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Leaving home was a more protracted process that started earlier and ended later than in the late twentieth century because children did not move out to found their own households before they married. But they did move away from their parental homes.


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Perhaps one-quarter of the fifteen-year-old males born as late as lived in someone else's household, whereas in the s that applied to about one in twenty. At all ages between seventeen and twenty-seven, more than 30 percent of all males were classified as neither dependent children nor household heads. It would appear that teenaged females were as likely as their brothers to leave their natal homes, some going into domestic service but most leaving to work as farm servants, apprentices, or janes-of-all-work.

Initially at least, girls rarely moved outside networks described by family, kin, and neighborhood. As they grew older, women strayed farther afield. Social class and local employment opportunities also played significant roles in determining the ways in which individuals experienced systemic structures. The demographic keystone of the early modern system of marriage and family formation was that, uniquely, northwest Europeans married late. More precisely, the link between puberty and marriage was dramatically more attenuated in northwestern Europe than elsewhere.

The identification of this austere, Malthusian pattern was the greatest achievement of the first generation of scholarship in early modern historical demography. Basing his conclusions on fifty-four studies describing age at first marriage for women in northwest Europe, Michael Flinn showed that the average fluctuated around twenty-five.

While Flinn did not provide measurements to assess the spread of the distribution around this midpoint, other studies determined that the standard deviation was about six years, which means that about two-thirds of all northwest European women married for the first time between twenty-two and twenty-eight.

The small number of teenage brides was counterbalanced by a similar number of women who married in their thirties. Perhaps one woman in ten never married; in the demographer's jargon, that tenth woman was permanently celibate. These statistics provide a single measure which distinguishes the creation of new families in northwestern Europe from that in other societies. Perhaps the closest analogy to the European experience is nineteenth-century Japan, where a fault line divided the early-marrying eastern half of the country from the later-marrying western parts.

Marriage among young Japanese women was not linked to puberty. In the eastern region Japanese women married in their late teens and early twenties, while in the west brides were more likely to be in their early to middle twenties. The control of fertility in early modern Japan was, however, only partly the result of this gap between puberty and marriage; it was also partly the result of deliberate infanticide.

Taken together the slightly later ages at marriage and stringent controls within marriage kept the population from overwhelming a slow incremental gain in per capita income. A larger proportion of the Japanese population was released from primary food production to work in rural, domestic industries than in any other preindustrial social formation outside northwestern Europe.

In contrast, historical demographic studies of pre China established that the age at first marriage for Chinese women was close to puberty. A uniquely late age at first marriage for women, that is, in relation to puberty, seemingly was a part of northwestern European family formation systems for most of the millennium. The origin of this system of reproduction is the key unanswered question arising from several decades of intensive statistical studies.


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Yet paradoxically, further statistical studies cannot yield an answer. Rather, the answer lies within the social contexts of marriage and family formation. The early modern marriage strategy was vitally important for two reasons.

The Population of Europe: Early Modern Demographic Patterns

First, it provided a safety valve or margin of error in the ongoing adjustment between population and resources that characterized the reproduction of generations and social formations. Second, it meant that women were less dependent and vulnerable insofar as they were marrying as young adults, not older children. As noted above, early modern Europe experienced not one constant rate of population growth but an oscillation, that is, fairly rapid growth of about 1 percent per annum between and and again after interrupted by more than a century of rough stability.

Yet it is not likely that the outer limits of growth were ever approached. Even during the periods of fastest growth, a prolonged period of celibacy existed between puberty and marriage; premarital intercourse and pregnancy were the experience of a minority, albeit a large minority at the end of the eighteenth century; and the cultural practice of prolonged breast-feeding which is associated with anovulation during the first six months after giving birth meant that intervals between pregnancies were hardly shorter than in the intervening generations of population stability or decline.

The safety margin may have bent, but it never came close to breaking. In comparison with what we know is humanly possible in terms of reproductive rates, the fastest early modern growth levels pale into insignificance, around 1 percent per annum as opposed to over 3 percent per annum in parts of the Third World at the end of the twentieth century. The early modern population grew, but it grew slowly.

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In a stable population, about three-fifths of all families were likely to have an inheriting son, while another fifth had an inheriting daughter. About one-fifth of all niches became vacant in the course of each generation. In a growing population, marginal groups, such as noninheriting children, felt the full force of the nonlinear implications of population growth.

