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Forgotten family: the influence of women and children in the economic-demographic nexus

Horrell, Sara, Humphries, Jane and Weisdorf, Jacob (2023) Forgotten family: the influence of women and children in the economic-demographic nexus. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. ISSN 1082-9636 (In Press)

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In a classic contribution that combined reconstructed demographic data with the best wage evidence then available, E.A. Wrigley demonstrated that English early modern nuptiality and fertility varied with economic conditions consistent with Malthus’s preventive check. Subsequently, late marriage and frequent celibacy acquired new significance. Summarized within Hajnal’s north-west European Marriage Pattern (EMP), they were assigned a causal role in the ‘Little divergence’, whereby England and the Low Countries enjoyed accelerated growth and began to escape Malthusian shackles. While these demographic-economic relationships have been much theorized their empirical foundations were flimsy. This was particularly true of the central role assigned to women. Thus, although women’s economic opportunities after the Black Death and in the early-modern labour market allegedly dampened their enthusiasm for marriage, wage data, the crucial evidence, only existed for men. Even updated annual series, used in these analyses, although inviting revision of the conventional wisdom, remained exclusively male. Here we use our newly-constructed wage series for married and single women to evaluate their effects on marriage and fertility. We argue that women were key in the functioning of early-modern preventive checks. Demographic evidence also suggests that economic circumstances contributed to the timing of medieval marriage, but poverty more often than prosperity prompted celibacy. We confirm the importance of women’s responses in maintaining population-resources balance, but are sceptical about the early emergence of the EMP. Turning to children, again, there has been no shortage of theorization. Both protoindustrial theory and ideas about proletarianization have focussed on the earnings capacity of whole families, including children, as influencing marriage decisions. But, once more, empirical evidence was lacking. Our new juvenile wage data indicate that, at the aggregate level, children’s labour and its relation to family formation seems neither to fit a proletarianization nor a proto-industrial imperative.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2023 Duke University Press
Divisions: Economic History
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor
H Social Sciences
JEL classification: N - Economic History > N3 - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Income, and Wealth > N33 - Economic History: Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Income and Wealth: Europe: Pre-1913
Date Deposited: 24 Oct 2023 16:33
Last Modified: 25 Mar 2024 10:18

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