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The Demographic History of the Northern European Countries in the Eighteenth Century

H. Gille
Population Studies
Vol. 3, No. 1 (Jun., 1949), pp. 3-65
DOI: 10.2307/2172491
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2172491
Page Count: 63
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The Demographic History of the Northern European Countries in the Eighteenth Century
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Abstract

The remarkable statistics of the Northern countries available for the greater part of the eighteenth century give demographers valuable information on population structure and developments two hundred years ago, information which cannot be obtained from other sources. In many respects the structure of the population in the Northern countries differed fundamentally from that prevailing nowadays in the same areas. Thus the age distribution was quite different, with comparatively many young people; a large proportion of the adult population were married because nuptiality was high not only among spinsters and bachelors but also among widowed persons; legitimate fertility was high and illegitimate fertility low; and mortality was high, especially infant mortality. It is significant that although the death-rates were between two and three times as high as to-day and the expectation of life was only about half the present, the biological vitality of the population of the eighteenth century was higher than now because of the rather high fertility. But when comparing the demographic conditions of the eighteenth century with those of our time, it must be remembered that it is a question of two very different kinds of community. In the eighteenth century the rural population was completely dominant, and the existing towns were of very small size, especially in Finland and Norway. Changes from year to year in population growth were frequently very great. In particular, bad economic conditions, widespread epidemics, etc. had a marked influence on the population, though the effects were generally of rather short duration and a reaction usually occurred in the next few years. The main cause of the changes in population development was changes in economic conditions, and harvest results were of special importance. Not only do mortality and nuptiality seem to have been influenced but also fertility, and birth control may not have been without importance in the Northern countries during the period. It is evident that the population in the eighteenth century was usually at the optimum, and was easily thrust above it. Food shortages for even a few years usually resulted in a fall in population growth and perhaps even in a reduction of the total population. However, the connexion between economic conditions and the fluctuations in the vital rates should not be exaggerated, as other factors, known and unknown, may have been of importance. Epidemics played a part in limiting population growth but they do not seem to have been a result of population pressure itself, as they were largely present throughout the period. In years of bad food conditions, the epidemics spread more widely and with more serious results because of the lowered resistance of the population. Thus food conditions must be regarded as the main regulator. Looking at the period as a whole, the range of population movement was rather narrow. The death-rate (and the data for Sweden show that this was also true of the age-specific mortality rates and the life table death-rates for that country) was stationary or falling slightly from the 1740's to the 1780's. The fall then became rather more evident and this trend continued into the next century. The marriage-rate fell during the second half of the eighteenth century, but at the end of the period and during the greater part of the next century the degree of fall was very limited and the marriage-rate became almost stationary. The birth-rate showed a downward trend from the middle of the eighteenth century (perhaps with the exception of Denmark, where the birth-rate seems to have been more nearly stationary) until about 1840, when it rose for some two decades before embarking on the long-term decline which extended into our present century. (In Sweden the total fertility rate showed a decline during the second half of the eighteenth century and then an almost unchanged level until the beginning of this new, long term fall.) Finally, the rate of population growth, looked at as a whole, was relatively constant over the whole period and continued so during the nineteenth century until the 1860's--though there may have been a slight upward trend in Denmark and Norway.

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