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Capital WomenThe European Marriage Pattern, Female Empowerment and Economic Development in Western Europe 1300-1800$

Jan Luiten van Zanden, Sarah Carmichael, and Tine De Moor

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190847883

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190847883.001.0001

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The Effects on the Labor Market

The Effects on the Labor Market

Women’s Wages, Human Capital Formation, and Fertility

(p.125) 5 The Effects on the Labor Market
Capital Women

Jan Luiten

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter offers a new explanation for the “great conundrum,” or why population growth accelerated in England in the second half of the eighteenth century while growth in literacy and human capital stagnated. Reviewing various attempts to reconcile this anomaly, the authors discuss (a) the switch from the post–Black Death labor scarcity to a labor surplus, which harmed the economic position of women; and (b) changes in the structure of agriculture, which led to the rise of large-scale, capital-intensive and labor-extensive farms with limited demand for female wage labor. Moreover, the decline in wages had important effects on England’s demographic development, reflected in a decline in the average age of marriage between 1600 and 1800 and an increase in fertility. As a consequence, the authors link the “great conundrum” to the changing position of women in the labor market and within marriage.

Keywords:   wage, labor market, human capital formation, fertility, demographics

Between the Labor Market and the Household

One of the reasons economists and economic historians are interested in demographic changes is that these changes play a large role in the transition from a Malthusian economy with high levels of fertility to a “modern” demographic system with much lower levels of fertility and higher human capital formation. In this chapter, we argue basically that this demographic transition occurred in stages, and that the rise of the European Marriage Pattern (EMP) was the first step in that direction. There are two happy stories about this demographic transition—and there is a problem in between. The first happy story is the genesis of the EMP in the late medieval period. As we argued in chapter 2, this is a story of women’s empowerment, as a result of the emergence of a marriage pattern based on consensus, which was then linked to high levels of participation in the labor market and which widened the scope for greater formation of human capital, for both women and men. This was, in our view, the first step in a switch from quantity to quality of offspring in western Europe’s long developmental trajectory, and laid the basis for (among other things) the gradual build-up of human capital that was so fundamental to the economic success of the region.

The second happy story is the demographic transition that occurred in western Europe in the post-1850 (or post-1870) period, owing to a decline in mortality, which was followed, after a certain time lag, by a similar decline in fertility. This latter story has often been seen as the crucial switch toward “quality,” in which the increased human capital of women may have played a role, but there is still considerable debate about the forces that drove the decline in fertility (see, for example, the discussion in Janssens).1

(p.126) In between these two happy stories, however, is the rather grim eighteenth century—or, by extension, the “very long” eighteenth century that actually may have started in the seventeenth century and ended in about 1850 (as “long centuries” are supposed to do). This was, even in the most prosperous part of Europe—England—the world of Robert Malthus, where population growth had accelerated, real wages were depressed (in spite of the fact that per capita GDP was rising in the long run), and levels of literacy stagnated. The combination of a “baby boom” and stagnating human capital formation during this “long” eighteenth century has led economic historians such as Mokyr and Allen to doubt, for example, the importance of human capital in explaining the Industrial Revolution that marked this period.2 Other economic historians have characterized the British economy of that time as Malthusian, dominated by a growing tension between the needs of a growing population and an inelastic supply of foodstuffs.3

The question therefore is how to explain the “great conundrum” of this long eighteenth century.4 Why did the first stage in the switch from “quantity” to “quality”—the rise of the EMP—not lead to the kind of accelerated economic growth and related decelerated population growth as is expected in economic theories modeling these processes? Why did this Malthusian intermezzo suffer such long-term stagnation in human capital formation? This stagnation was, admittedly by international standards, at a relatively high level, but that is also exactly the problem: Why did the movement toward more investment in human skills and education, that had started in the late Middle Ages, stop suddenly in this period of, by all other measures, gradually accelerating economic growth? That is, why did it take so long for the second phase of the switch from “quantity” to “quality” to occur?

To find out what went wrong, we start this chapter in the late medieval period and analyze how the position of women in the labor market changed during this time. Indeed, we show that this is the most logical starting point for a reconstruction of this story. Here again, we need to go back to chapter 2’s discussion of the EMP where we tried to show that, in the century and a half after the Black Death, female wages were often comparable to those of unskilled male laborers and employment was booming, thanks to a general scarcity of labor. There are signs, however, that things began to change during the sixteenth century, and that women’s economic position came under increased pressure in the two centuries before the Industrial Revolution.

