[From Alan Macfarlane, The Savage Wars of Peace; England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap (Blackwell, 1997)]
This book attempts to solve part of a problem that has haunted me for over
thirty years. My first memory of being really stirred by the question of
the origins of industrial civilization, and in particular the relations between
population and economic development, was as an undergraduate reading history
at Oxford when writing an essay on the causes of the industrial revolution in
England. Surveying the state of the argument as to whether it was rising birth
rates or falling death rates which had led to the surge of population in England
from the middle of the eighteenth century, it appeared that scholars were almost
equally divided on the degree to which population growth was a cause or a
consequence of the industrial revolution in England, and what caused that
growth. I still remember my excitement at discovering a problem which was so
clearly a puzzle to some of the best historians of the period.
It seemed obvious that mortality was dropping, yet all the theories to explain
why this happened were clearly inadequate. 'Higher living standards' seemed
to be important, but what these were was left vague; of particular medical
changes, the disappearance of plague was mentioned though it was not clear why
this had happened; changes in the habits of lice, better nutrition, absence of
war, improvements in hygiene, medical improvements, even a change in the
virulence of disease were canvassed. Scholars appeared to be circling round a
large problem yet unable to resolve it - better at knocking down theories than
building them up. It was possible for me as an undergraduate to show that the
decline of plague had happened too early (it disappeared two generations before
the rapid growth of population); that there was no evidence of viral changes; that
the medical improvements were insignificant, with the possible exception
of smallpox inoculation, that the nutritional improvements were very
questionable, as were improvements in hygiene.
Then there was a similar puzzle in relation to fertility. An almost equal
number of authors believed that this was the crucial variable. But what caused
the rise in fertility? The only reasons given were that it was due to the same
rising living standards which affected fertility, perhaps by allowing people
to marry younger. Yet again the arguments and evidence seemed weak and
Part of the difficulty appeared to be caused by the fact that data on mortality,
nuptiality and fertility was so poor, as it was based on aggregative analysis
(totals of baptisms, marriage and burials from parish registers). I did not then
know that French demographers were developing a new technique, 'family
reconstitution', which would transform our understanding of the past by giving
much more precise statistics on marital fertility, infant mortality and age at
marriage. The method was first applied to English data by E.A.Wrigley in his
work on Colyton in Devon. Along with the exploration of early listings of
inhabitants by Peter Laslett, this made the period of the mid-to-late sixties an
enormously exciting one in English historical demography. The academic work
was given practical relevance by a growing awareness of ecological and demo-
graphic problems at a world level.
Some of the results of these new findings were summarized in my first
publication, an article in New Society (10 Oct. 1968) in which I wrote that 'We
are discovering that there was birth control in Stuart England; that Europe had
a "unique marriage pattern", combining high age at marriage with a large
proportion of never married persons; that the small "nuclear" family predo-
minated in most of the pre-industrial west; that one of the major factors permit-
ting the accumulation of capital and hence industrial expansion in the late
eighteenth century was late marriage and the consequent slow population
growth - roughly one quarter of I per cent per annum in the 200 years before
Despite the new data and frameworks, the questions I had encountered in the
early 1960s were still wide open. It seemed difficult to proceed any further in
solving the large question about the relations between industrialization and
population by remaining within the European context. This was one of the
lessons to be drawn from the great step forward taken when, in 1965, John
Hajnal published his essay on the European marriage pattern. (1) By setting the
west European marriage data alongside that for eastern Europe and Asia, he was
able to see both the major peculiarities of the west (late age at marriage and
selective marriage) and the fact that there was a pattern or system. On a more
limited scale a number of other demographers made such contrasts within
Europe, for instance Wrigley between France, England and Scandinavia.
Thus it became clear that only through a wider method of contrast would many
(1) Hajnal, Marriage Patterns.
of the central features of the English demographic past become visible at all.
In order to broaden my framework into a comparative one I went to Nepal in
December 1968 for fifteen months, to work as an anthropologist among a people
called the Gurungs.
