Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Early British Demographics

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!

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Master of the Angels

(This story is based on a dream I had. It appears to be set in Italy in the early days of the Renaissance)

When Lorenzo di Prato heard the rumour that his only daughter considered herself betrothed to the young painter Tancredi, he was not pleased. He considered it entirely unfitting that he, a respected and prosperous cloth-merchant, should have his family linked by common gossip to a struggling and penniless artist. This was not the future he envisaged for his child. So when he confronted Gianetta and she could not deny her friendship with the young man,he had the girl shut away in a convent till she should come to her senses.

Tancredi was saddened, and also felt insulted. Admittedly he was as yet unknown, but he was sure his prospects were good. Had he not been comissioned to work on the altarpiece for the new church? It would depict the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and he was to paint one of the side-panels. He was certain this would establish his reputation as an artist, and quickly lead to fame and wealth. But also he truly loved Gianetta, and now he missed her greatly. As the days and weeks passed withou her, he became more and more depressed. He began to neglect his work; which increasingly he became aware was dull and uninspired, yet he was unable to do anything to improve it. He took to hanging around the gates of the convent for hours at a time, hoping for a sight of his beloved; but the walls were high and windowless, and no man could enter without permission.

Gianetta was also lonely and unhappy. To ease her grief, she took to praying in quiet places away from the nuns. Especially she liked to climb to the top of the campanile, where there was a small platform: the only place in the convent from which it was possible to catch a glimpse of the city outside. Here she would pray fervently for help and deliverance. And here one day her prayers were answered, as two winged Beings descended in majesty from the skies and took her hands, and then in an overwhelming miracle glittering wings grew from her own shoulders, and together the three of them rose beyond the prosaic earth and soared upwards into the cloudless blue.

The only person who saw them was Tancredi, from his lonely vigil outside the convent gates. As soon as they had risen beyond his sight he rushed back to the church and seized his brushes, and he painted his panel before the vision could fade from his memory. It showed three angels in brilliant colours. It was much the best part of the altarpiece, and its fame spread far and wide, so that his reputation was established and he was known ever afterwards as the Master of the Angels. But he never married Gianetta, for the poor girl was now incurably insane and was never again able to leave the security ofthe convent. Most of the time she was quiet, but occasionally she would escape the vigilance of the nuns, and then she would climb the tower of the campanile and would be found on the platform at the top, wildly invoking the heavens whilst uncontrolled tears filled her eyes.

"Fly!" she would call, "Oh, fly! Please, fly!"

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Riots in Shrewsbury

Shrewsbury, like many other Midlands towns, was the scene of severe rioting in the earlier part of the eighteenth century. Although the motivation of the rioters may have been partly economic, their slogans and impact were political and religious. This is the story of the 1715 Shrewsbury riot.

The German prince, George, Elector of Hanover, was proclaimed King of England immediately following the death of Queen Anne in August 1714. His succession to the throne had been guaranteed by the Act of Settlement, passed in 1701. Many, however, did not accept this, believing that the true king should be the exiled James Stuart (known to his opponents as “the Pretender”), whose father, King James II, had been driven from the throne in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. The situation was complicated by international politics: George was a good Protestant and had been Britain’s ally against France in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), whereas James was a Catholic and backed by France. James’s supporters were known as Jacobites; from the French “Jacques”, Latin “Jacobus”.
   Politics at the time was dominated by two parties, the Whigs and the Tories. The Whigs were entirely Hanoverian, but some Tories were Jacobites. A Tory government had brought the war to an end in 1713, but had then disintegrated and collapsed, just days before the death of Queen Anne, largely because of the Jacobite split, and the Whigs had returned to power and summoned George to England. He was crowned in October; Tories and Jacobites being too disorganised and demoralised to take any action. The Whigs cemented their position by winning a large majority in the election held in 1715; remaining Tories were purged from the administration and several of the party leaders were arrested or fled abroad.
   The other great division between the parties was on the issue of religion. The Whigs favoured religious toleration, but the Tories were strongly identified with the Church of England. Until 1689 non-Anglicans were excluded from public life and occasionally persecuted. In 1689 an Act of Toleration allowed freedom of worship to Protestant non-Anglicans (known as dissenters or non-conformists), though they were still officially excluded from public life. In fact this exclusion was often ignored, and to many Anglicans things had gone too far, and they demanded a proper clampdown. Following the Toleration Act, Shrewsbury dissenters purchased land in what is now the High Street and opened a meeting-house there in 1691, with John Bryan as Minister.