(p.127) There are reasons to believe that this was especially the case in England, which is the focus of this chapter. There, structural changes in the agricultural sector led to a long-term decline in the demand for female labor, which in combination with the continuing growth of the population, meant that a labor scarcity turned into a labor surplus, which consequently resulted in a strong decline in the relative pay for women. Following the argument developed in the chapter 2, we show the links between the relative remuneration of women’s work, their demographic behavior (for example, age at marriage), and investment in human capital (of themselves and of their children).

During the two periods of demographic transition—the late Middle Ages and the post-1850 period—these links resulted in a move toward “quality” of offspring. During the eighteenth century, however, the movement was in the opposite direction. The age at marriage declined and population growth accelerated, so the switch away from “quality” and toward “quantity” of children resulted in a stagnated investment in human capital. This all helps to explain the Malthusian intermezzo.

Relative Wages of Women, 1500–1800

One of the factors behind the emergence of the EMP was high labor-market participation by women in the late Middle Ages, as well as the relatively high wages they earned. This situation most likely underwent significant changes in the early modern period, however. To establish what happened, we build on the work of a number of scholars, including Sandy Bardsley, John Langdon, and Joyce Burnette, who have put together a lot of data for various periods (the high Middle Ages and the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) that point to the same trends that we identify here.5 Moreover, Humphries and Weisdorf have put together a large dataset of female wages in England between 1300 and 1800, documenting the same trends we show below.6 They present two series of female wages, one of casual, unskilled laborers working on a daily basis, and one of servants who had long-term (usually annual) contracts. The first series shows the same development as the research we carried out for this chapter (originally published in 2011).7

(p.128) One way to reconstruct the development of female wages is to study wage setting by the courts. From the mid-fourteenth century onward, the government actively intervened in English labor markets by trying to set maximum wages for all kinds of jobs and activities. This had been introduced in the aftermath of the Black Death as an attempt to protect the interests of employers—in particular, those in agriculture. In the 1560s, the national system of wage regulation was reorganized into a regional one, where the courts of different counties were expected to draft wage assessments concerning maximum wages.8 Assessments like these have their specific legal and sociopolitical backgrounds, and probably reflect market condition only rather indirectly, but they can be used to get an impression of what the justices of the courts in various parts of England considered to be a “normal” wages—or perhaps the wage norm. Moreover, the assessments are usually very detailed: they distinguish different groups of workers: artisans first class (masters), second class, and apprentices; and different wages for agricultural workers: time wages for mowers, reapers (women and men), haymakers (women and men), and laborers in husbandry, as well as piece wages, such as remuneration for mowing and reaping per acre and for threshing per quarter. The wages were also specified according to the season (“Hallowtide–Candlemas” and “Candlemas–Hallowtide”), and whether or not the employer supplied the food (“with food” or “finding self”).9

Beveridge collected a large number of wage assessments from many different sources, but did not publish them. From his files at the London School of Economics, we studied this collection to see what happened to relative wages of women as set by these courts. According to these records, the total number of wage assessments was almost 100, but the assessments do not all give full details, and women’s wages are missing from many of them. For 53 of the assessments we can estimate the relative wages of women in reaping, and for 26 in haymaking; these are spread rather well over the country (17 counties are represented). There is a peak in their numbers in the 1680s, but for the rest of the time, the wages are more or less equally spread across the 1560–1760 period (the rise and decline of this institution is discussed in Minchington).10

For a number of counties we could trace the relative wages of women over a long period. For instance, in Northampton, wages for female reapers in 1560 were set at 5 d per day,11 men at 6 d, which gives a ratio of .83; this declined to .67 in 1673 (the next assessment in the collection), when a man earned 12 d and a woman 8 d. In Rutland, in 1563, a female haymaker was set at 5 d, and man at 6 d, also implying a .83 ratio; in 1610, this was 5 d and 8 d, respectively (or a ratio (p.129) of .63). In Sussex, in 1606, a female reaper was assessed at 8 d, men were set at 10 d (second sort) and 12 d (first sort). It is clear from the later assessment that all women reapers were considered to be “second sort,” so this would set the ratio at .80. In 1742, a female reaper would be earning 10 d per day and a “second sort” man 18 d, a ratio of .56.