History of England - Documentary

This is a crucial point. Increasing population produced a disproportionate rise in their numbers. In a schematic way, this fact suggests that villagers who were over and above replacement were presented with two stark alternatives: they could either wait in the hopes of marrying into a vacated niche, or they could emigrate, that is, they could move socially down and physically out of their native land. This second alternative was the stark reality presented to generations of their predecessors, for whom noninheritance meant downward social mobility and demographic death.

Cottage industries were a godsend for these noninheriting, marginal people. The luckiest ones subsidized the formation of a new household without having to leave their native hearths. Others not as lucky moved to the villages and towns where protoindustry was located. There they set up on their own and supported themselves with income derived from their labor and with common rights to keep a cow, a pig, and perhaps even a garden where, after , they grew potatoes.

With a little money they built their new homes, usually one-room shacks called "one-night houses" because they sprang up overnight. Many marginals moved to the cities, where charitable endowments were concentrated. But early modern urban migration was something of a zero-sum strategy because the urban counterweight played a significant role in the early modern demographic equation.


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Early modern cities ate up the surplus population of the countryside because they consistently recorded more deaths than births. The seventeenth-century London growth, for example, consumed more than one-half of the surplus sons and daughters produced by the rural population of England. Only in the second half of the eighteenth century did London replenish its native population without immigration. As cities cleaned up and virulent epidemics lost their potency, the urban populations of the industrial era grew by leaps and bounds.

In the early eighteenth century, London's population was about equal to the population of all other English cities combined. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, sprawling conurbations existed in the West Midlands around Birmingham, on Mersey-side around Liverpool and Manchester, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and on Tyneside. These new conurbations sprouted up in hitherto rural areas.

Manchester, for example, had 2, inhabitants in , when Daniel Defoe rode through, and nearly 1 million in , about the time that Friedrich Engels moved there.

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In addition many older cities, like Leicester, Nottingham, Bristol, and Norwich, doubled or trebled in size. This broadly based growth was possible because the urban death rate began closely to approximate its birthrate. By the end of the eighteenth century, indigenous populations grew not only in the cities but also in the countryside, whose surplus population had previously been the sole source of urban population increase. The push from the countryside and the pull of the cities were as important as the ability of the cities to nurture their native populations and free themselves from their dependency on immigrants.

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For marginal people lifetime moves into the proletariat comprised the dominant social experience. While their actions may have consisted of efforts to retain or recapture individual control over the means of production, they were swimming against a powerful historical current that ultimately pulled most of them down into the ranks of the landless.

If boom times were like a siphon sucking population out of rural cottages, then protoindustrial communities were like sponges soaking up these footloose extras. Overall, with a few notable exceptions like Amsterdam and London in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or the industrializing regions in the eighteenth century, the rate of urbanization was not much greater than the overall rate of population growth. On the eve of the French Revolution in , for example, Paris contained about 3 percent of the French population, which was hardly different from its proportional significance at any point in the previous years.

The second aspect of this early modern system of family formation to some extent has been doubly obscured, first by a scholarly emphasis on early modern prescriptive literature and later by the historiographical concern with the gendering actions put into discursive practice by historical patriarchs. While it is true that all women were denied equality with men in early modern society, an emphasis on this inequality has eclipsed a comparative appreciation of the relative independence and self-control northwestern European women experienced.

Their marriages were almost never arranged; their choices of partners resulted from courtship and negotiation rather than parental dictates.

The Writing of Rural England, 1500-1800

A large proportion of the population was landless and therefore unlikely to need parental approval except insofar as those people retained connections with their families. Furthermore, most of these landless young women moved away from the parental home after reaching puberty, and many lived away for a decade or longer before marrying.

While landless women were not freed from either poverty or a dependent status, they were independent in the sense that parental authority was neither a constant nor a supervening day-to-day reality in their lives. They were not masterless to be sure—almost all such women lived in man's household—but it stretches credulity to assert that men unrelated to them took a paternal interest in their courtship activities. Women were theoretically free to choose their mates according to the dictates of their consciences, as was the rule of the Christian church, but they were also free to choose within the dictates of the social reality of their lives.

They were not subject to the veil, nor were their public movements kept under surveillance by chaperones.