Medieval demography

Medieval demography

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This article discusses human demography
Demography
Demography is the statistical study of human population. It can be a very general science that can be applied to any kind of dynamic human population, that is, one that changes over time or space...

 in Europe
Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

 during the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

, including population trends and movements. Demographic changes helped to shape and define the Middle Ages. Population trends in Europe during the Middle Ages can be roughly categorized:
  • 150–400: population decline
  • 400–1000: stable at a low level.
  • 1000–1250: population boom and expansion.
  • 1250–1350: stable at a high level (with the exception of the Great Famine
    Great Famine of 1315–1317
    The Great Famine of 1315–1317 was the first of a series of large scale crises that struck Northern Europe early in the fourteenth century...

    )
  • 1350–1420: steep decline
  • 1420–1470: stable at a low level.
  • 1470–onward: slow expansion, gaining momentum in the early 16th century.

Late Antiquity


Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity is a periodization used by historians to describe the time of transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, in both mainland Europe and the Mediterranean world. Precise boundaries for the period are a matter of debate, but noted historian of the period Peter Brown proposed...

 saw various indicators of Roman civilization begin to decline, including urbanization, seaborne commerce, and total population. Only 40% as many Mediterranean shipwrecks have been found for the 3rd century as for the first. During the period from 150 to 400 the population of the Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

 is estimated to have fallen from 70 million to 50 million, a decline of more than 20%. Proximate causes of the population decrease include the Antonine Plague
Antonine Plague
The Antonine Plague, AD 165–180, also known as the Plague of Galen, who described it, was an ancient pandemic, either of smallpox or measles, brought back to the Roman Empire by troops returning from campaigns in the Near East...

, Plague of Cyprian
Plague of Cyprian
The Plague of Cyprian is the name given to a pandemic, probably of smallpox, that afflicted the Roman Empire from AD 250 onwards. It was still raging in 270, when it claimed the life of emperor Claudius II Gothicus . The plague caused widespread manpower shortages in agriculture and the Roman army....

, and the Crisis of the Third Century
Crisis of the Third Century
The Crisis of the Third Century was a period in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression...

. European population probably reached a minimum during the Extreme weather events of 535–536 and the ensuing Plague of Justinian
Plague of Justinian
The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman Empire , including its capital Constantinople, in 541–542 AD. It was one of the greatest plagues in history. The most commonly accepted cause of the pandemic is bubonic plague, which later became infamous for either causing or...

. Some have connected this demographic transition to the Migration Period Pessimum, when there was a decrease in global temperatures which impaired agricultural yields.

Early Middle Ages


The Early Middle Ages
Early Middle Ages
The Early Middle Ages was the period of European history lasting from the 5th century to approximately 1000. The Early Middle Ages followed the decline of the Western Roman Empire and preceded the High Middle Ages...

 saw a continued de-urbanization of the population, but relatively little population growth because of continued political instability with Viking expansion
Viking expansion
The Vikings sailed most of the North Atlantic, reaching south to North Africa and east to Russia, Constantinople and the Middle East, as looters, traders, colonists, and mercenaries...

 in the north, Arab expansion
Muslim conquests
Muslim conquests also referred to as the Islamic conquests or Arab conquests, began with the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He established a new unified polity in the Arabian Peninsula which under the subsequent Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates saw a century of rapid expansion of Muslim power.They...

 in the south and to the east Slavs and Magyar
Magyar
Magyar may refer to:* A nation and an ethnic group native to and primarily associated with Hungarian people* The Hungarian language,...

s. This rural, uncertain life spurred the development of feudalism
Feudalism
Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries, which, broadly defined, was a system for ordering society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.Although derived from the...

 and the Christianization
Christianization
The historical phenomenon of Christianization is the conversion of individuals to Christianity or the conversion of entire peoples at once...

 of Europe. Estimates of the total population of Europe are speculative, but at the time of Charlemagne
Charlemagne
Charlemagne was King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 to his death in 814. He expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800...

 it is thought to have been between 25 and 30 million, and of this more than half were in the Carolingian
Carolingian
The Carolingian dynasty was a Frankish noble family with origins in the Arnulfing and Pippinid clans of the 7th century AD. The name "Carolingian", Medieval Latin karolingi, an altered form of an unattested Old High German *karling, kerling The Carolingian dynasty (known variously as the...

 Empire that covered modern France, the Low Countries, western Germany, Austria, Slovenia, northern Italy and part of northern Spain. Some medieval settlements were relatively large, with agricultural land and large zones of unpopulated and lawless wilderness
Wilderness
Wilderness or wildland is a natural environment on Earth that has not been significantly modified by human activity. It may also be defined as: "The most intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet—those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with...

 in between.