The averages that can be calculated from these sources are presented in table 5.1. The trends in reaping and haymaking wages are very consistent: whereas in the late sixteenth century a ratio of almost .80 was considered to be normal, this consistently declined to .50 to .55 in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. The first national wage regulation that set wages for women laborers, that of 1444, was even more favorable than the sixteenth-century wage assessment: the maximum wage of a women laborer “finding self” was set at 4.5 d, which was somewhat higher than the maximum wage of “every other labourer,” set at 3.5 d (the same paradox appears in the category “with food”: for a woman laborer, the maximum is then 2.5 d, and for every other laborer, 2 d). The explanation is probably that female laborers were mainly employed during harvest time, and that the comparable wage is therefore not that of “every other laborer” but, rather, that of the reaper (5 d) and mower (6 d), which still would imply a wage ratio of .90 or .75, respectively.

Table 5.1 Ratio of Female to Male Wages in Reaping and Haymaking, According to Wage Assessments, 1560/1609–1730/1769


N =


N =





























Source: Dataset of wage assessments from Beveridge Files, London School of Economics (no. F1)

In 1495 and again in 1514, the same maximum wages were set, indicating that the 1444 rules were not an error. John Langdon, who studied women working on medieval building sites, finds a wage ratio between men and women ranging from .66 (1290s) to .75 (early fourteenth century), but also occasionally, to levels as high as .80 to 1.00.12 His results confirm that in the late Middle Ages, the (p.130) wage gap was much smaller than in the eighteenth century (see also Bardsley’s estimate of a late medieval wage ratio of .71).13 All medieval evidence therefore points to a much smaller difference in wage level between women and men than in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

It would, of course, be even better if we knew what wages were actually paid out to women and men. In one of his papers, Gregory Clark estimated the determinants of the long-term evolution of nominal wages in England.14 He also measured the degree to which women’s wages were lower than those of men, and came to the conclusion that the effect of the female dummy (a binary variable used to test the effect of something that is either present or not on your outcome of interest) before 1560 was much lower than after 1560, which points in the same direction (but unfortunately he did not test this in more detail). Similar evidence for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has been published by Joyce Burnette.15 The agricultural wage data in particular point to a further decline in relative wages of women: for between 1760 and 1800, she estimated a wage ratio of about .48, declining to .42 between 1800 and 1840. In 1833, the ratio had fallen even more, to .37 in winter, .38 in summer, and .45 at harvest time, suggesting that women’s wages declined the most during the slack season, when demand for labor was low.16 Linked to the evidence presented in table 5.1, this would mean that the female-male wage ratio more than halved between the sixteenth century and the 1830s. A similar conclusion can be drawn from data on female servants’ wages: they declined from 75 to 95% of male wages in the early seventeenth century to 50 to 60% in the late eighteenth century, but note that the number of observations is quite small here.17

Burnette’s data also make clear that the low wage ratio found for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century agriculture is more or less representative of the economy as a whole. Her explanation of the high gender gap, which she sees as caused by the lesser physical strength of women, resulting in their lower productivity, can seriously be questioned on the basis of long-term evidence. This also applies to similar explanations of the large gender gap at the start of the Industrial Revolution given by Goldin (1990), who likewise points to physical strength as the main explanation. We therefore share the doubts, most clearly expressed by Ogilvie, about whether women’s position in preindustrial societies (p.131) was mainly determined by their “physical endowments.”18 The justifications for these doubts are elaborated upon further in this chapter.

The Beveridge collection also contains detailed data on the development of the actual wages paid by Winchester College, a school founded in 1382 (in Winchester, Hampshire), from whose records Beveridge collected a large set of wage data. In the late fifteenth century, women who were hired occasionally for jobs such as cleaning and winnowing earned 2 d, which was the same as the unspecified, unskilled laborers (probably, given the low level of these wages, food was supplied by the school). In the second half of the sixteenth century, this situation began to change: wages of male laborers went up to 3 to 3.5 d, whereas female wages did not move at all (and occasionally were even lower than at the beginning of the century; see table 5.2). Between the 1550s and 1590s, a wage gap emerged that would increase during the middle decades of the next century, when female wages were less than 50% those of males (but the ratio bounced back a little after 1670). Typically, there are no female wages recorded after 1683.

