Death and the Demographic Transition: a note on English evidence on death 1500-1750
[From Mortality and Immortality: the anthropology and archaeology of death (Academic Press, 1981), eds. S.C.Humphreys and Helen King]
It is very naive to claim to understand men without knowing
what sort of health they enjoyed. But this field the state of the
evidence, and still more the inadequacy of our methods of
research, are inhibitive Infant mortality was undoubtedly very
high in feudal Europe and tended to make people somewhat
callous towards bereavements that were almost a normal
Marc Bloch, 1962: 72
Bloch's statement succinctly raised the three questions which will be
briefly discussed in this paper: What is the "state of the evidence"?
What are the "methods of research"? What is the relationship between
mortality rates and sentiment? These are very large topics upon which
much has been written. But for those who are experts in other
disciplines or other periods it may be useful to draw attention to some
recent developments in the attempts to answer these questions.
It is widely accepted that one of the major transformations in world
history has been the rapid reduction in infant, child and adult mortality
during the so-called "demographic transition'' of the last one hundred
and fifty years. Most human societies for most of history, it is argued,
experienced high mortality, either perennial or in the shape of crises,
which kept their population in long-term equilibrium. Thus most of the
societies investigated by historians, archaeologists or physical anthro-
pologists have experienced crude death rates of over thirty per thousand
and had an expectation of' life at birth of between twenty-five and
thirty-five years. Infant mortality rates have often been above two
hundred per thousand, marriages have lasted on average for about tell
years before being broken by death, most of a person's close relatives
have died by the time he or she reaches the age of twenty. A modern
western society is now in a completely different situation. Crude death
rates of about ten per thousand prevail, with expectation of life at birth
of up to seventy years, infant mortality rates of under twenty-five per
thousand, marriages lasting up to thirty years unless broken by divorce
or separation, and most of a person's close relatives remaining alive
until he or she is in later middle age. Death has very radically altered
its face. Although in the long term. we all die, death appears to be less
unpredictable more controlled. The potential consequences of a
change from a "death-free", to modify Victor Turner's phrase, to a
relatively "death-free" society are immense We may briefly outline
just one of them.
A widespread and superficially attractive theory is that alterations in
mortality patterns will change the whole intellectual and emotional
structure of a society.Thus it is sometimes argued that the decline of
interest in the after-life and in established religion in nineteenth-
century Europe, the movement towards a secular atheism, was related
to the rising control of mortality. Furthermore, it has been argued that
whenever there is a great change in the demographic infrastructure,
then human character and personality will change. We may expand
this argument in relation to the treatment of close relatives.
The French historian Aries (1962: 38-39) provided one version of
an alleged direct connection when he stated:
People could not allow themselves to become too attached to something that
regarded as a probable loss. This is the reason for certain remarks which shock our
present-day sensibility . . . Nobody thought, as we ordinarily think today, that
child already contained a man's personality. Too many of them died.
The theory was given more precise expression by the demographer
David Heer (1968: 454):
There is also a possible connection between the level of mortality and the amount
emotional energy that parents invest in each of their children . . . Where mortality,
high, one might expect parents, in the interest of self-protection, to develop
little emotional involvement in any one child.
This is an argument which has been developed and expanded by recent
historians of the family. A feedback loop has been added to the origin al
thesis. High infant mortality led to a lack of emotional involvement
The consequent lack of care the infant mortality still further. rather.
Another extension of the argument I's to other human relationships.
Husbands and wives dared not invest strongly in their emotional
relationships because of the threat of' death. The subsequent
callousness led to further mortality and insecurity. Even more widely,
the callousness within the family arising from demographic insecurity
led to whole societies in the being inhabited by cold Lind aggressive
individuals, incapable of love and affection. The birth of affection, joy,
spontaneity the demographic revolution.
This is a thesis which was developed specifically in relation to the
history of north-western Europe from the medieval period. But if it is
true there it clearly has implications for all peoples who exist on the
wrong side of revolution in mortality. It is strongly implied that the
relations between parents and children in all "pre -transition"
populations will be cold and lacking in affection or even interest.