It is difficult to analyse the effects of this experience, and of nine further
trips between 1986 and 1995, in altering the way I approached the English past.
Much of the influence was at a deep level of perceptual shift which alters both
the questions one asks and the implicit comparisons one has in mind when
Witnessing the perennial problem of disease, the sanitary arrangements, the
illness of young children, the difficulties with water, the flies and worms, the
gruelling work and the struggle against nature in a mountain community made
clear to me, In a way that books or even films alone could never do, some of the
realities which the English and Japanese faced historically.(2) Of course it was
different. Each culture is different. But to feel in the blood and heart and to
see with one's eyes how people cope with a much lower amount of energy,
medical care and general infrastructure makes one aware of many things.
Without this experience I know that I could not have written this book. Trapped
in late-twentieth-century western affluence it would be impossible to feel or
know much of what has been important to the majority of humans through
history. Watching and studying a village over the years also makes one more
deeply aware, as does all anthropological work, of the interconnectedness of
things, the holistic view of a society.
It is important to stress this experience, for in the body of this text Nepal is
scarcely mentioned despite the fact that much of what I have seen when exam-
ining England and Japan has become visible by setting them against a backdrop
of Nepal. De Tocqueville once explained, my work on America.... Though
I seldom mentioned France, I did not write a page without thinking of her, and
placing her as it were before me.' (3) Nepal helped me to understand the Japanese
case, which I shall shortly describe, and Japan helped me to get England into
perspective. A straight, two-way, comparison of either England-Nepal or Japan-
England would not have been enough.
At the theoretical level, the Nepalese experience enabled me to look at
England, and indeed the whole of western Europe, from the outside and to see
more clearly its demographic and economic peculiarities. In the last chapter of
my book Resources and Population I tried to characterize these peculiarities by
developing a model which incorporated both the work of European historical
demographers and my Nepalese data. The model, further modified in chapter 1
(2) My general account of the society is in Macfarlane, Resources; a preliminary account of the medical situation is in Macfarlane, Disease.
(3) De Tocqueville, Memoir, 1, 359.
of this book, differentiated between what I called 'crisis' regimes, such as that in
Nepal in the past, where the rapid rise in population over the last hundred years
was due to the elimination of war, famine and epidemic disease, and 'homeos-
tatic' regimes, such as England in the past, where fluctuation in population were
mainly due to changes in fertility rates.
When I returned with a whole set of new data, the English historical world
began to look different. The work of Wrigley, Laslett and others inspired me to
undertake my own family reconstitution studies to help resolve the puzzles.
But since it was clear that demography was embedded in the wider economic
and social context, Sarah Harrison and I developed a technique of 'total
reconstitution' which used all the surviving documents of a community .(4) This
enabled us to reconstruct the parish of Earls Colne and to a lesser extent Kirkby
Lonsdale in Cumbria. A number of the factual questions were resolved by this
method and one could make some progress.
The combination of a large data collecting and analysis exercise and the
pressures of starting to teach anthropology meant that I only came up for air
in 1977 and it was then that I explicitly realized that my perception of English
history had completely changed. Using the comparative anthropological
framework, I suspected that much of the theory which had been developed to
understand English history since the 1950s needed revision.
In 1977, 1 was tugged away from the themes of marriage, family and fertility
about which I had long been brooding and felt compelled to write The Origins of
English Individualism which represents a re-assessment of aspects of English
history in the light of my Nepalese experience and of my growing immersion in
comparative anthropology. Hardly had the main writing of this book been
finished when I returned to the subject of English fertility, in particular
reflecting on what effects my shift of interpretation of the English past had on
my understanding of that part of the demographic puzzle concerned with
Looking back, my book on English individualism helped to break a deadlock
in my own thought. Wrigley and Hajnal had shown that the marriage and
fertility side of the English situation were very important. But the puzzle of why
there was this unusual marriage pattern remained. It seemed that peasantry, or
a domestic mode of production, was deeply association with high fertility and a
low age at marriage. Yet England deviated from this. The assumption that the
English had been 'peasants' in the normal anthropological sense appeared to be
wrong. The general theory connecting high fertility and peasantry remained, it
was just that England might well be an exception.