High Middle Ages


In the 11th century, agriculture expanded into the wilderness, in what are known as the "great clearances". During the High Middle Ages
High Middle Ages
The High Middle Ages was the period of European history around the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries . The High Middle Ages were preceded by the Early Middle Ages and followed by the Late Middle Ages, which by convention end around 1500....

, many forests and marshes were cleared and cultivated. At the same time, during the Ostsiedlung
Ostsiedlung
Ostsiedlung , also called German eastward expansion, was the medieval eastward migration and settlement of Germans from modern day western and central Germany into less-populated regions and countries of eastern Central Europe and Eastern Europe. The affected area roughly stretched from Slovenia...

, Germans settled east of the Elbe
Elbe
The Elbe is one of the major rivers of Central Europe. It rises in the Krkonoše Mountains of the northwestern Czech Republic before traversing much of Bohemia , then Germany and flowing into the North Sea at Cuxhaven, 110 km northwest of Hamburg...

 and Saale
Saale
The Saale, also known as the Saxon Saale and Thuringian Saale , is a river in Germany and a left-bank tributary of the Elbe. It is not to be confused with the smaller Franconian Saale, a right-bank tributary of the Main, or the Saale in Lower Saxony, a tributary of the Leine.-Course:The Saale...

 rivers, in regions previously only sparsely populated by Polabian Slavs
Polabian Slavs
Polabian Slavs - is a collective term applied to a number of Lechites tribes who lived along the Elbe river, between the Baltic Sea to the north, the Saale and the Limes Saxoniae to the west, the Ore Mountains and the Western Sudetes to the south, and Poland to the east. They have also been known...

. Crusaders expanded to the Crusader states
Crusader states
The Crusader states were a number of mostly 12th- and 13th-century feudal states created by Western European crusaders in Asia Minor, Greece and the Holy Land , and during the Northern Crusades in the eastern Baltic area...

, parts of the Iberian Peninsula
Iberian Peninsula
The Iberian Peninsula , sometimes called Iberia, is located in the extreme southwest of Europe and includes the modern-day sovereign states of Spain, Portugal and Andorra, as well as the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar...

 were reconquered from the Moors
Reconquista
The Reconquista was a period of almost 800 years in the Middle Ages during which several Christian kingdoms succeeded in retaking the Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula broadly known as Al-Andalus...

, and the Normans
Normans
The Normans were the people who gave their name to Normandy, a region in northern France. They were descended from Norse Viking conquerors of the territory and the native population of Frankish and Gallo-Roman stock...

 colonized southern Italy. These movements and conquests are part of a larger pattern of population expansion and resettlement that occurred in Europe at this time.

Reasons for this expansion and colonization include
  • an improving climate known as the Medieval warm period
    Medieval Warm Period
    The Medieval Warm Period , Medieval Climate Optimum, or Medieval Climatic Anomaly was a time of warm climate in the North Atlantic region, that may also have been related to other climate events around the world during that time, including in China, New Zealand, and other countries lasting from...

     allowing longer and more productive growing seasons;
  • advances in medieval technology
    Medieval technology
    Medieval technology refers to the technology used in medieval Europe under Christian rule. After the Renaissance of the 12th century, medieval Europe saw a radical change in the rate of new inventions, innovations in the ways of managing traditional means of production, and economic growth...

     such as better ploughs and the horse collar allowed more land to be farmed;
  • Cluniac reforms
    Cluniac Reforms
    The Cluniac Reforms were a series of changes within medieval monasticism of West focused on restoring the traditional monastic life, encouraging art, and caring for the poor. The movement is named for the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, where it started within the Benedictine order. The reforms were...

     in the church further increasing social stability;
  • The bonds of serfdom
    Serfdom
    Serfdom is the status of peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to Manorialism. It was a condition of bondage or modified slavery which developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe and lasted to the mid-19th century...

     that tied peasants to the land began to weaken with the rise of a money economy. Land was plentiful while labour to clear and work the land was scarce; lords who owned the land found new ways to attract and keep labour. Urban centres began to emerge, able to attract serfs with the promise of freedom. As new regions were settled, both internally and externally, population naturally increased.


The population of England, around 1 million in 1086, is estimated to have grown to somewhere between 5 and 7 million. France in 1328 (which was geographically smaller than France is today) is believed to have supported 18 to 20 million people, a number not reached again until the early modern period
Early modern period
In history, the early modern period of modern history follows the late Middle Ages. Although the chronological limits of the period are open to debate, the timeframe spans the period after the late portion of the Middle Ages through the beginning of the Age of Revolutions...

