Disease, Particularly the Plague, Was the Most Important Factor in Determining Medieval, and/or Early Modern Population Levels, Discuss.

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Disease, particularly the plague, was the most important factor in determining medieval, and/or early modern population levels, discuss.

There were many different factors which contributed to the rise and fall of population levels during the medieval and early modern period. No doubt one of the most catastrophically devastating limitations to the population on record in the medieval times was that of the Black Death in 1348 to 1350. However, famines were another common cause of population decline, and because of their impact on fertility, it could be argued that they were an even bigger check on population growth than mass deaths from disease in the same period. It is important to note that natural disasters and other limitations are not the only aspects to consider, and that these different factors gained and lost importance over time. It is also necessary to realise that human behaviour itself had a large impact on both limiting, but also on building population levels in the early period.

The highest population level in the medieval period was reached during the first ten or twenty years of the fourteenth century as ‘growth had been encouraged by a century of relative peace and permitted by the seemingly limitless land lying ready for the peasant’s plow.’This had all but ended by the start of the fourteenth century because too much pressure had been put on the agricultural resources available. The plague in Europe had arrived at a time when the population was already weakened and in decline; malnutrition from famines increased the population’s susceptibility to disease. Therefore it could be argued that although the arrival of the plague to mainland Europe and Britain was a rapid cause of death in the fourteenth century, it did not necessarily lower the population to levels which would not otherwise eventually have been reached through mass starvation and alternate illnesses. However, when considering the affects the plague might have had over time, it is clear that it was a very significant demographic factor. Outbreaks of the disease continued on after the fourteenth century right into the mid seventeenth century, and as one historian argues, with so many repeats occurring, you no longer needed to have the severity of deaths in each case in order to have the result of seriously ‘retarding population growth’.

While disease was a very common factor, poor harvests and famine were often equally as ruinous to the population. It could be put forward that the ‘decline in fertility during ... a famine, has a more easily discernable and longer-lasting impact on the population structure than the increased mortality’. This is quite possibly because in crises such as the plague, there is usually a relatively even age distribution of those who die, so demographically it does not have such an impact on the population. However, particularly with famine’s, the shortage of food and rising prices of grain would probably have made it extremely difficult for people to marry and have children, often for many years at a time. This decrease in fertility, and increase in mortality (from starvation), would necessarily have impacted the population levels, but may not have had quite as pronounced affects as diseases, especially because richer members of society would have been able to purchase grain for the higher price; so not all areas of society would have been equally affected, which was not the case for diseases like the plague.

Socially speaking, there were of course other man-made events and factors which played a part in establishing population levels. The Hundred Years War in France, for example, had its toll on the number of soldiers; however it has been pointed out that the overall ‘numbers [of lost lives] were not seriously significant in social terms.’ Where people lived is another social, but ultimately man-made decision of a populace which affected mortality rates, and therefore population levels. Geography was able to...
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