Demography and Population Control in Early Modern Europe (birth control)

Many modern demographers, that is, those who gather statistical data on populations using such vital and social statistics as births, deaths, and marriages, believe that, before the eighteenth century, reproduction was independent of birth control. Rather the rate of increase or decrease of population was largely dependent upon external factors such as wars, celibacy, famine, plagues, land use, and nutrition, although these demographers also recognize that infanticide was a factor. Others have argued with what they consider demonstrable proof that at least from the seventeenth century, if not earlier, Europeans were attempting to limit their fertility. Still others believe, as does the editor of this topic, that there were always attempts to limit or space child birth. Obviously not all attempts were successful because there was no easy way to distinguish the effectiveness of various folk remedies.We do know that midwives and others certainly made attempts to acquire such knowledge. Regardless of the position one holds on this issue, there is general agreement that in recent centuries there seems to have been an increasing effort toward family limitation. The question is why this might be the case.

We know that there are a lot of natural factors involved in population growth or lack of it, such as famine, wars, plagues, economic prosperity or depression, disease, diet, age at marriage, age differentials in marriage between men and women, ability or eligibility to marry, longevity, laws of heredity, long periods of marital abstinence dictated by religious holidays such as Lent or while a mother was nursing a baby. The list could go on. But how is it possible to determine whether there was any kind of family planning after marriage? Some evidence for this is gained from studying the birth intervals between children, the age at which women had their last child, size of families, and similar factors. From all of this data it seems clear that there was increasing use of family planning at least among some groups.

Some have argued that the explanation in the West for greater family planning was a result of the movement from the traditional authoritarian family structure, marked by arranged marriages, subordination of women, and brutal treatment of children, to the sentimental, egalitarian family of the late eighteenth century emphasizing close relationships between husbands and wives and a new concern for the well-being of children. There is a litany of factors that are said to have brought this about: growing literacy, new wage labor, social mobility, Protestantism, a nurturing of a new respect for one’s spouse, a shifting of loyalties from clan and village to larger communities, and so on. Lawrence Stone argued that birth control became thinkable in the eighteenth century only with the emergence of “possessive individualism.” For him, contraception marked a moral change that freed the sexuality from the restraints of theology and allowed the recognition of pleasure in sex. Individuals, or at least some of them, believed they had the right to make choices about their child-bearing and no longer trust it to the will of God.

Although this ignores the existence of some sort of family planning in the ancient and medieval world, it does emphasize that at least some elements of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century society thought differently about such matters than those in an earlier period. Certainly Protestantism, as indicated, encouraged somewhat different attitudes about families than had existed before, and the Catholic attitudes after Protestantism were somewhat modified, and confessors were urged to be discrete in their probing about marital sexual activities. It might well be that such discretion was urged for fear that in their probing they might give out ideas about birth control that the penitent had not known.

In any case, family planning was an individual decision and governments certainly did not intervene and were not in a position to do so. Religious opposition to contraception or abortion was probably somewhat more effective but abortion was tolerated by the church and confessors until after quickening, and they usually did not probe too deeply into the sexual life of the penitents. It seems often that family planning was just taken for granted.

The first evidence of national concern about the possible use of birth control methods comes from France, where the French birthrate began dropping in the eighteenth century. The decline is measurable from the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the French began taking national censuses, but it began much earlier, some say the seventeenth century. We have some data for France in 1771 that have led demographers to estimate the birthrate at 38.6 per thousand, a rate that dropped to 31.3 per thousand in 1816 and continued to decline over the next hundred years. The decline is often explained as a result of the discovery of coitus interruptus by the French peasantry, but it is difficult to accept such a statement with the long tradition of such practices, including the biblical references to it. Whatever the method, the increased success at family planning by the eighteenth century was widespread and significant enough to affect population size.

But why the greater concern of the French about it? One social explanation has been offered, mainly the desire of the French peasants to avoid dividing land among heirs. Whatever the reason, inevitably there was concern about this in some quarters.Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a treatise on population, allegedly by Baron de Montyon, denounced “the pernicious secrets, unknown to all animals save man” that women used to avoid children and that were the cause of the major depopulation in the country. That women allegedly possessed the secret emphasizes the continuity of traditional herbal remedies and other things such as the sponge and douches. Not all French writers decried this drop in population, and the Marquis de Condorcet (d. 1794) argued favorably that only humans alone among the animals had the ability to set aside the law of nature. In the nineteenth century, the needs to stimulate births became a public obsession in France. Whether the French had better access to methods of birth control than did other Europeans is unclear, but it is clear that they used the methods at their disposal so effectively that population grew only sluggishly from the 1840s on, in spite of governmental efforts to increase it. In 1800, 15.7 percent of all Europe’s population lived in France, whereas by 1900 the percentage had dropped to 9.7 percent, a fact that struck fear into the French military and political leaders. In contrast, England went from a population in 1550 of 4.9 percent (approximately three million) of Europe’s total population to 25.1 percent in 1900.

But if France was concerned with its declining population, a new movement was beginning that was concerned with the dangers of overpopulation.The clarion call for this new movement was issued by Thomas Malthus in 1798 in an anonymous essay on population. Malthus developed what came to be called a law based on the assumption that humankind is doomed because increased prosperity is accompanied by an ever greater rise in population and the earth’s capacity to produce subsistence for humans is limited. Population, when unchecked, he said, increases in a geometrical ratio (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.), whereas subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.).Though he recognized that some of this could be altered (for example, agriculture might increase faster), inevitably the only options he foresaw were self-restraint from sexual intercourse, misery, and vice. Contraception was included under the category of vice. Malthus and his theories have continued to dominate any discussion of population or population control. Many of the English pop-ularizers of population control called themselves Neo-Malthusians because they believed that birth control was possible.

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