. The region of Tuscany
Tuscany
Tuscany is a region in Italy. It has an area of about 23,000 square kilometres and a population of about 3.75 million inhabitants. The regional capital is Florence ....

 had 2 million people in 1300, which it would not reach again until 1850. Overall, the population of Europe is believed to have reached a peak of 70 to 100 million.

Late Middle Ages


By the 14th century the frontiers of settled cultivation had ceased to expand and internal colonization was coming to an end, but population levels remained high. Then a series of events - sometimes called the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages
Crisis of the Late Middle Ages
The Crisis of the Late Middle Ages refers to a series of events in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that brought centuries of European prosperity and growth to a halt...

 - collectively killed millions. Starting with the Great Famine
Great Famine of 1315–1317
The Great Famine of 1315–1317 was the first of a series of large scale crises that struck Northern Europe early in the fourteenth century...

 in 1315, then the Hundred Years' War
Hundred Years' War
The Hundred Years' War was a series of separate wars waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet, also known as the House of Anjou, for the French throne, which had become vacant upon the extinction of the senior Capetian line of French kings...

 and the Black Death
Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Of several competing theories, the dominant explanation for the Black Death is the plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Thought to have...

 of 1348–1350, the population of Europe plummeted. The period between 1348 and 1420 saw the heaviest loss. In Germany, about 40% of the named inhabitants disappeared. The population of Provence
Provence
Provence ; Provençal: Provença in classical norm or Prouvènço in Mistralian norm) is a region of south eastern France on the Mediterranean adjacent to Italy. It is part of the administrative région of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur...

 was reduced by 50% and in some regions in Tuscany
Tuscany
Tuscany is a region in Italy. It has an area of about 23,000 square kilometres and a population of about 3.75 million inhabitants. The regional capital is Florence ....

 70% were lost during this period.

Historians have struggled to explain how so many could have died. There are problems with the long-standing theory that the decline in population was caused only by a contagious disease (see further discussions at Black Death
Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Of several competing theories, the dominant explanation for the Black Death is the plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Thought to have...

) and so historians have examined other social factors:
  • A classic Malthusian argument has been put forward that Europe was overpopulated
    Overpopulation
    Overpopulation is a condition where an organism's numbers exceed the carrying capacity of its habitat. The term often refers to the relationship between the human population and its environment, the Earth...

    : even in good times it was barely able to feed its population. Grain yields in the 14th century were between 2:1 and 7:1 (2:1 means for every seed planted, 2 are harvested. Modern grain yields are 30:1 or more.) Malnutrition developed gradually over decades, lowering resistance to disease, and competition for resources meant more warfare, and then finally crop yields were pushed down by the Little Ice Age
    Little Ice Age
    The Little Ice Age was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period . While not a true ice age, the term was introduced into the scientific literature by François E. Matthes in 1939...

  • A Marxist alternative is that by 1250, the increasing population led to competition for land, and a great imbalance between landowners and workers. Thus rents went up, and wages fell, further redistributing wealth towards rich property owners and away from poor tenant farmers. The economic condition of the poor prevented further population growth and increased mortality from epidemics. Once the population had decreased, wages increased, as did mobility of labour and redistribution of wealth. Landowners tried to resist change through wage freezes and price controls. This struggle was partly responsible for continued popular uprisings
    Popular revolt in late medieval Europe
    Popular revolts in late medieval Europe were uprisings and rebellions by peasants in the countryside, or the bourgeois in towns, against nobles, abbots and kings during the upheavals of the 14th through early 16th centuries, part of a larger "Crisis of the Late Middle Ages"...

     throughout the period.

  • Rothbard
    Murray Rothbard
    Murray Newton Rothbard was an American author and economist of the Austrian School who helped define capitalist libertarianism and popularized a form of free-market anarchism he termed "anarcho-capitalism." Rothbard wrote over twenty books and is considered a centrally important figure in the...

    ’s History of Economic Thought
    An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought
    An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought is a work of economic history written by Murray N. Rothbard. Rothbard notes in the introduction that the book was originally conceived as a "standard Adam Smith-to-the-present moderately sized book"; however, in the process of writing it,...

     argues that the rise of absolutism weakened competing power centers, notably church and feudal authority. Resulting weakened property rights reduced incentives to maintain the level of capital stock required to support the population. Thus the centralization of power leading to weak property rights is the disease, the symptoms of which are events such as the Black Plague's resulting from decreased expenditure on sanitation infrastructure.


Regardless of the cause, populations continued to fall and remained low into the 16th century.

Science and art of medieval demography


Medieval demography is a fairly new area of study. The sources traditionally used by demographers, such as marriage, birth and death records, are generally not available for this period, so scholars rely on other sources: field data (archaeological) and available written records.