Although there is not an absolute and easy correlation, Stone (1977:
It is fairly clear that the relative lack of concern for small infants was closely tied to their
poor expectation of survival and that there is on the average a rough secular correlation between high mortality and low gradient affect. The high gradient affect characteristic
of modern Western societies is unlikely to develop on a mass scale before child and
young adult mortality have declined and before child numbers have been reduced
The second part of the argument was anticipated by a United Nations
publication in 1953 which suggested that increased emotional concen-
tration on children would be one of the beneficial effects of contraception
There are a number of assumptions in this argument which it would
be worth testing. Firstly, it assumes that the high mortality of "stage
one" of the transition theory is universal in "pre-modern'' societies. Secondly, it assumes that "modern" societies exhibit a uniformly loving and tender attitude towards, and treatment
of, children. Thirdly, it assumes that those societies studied by anthro-
pologists in the Third World, or by historians and archaeologists
throughout the world before the nineteenth century, exhibited a
basically identical set of attitudes towards children. This evolutionary
view is vigorously demonstrated in the remark of Lloyd de Mause
The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to
awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused.
It is not within the scope of this brief paper to do more than draw
attention, within the context of part of the history of one country, to
some of the sources and methods we might use in order to approach an
answer to some of the very large questions raised here. As a social
anthropologist I am suspicious of such demographic reductionism
which dismisses the vast effects of religion, ideology, social relations.
economic and political forces, and assumes a direct and easily ascertained
relationship between a Specific demographic feature, mortality, and
individual human psychology. Since there is a very considerable
amount of description of the incidence of and reactions to death in non-
western societies, it would be very possible to test the above propositions
against anthropological findings. Here we will pursue a different path.
inspecting some of the in which one could test theories which are
becoming part of' the established wisdom of many demographers and
I have chosen England during the period 1500-1750 because it
provides an ideal intersection between a society which by all accounts
was still "pre-modern'' in its mortality characteristics, yet which was
highly literate and whose records have survived in more variety and
quantity than any other European country. The evidence which has
survived may be divided for convenience into that bearing on two
levels: reactions to and perceptions of death, in other words the
"normative" level. and the actual incidence of death, the "statistical"
level. Within the general category of "normative", the material may
again be divided into sources which deal with death in general and
those which describe reactions to the deaths of specific individuals.
Each of these sources of evidence has associated problems of interpreta-
tion to which we can do no more than allude.
In answer to the question, "What did people feel about death in this
period and in what way did the feelings change?", an obvious source of-
evidence is the poetry of the period. The famous sonnets of Shakespeare
and Donne are only the most notable examples of a vast literature
devoted to analysing, distancing, humbling or accepting the fact of-
death. Changes in the absorption with death can be charted. Yet every
poem and every line has to be carefully weighed in order to discover the
stylistic and traditional constraints on the expression of thought an I and
emotion. The interpretation of the treatment of death in the golden age
of English drama, in the Elizabethan, .Jacobean and Restoration
tragedies and comedies, is equally difficult. Every emotion from horror
to ridicule Is expressed and quotations supporting almost any inter-
pretation of the attitudes to death could be assembled. The third major
artistic representation of death is in the painting and sculpture of the
period, in the superb funeral monuments and in the paintings such as
the one which depicts in one scene the whole life and the ritual
treatment of the death of Sir Henry Unton, now in the National
Portrait Gallery. Clearly it needs erudition and a deep understanding
of symbolism in order to deal with such representations. Yet they
cannot be neglected if a proper study of death and its repercussions is to
Apparently more straightforward are the direct statements
concerning mortality made by contemporaries. Philosophers constantly
mused on the topic and ire numerous speculations to be found in
the works of men like Raleigh, Bacon., Burton, Hobbes. There was also
a vast pamphlet literature in England during this period in which
writers like John More and George Strode provided "A lively Anatomie
of Death'' (1596), ''The Anatomie of Mortalitie" (1618) and many
other analyses. Shorter versions of this didactic literature appeared in
the numerous printed sermons of the period. General remarks on the
treatment of death in different societies of a kind which are of particular
interest to anthropologists were made by those who travelled, noting
for example that the English and the Highland Scottish treatment of
death was very different. To ignore the speculations of the many great
men who wrote in this sophisticated and literate civilisation is artificially
to delimit our understanding.
Yet it is well known that the general theories and general perceptions
of a phenomenon may be very different from the reactions in specific
cases. For the latter we may turn to equally voluminous evidence. An
obvious source is the class of diaries and autobiographies. Many of'
these contain exquisite accounts of' the reactions of individuals to the
death of others or their own imminent death. To quote just one
reaction, when the nonconformist clergyman Oliver Heywood (1882:
177) lost his wife in 1661 he wrote: ''I want her at every turn. every
where, and in every work. Methinks I am but half my self without
her." Equally, rewarding are contemporary letters mourning,
commiserating, or describing households in mourning. The wishes of
individuals concerning should happen to their bodies after their
death, and their hopes and fears concerning resurrection, can be
investigated through the preambles to wills. Again it is necessary to
cautious since it is known that the introductory words often followed a
standard formula, or that the wording was suggested by the scribe
rather than the testator.
