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Longterm European Demographic Patterns

Map of Europe with crowd in the backround.

From the rise of Christianity to the beginning of the 21st Century, Europe's demographic history has been unique, according to this specialist.

From Christianity to the beginning of the 18th Century
In the beginning, Europe was coextensive with Christianity, heir to Greco-Roman culture. The impact of this tradition on family behavior can be seen in the emergence of a fairly unified institution of marriage and stable notions of family ties. The Western nuclear family with its special relations between parents and children owes its start to official recognition in early Christian Europe of the right of individuals to choose their own spouse.
That being said, the place of couples in the larger family structure varied a great deal from region to region, especially according to the ways generations lived together. Another noteworthy point of variability was the age of women at marriage. From the 16th to the 18th Century it rose steadily while young women in Eastern Europe continued to marry at the end of adolescence. In the West, late marriage became a cultural norm; even in the marriage boom in the 1960's newlywed women in Western Europe were on average two years older than their counterparts in Russia, Poland, or Hungary, and this gap has subsequently doubled. The decision to marry, however, has in many European countries become simply one choice among others.
Were there any other demographic characteristics of Europe before 1800 that were so different from other continents? The high fertility rates and high mortality rates observable in Europe were in no way an unusual phenomenon, but rather a reflection of a nearly universal model. There is little basis in the data for generalities about a supposed edge the West enjoyed early on; statistically the West was no more demographically dynamic than other continents. Europe's share of world population was stable at 16% from the Middle Ages until the beginning of the 18th Century. It was only after 1700 that particularities began to emerge.

Pre-industrial Europe until the 21st Century
In a pre-industrial Europe characterised by economic openness and a penchant for conquest, demographic shadings from one place to another were mainly the reflection of physical constraints and local customs. The influence of certain urban populations, nevertheless, began to modify traditional mores, and in particular to question the ancestral awe for fertility. If the signs of voluntary birth control can be seen very early in a few pioneering cities, the astonishing growth from 1750 to 1914 in most countries in Europe1 defined a behavior model from which no European nations deviated. Furthermore it must be kept in mind that Europe furnished millions of emigrants who peopled new worlds and spread the European image everywhere. This remarkable demonstration of demographic vitality was one of very few common factors across a continent otherwise characterised by strong divergence.
Urban population growth was another singular characteristic of European demographics during this period. Already in 1800 Europe's proportion of city dwellers (12%) was higher than the world average elsewhere (8.5%). By 1914 the gap had grown considerably with 30% of Europeans living in cities (41% if Russia is not included) while the same figure for Africa or Asia was likely lower than 10%. The difference has shrunk since2, but current Southern hemisphere urbanisation is of a different nature than what went on in Europe.
The shift that occurred in Europe during this period was overall a very abrupt one. First population spiked under the effect of reduced mortality, but then a steep drop in fertility rates occurred which set in at different times in different countries, except in France where mortality and fertility dropped simultaneously as contraception was widely practiced earlier than elsewhere. In the final analysis, Malthusian behavior became the norm across Europe.
At the beginning of the 21st Century, current fertility rates are below the threshold of reproduction of the population in every country except Albania. In 11 European nations out of 34 including three large States (Germany, Italy, and Russia), the birth rate is lower than the mortality rate (data for 1996). Significantly, 1997 was the first year in three centuries except in time of war to witness a decrease in the population of Europe. Societies in Europe, and soon elsewhere, are confronted with the issue of their future; increasing discussion of the problem of retirement pensions is just the tip of the iceberg of the consequences an aging society must face.



à lire

Jean-Pierre Bardet et Jacques Dupâquier, Histoire des Populations de l'Europe, 3 volumes, Paris, Editions Fayard, 1997-1999.


Jean-Pierre Bardet
Director of the Centre Roland-Mousnier
CNRS-Université Paris IV

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