In essence, I began to understand why fertility was often low and attuned to
(4) Macfarlane et al., Reconstructing Historical Communities, and for the documents themselves, published and indexed in full, the Earls Colne microfiche.
the needs of a market economy in England. In true 'peasant' societies, based on
the domestic mode of production, to expand family size was rational. In
England, with its early concepts of private property and individual rights, there
were considerable 'costs' in having children. These ideas were expanded and
published in my book on Marriage and Love in England 1300-1840 (1986) in
which I attempted to explain the reasons for the unusual demographic history of
England and in particular that part concerned with restrained fertility.
It had become obvious since Hajnal's work that the key lay in the European
marriage system and in particular a late and selective marriage pattern which
could be varied in some sort of complex relation to the economy. I explored the
various pressures which lay behind a system which Thomas Malthus recognized
in his discussions of the 'preventive check' in the second edition of his Principles
of Population. In the final chapter I attempted to show how marriage was linked
to economic growth, and arose out of the early capitalist and individualistic
nature of English society which I had described in Individualism. With this book
I felt I had come to grips with the conundrum which Wrigley had identified -
how did the marriage system work and what were its correlates.
The other half of the problem, that concerning mortality, had not been
addressed. I had noted that historically English mortality patterns seemed to
be unusual. (5) Yet I had made no progress in analysing this other side of the
demographic puzzle. This was partly because the difficulty of solving the
problems in the field of mortality were even greater than those in relation to
fertility. With fertility, the mechanism of how certain levels were maintained in
Western Europe had become clear after Hajnal's paper. In the case of mortality
none of the arguments put forward to explain the sudden decline in English
mortality from the middle of the eighteenth century carried conviction. We
knew that it happened, but we did not know either how or why it happened.
With fertility, one is mainly out in the open, dealing with visible human
motivations and institutions. With mortality, the solutions are less visible,
involving complex chains of bacteria and viruses affected by many human and
Apart from posing fresh questions by suggesting a great contrast between the
English and Asian case, the Nepalese experience did not really help in its
solution. Nepal's rapid population growth from the middle of the nineteenth
century confirmed that medical improvements were not needed for population
growth to occur. It showed that the elimination of war and famine was enough
to let natural fertility cause a doubling of the population in each generation. But
none of this really helped with the English puzzle. I had come to an insurmount-
able obstacle and it was only a chance invitation to visit Japan in 1990 that
opened up another way of approaching the problem.
(5) Macfarlane, Culture, 15,5-6.
I had long been struck by the similarity of England and Japan. Both were
islands, both passed through an authentic 'feudal' period, both were noted for a
puritanical form of world religion, and both became pioneers of industrialization
in their respective regions. As I studied and re-visited Japan in the 1990s, the
similarity in the shape of the population graph in England and Japan and the fact
that both seemed, early on, to have separated production and reproduction
suggested that it might be worth investigating the matter further.
What was particularly intriguing was that there now seemed to be two
exceptions to the 'normal' population patterns, as represented by Nepal. By
investigating these two cases side by side, might it be possible to resolve some
of those problems which still baffled historians and demographers?
The possibility of real advance was made more likely by the rapid
developments in social and demographic knowledge in both England and Japan.
The general shape of what had happened in England was becoming much
clearer, especially through the publication in 1981 of E.A.Wrigley and Roger
Schofield's Population History of England. Furthermore, the work of a number of
Japanese and foreign scholars, who had applied the methods of European
demographers to the voluminous Japanese records, particularly that of
Hayami, Saito, Yamamura, Hanley, Thomas Smith and, more recently in
relation to epidemics, Jannetta, now made a real comparison possible for the first
In this book I start by looking at the major problem to be solved: how were
some nations able to break out of the Malthusian trap of war, famine and
disease? War and famine are the obvious starting place since their containment
was the foundation upon which any sustained development would be built. If a
country is subject to war or constantly ravaged by famine, or, more often, by
both, there is little chance of proceeding to a level where the next threat,
epidemic disease, can be overcome.