Table 5.2 Ratio of Female to Male Wages in Winchester College, 1500/1509–1680/1689

Unskilled Laborers




































































Source: Wage data from Winchester College, in Beveridge Collection, London School of Economics (no. F8)

The trend of a gradually increasing gender wage gap that can be derived from these data points is confirmed by Humphries and Weisdorf.19 How exceptional was the long-term decline in the relative wages of women? To answer that question, we reconstructed the development of the gender wage gap for the Netherlands. In the late Middle Ages in that region, we find a similar situation: different sources report a wage gap that is very small. In Holland, in the years just before the Black Death, we find a wage gap of 3% for carrying peat and of 14% for working at the chalk ovens.20 The next observations suggest even smaller differences: in Vollenhove in 1507, women and men received the same wage for carrying peat.21 Boschma-Aarnouds reports the same absence of a gender wage gap for Edam in the 1540s.22 Nederveen Meerkerk found for seventeenth-century Leiden that piece wages in spinning were the same for men as for women, and that the relative pay of female spinners (thanks to the fact that this was “booming business” during the 1580–1670 period) was almost equal to that of male craftsmen.23 Wage parity certainly disappeared in the eighteenth century here as well: in Zeeland until about 1700, women received the same wages as men for weeding, but this situation changed in the eighteenth century, when the wages for men went up but those for women remained the same.24 And (p.132) at the beginning of the nineteenth century, relative wages for women in agriculture were 60% those of men.25

Thanks to recent research, we can put these trends into an international perspective. In Sweden, the wage ratio developed in a similar way as in the Netherlands: until about 1600, wages of unskilled female laborers were only marginally lower than those of men, but in the course of the seventeenth and (p.133) eighteenth centuries, a substantial wage gap opened up.26 This appears to have been the pattern along the coasts of the North Sea: a very small female wage gap in the late Middle Ages (reflecting the “golden age” of the female worker in this period), followed by a sharp increase in the wage gap in the period after 1600.

In southern Europe, relative wages for female labor were much lower (about 50%), and they did not decline in the early modern period, as a result of which they match the English level.27 Other research not yet published by De Pleijt points in the same direction: there was no “golden age” of female wage workers in southern Europe; in Spain, for example, wages of unskilled female laborers were, before and after the Black Death, about 50% those of men.28 The “golden age” of the female worker, therefore, was a specific northwestern European phenomenon, which was intimately linked to the emergence of the EMP in that period, as we explained in chapter 2.

Why Did the Relative Wages of Women Decline So Much?

The large changes in the gender wage gap make it possible to more or less ignore ideas about the “customary” nature of female wages—for example, that they are always fixed at a certain level compared to men.29 It also demonstrates that the productivity of women compared to men is, at best, only one of the factors affecting this difference. It is, we think, highly unlikely that the relative physical strength or the relative ability to perform certain tasks actually changed so much over time. We can, however, not exclude the possibility that the physical strength of women changed somewhat. Nicholas and Oxley have documented that the average height of English females born in the period 1790 to 1820 declined, both in absolute terms and relative to those of men, which may have caused their work ability to decline as well, but the decline in height was not huge. This fall in female height was more rapid in the countryside than in the cities.30 On the other hand, Koepke and Baten have shown that in their European dataset, the relative height of women peaked in the fifteenth century, suggesting that in the late medieval period they may have been relatively strong.31 The explanation Nicholas and Oxley offer for the relative decline in female stature is the decline (p.134) in employment opportunities and their relative wages: they earned less, so their share of consumption of goods also fell, as households concentrated their limited budgets on meeting the needs of the adult men who were generating the largest share of family income.32

Changes in physical strength may have played a role, but probably only a limited one, considering the radical increase in the pay ratio and the very large differences in the female wage gap internationally, which were particularly pronounced during the late Middle Ages. What, then, did decrease the relative bargaining power of women in the labor markets in such a dramatic way? Two developments help to explain this. The first is that women were, in general, a relatively marginal group in the labor market, in the sense that all kinds of “core” activities were carried out by men, while women often had a “supplementary” role as unskilled helpers. The women were particularly in demand during seasonal peaks in the demand for labor—such as during the harvest—but they played a less important role during the rest of the year.

