[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

evaluating evidence.

     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

non-human forces.


     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