Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

Peter Razzell, Population and Disease: Transforming English Society, 1550-1850 . London: Caliban Books, 2007. xviii + 314 pp. ?45 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-85066-047-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Andrew Hinde, Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute, University of Southampton.

For more than 30 years, Peter Razzell has played the role of an outsider questioning and criticizing the accounts of population change and economic development in the English past which formed the prevailing historical orthodoxy. In the 1970s, his response to the McKeown thesis argued that McKeown and his colleagues had underestimated the roles of immunization against smallpox and improvements in personal hygiene in effecting the decline of mortality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More recently, he has been skeptical of the account of English population history written by E.A. Wrigley, R.S. Schofield and their colleagues at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, arguing that the latter depends unduly on assumptions made about the accuracy of English parish registers, assumptions with which Razzell disagrees.

In this, his latest book, Razzell returns to both these themes (his review of one of the Cambridge Group’s major works is republished as Chapter 3, and Chapter 7 is a summary of his work on the conquest of smallpox), but takes his critique of existing research into England’s demographic history much further than he has hitherto. The book consists of ten chapters, six of which have previously been published. Chapters 1-5 and Chapter 9 question the empirical evidence underlying the academic consensus about the population history of England, and mount a challenge to the established view of what happened. In Chapter 10, Razzell ranges even beyond this, into the question of the relationship between population change and economic development in general. Put very simply, Razzell argues that population growth in England between 1550 and 1850 was determined largely by exogenous changes in mortality, and specifically by the nature and virulence of infectious diseases. Economic growth was largely determined by population growth. When mortality was low, as in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and again after 1750, and the population was able to grow, economic growth was encouraged. When the disease environment was harshest, as it was between 1650 and 1750, economic stagnation was the consequence. On the other hand, industrialization was part of a separate process, described by Razzell as the “development of capitalism” (p. 251) arising from factors largely unrelated to population and the social structure. These arguments are described in detail in the two central chapters to the book, entitled “Poverty or Disease Environment: The History of Mortality in Britain, 1500-1950” and “Population, Poverty and Wealth: The History of Mortality and Nuptiality in England, 1550-1850.”

The bulk of Razzell’s empirical evidence is derived from the Church of England parish registers. The Cambridge Group argued that ecclesiastical registration of births and deaths was virtually complete in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and held up well until the mid eighteenth century before deteriorating substantially to become seriously deficient between 1780 and 1820. The first two chapters of this book consist of an examination of the reliability of burial registration by the Church of England. Razzell’s analysis suggests that burial registration was at its most defective in the early years of Anglican registration, with around a third of deaths not being registered, and improved (if anything) during the eighteenth century. Thus mortality was substantially higher in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than has previously been thought, and consequently there was much greater scope for a fall in mortality during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Razzell presents less data on the quality of baptism registration, and they only cover the period since 1760, but his evidence suggests that there was little change between 1760 and 1834 in the proportion of births which were not registered. By contrast, Wrigley and Schofield argue for a substantial deterioration in the quality of the baptism registers between 1760 and 1800 and it is largely as a consequence of their correction for this trend that they conclude that fertility rose in England during this period, and that a rise in fertility was the main reason for the acceleration in population growth.

If Razzell is correct, then the implications for our understanding of England’s population history are profound. For a start, the mid sixteenth century no longer marks a shift from the mortality-driven system of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to a system dominated by the Malthusian preventive check. Neither is there any need to explain the rapid population growth after 1740 in terms of the demise of the preventive check. Rapid population growth after 1740 happened because mortality declined as the impact of disease became less severe, partly through the application of medical technology, and partly through improvements in personal and communal hygiene. The past 40 years of research into early modern English demography have thus been a blind alley down which historical demographers have been led because they failed to appreciate the extent of omissions in the parish burial registers of the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

The remaining chapters of the book examine the role of personal hygiene in influencing English mortality between 1500 and 1900 and the issue of social and economic mortality differentials in England before the twentieth century. The last of these is especially interesting, for Razzell argues that a social class gradient in mortality is a relatively recent feature, only clearly emerging since 1900. Before this, overconsumption and the fact that many wealthy people lived in unhealthy urban environments counteracted any advantage conferred by their greater incomes.

It is too early to tell whether Razzell is correct in his main thesis, and much more work needs to be done to evaluate his approach. For example, much of his evidence is based on his “same-name” technique, which he describes in the first chapter of this book. This method is based on the fact that in the English past, parents hardly ever gave the same forename to two living children. Razzell presents an evaluation of the accuracy of this method which seems fairly convincing, but given the weight that it has to bear, more research is surely needed. I have a few minor quibbles with the presentation of the data. Razzell presents many estimates of the child mortality rate and infant mortality rate. Yet he does not state how these were calculated (whether they are central or initial rates, for example). Several tables in Chapters 4 and 5 include details of a quantity which is described as the sum of the infant mortality rate and the child mortality rate. The interpretation of this sum is problematical since the denominators of the two rates are different. It might also have been interesting to compare the infant and child mortality rates for various localities estimated from early nineteenth century reconstitution data with those for the same localities calculated from early civil registration data (say for the 1850s) to see whether they are consistent.

Despite these reservations, this is a thought-provoking book which is likely to stimulate debate among researchers interested in the population history of England. It is aimed largely at an academic readership, and assumes considerable familiarity with the source materials and relevant scholarship. For those who possess this, however, it is definitely worth delving into.