Population, welfare and economic change in Britain, 1290-1834

review by David Hitchcock (Canterbury Christ Church University)

book edited by Chris Briggs, P.M. Kitson & S. J. Thompson

‘Population, welfare and economic change in Britain, 1290-1834’ is published by Boydell and Brewer. SAVE  25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 14th June 2019. See below for details.



This edited volume emerged from a 2011 Cambridge conference held in honour of Richard Smith, and collects expanded versions of eleven papers presented to honour Smith’s scholarly contributions, not least his long tenure at the helm of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. In the introduction, the editors assert that the book is fundamentally about ‘the historical contexts of demographic decisions broadly defined: decisions about marriage, migration, household formation, retirement, child-bearing, work, and saving’ (p. 2). In practice however the eleven contributors speak to a necessarily narrower range of scholarly concerns. The bulk of the chapters revolve around either demographic reconstruction, in the classic Cambridge Group style, and mainly by using English evidence, or around systemic quantification of poor relief mechanisms such as workhouses and outdoor relief (Boulton), legislation (Thompson), relief to the aged (Williams), or Almshouses (Goose and Yates). E.A. Wrigley and R.W. Hoyle offer a summative and speculative chapter respectively which bookend the volume. Wrigley’s opening chapter reprises the now classic Hajnal essay on European marriage patterns in light of new evidence and offers a survey of the present state of scholarship on the divergent demographies of early modern North-West versus South-East Europe. Wrigley remains broadly convinced of the efficacy of the ‘North-Western marriage pattern’ thesis (p. 26). Hoyle returns to Alan Macfarlane’s once-controversial contention that the peculiarly individualistic distribution of English property rights meant that long-term single family ownership of the same set of landed estates was limited (p. 308), and he pronounces Macfarlane’s argument largely true for land ownership, and his final chapter then elaborates on the implications of English individualism for other types of economic activity, namely trade and agriculture.

The collection has a five-chapter section devoted to poor relief. Several of these chapters seem to offer addendums to work already in print and there is a distinct focus on locality, for instance, Samantha Williams’ work on support for the elderly in Bedfordshire, and her production of ‘pauper biographies’, can be found in full in her book-length study of Campton parish (p. 130). Julie Marfany adds Catalonian data to the debate over regional differences in European poor relief. Jeremy Boulton interrogates the intriguing unanswered question of the long-term resilience of outdoor relief after the advent of the 1723 workhouse test (p. 153); he does so using the voluminous records of St Martins-in-the-fields with which he and others have been working since at least 2004. These chapters demonstrate the value of substantive, and in the case of Boulton, decade-long engagements with discrete sets of microhistorical material. I question the rather pat neatness of the ‘decision tree’ graph of poor relief decisions offered by Boulton (p. 184) but still consider it a useful summarizing schema. I am less convinced by S.J. Thompson’s keyword-based quantification of poor relief statutes, in a chapter ostensibly about Malthusian theories of population and their relationship to Corporations of the Poor (p. 192). Some of these keywords seem rather under-represented in the findings, for example vagrancy and settlement statutes modified or created very different judicial powers from local acts that created Corporations, but this quite important qualitative distinction seems lost here. Certain very useful regional findings do emerge, but they sit uncomfortably beside a discussion of population and poor relief in Suffolk; I think the chapter would work well solely as a discussion of one subject or the other.

The chapters which offer demographic reconstructions and then analyses of these datasets comprise the second main group of material in the volume. Bruce Campbell and Lorraine Barry’s use of GIS produces an impressive new map of the geographical distribution of the population of the three kingdoms in 1290 (p. 65) using ecclesiastical taxatio records from 1291. However, the ensuing discussion of demography in the nineteenth century seems to stretch the chapter beyond the boundaries of its admittedly excellent medieval datasets (p. 69). Though speaking as a layman, I am sceptical that demographers can estimate the 1290 population of Scotland from 1801 census records, particularly given the noted absence of early modern parochial records to use for regression, though I understand the usefulness of the speculative exercise (p. 52). Rebecca Oakes’ chapter reconstructs the effects of place of origin on the mortality rates of late medieval monks in Winchester, Oxford and Westminster monastic communities. The findings map broadly onto the current historiography of mortality for the period, though I would have liked to see rather more on the impact of broader qualitative conditions such as climate and urban development, two critical influences on the profile of pre-modern plague epidemics. Tracy Dennison’s chapter on the institutional contexts of Russian serfdom proved interesting reading though it seemed disconnected from the volume’s wider and mainly English project.

To conclude, this volume’s main contributions can be divided in two: first, a wide range of impressive (and impressively visualized) datasets that speak to the ‘choices and constraints’ (p. 2) of economic life between 1290 and 1834, and second, a set accessible of reassessments of quite dense historiographical debates. E.A. Wrigley’s chapter in particular stands out as useful in this regard. Despite some small caveats, I found the scholarship rigorous and engaging, though we can hardly expect less of the group which reconstructed the historical population of England and Wales.



SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code B125 online hereOffer ends 14th June 2019. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Any queries please email marketing@boydell.co.uk


Note: this post appeared as a book review article in the Review. We have obtained the necessary permissions.


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