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Malthus’s missing women and children: demography and wages in historical perspective, England 1280-1850

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  • Horrell, Sara
  • Humphries, Jane
  • Weisdorf, Jacob

Abstract

Malthus believed that rising real wages encouraged earlier marriage, higher fertility and a growing population. But diminishing returns in agriculture meant that an organic economy could not keep pace. Excess labour and rising food prices drove wages down and brought population growth to a halt. Studies testing this hypothesis have focussed on the relationship between population growth and men’s wages, typically overlooking women and children’s economic activities and influence on demographic outcomes. New daily and annual wage series, including women and children, enable these missing actors to be incorporated into a more complete account of Malthus’s hypothesis. New findings emerge: the demographic reaction to wage changes was gendered. Early-modern bachelors responded to rising male wages by marrying earlier, whereas spinsters responded to rising female wages by delaying marriage. Our evidence suggests that women played a key role in England’s low- fertility demographic regime and escape from the Malthusian trap. More tentatively, we consider the demographic regime in medieval England. Although marriage was related to earnings, the size of the population was a forceful determinant of economic outcomes. While superficially similar in terms of the prevalence of late marriage and low nuptiality, this regime was consolidated by poverty and social control absent the female agency of the later era.

Suggested Citation

  • Horrell, Sara & Humphries, Jane & Weisdorf, Jacob, 2020. "Malthus’s missing women and children: demography and wages in historical perspective, England 1280-1850," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 105553, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
  • Handle: RePEc:ehl:lserod:105553
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • N33 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - Europe: Pre-1913

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