This marginal position is perhaps best expressed in one of the answers to the question about the employment of women and children, given by Selattyn in the Report on the Poor Laws from 1834: “Women and children are not now so much employed as formerly, because labouring men are so plentiful, and their labour so cheap.”33 Similarly, Mate argues that, for the Middle Ages, “it was perfectly natural for women to be recruited in the labour force when the need arose, but in many places they functioned as a reserve pool of labour, to be called upon in times of scarcity, and ignored when supplies of male labour were adequate.”34 In short, men tended to crowd out women in the labor market when supply was abundant, even in the 1830s, when the relative wages of women were at a historic low. The small gender gap that we find in the late medieval period should also be seen in light of the long period of labor scarcity that began after the Black Death, a period during which women’s relative position in the market improved, in particular during seasonal peaks in the demand for labor.35

A second development that helps to explain the deteriorating bargaining power of women in particularly the agricultural labor market is that, as a result of changes in the structure of this sector, the demand for their labor fell considerably. This is clear from an analysis of the structure of the labor force in the nineteenth century, when only a tiny share—less than 4%—of women were employed in agriculture, whereas the share of men was still about 31% (see table 5.3). In other parts of Europe, women continued to be very active in the (p.135) agricultural labor market. Even in the Netherlands, which had a highly productive agricultural sector, with a similar employment structure, the proportion of women engaged in agriculture was still 47% (and 36% for men).36

In England, a number of changes in the structure of agriculture led to a rapid decline in the demand for female labor. The enclosure movement and the consolidation of small farms into larger farms, was part of this story: the smaller common lands had been an important source of income and work for women and children.37 This movement was part of a general tendency toward large, capital-intensive farms. The peasant farms that had dominated English agriculture in the late medieval period, and that had supplied a lot of work for women and children (as had the relatively small farms on the Continent), disappeared. As David Davies wrote in 1795, when men occupied or rented portions of land, “their wives and children too, could formerly, when they wanted work abroad, employ themselves profitably at home; whereas now, few of these are constantly employed, except in harvest.”38

Robert Allen has estimated the degree to which the employment of men and women (and children) changed with the size of farms.39 His results point in the same direction: when farm size increases—say, from 0 to 50 acres to 600 or 700 acres—the labor input of men (per acre) declines by about 40%, whereas that of women fell by almost 90% and that of boys by about 80%. So, while the demand for labor from men and women on small farms was about equal, the labor demand for female labor on really large farms was only 20 to 30% of that for male labor.40 On arable farms, these patterns were striking enough, but they also (p.136) occurred on pastoral farms. With the disappearance of the small “family farms” women also lost this source of income, which meant that the “opportunity costs” of working rather than raising children decreased substantially. As Cunningham points out, in the predominantly agricultural regions, women and children were often unemployed or underemployed; only industry, where it existed, was an important source of female employment in the countryside.41

Consequently, the enclosure movement and the disappearance of the small family farm undermined the bargaining power of women and children in the labor market. These changes were fundamental, but they were supplemented by changes in the seasonal demand for labor. Snell has demonstrated that the seasonal demand for female labor changed immensely in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: women’s role during the harvest probably diminished, and instead their work was concentrated in the spring,42 which led to a decline in female participation and earning capacity. Snell shows in detail how this change caused a decrease in the relative wages of women, especially in the eastern part of the country (confirming other research, as noted).43

The decline in demand for female labor was mainly concentrated in the regions specializing in arable farming; in the livestock-farming districts, demand was much more stable. A fundamental change in the technology of the harvest played a significant role here. In the late eighteenth century, the sickle was replaced by the scythe and the bagging hook, as Collins has shown.44 The sickle had been used by both men and women, and the wages of female reapers were traditionally subject to wage setting (see table 5.1). The scythe, however, was the domain of men because it required much more hard labor.45 While the work during harvest time had paid relatively well, now it fell as a result; and if the data published by Snell are correct, the peak in women’s annual work cycle switched to the lower-paid work of weeding during spring.46

Table 5.3 Occupational Structure of Men and Women in 1841, Compared with Tentative Estimates for 1522


























Source: Broadberry et al. 2010.

It has been argued by Crafts that what was peculiar about the Industrial Revolution in England was that it was coupled with a rapid decline in agricultural employment—and at a much more rapid pace than was “normal” in the rest of western Europe.47 He links this phenomenon to changes in the structure of agriculture—particularly the rise of large, capital-intensive (and labor-extensive) farms. It was especially the demand for female labor that suffered (p.137) a decline, and this is particularly evident in England as opposed to the rest of western Europe, where family farms persisted.

