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:

82) argues:


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

by contraception.


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

(1953: 80).


    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

(1974: 1):


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

social historians.

      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

be made.


          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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