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Medieval Population

Medieval Population - It's Rise and Decline

Why might you be asked a question on it? (ie. Historiography) 

Traditionally people believed that the medieval population grew steadily until it was checked by the Black Death in 1348. Then in the 1930s Postan used Malthusian theory to argue that the population was already in decline by that point. [Malthus? The idea that over population leads to “land hunger”; there isn’t enough land to support the population. So there must a positive mortality check or a preventive fertility check as a result of the declining standards of living.] This view has since been challenged; Russell and Harvey argue that the population *was* sustainable and continued to grow until the exogenous check of the plague. 

How can we tell what the population was doing anyway? 

There are no accurate figures. Lack of records renders all absolute numbers estimates at best. Using the 1086 Domesday survey – which didn’t cover all of England and listed only tenants not subtenants – and the 1377 poll tax returns – which were widely evaded and only counted over 14s – historians realistically estimate that the population in 1086 was between 1-2 million and in 1347 was between 4-7 million. (Counting backwards from c. 2.5-3million in 1377 – obviously depends on individual interpretations of the impact of plague too…)

So we need to look elsewhere. Postan, Ricardo and economic historians like Hatcher, Miller and Titow suggest looking at the ratio of people to land resources. If their theory is correct the holding size per head would decrease throughout the period regardless of transfer of demesne and colonisation. Harvey and Russell encourage a more complex approach – land holding size isn’t everything! Look at animals, or trade in the area.

General Figures: 

  • 1086-1315: Recorded households at Fleet increased 62x. (Hatcher) 
  • Population density reached almost 300 per square mile in some parts of the country by 1300. 
  • Growth in chevage payments (showing land hunger). EG. Forncett Manor, Norfolk there were 100 anlepimen pa between 1275 and 1300. 
  • The population of Norwich City grew from 16,000 in 1310 to 25,000 in 1333. 
  • In Kineton Hundred (S.E.Warwickshire) the landholding population hardly grew at all. On some manors it was actually smaller in 1279 compared to 1086! (Hatcher) 


Rents, cash paid for land 

  • Postan et al claimed they rose, proving the existence of land hunger. For example on the Winchester manor of Fonthill entry fines rose from 1s-1s8d per virgate in 1214 to 8s+ after 1277. 
  • Merchet fines (to marry widows w/ land) also rose dramatically. John Attepond paid £3.6s.8d in Cottenham. The same year Henry Waveney paid 2s. for a marriage licence for his landless daughter. 
  • BUT. Winchester estates not typical (v. conservative). On the Ramsey estates the highest entry fine for the period 1290-1320 was 5m (£3.6s.8d) for a virgate (c. 30 acres) compared to the £10 Postan found on the Winchester estates. 
  • Outsiders paid more than the locals. For example Henry Osbern paid £6.13s.4d at Halesowen instead of the customary 6s.8d in 1294 for half a virgate. (Razi) 
  • Entry fines were often flexible, eg. At Chalgrave 1281-90 a son paid 13s.4d to succeed his father in half a virgate. A daughter taking up a similar holding from her mother paid just 6s.8d. 


Size of Holdings 

  • If Postan is correct the size of holdings will significantly decrease across this period. Eg. The Winchester tithing penny records show that, in Taunton, there were 3.3 acres of arable land per adult male in 1248, but only 2.5 acres in 1311 despite transfer of demesne land. 
  • Land is transferred from desmesne, and unused land was colonised and converted to arable. Eg. Royal forests were sold off. 23,000 acres of Walland marshes in Kent were “inned” for this purpose. 
  • 1235 Statute of Merton makes it easier for lords to sell off common land (so long as they leave sufficient pasture for free tenants) 
  • BUT. Technology. 
  • Economic diversity. 
  • Homans claimed that peasants had to inherit land in order to be able to marry and sustain a family. In Boughton however 23% of resident families in the period 1288-1340 had more than one son who acquired land. Despite plot splitting 49% of families 1280 – 1549 had a child who married between the ages of 18 and 22 at Halesowen. (Early marriage = indicator of economic prosperity) 
  • No consensus over how much land was needed. Harvey claims industry would mean a plot of 2 acres was perfectly sustainable in Cornwall. 

Marginal Land 

  • Poor soil quality. Eg. Sandy soils of Breckland. 
  • Soil exhaustion, eventually leads to vacant land. Eg. 50 acres at Pickering in 1326. 
  • Geographically marginal. Eg. Kent marsh intakes only usable with regular uneconomic applications of manure. Bishop of Ely’s reclaimed land was prone to frequent flooding according to 1251 records. 
  • Markets were volatile and unstable. Eg. Between 1280 and 1350 grain prices fluctuated an average of 26.6% pa. 
  • Few peasants had a planned production strategy, they just sold their surpluses. 
  • In times of crisis manufactured goods (eg. Glass from the Forest of Dean) was hard to sell. Such industrialised areas then bore the full strain of not being able to produce satisfactory food crops. 
  • BUT. In Cornwall plots of 2 acres were the norm. But 1 in 10 adults worked in the tin mining industry. Yields weren’t inevitably poor, there were higher labour to land ratios. Eg. 6x higher than on demesne land in E.Norfolk. Also draught animal to land ration was higher – Downham court rolls suggest that many C14th peasants owned some. Of all peasant animals wandering illegally onto sown land 42% were horses.


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