The Impact of Changing Labor Markets on Population Growth

Women’s relative wages declined by half during the early modern period as a result of the falling demand for their labor, especially in agriculture, the result of the enclosure movement and the disappearance of small family farms. In large parts of England, there were no alternative employment opportunities—proto-industry and services were often too small in scale to compensate for this. What were the consequences of these changes for demographic behavior and human capital formation?

It is one of the central ideas of the new home economics that emerged with the pioneering work of Gary Becker and others that the relative remuneration of men and women plays an important role in decision-making concerning fertility.48 In this view of the determinants of demographic behavior, marriage is in essence an act of specialization; and the larger the differences between men and women—in terms of their pay and human capital—the more benefits they can derive from it. Relative remunerations also affect behavior within marriage. Having and raising children is a time-consuming activity, in which women have a “natural” advantage. But time is scarce and therefore costly, and the opportunity costs of a woman’s time—her (relative) wage—is a determinant in Becker’s view of fertility.

That is, when the wages of women are relatively high, they will have a strong incentive to allocate a large part of their time to wage earning and less time on reproductive activities (having and raising children); alternatively, when women’s relative wages are low, their fertility will be high. In recent research, this concept has turned out to be a robust relationship, in particular when the expected wage for women is viewed as a proxy for their level of human capital.49 That is, when women are highly schooled and are expected to earn high incomes, their fertility is lower than for women who have received almost no schooling. Figure 1.4 (chapter 1) illustrates this link for the developing world in the 1950–2000 period: when women did not receive any schooling, their fertility was as high as 5.5 to 8 children; when the average years of schooling is as high as 8 to 10, their fertility declines to 1 to 3 children. The figure shows quite clearly the switch (p.138) from “quantity” to “quality” and is an important part of the approach developed by Becker.50

Economic development normally leads to a movement to the right along the regression line shown in figure 1.4: from low levels of schooling/high levels of fertility, to high levels of schooling/low fertility. That it is the level of schooling of women that is crucial in limiting fertility has been demonstrated by T. Paul Schultz, among others, who have found that more schooling for women indeed has a strong negative effect on fertility, and that higher levels of human capital formation for men has a contrary effect, tending to lead to higher “demand for children,” as explained in chapter 1. This view is consistent with the expectations based on the Beckerian model; that is, higher wages for men lead to more specialization within the household and more time for women for reproductive activities.51

With this knowledge, it is now possible to address that puzzle in English demographic history: Why did the population begin to grow so rapidly during the second half of the eighteenth century? We will ignore the role mortality plays in this story—which was limited—and concentrate, as Wrigley and Schofield have done, on the determinants of fertility and nuptiality.52 In fact, the demographic acceleration of the post-1750 period was, as Goldstone has argued, caused by a number of changes that had begun much earlier.53 Fertility within marriage did not change much during the entire 1550–1800 period; the most important driving factor was the change in the age of marriage.54

Wrigley and Schofield have, in their seminal study on the English demographic history of this period, stressed the links between real wages and reproductive behavior; but as argued by Goldstone and Lindert, this view does not appear to explain these changes sufficiently.55 The mean age at marriage of women—the key variable in the Wrigley and Schofield analysis—shows a consistent decline from, according to one study, 26.7 years in 1554/1578 to 22.6 in 1779/1804.56 In every cohort, women (and men) married somewhat earlier than before; only in the first half of the seventeenth century was this trend interrupted (in 1616: 25.6; and in 1641: 26.7). The decline was particularly marked after about 1700, when in one century the average marriage age dropped by almost four years (from 26.4 in 1691 to 22.6 in 1791).57

(p.139) During the seventeenth century, marriage age seems to have remained more or less stable, but it declined greatly from the early 1700s onwards, a decline that drove the “baby boom” that began in the second half of that century. This decline in the age at marriage was, we believe, the most important change in demographic behavior of this period. But it is difficult to explain on the basis of the real wage estimates that Wrigley and Schofield used: in the first half of the eighteenth century, when the mean age at first marriage was already falling substantially, real wages were going up; in the second half, when real wages declined—or at best stabilized—the process of declining marriage age continued. Thus, there does not appear to be a link between the real wages of men and the average age at marriage. Note: it also does not “work” during the second half of the sixteenth century, when again the mean age at first marriage declined, but real wages fell.58

