In Britain before the 18th century, the government was wholly ignorant of the number of people living in the country, and estimates of, for instance, how much revenue a tax would bring, were founded on mere guesswork. This condition of ignorance continued even longer in other countries. Nevertheless, we can be certain that up to 90% of the population in all countries were peasant farmers: independent freeholders, slaves, and all conditions in between. (Many words of abuse, like villainous, churlish or boorish, only mean to behave like a farmer!). Cities like Athens, Rome, Constantinople and Paris were, as Marx said, “parasitic on the countryside”. The reason was that agriculture was not very productive (perhaps only 3 grains were harvested for every one sown), and a single bad harvest could bring famine. Also, many non-farmers were in economically unproductive roles: priests, soldiers etc.
It has been suggested that the Roman Empire had a population of around 70 million at peak, around 150 A.D. This enabled Rome to sustain an army of half a million. (By comparison, 18th century France had a wartime army of comparable size with half the population, suggesting that France was twice as economically productive). The population of the Roman Empire had probably fallen to 50 million by 400 A.D., as a result of plague, devastating civil wars and barbarian invasions. The population of Britain in Roman times was perhaps 1 to 2 million.
The European population probably reached its lowest around 540, as a result of these same problems plus serious climate change. There were at least one, perhaps two, major volcanic eruptions at this time (Krakatoa or Tambora perhaps?), bringing cold and wet conditions which might have persisted for many years. The climate may not have recovered till the mid-7th century.
The climate was warmer in Viking and Norman times: grapes were grown in Yorkshire, and the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” records droughts rather than freezing winters. The milder climate enabled the Viking voyages to Iceland, Greenland and North America, and down the great rivers of Russia to Constantinople. The next generation of Viking descendants went from their settlement in Normandy (“The land of the Norsemen”) to Britain and to Sicily, and the generation after that to the Crusades!
Our main source for the population of England at this time is, of course, the Domesday Book, compiled in 1085. It did not cover all of England (for example, not Yorkshire or London), and it recorded only the number of households in each village, with no indication of the size of families. It is guessed that the population of England at the time might have been perhaps 1 ½ million. From here, the population grew steadily, to reach perhaps 4 million before the demographic disaster of the 14th century.
Everyone has heard of the Black Death, which struck in mid-century, but it seems clear that trouble had begun well before then, as once again the climate changed and the “little ice age” set in. Probably Britain already had as high a population as could be sustained, even in good years, by the primitive economic conditions of the time; very marginal land was being cultivated, and there are reports of disastrous famines. Then bubonic plague reached the south coast of England in 1348, and had spread to the extremes of Scotland and Ireland by 1350. Death-rates probably varied between 20% and 60%, the highest being in London. Perhaps 1 ½ million died in four years. The population total did not recover till Elizabethan times, and the sown area was not equalled till the reign of Victoria.
Bubonic plague remained endemic until the late 17th century, with outbreaks every few years. Population levels only began to rise sharply after its disappearance.
In 1500 the population of England and Wales was about 3 ½ million. It was thus a small, thinly-populated country. By comparison, France had 12 million, Spain 6 ½ million, the Holy Roman Empire (effectively Germany, consisting of many small states) 13 million, Northern Italy (several small states) 6 million, Poland 8 million, and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which included the Balkans, 12 million.
There were no cities with a population of over 120,000 in Europe or the Mediterranean area. The largest, with populations of 80,000 or more, were Constantinople, Cairo, Naples, Venice, Milan and Paris. The largest cities in the world were in China.
There were in operation by this time a number of inventions unknown to the Romans: windmills, the blast furnace, the printing press, gunpowder, and (a lesser but really useful piece of simple technology) the spinning wheel; but probably economic productivity hadn’t improved very much since Roman times. Central and Eastern Europe was now integrated with the west. The Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent was a serious threat to Europe: in 1526 the Turks destroyed the kingdom of Hungary at the battle of Mohacs and swept northwards to attack as far as Vienna. The Venetian-held islands in the eastern Mediterranean fell to the Turks one by one, and pirates from the Algerian coast, in alliance with the Turks, terrorised the coasts. From 1520 the Holy Roman Empire was to be split by the Reformation, and permanently weakened. For the next century, Europe would be engulfed by religious wars.
If a Martian had observed Earth around 1500, it is most unlikely that he would have predicted that over the next few centuries European civilisation would come to dominate the world. If he was looking for a future world leader, he would probably have picked the Ottomans, or perhaps Ming China or Mughal India. But he would have been wrong!
Consider also the geographical situation. Until this time, the world as known to Europeans consisted only of Europe itself, the North African coast and the Near East, with vague stories derived from Marco Polo concerning a land called “Cathay” somewhere far to the east. Britain was only an insignificant collection of islands on the extreme fringe of the known world; thinly populated and of small concern to the greater powers.
But then look what happened! As ships started to cross the Atlantic to America, and round the Cape to the Far East, suddenly Britain was more at the centre of things! The same applied to Holland, which only became an independent nation at the end of the 16th century. Spain and Portugal were the first states to profit from the new discoveries, but after 1600 were to be supplanted by England, Holland and France.
At the end of the 17th century, Gregory King conducted his own survey of the population of England and Wales. I have outlined his findings in an earlier Blog entry.
King estimated the population of England and Wales at 5 ½ million. He did not investigate the rest of the British Isles; but it is guessed that Ireland had about 2 ½ million and Scotland 1 million.
By comparison: France had 19 million, Spain 9 million, the Holy Roman Empire 13 million, the Austrian Empire 11 million, northern Italy 8 million, Poland 9 million, and Russia, which was now expanding into Siberia, 15 million. The biggest state by far was the Ottoman Empire, which now included the Balkans, Iraq and Egypt, 25 million.
The total population of Europe was about 100 million. This was still small-scale by comparison with Mughal India’s 130 million and China’s 170 million. Japan had about 20 million.
The Ottoman Empire was in fact on the verge of its long decline, though at the time few people realised this. Even with the acquisition of Scotland and Ireland by England, Britain was still a small nation next to a much larger one; namely France. How then did Britain survive and prosper? Partly it was simply by being an island: after 1700 the navy was much the strongest in Europe, and the country was only rarely faced serious threats of invasion. This also meant Britain could get away with only having a small army (which had important constitutional consequences, as will be discussed later) despite which, between 1689 and 1713 Britain fought two victorious wars against vastly superior French forces. How was this done?
This will be covered in a later Blog entry!