Galley C. (1995) Were cities meat grainers or not?

Galley Chris (1995) “A Model of Early Modern Urban Demography”, Economic History Review, 48/3, 448-469.


As early as 1662, researchers realized that there were an abnormally high number of death in cities relatively to the number of birth (p.448), great cities were deemed ‘the graves of mankind’. The negative natural growth was compensated by rural immigration and the cities played the role of sinks of their neighboring region’s demographic surpluses.

Sharlin (1978) proposed another interpretation: those migrants were predominantly poor and single and increased the mortality rate without affecting noticeably fertility. Thus, the permanent residents did not suffer a negative natural growth, the extra death were merely provided by the migrants. But this theory was soon dismissed by Finlay, although no further theory was advanced for lack of data (p.449).

Yet it remains that the quick urbanization rate in England (the population of London doubled in the 17th century) indicates that a fair portion of the new comers settled and enjoyed reproductive success. Thus the natural decrease theory of cities in the early modern period is to be revised (p.450). The author uses the example of York to disprove the notion of the preindustrial urban graveyards.

The population of York grew from around 8,500 in 1561, to 11,000 in 1600 and approximately 12,000 for the rest of the 17th century (p.451). The general trend unfolded as follow: from 1561 to 1604 a natural increase, from 1605 to the1640s a balanced situation and from 1650 onward a natural decrease (p.452).

York demo 2

The post-Civil War demographic stagnation can be easily explained by the sluggish state of York’s economy after 1650 (p.453). Depending on the parishes, the shift between the period of demographic growth to the one of natural decrease occurred between 1610 and 1640.  There was a burial/baptism ratio of 0.94 between 1561 and 1602, 1.02 from 1605 to 1640, and 1.19 between 1651 and 1700 (p.454).

Infant mortality as well as mortality in general remained constant over the period (except for the bubonic plague episode of 1604 which killed up to a third of the population and the 1643-4 a mortality crisis generated by the Civil War). Small scale epidemics (small pox) did have an increasing impact on childhood mortality over the century (by a factor 2 from 1565 to 1700).

“These types of disease would have the effect of increasing childhood mortality without necessarily increasing infant or adult mortality. Beast-fed infants would have acquired short-term immunity from their mothers, and once exposed as children, adults should remain immune. Some recently arrive rural migrants may have succumbed to these diseases but the bulk of any increase in mortality will have been confined to children.”

Yet this trend was insufficient to explain more than 50% of the natural decrease after 1650. Thus the other half of the answer ought to be related to fertility (p.455). As both marital and illegitimate fertility remained stable, the author turns his attention to the proportion of married people in the population. After 1650, male/female sex ratio at burial show an increasing feminization of York going from 107 in 1651-60 to 90 in 1691-1700 (p.457). Young adults being the bracket suffering the sharpest decline (p.458). As a result the overall fertility declined during the second half of the 17th century

The speed of the post-plague recovery of 1605 shows that there was no shortage of potential rural migrants ready to settle in York (p.459). But actual migration was closely related with the town’s supply of employment opportunities as apprentice or servant. Further more, personal welfare affected one’s decision to marry. “Thus, a thriving economy would attract migrants, increase nuptiality […], and cause the population to increase, thereby creating a feedback mechanism which would help to sustain the expanding economy”. The trade-off in terms of mortality caused by density-related factors was very mild.

Before the Civil War, York had been an important administrative centre but a number of these services were abolished during the Commonwealth (p.460). York remained a very wealthy town over the period, but as its rural market did not develop and no industrialization took place, the economy remained stagnant (p.461).

Demo Yor 1

After 1640, mostly women found employment in town, primarily as servants. As a result, sex ratio became unbalanced and nuptiality dropped bringing fertility down as well (p.463).

Urban demographic regimes around England are likely to have varied a lot; yet York is likely to be more representative than the giant London had already become. In York case (and likely in several other cities) mortality was high, but so was fertility: a limited rise of the latter could easily shift the balance from a natural decrease to a natural increase (p.464). Previous models were mistaking because they did not take into account the high variety of urban demographic regimes (p.465).


Finlay R. (1981) “Natural decrease in early modern cities”, Past and Present, 92, 169-174.
Sharlin A. (1978) “Natural decrease in early modern cities: a reconsideration”, Past and Present, 79, 126-132.
___________ (1981) “A rejoinder to an article by R. Finlay”, Past and Present, 92, 175-180.

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