Examples of field data include the physical size of a settlement, and how it grows over time, and the appearance, or disappearance, of settlements
Abandoned village
An abandoned village is a village that has, for some reason, been deserted. In many countries, and throughout history, thousands of villages were deserted for a variety of causes...

. For example after the Black Death
Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Of several competing theories, the dominant explanation for the Black Death is the plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Thought to have...

 the archaeological record shows the abandonment of upwards of 25% of all villages in Spain
Spain
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

. However archaeological data are often difficult to interpret. It is often difficult to assign a precise age to discoveries. Also, some of the largest and most important sites are still occupied and cannot be investigated. Available archaeological records may be concentrated on the more peripheral regions, for example early Middle Ages Anglo–Saxon
Anglo-Saxons
Anglo-Saxon is a term used by historians to designate the Germanic tribes who invaded and settled the south and east of Great Britain beginning in the early 5th century AD, and the period from their creation of the English nation to the Norman conquest. The Anglo-Saxon Era denotes the period of...

 burials at Sutton Hoo
Sutton Hoo
Sutton Hoo, near to Woodbridge, in the English county of Suffolk, is the site of two 6th and early 7th century cemeteries. One contained an undisturbed ship burial including a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts of outstanding art-historical and archaeological significance, now held in the British...

, in East Anglia in England, for which otherwise no records exist.

Because of these limitations, much of our knowledge comes from written records: descriptive and administrative accounts. Descriptive accounts include those of chroniclers who wrote about the size of armies, victims of war or famine
Famine
A famine is a widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including crop failure, overpopulation, or government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality. Every continent in the world has...

, participants in an oath. However these cannot be relied on as accurate, and are most useful as supporting evidence rather than being taken factually on their own.

The most important written accounts are those contained in administrative records. These accounts are more objective and accurate because the motivation for writing them was not to influence others. These records can be divided into two categories: surveys and serial documents. Surveys cover an estate or region on a particular date, rather like a modern inventory. Manorial surveys were very common throughout the Middle Ages, in particular in France and England, but faded as serfdom gave way to a money economy. Fiscal surveys came with the rise of the money economy, the most famous and earliest being Domesday Book
Domesday Book
Domesday Book , now held at The National Archives, Kew, Richmond upon Thames in South West London, is the record of the great survey of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086...

 in 1086. The Book of Hearths from Italy in 1244 is another example. The largest fiscal survey was of France in 1328. As kings continued to look for new ways to raise money, these fiscal surveys increased in number and scope over time. Surveys have limitations, because they are only a snapshot in time; they do not show long term trends, and they tend to exclude elements of society.

Serial records come in different forms. The earliest are from the 8th century and are land conveyances such as sales, exchanges, donations, and leases. Other types of serial records include death records from religious institutions and baptismal registrations. Other helpful records include heriot
Heriot
Heriot, from Old English heregeat , was originally a death-duty in late Anglo-Saxon England, which required that at death, a nobleman provided to his king a given set of military equipment, often including horses, swords, shields, spears and helmets...

s, court records, food prices and rent prices, from which inferences can be made.

See also

  • Classical demography
    Classical demography
    Classical demography refers to the study of human demography in the Classical period. It often focuses on the absolute number of people who were alive in civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea between the Bronze Age and the Fall of the Roman Empire, but in recent decades historians have been...

  • Crisis of the Late Middle Ages
    Crisis of the Late Middle Ages
    The Crisis of the Late Middle Ages refers to a series of events in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that brought centuries of European prosperity and growth to a halt...

  • Dark Ages (historiography)
  • Life expectancy
    Life expectancy
    Life expectancy is the expected number of years of life remaining at a given age. It is denoted by ex, which means the average number of subsequent years of life for someone now aged x, according to a particular mortality experience...

  • List of famines
  • List of disasters
  • Little Ice Age
    Little Ice Age
    The Little Ice Age was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period . While not a true ice age, the term was introduced into the scientific literature by François E. Matthes in 1939...

  • Medieval household
    Medieval household
    The medieval household was, like modern households, the centre of family life for all classes of European society. Yet in contrast to the household of today, it consisted of many more individuals than the nuclear family...

  • Migration Period
    Migration Period
    The Migration Period, also called the Barbarian Invasions , was a period of intensified human migration in Europe that occurred from c. 400 to 800 CE. This period marked the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages...

  • Mongol Empire
    Mongol Empire
    The Mongol Empire , initially named as Greater Mongol State was a great empire during the 13th and 14th centuries...

  • Slavery in medieval Europe
    Slavery in medieval Europe
    Slavery in early medieval Europe was relatively common. It was widespread at the end of antiquity. The etymology of the word slave comes from this period, the word sklabos meaning Slav. Slavery declined in the Middle Ages in most parts of Europe as serfdom slowly rose, but it never completely...