It is not too difficult to see how, through the chance of islandhood, England
and Japan escaped from the interlinked curses of war and famine. But though
this gave them an advantage it is still very difficult to understand how they
increasingly avoided epidemic disease. While it was known that a number of
diseases did decline in England from the later seventeenth century, and in Japan
some centuries earlier, none of the possible causes for the decline seemed
There seemed few grounds for believing that the mortality decline could be
the result of medical improvements, of environmental changes, of changes in the
virulence of disease organisms, or even improvements in nutrition. It was much
easier to prove that each cause was insufficient; even combined they could not be
shown to lead to the decline that was to be explained.
In attempting to find an explanation I have adopted several strategies. Having
dealt with war and famine as two parts of the mortality pattern, I decided to
distinguish the various classes of disease. The obvious division was between the
ways in which diseases were transmitted. Here I followed Macfarlane Burnett's
distinction between three of the major branches of infectious diseases: those
passing through water and food, those borne by insect or other vectors, and
those travelling through the air.(6)
By examining each class of disease in parallel in England and Japan I found
that a new set of questions emerged. For instance, the absence or presence of
certain diseases in Japan threw light on the situation in England and vice versa.
It became clear that the differences were the result of material and cultural
features of the environment. The shock of difference led the search towards a
number of aspects of the environment which would have remained largely
invisible if one had remained within one culture area.
I felt that the way to proceed was to see which environmental factors were
associated with each of the major branches of disease. This approach worked
reasonably well with those bacterial diseases which are directly affected by
human practices such as the keeping of animals, the nature of clothing, eating,
washing and so on. Yet even when an explanation was given of how a certain set
of environmental factors caused the rise or decline of a disease, there was often
an area of cultural practice which in turn needed explanation. In the final section
on disease I deal with those diseases which are most difficult to explain, namely
the air-borne epidemics where the direct environmental approach seemed less
likely to be fruitful.
The lowering of mortality was only one part of the escape. Having achieved
less than maximum mortality a country was faced with the second of the
Malthusian traps - runaway population growth. Malthus had foreseen that
humans sometimes achieve, through a windfall resource or a new technology, a
temporary lowering of their death rate for a generation or two. But this would
shortly be offset by a rapid rise in population as the perennial high fertility rate
operated. This would in turn bring them face-to-face with war, famine and new
kinds of disease. How could this second trap be avoided?
Having established that English and Japanese fertility seems to have been
kept well below the theoretical maximum over long periods at a time when
wealth was increasing, I examine the three ways in which this could be achieved.
I begin with exposure to sexual intercourse, that is the pattern of marriage and
sexual relations which brings women and men together. I then look at the
impediments to conception, in other words the biological factors (such as sick-
ness, work strain, lactation) and contraceptive technologies which prevent
conception in the first place. I then look at the third area, that is the treatment
of unwanted conceptions, in particular abortion and infanticide. Yet even
when I had established the different mechanisms used in the two countries
(6) Burnett, Infectious, ch.8.
which led to their lowered fertility, there was still the question of motivation,
which I discuss in relation to heirship.
The difference between research and writing creates a contradiction which it
may be helpful for readers to be aware of. As I proceeded I became more and
more aware of the symbiotic relations between all aspects of what I was studying.
This was true of the relations between different types of disease, for instance the
vector-borne and water-borne diseases. It was true of the relation between
mortality and fertility, for example the ways in which infants were fed was
important in both respects. The interrelations between war, famine and disease
were equally strong. The connections and mutual inter-effects of housing,
clothing and hygiene were very powerful. My central theme became the
complex set of links between hitherto apparently rather remotely connected
Yet the book has to 'murder to dissect', to split apart in order to be read
sequentially. Only in the conclusion is it possible to bring all the threads
together by considering the chains of cause and consequence which led to the
unusual outcome whose effects we see around us now. I make some conjectures
about the extent to which the developments suggest conscious design or random
chance, in other words how far they indicate the Darwinian process of 'blind
variation and selective retention'. Thus, starting with Malthus we end with