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European History Essay

Population Growth in 18th Century


            The miraculous population growth of the eighteenth century was caused by so many important factors of the time and had a tremendous impact on European life. The population of Europeans in the middle ages was on a slow but sure rise. Famine was always a factor, and many of the serfs and peasants died from starvation. The ones who survived were weak from hunger, which set the stage for the Black Death. At about 1300, Europe was dealt a hard blow. The bubonic plague swept across the lands, starting in Crimea. From the 14th to 15th centuries, Europe lost millions of people. In England alone, the Black Death took nearly two million people of the four million total. Wars raged across all the land, and no country was spared. But as the bright new age of the eighteenth century dawned, the horrible population destroyers – famine, disease, and war – where becoming less frequent. The population healed itself, and new exciting opportunities became available.

            In the new enlightened era of European civilization, serfs were becoming less and less frequent. Peasants were free, and some owned small pieces of land. But even as the new century dawned, the people had depended always on agriculture to live, and agriculture was nearly the same as it had been in the Middle Ages. The lands were farmed using the Open-Field System, and were shared by a village community. The common lands were open to all village animals. Crops were rotated yearly between growing wheat or lying fallow and unseeded to regenerate the exhausted soil. The method was good in its time, but it became crude and inefficient to support the population. Thus was born the agricultural revolution. New ways of farming surged forward and were used to efficiently increase the yield of food. Enclosed systems of fenced land were created. Instead of leaving fallow the fields, turnips and clovers were introduced into the crop rotations. People began sowing seeds with drilling equipment and using horses, rather than slow oxen to plow fields. There was selective breeding for faster horses and larger cows. All these factors and ideas contributed to a staggering increase in produce. By the nineteenth century, farmers were producing over 300 percent more food than in the beginning of the eighteenth century. With more food, there came to be a large surplus. Famines became uncommon, as surplus grain from other countries was simply shipped to the area that did not have enough food.

            The people of the eighteenth century came to have a rich diversity of food. The population became stronger with the much-needed nourishment and became resistant to many sicknesses. In 1721 the last sweep of the Black Death raced across Marseilles. Strict measures of cleanliness and hygiene slowly came into place. The first small pox vaccine was created, preventing the disease and leading the way for new cures. Doctors became knowledgeable of illness as we are today, and came to realize that their treatments, such as ‘letting blood’, did not work. Major improvement in water supply and the drainage of swamps reduced the amount of insects that could pass on diseases. Fewer deaths followed these ideas, as well as many healthy births to contribute the population, and the average person could be expected to live a little longer.

            Wars have always been a factor of life, whether in the Middle Ages, today, or far into the future. In medieval times soldiers traveled across the lands of their country to war. When they stopped for the night, usually it was the village’s obligation to offer food and shelter. This cut into the already very little food peasants produced. But during the eighteenth century wars became more gentlemanly. The soldiers carried their own food and created their own shelters. Battles were fought away from farming land if it could be helped, and were less destructive to the environment. The soldiers spread much fewer epidemics when they marched across the lands. These factors resulted in fewer unnecessary deaths.

            There were many positive consequences that followed the sharp population increase. As new agricultural methods were produced, more and more enclosure occurred. Landless peasants were completely excluded. There were no more common lands, and their old ways of living disappeared. They needed wages desperately. The first forms of industrialization began to occur, known as the “putting-out system”. Merchants ‘put out’ raw materials, like wool, to peasant workers who would then manufacture the product into cloth. The merchants would take the cloth and pay the peasants for their work. This was a major start to what would soon become the English Industrial Revolution.

            Other peasants began to think that Europe was too crowded as the population rose. They could not, or did not wish to participate in the cottage industries and looked for an alternate way for wages. The Americas seemed to beckon them across the seas. Many immigrants traveled to the new world in search of a better life. Almost free and unlimited land was everywhere. When they arrived, most came as free men and women who immediately bought farms and worked on them. No one in the new lands was extremely rich or extremely poor, and on the eve of the Revolution, America had the best living conditions in the world. However, since most people could easily claim land, there was a sever shortage of labor. Thus was born the African Slave Trade. Thousands of blacks from Africa were transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the new worlds in a voyage known as the middle passage. Once there, they would work tirelessly on sugar and tobacco plantations. This horrible act would plague the Americas for hundreds of years to come.

            The eighteenth century dawned a bright new age filled with endless ideas. It was these incredible inventions that resulted in less starvation, less epidemics, and less destructive battles. The century slowly contained the three destroyers – famine, disease, and war – and so the population rose drastically as there were more births, less deaths, and the average person’s life expectancy was extended. Although it’s impossible to completely halt the three destroyers, there are always improvements being made so that the population can grow and live comfortably.           

Copyright (C). 2005. Maggie Escobedo. All Rights Reserved.