In the guided reading by Peter N. Stearns, titled “Population growth”; Stearns talks about why he believes that the great expansion of population was a “disruptive force” in Europe during the 18th century. But, before we explain how it was a “disruptive force”, lets examine what caused this massive growth.
The causes of the massive population growth in Europe in the 18th century are numerous. Firstly, there was a prefect storm an increase in births and a decrease in the mortality rate. The cause for this decrease in mortality rate can be attributed to a decrease in wars fought as well as a decrease in the spread of disease due to better hygiene and cleaner streets. Another reason for longer life was the reduction in famine, and the adoption of a better diet. New agricultural methods increased crop production and introduced the growing of potatoes and maize. Both the potato and maize were easier to grow and yielded more food per acre than grain. Although these aren’t the only causes of a population boom in the 18th century, they are some of the most important ones.
Now that we know what caused the population boom, we’ll now look at the effects they caused. In the reading, Stearns separated the effects into three parts: Commercialization, The Propertyless, and A Sexual Revolution. Stearns states that Commercialization was affected causing some families to innovate, for example the Koechlin family; who became “industrial magnates” as a result. Though some innovated, many did not; causing “a division in virtually every traditional class, between those who sought change and those who resented the new pressures upon them” Because of these class divisions, the aristocracy felt that they needed to regain power and position; so they decided that “withdrawal of massive tracts of land from village tenure” was the best way to do so. This caused The Propertyless. As population grew, the gap between land owners and non-owners grew; making the owners nervous. This nervousness caused innovation. Non-land owners were now offered a “new style of life” because they pushed to manufacturing jobs, with better wages compared to agricultural work. This shift to a more domestic lifestyle also caused some issues. These issues are what Stearns call: A Sexual Revolution. Marriage rates increased due to the growing population. Interestingly the average age of puberty fell for both males and females, mostly due to increased social contact. Both of these factors contributed to the rise in population.
Because of causes and effects discussed above, that is why Stearns believes that the “massive expansion of Europe’s population was the most important disruptive force in the eighteenth century.”
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Here are some relevant sources:
The first link is an article from the British Library, and it talks about how life was drastically changed due to the increased population. This link focuses more on how the conditions in cities were and how they changed. As well as information, the article includes several illustrations from the period that show city life in great detail.
The second link, although long winded, has several good graphs that show how population changed in different areas in the 18th century, as well as predictions for the future.