In the West Midlands and the west country the coronation of George I brought widespread disturbances. Meeting-houses were attacked by mobs in several towns, and in Bristol a Quaker was killed when he tried to prevent this. Trouble in Shrewsbury was limited to demonstrators shouting “High Church and Sacheverell for ever!” a reference to an extreme Tory clergyman. Those involved were mostly craftsmen and shopkeepers of the town, including a draper, a butcher, a baker, two tailors and five cordwainers: only one was described as a “labourer”, and another was a Justice of the Peace! No farmworkers from the countryside were involved. The Whig press blamed local landowners and Anglican clergy for stirring up trouble.
   Things turned much more serious in July 1715. Meeting-houses were attacked by mobs in towns all over the west midlands, leading to about 500 people being arrested for rioting in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire, including several landowning gentry. In Shropshire, there were disturbances and attacks on Dissenting chapels in Whitchurch, Wem and Cleobury Mortimer. In Shrewsbury on the night of July 6th 1715 a mob swept down the street to attack the meeting-house, crying, “The Church for ever!”, and, for the Dissenters, “Down with them! Down with them!” The building was almost completely demolished. The Mayor and the town magistrates were unable, or unwilling, to intervene to stop the carnage. The mob was said to have been headed by one “Captain Ragg”; otherwise Harry Webb, a skinner. As before, no country people were involved. A paper was posted around Shrewsbury, carrying these words:-

   “We gentlemen of the Loyal Mob of Shrewsbury do issue this Proclamation to all Dissenters from the Church of England, of what kind or denomination soever, whether Independents, Baptists or Quakers: if you, or any of you, do suffer any of that damnable faction called Presbyterians to assemble themselves amongst you, in any of your conventicles, at the time of Divine Worship, you may expect to meet with the same that they have been treated with. Given under our hands and seals the 11th day of July 1715. God save the King”.

   The fact that the King was not named indicates that it was the so-called “James III” who was meant, known to Hanoverians as “the Pretender”.
   Soon after this, as the meeting-house in Whitchurch was being rebuilt, a local carpenter named Samuel Ratcliffe, who had participated in its demolition, was heard to damn all Presbyterians and to vow that “all the Dissenters in a little time will be flying for their lives”. However, after this the Shropshire towns were generally quiet; in contrast with the situation in Staffordshire, where endemic disturbances and riots continued in many towns.
   The government responded to these events by passing the Riot Act, which brought in the death penalty for rioters who refused to disperse when ordered to by a magistrate. Magistrates could also authorise troops to open fire on rioters. This Act has never been repealed.

   Neither of the two great Jacobite revolts of 1715 and 1745 got anywhere near Shrewsbury, though some of the Jacobite leaders did plan to advance into north Wales, where the great landowner and M.P. Sir Watkin Williams Wynn was believed to be a staunch supporter. All the Shrewsbury Jacobites contributed was a tradition of holding celebrations to drink James’s health on his birthday: June 10th. In 1750 this led to clashes with the authorities, and the posting of a notice by Jacobite sympathisers the next day:-

“Honest lads of Shrewsbury, do not be frightened at the insult you received last night it was base and cruel it was contrary to the Laws of God and Nature therefore stand on your own defence you have as great a right to wear a broadsword as any man whatever wear your swords and use them as men as Englishmen as men of courage ….”

Despite this grammatically erratic proclamation, nothing much followed, and after this things fizzled out.

Why did all this trouble occur? It was probably in part economic in origin. Riots were very common in the 18th century, usually linked with a sudden rise in food prices, caused by shortages. British rioters seldom killed anyone, though they did enormous damage to property. The end of the War of the Spanish Succession caused widespread unemployment, as munitions works closed and thousands of soldiers were demobilised; but understanding of economic forces was in its infancy, there was as yet no concept of social class, and the very word “unemployment” had yet to be invented. All the demonstrators had to shout were political and religious slogans. Most of Shropshire had been strongly Royalist in the Civil War, and was thereafter Tory. The most likely explanation of the riots is that discontented men of the West Midlands towns were supplied with slogans by the local landowning elites, angry at the Tory eviction from political power. But, as was shown in the two Jacobite revolts, these elites had no intention of risking their lives and property by outright rebellion. As Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the romantic leader of the 1745 revolt, said of the English Jacobites who had completely failed to rise in his support, “I will do for them what they did for me: I will drink their health”.
As for the Shrewsbury meeting-house; a later minister wrote, “By the care and contribution of the government, the chapel was soon rebuilt and our liberties confirmed and fixed on a solid foundation”. The new building is still there in the High Street, and is now the Unitarian meeting-house; its loyalty to the Hanoverian regime still proclaimed by the painting of the royal coat of arms of King George I on the wall.

(Note: Much of the information here is taken from “Jacobitism and the English People”, by Paul Monod)