historian J. D. Chambers in the 1960s. Chambers' reasoning turns on the assumption that mortality rates were autonomous; he was particularly critical of Malthusian positions stressing that fertility was modelled by living standards. E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield refuted Chambers' claim through an examination of nearly four million individual entries in parish registers.

As Razzell states from the outset, he has in no way attempted to construct a mathematical model of population growth, as that would mean drawing on demographic unknowns that require strong hypotheses. Moreover, he explains, such hypotheses may readily be manipulated to support conclusions that validate a particular claim. He therefore has adopted a different methodological procedure, based on sources that allow for direct empirical measurement of individual variables and simultaneous cross-tabulation of data to ensure reliable results.

The controversy re-sparked here obviously requires the author to discuss his methodology, sources and data in addition to his findings. The first chapter thus discusses the reliability of parish registers in measuring population growth in England. Razzell presents his methodology in detail while critiquing Cambridge Group findings (those of Wrigley and Schofield).

Chapter 2 gives what can only be a broad outline of trends in infant and child mortality in England from 1600 to 1850. Here the author uses the well-known technique of "apply[ing] family reconstitution techniques to parish register data" (p. 29). His conclusion is that "reductions in early child mortality cannot fully explain the scale of [English] population growth in the eighteenth century" (p. 42).

Chapter 3 presents a history of adult mortality from 1600 to 1850. The author begins by mentioning the major problems for study in this area, the main one being "variations in burial registration reliability", well known since John Graunt's 1662 work. He concludes that there is no convincing evidence to prove that life expectancy was extremely low in the early eighteenth century and before. He [End Page 164] also discusses the impact of the fall in male adult mortality on rates of widow remarriage.

Chapter 4 presents a history of marriage in England from 1550 to 1850 in parallel with a history of fertility. This is far and away the longest section of the book (36 pages). One of the author's conclusions is that English women's universal propensity to marry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries declined significantly over the eighteenth. Fertility, largely shaped by nuptiality during the period, fell; English population growth can therefore logically be understood as an outcome of falling child and adult mortality.

In Chapter 5 the author undertakes to explain the afore-cited changes in mortality–in an extremely brief account (8 pages) that is quite inadequate given the potential difficulties raised by his explanation.

In Chapter 6 he associates population growth with the development of capitalism. As he sees it, the weight of demographic growth must be understood in terms of the particular political, social and economic context of England during the period under study. On this basis he can put forward a general conclusion in Chapter 7, wherein he recalls that the relationship between economic development and demographic growth has long elicited controversy. He purports to claim on the basis of the English case that since the early modern period–from approximately 1600–demographic trends have been...


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