England in the period under review was a highly centralised and
bureaucratised nation with a complex system of overlapping secular
and ecclesiastical Jurisdictions. Death and its consequences were of
major concern to many of' these authorities. Thus we find a vast
amount of evidence concerning the treatment of' death in the various
administrative and judicial records. For instance the ecclesiastical
courts were deeply concerned with death in many ways. To quote just
one example, an Essex man was presented in 1605 "for his unreverent
lewd and most wicked demeanour" because "at what time their vicar
came with the dead corpse with the neighbours to bury'',
the accused "had with shovels put in the earth and so filled up the
grave so as neither in the prayer, or the dead he buried accordingly, to the great offence of all the beholders and the more for that the party to be buried died in childbirth and
could not without great offence many ways remain long above the earth
..." (1) One aspect of death which aroused especial interest was sudden
or "unnatural" death. As well as the coroner's inquests which were to
be held on every sudden death and the trial records in cases of suspected
homicide, there were numerous pamphlet and balled accounts of particularly brutal or tragic deaths.
I have only touched on a few of the more obvious classes of evidence
which give a clue to feelings and attitudes. For the anthropologist there
is a great deal in the and other collections which provide intriguing insights into the
popular treatment of death. There are numerous special sources
which cannot easily be classified. Three of these may be mentioned as
instances: a collection of' the lives and dying remarks of many later
seventeenth-century Quakers; a catalogue of all the people whom a
certain Richard Smyth of' London had known in his life and the
manner of' their dying; an unusual set of parish books for Aldgate in
London from 1558 to 1625 which gives concerning the
deaths of those mentioned (Tomkins and Field, 1721; Ellis, 1849.
Forbes, 1971). Another revealing class of material is that of medical
handbooks, both the general guides to health and disease, and specific
works on subjects such as midwifery.
For anyone interested in the social perception of death and its ritual
treatment there is a life's work in such sources. Many of the questions
posed by anthropologists concerning the function of' ritual, the inter-
pretation of suffering and death, the relations between the world of the
living and the dead, could profitably be explored using such material
Some of these questions have not been asked by historians before but
the methods to be used in the analysis of the material are here
as elsewhere great care is needed in evaluating silences in the sources
the reasons why a document was written, the implicit biases in the
writer's mind, the sources of his or her ideas, But there are particular
difficulties with both the period and the topic. The evidence is much
wider than that for any before 1500 and indeed better than that
for most other nations in the world before 1800. It enables us to ask the
kind of questions a social anthropology would ask of a living society.
Yet many of the ways in which an anthropologist would gather
information and test his preliminary theories are closed to the historian.
Until the studies have been made, it is impossible to generalise with
confidence. But even a preliminary and superficial reading of the
anthropologist that the picture of brutalised society, insecure and
obsessed with mortality, along the lines of the argument suggested
earlier, is not correct. Clearly there are differences in the attitude to
death and there are major swings through the period. But anyone who
has read the literary, legal and autobiographical evidence with a
suggest affection, love, spontaneity and a deep and tragic grief. The
feelings are as strong and poignant as any we find today, the tenderness
as marked. To dismiss the society as cold and brutal is a facile
distortion of the material. Thus the first part of the hypothesis con-
cerning the link between mortality and human emotion and thought
does not fit well. In relation to the second half, namely the nature of
mortality itself, we need to turn to different evidence.
One advantage of a historian is that he can survey a period of two
hundred and fifty years, or even more, whereas most anthropologists
are limited to the ethnographic present. Another advantage is that the
historian usually has a considerable amount of material at the level of
observed behaviour, the statistical level. At this level the questions
change, for we turn our attention to the incidence of death. Is it possible to discern patterns in the age, temporal, sexual or other distribution of mortality?
We may distinguish two major approaches. These may be called single-source and multi-source or, as they are called in relation to parish registers, aggregative and reconstitution studies.
The single-source approach consists of findings a type of record which
directly or indirectly records a death and in placing this death in
relation to other information in the same source. This method was
pioneered in England in the 1950s by Hoskins(1957,1964) and other
local historians, who counted up the totals of burials in parish registers.