Two other explanations have been suggested in the literature. On the basis of research into the demographics of proto-industrial villages, it has been suggested that this particular form of family employment created a strong demand for the labor of young children, and therefore led to a rise in fertility. The fall in the age at marriage may therefore have been driven by a rise in proto-industrial activity—that is, by more, instead of less, employment for women and children.59 But the problem with this interpretation is that, as remarked by Smith, the same decline in marriage age that can be found in proto-industrial villages is also present in agricultural parishes.60 Goldstone therefore suggests that it was not proto-industry that mattered but, rather, proletarianization—the growth of a class of wage workers who were “able to marry at younger ages than traditional labourers.”61 This latter group “still probably required a certain period of accumulation before marrying,” as a result of which they were sensitive to fluctuations in real wages.

We think these explanations are not entirely convincing, because they attempt to explain the behavior of women (their mean age at marriage) by using real wage (and employment) data that only refer to men. The decline in the relative wages of women compared to men is a much more convincing explanation for the fall in mean age of first marriage between the 1560s and the 1800s. Firstly, because these processes coincide in time, although the decline in marriage age is stronger in the eighteenth century, whereas the decline in relative wages started well before 1700.

Secondly, the link with wages is suggested by theory: it is exactly what the Becker model predicts would happen if such a drastic change in relative incomes occurs; that is, the larger the wage gap, the more both partners profit from (p.140) specialization within marriage, and the more profitable the marriage will be, the earlier that marriage will take place. This does not imply that the female wage rate drives everything; the link between real wages of both men and women and the possibilities for acquiring the assets necessary for setting up a household (stressed by Hajnal in his seminal paper, and analyzed in detail by Wrigley and Schofield) may indeed have played a role as well.62

Perhaps the rise in mean age at marriage that occurred during the sixteenth century may be explained in this way (see also chapter 8). It is, however, much more difficult to explain the strong decline in the age at marriage during the eighteenth century in a similar way, because real wages did not go up (they did a bit during the first half of the century, but they go down again during the second half), and the general impression is that living standards did not really improve during the Industrial Revolution (as is also clear from the information derived from women’s heights63 ).

The “baby boom” that took place during the second half of the eighteenth century was quite exceptional: demographic growth in England was much faster than elsewhere, and given the poor employment prospects of women and children, particularly in the agrarian parts of the country, it led to the emergence of a labor surplus that was so characteristic of industrializing England.64 On the one hand, the labor input of men increased, but we do not know what happened to women’s labor input; part of the increased effort by men may have been a rational response of the “family economy” to the growing disparities in earnings between the sexes.65

Human Capital Formation: A “Failure” of Eighteenth-Century England?

Another striking feature of English industrialization that is linked to these wage and fertility changes is the “failure” of human capital formation in this period. This development has been diagnosed in a number of ways. Crafts, for example, demonstrates that, when comparing English economic growth with the “normal” patterns of European industrialization in the nineteenth century, human capital formation in England lagged enormously; that is, school enrollment was only a third of the level of other European countries with similar levels of economic development.66 The low degree of literacy and school enrollment in (p.141) nineteenth-century England was largely the result of the slow growth in human capital formation during the long eighteenth century. This has been pointed out by Mokyr and Allen, and is used by them to argue that human capital formation was not a major source of economic growth or a cause of the Industrial Revolution.67

It is clear from the research into the development of literacy in this period that a literacy levels stagnated.68 A social decomposition of these trends has been given by Stone, who shows that literacy among farmers and craftsmen continued to grow, but that for “laborers and servants,” it stagnated at a level of about 45% (data for Gloucester and Oxford).69 Nicholas and Oxley found, in their study of convicts, a decline in literacy among men and women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.70 There is similar evidence that in the industrializing regions such as Lancashire, where population growth was especially rapid, there was a decline in literacy between about 1750 and 1820.71 De Pleijt demonstrates that average years of education, which rose rapidly during the sixteenth century’s “educational revolution,” stagnated or even fell during much of the eighteenth century.72 This is consistent with the “deskilling” of the agricultural and industrial labor force that occurred during the same period, according to De Pleijt and Weisdorf.73 Finally, the history of book production and book consumption suggests that, after a very fast growth in the demand for books in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this proxy of human capital stagnated during much of the eighteenth century.74

The failure of human capital formation during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is closely linked with the weak economic position of women during this period—a period that led to earlier marriage, less time for human capital formation for women, and a switch back to “quantity” at the expense of “quality.” This is the supply side of the phenomenon; from the demand side, there were similar changes. To begin with, early industrialization was probably skill saving as, for example, spinners and weavers became industrial laborers.75 (p.142) Perhaps even more important was the transformation of English agriculture in the eighteenth century resulting in the decline of family farms (those operated by a skilled farmer) and the rise of large estates operated by unskilled wage laborers.

