Despite a life expectancy atMiddle Ages which remains low (25 years on average because of a very high infant mortality), the European population experienced from the 10th century to the end of the 13th an undeniable period of demographic growth. Talk about population growth at a time marked by wars, famine and epidemics may seem incongruous. However, an increase in the population has stimulated economic activity, contributing both to the increase in agricultural and artisanal production and to a boom in towns and trade ...
What demographic growth?
It is first of all the way of measuring population growth that raises questions. This is done mainly by using indirect sources, except for the English exception and its Domesday Book (census in the form of a large inventory completed in 1086 and carried out for William the Conqueror) which is nevertheless difficult to use. According to demographer Josuah Russel, there is an average of 3.6 people per family in England in the Middle Ages. These figures remain much lower than those found on the Carolingian continent at the same time and which are of the order of 5 or 6. These figures are obtained by reconstructing the genealogies if they exist or by studying the witness lists at the bottom of the acts. The clearings and new villages that were founded during the period still support these estimates (although a lord could quite easily organize clearings to increase his income without being linked to a real increase in population).
European population growth also experienced a sudden change in pace at the turn of the millennium.
End of the 13th century
European population estimate according to Russell and Benet in millions of inhabitants
The figures put forward by Benet seem the most plausible. It is estimated that in France, the population rose from 5 million inhabitants to 9.2 million between the end of the 10th century and the end of the 12th century. In Italy, the population drops from 5 million to 8 million. In England the population rose from 2.2 million at the end of the 11th century to 6 million around 1300. It was estimated at 800,000 inhabitants in the 8th century.
The trend at the start of the millennium is thus towards a strong increase, and in particular in the north. The birth rate does not appear to have increased, however, with the average number of children per family remaining almost the same. It is estimated that there are 5 children per fertile household and 30% are single or households without children. The rate of natural increase thus fluctuates between 0.3 and 0.6% on average per year.
Life expectancy in the middle ages
Food shortages and famines persist but are less numerous. Infant mortality remains quite high, however, the proportions of children dying before the age of 20 remained the same in the 13th century in the Capetian royal family as in the Carolingian royal family in the 9th century. In the latter, 45% of children died before the age of 20. Blanche of Castile (13th century) thus lost 7 of the 12 children she had. We can assume that the proportion was even higher in other circles. Studies made from Hungarian cemeteries show that infant mortality remained stable between the 10th and 14th centuries. 40 to 46% of the skeletons were skeletons of children under the age of 14.
Furthermore, life expectancy at birth remains low (30 years, although this is not the average life). No Capetian king has reached the age of 60, while Carolingian kings have died aged over 60. (Charlemagne, Louis II or even Charles the Bald). There is therefore no noticeable improvement in this area.
This increase in population in the middle ages is therefore mainly due to the cumulative effect of growth. The peak of population growth was reached between 1290 and 1347 on the eve of the great plague. We are then in what is called a "full world". The West does not seem to be able to feed more people given the technical conditions of the time. It's a saturated world.
A young and dynamic population
In the Middle Ages, the population is quite young, half of Europeans being under 20 years old. These young people enter adulthood very quickly. The legal majority is between 12 and 15 years old. Marriage is precocious except in aristocratic circles when the marriageable age of younger brothers is delayed. Among the peasants, however, one crumbs before 20 years. We work young, sometimes from 5-6 years in children.
The European population is also very mobile, especially among the peasantry. Migration often takes place over short distances, from village to village or from village to nearest town. They are measured by the multiplication of the number of guests in the villages (foreigners or at least people who have arrived recently). The beginning of the second millennium of the modern era is also the witness of the premises of urban immigration. The growth of the urban population is indeed very strong and hardly occurs by natural growth. The living conditions in the cities are however appalling (hygiene, food…).
The premises of urban immigration in the Middle Ages
It is in the catchment area of market-oriented cities that this growth is strongest, and those experiencing the strongest growth. These generally do not exceed 30 to 40 km (example of the city of Arras).
But there are also more distant trips. In the Middle Ages, certain regions such as Brittany remained areas of emigration until the 19th century. French people are present in Spain. The Flemish and the Dutch go to the north of Germany while the Germans migrate to eastern Europe. The study of these migratory flows calls for an increase in populations towards more eastern and sparsely populated regions. These displacements, which do not represent considerable masses of populations, nevertheless contribute to the relative mobility of the European population.
- Josiah C. Russell, "Population in Europe", in Carlo M. Cipolla, ed., The Fontana Economic History of Europe, Vol. I: The Middle Ages, (Glasgow: Collins / Fontana, 1972)
- C. Warren Hollister & Judith Bennett, Medieval Europe: A Short History, McGraw-Hill Humanities, 2005
- Population and demography in the Middle Ages by Olivier Guyotjeannin. 1995.