Where the registers are missing, it has also been possible to count totals
of registered wills (Fisher,F.J., 1965). Medievalists, who lack direct
records of burials, are forced to use indirect evidence or more socially
restricted documents such as inquisitions post mortem, manorial transfers,
heriots or coroner's inquests (Hollingsworth, 1969). Even in the period
after 1538, when parish registers had been introduced, documents are
lost or missing for certain periods, so it is important to be able to establish
how accurate an impression one would gain of mortality from various
types of source. Aggregative or single-source analysis assumes a calculable
relation between the incidence of reported and actual deaths in the
population under investigation.
Single-source analysis, the totalling of deaths from one source, is a
rough tool. It does not allow, for example, age- and sex-specific rates. In
order to move beyond these figures, the method of linking records.
particularly birth or baptism records with burials, was devised in
France and then developed in England and elsewhere (Wrigley, 1966).
This has given us a new understanding of mortality in early modern
Europe and is currently helping us to recover the precise shape of the
demographic changes of' the last three hundred years. Yet there are
limitations even in this approach. Firstly, there is the question of the
extent to which those people who are recorded in both burial and
baptism records in a specific parish are representative of the whole
population. By definition they come from the least mobile part of the
population who may be different in other ways. Secondly, there are
further questions concerning mortality, especially concerning the
relationship it bears to class, status, mobility, family patterns and
economic fluctuations, which cannot adequately be answered merely
from records of births and-deaths. What is needed is a method of
setting the deaths within the context of all the other records bearing on
the same period. This is the basis of a method which my colleagues and
I have been developing in relation to two English parishes over the
period 1500 to 1750, namely Kirkby Lonsdale in Westmorland and
Earls Colne in Essex. (2)
The two parishes were chosen partly because they each contain
especially good records, a listing of inhabitants in 1695 for Kirkby and
a diary for Colne. They also have good runs of parish registers.
manorial records and the other sources used by local historians.
Furthermore, they provide a good contrast to each other. The parish of
Kirkby Lonsdale is an upland, pastoral one near the northern border of
England while Earls Colne is a lowland, mixed arable and livestock
parish, near London. The combined population of the two parishes
was about three thousand persons during the period of study. All the
accessible and surviving records of the two parishes are being
assembled and indexed. The method of indexing the records by hand
has already been explained elsewhere in some detail (Macfarlane et al.,
1977). Basically it consists of creating cross-reference by name, place
and subject. This makes it possible to "reconstitute" the lives of'
thousands of individuals not just their births and deaths, but also the
social and economic context of these events.
On the basis of such hand reconstitution it is possible, given enough
time, to work out the mortality pattern n the selected
parishes (Wrigley,1968) Some of the evidence used in these studies
has been used by for some time: other material, particularly
listings of inhabitants and the records of ecclesiastical and manorial
courts, has hardly used been by historians until the last few years. The
methodology for bringing such sources together and evaluating their
meaning is just worked our. It is hoped that these developments
will go some way towards overcoming Bloch's objections concerning
the weak state of the evidence and the inadequacy of' the methods of
There are certain limitations in the present hand methods of
analysis. It requires an enormous amount of' labour and time to
reconstitute a parish fully in this way when the records are full.
Another limitation is the slowness of certain types of search through the
hand indexes. It may take a very long time to discover the universe
within which an event occurred, for example how many children aged
less than five there still present in the parish, from a certain socio-
economic level, who were ''at risk" of dying but did nor in fact do
so. We therefore decides to attempt a simultaneous computerised
analysis of the data. We have been designing a system by which it is
possible to put in uncoded and unstructured historical data of all kinds,
in its original from and word order. By adding syntactic marks which
can at any time be altered or removed without affecting the original
historical records, we are able to provide a structure for the computer.
The material from the parish records in this form is stored within a
relational database which has been designed for the project. It can be
interrogated by way of a high-level query language (Harrison et al., 1979).
At present we are designing ways of linking together references to the
same historical individual. for example the same names in a baptism
and a burial, partly by machine and partly by hand.
The results of this intensive local study will have to await further
publication. It will be possible to establish the characteristics of many
of those who died, their age, family position, residence, wealth. By
integrating this material with more general studies and with the sources
already briefly surveyed we will be in a position of which Marc Bloch
could only dream.
1. The case is in book of the Bishop of London's Commissary in Essex
and Hertfordshire, under the date 7 March 1605, now deposited in the
Guildhall Library, London.
2. This project is financed by the Social Science Research Council. I am
grateful to them; and to my colleagues Sara Harrison, Charles Jardine,
Jessica King arid Tim King, members of' the project, for their
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