Returning to the supply side, we find that the educational level of women was not only of crucial importance for their own fertility and their age of marriage but also for the educational opportunities of their children and, via the “grandmother effect,” on their fertility again.76 This new literature argues that it is basically women’s empowerment that drives fertility decline and the increase in human capital formation during the “demographic transition.” In early modern England, a combination of socioeconomic developments, via an undermining of women’s economic position and a halving of their relative wage, caused the Malthusian intermezzo.

Explaining the Great Conundrum

Here we have offered a new explanation for the “great conundrum,” or the eighteenth-century “baby boom” mentioned at the start of this chapter. First, we stressed that it was not only population growth that was “different” in England but also the stagnation of literacy and of human capital in general, which seems to be an anomaly in this period. This “great conundrum” has been explained as follows: it has been demonstrated that in England, the gender wage gap increased substantially during the early modern period, which was brought about by: (1) the switch from the post–Black Death labor scarcity to a labor surplus, which in particular harmed the economic position of women; and (2) changes in the structure of agriculture, leading to the rise of large-scale, capital-intensive and labor-extensive farms, which had limited demand for female (wage) labor. This is also suggested by the result that on the continent (in the Netherlands), there was a much smaller decline in female wages, as family farms continued to be quite important (additionally, the period of high demand for labor during the Dutch Golden Age may have increased the relative pay of women77).

Moreover, the decline in English wages had important effects on its demographic development. This offers an explanation for the decline in the average age at marriage, particularly for women, between 1600 and 1800, and the related increase in fertility that occurred in this period, which resulted in a much faster (p.143) rate of population growth after 1750 than elsewhere in western Europe. It also helps to explain the stagnation in human capital formation that occurred during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, again a feature peculiar to English development in these years. The explanation of the “great conundrum” is, therefore, closely linked to the changing position of women in the labor market and within marriage. (p.144)


(7) The series of wages earned by servants is strongly affected by the assumption that their board and lodging consisted of barebones offerings that are estimated by Allen and Weissdorf 2011, implying, for example, that these servants did not share in the general increase in real income following the Black Death; we therefore do not rely on this series here.

(11) The “d” indicates pence, for denarius, the Roman penny; 12 d was equivalent to 1 shilling.

(12) Langdon 2010, 74–75.

(14) Clark 2004. Unfortunately, in the published version of the paper, this part of the analysis was not included; see Clark 2007a.

(15) Burnette 1997, 2008.

(16) Burnette 2008, 207.

(17) Burnette 1997, 270.

(18) Ogilvie 2003, 7–8.

(20) Hamaker 1875–76, 2:432–434, 440–465.

(21) Heeringa 1926, 746.

(24) Priester 1998, 643.

(25) The decline in the Netherlands did occur, but it was more modest than in England and may also have started later; van Zanden 1985, 78–79, 116.

(27) De Pleijt and van Zanden 2017.

(29) See the discussion in Burnette 2008, 125–135.

(33) Cited in Cunningham 1990, 135.

(34) Mate 1999, 28; similar quotes in Langdon 2010, 68.

(36) Data for 1849 from Smits, Horlings, and van Zanden 2000, 112.

(40) Allen 1992, 215.

(43) Snell 1981, 420.

(45) Snell 1981, 425.

(46) Snell 1981, 428–429.

(47) Crafts 1985, 48–70.

(58) see Goldstone 1986, and Lindert 1998 for detailed critique along these lines.

(66) Crafts 1985, 63.

(69) Stone 1969, 109–111.

(71) See the discussion in Mitch 1993, 276–280.

(74) Van Zanden 2009, 177–204; see also St. Clair 2004.

(75) De Pleijt and Weisdorf (2017) use the HISCO classification to measure skill levels; in it, spinners and weavers are classified as skilled and industrial workers as unskilled, so industrialization by definition implies a reduction of skill levels, although it is not really clear that the actual work these people did—operating complex machines in industrial mills—required fewer skills.