7 - The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries  pp. 71-90

The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries

By Douglass C. North and Robert Paul Thomas

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The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries suffered contractions, crisis and perhaps even depression. The regions of Europe were repeatedly visited by famine, pestilence, war and revolution. Population declined in the wake of these catastrophes, turning the economic and social order upside down. This was a ‘hateful time’ for most of its inhabitants, but not all. This was the time of the Renaissance – a rebirth of artistic and intellectual achievements. In short, it is difficult to give a simple assessment of these centuries.

However, the general contours of this era are clear. The phenomenon that weighed most heavily upon the period was the absolute decline in population. All historians agree on this, but that is about as far as their agreement goes. It is not known for certain exactly when the population of Western Europe began to fall, how severe a decline occurred, nor when the population began to recover.

The main reason for the uncertainty lies in the dearth of statistical evidence. In these pre-census years, any estimate of total population can be little better than guesswork. Several estimates do exist and two are presented here, for what they are worth. M. K. Bennett has constructed estimates of the population of Europe. These are presented in Table 7.1. A more detailed estimate exists for England alone, constructed by J. C. Russell, an authority on medieval demography. His estimates are found in Table 7.2.