Table of Contents

The population of early modern Europe

After a long century of population loss—the period from 1347 to the later 15th century—Europe in the 16th century experienced a strong recovery. The recovery did not come without setbacks, but in general the population in any given place in Europe reached the level it had had prior to 1347 some time during this century. This fundamental fact of rising population affected all sorts of things, from economics to social relations to immigration patterns.

Somewhere around the mid-17th century (this varied by region), the strong growth of the 16th century levelled off. In some areas, population even lost ground again. Growth remained relatively stagnant right into the early to mid-18th century; when it took off again, it was into the astonishing growth that was to last for over two centuries and shows little signs of slowing even now. But that takes us well beyond the bounds of this course.

General Trends and Some Specific Examples

Some numbers

Here as elsewhere for our period, we finally can provide some reasonably reliable statistics. Here are some population levels for European cities in the early 16th century.

Bristol 12,000 Lübeck 20,000 Strassburg 25,000
Cologne 35,000 Florence 50,000 Genoa 50,000
London 60,000 Venice 100,000 Naples 100,000
Milan 100,000 Paris 200,000 Constantinople 500,000

By 1700, the following cities were up over 100,000: London, Rome, Seville, Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Palermo. London had 500,000; Paris was nearly as large.

Demographic Crises

Plague and famine continued to stalk Europe, though with less severity than in the earlier period (the fourteenth century and into the fifteenth). The causes were generally the same, but some new diseases appeared in the 16th century that had a major effect. Syphilis was one of these, a disease brought back from the New World and which various peoples tended to blame on foreigners. Thus, for example, the Italians called it "the French disease." Syphilis wasn't the only disease blamed on foreigners, though. We also have records of the "English sweat" and the "Moravian plague."

With increasing sophistication in the medical profession, we also begin to get diseases more specifically identified. We start to hear of smallpox or measles or influenza or typhus, where in earlier centuries we only heard vaguely of fever or pox or malady. This can create the appearance of some diseases being new to Europe where they are really only newly-identified. None of which, of course, lessened the mortality of these. They are worth mentioning mainly to emphasize that in addition to outbreaks of bubonic plague there were lesser outbreaks of diseases like typhus, as well as chronic mortality across the population from endemic diseases.

Finally, since we seem to be surveying the Four Horsemen here, we must mention war. There were numerous wars of religion in the 16th century, but the very general characterization of warfare during that time is that it was mostly war by maneuver and siege. There were some bloody battles here and there, of course, but the overall effect on population was somewhat lessened by the choice of tactics and by armament.

This changed in the 17th century, when armies were widely equipped with muskets and in the Thirty Years War learned to use these with devastating effect. In the areas of Europe where the armies operated, the Thirty Years War had significant impact on the population, not only from battlefield deaths but also from famine and disease directly caused by those armies. Hundreds of villages across Germany were destroyed, not to mention towns and even the city of Magdeburg, where it's estimated over 20,000 perished.

A list of crises

Perhaps this list will give some idea of the frequency of demographic crises. P = plague of one sort or another; F = famine; W = war. Place is indicated, but the crisis might well have been more widespread; it's simply where I've been able to document it.

Year(s) Location Type
1500-29 Northern Italy W
1527 England F
1531 France F
1556-7 Europe F
1540-55 Germany W
1560-98 France W
1563-6 Europe P
1568-1609 Netherlands W
1575-7 Italy P
1579 England P
1590-1 Sicily F
1590-1 Italy P
1593 London P
1594-97 England F
1597 England P
1599 Spain P
1603 London P
1606 Scotland P
1606-07 Sicily F
1610-11 Switzerland, England P
1615-16 Switzerland P
1618-48 Germany W
1621-48 Netherlands W
1625 London P
1629-31 Switzerland P
1630-31 Italy P
1636-37 London P
1647-8 Scotland P
1656 Italy P
1660-2 France F
1665 London P
1667-8 Switzerland P
1680 Sardinia F
1693-4 France F

Population Shifts

But enough of the depressing statistics. There was another phenomenon during our period of great historical significance: a major shift in population from small towns to big cities; and, secondarily, a change in the balance between urban and rural.

Towns grew while rural population stayed flat. This is a blanket statement covering the entire two centuries. Looking more closely we see the up and down trend mentioned above: even rural population grew in the 16th century, but it declined in the 17th. Towns, with some significant exceptions, tended to grow fairly steadily, though they too had their downturns. The result was that the urban-rural ratio in 1700 was noticeably higher than it had been in 1500.

More importantly, especially in its economic implications, was the growth of large cities. These drew from the countryside, of course, but they appear to have done most of their growing at the expense of regional towns. If we arbitrarily say that a large city was one of over 40,000 while a town was 5,000 to 40,000 we can estimate that there were in 1500 roughly four times more towns than cities. By 1600, that ratio was two to one and by 1700 it was one to one. To put it another way, in 1700 there were forty-three cities in Europe with a population over 40,000 (in 1500 there had been only a dozen or so). The combined population of these forty-three cities nearly equalled the population of the next 512 largest towns.

One of the immediate impacts of the big cities was both economic and social. Cities are sinks of mortality. Every measure we have shows that birth rates in cities decline and that only through immigration can cities even maintain their population, much less grow. Big cities like London or Amsterdam or Paris were like demographic whirlpools, drawing people in from the countryside to markets for the day, to servitude for a few years, or permanent residence. Since immigrants tend to be younger rather than older, this meant that the big cities were overloaded with young people, people looking for work, people looking to marry, and people with generally less money than they would have later in life.

December 2008: this essay isn't quite finished