Why did French fertility collapse in the 1800s?

Population Growth in the Century After Napoleon:

–1816 : 29.9 million
–1860 : 36.5 million [+22.1%]
–1910 : 39.5 million [+8.2%]

Germany (within 1871 borders).
–1816 : 22.4 million
–1860 : 37.6 million [+67.9%]
–1910 : 64.9 million [+72.6%]

To put the data another way:
— In 1816, there were 133 French for every 100 Germans.
— In 1910, there were 61 French for every 100 Germans!

Demography is Destiny:

Back in 1810 no one would have thought France would “soon” be a second-rate power, and that Prussia [or its successor state, i.e. Germany] would be the strongest power in Europe. Yet, for whatever reason, French fertility declined in the post-Napoleonic era, while the Germans’ soared. By the time a young Nietzsche started pondering philosophy, there were more German-speakers than French-speakers in Europe, the first time that could ever be said. By the early 1900s, there were far more German-speakers.
This [led to the] “Great War” breaking out in 1914…

A commenter, Rollory, proposed one idea about why France’s fertility fell:

[France’s fertility collapse] was Napoleon’s doing. Under the Ancien Regime, the standard was for the oldest son to inherit everything. He made the new default be that estates be split equally among all the heirs. The result is that having many kids means each one gets less. If you want your children to be prosperous, you have few – whereas under the old system, you don’t worry about it; the oldest gets it all and the others go off to seek their fortune.

The wisdom of Salic Law runs deep.

Rollory’s argument makes sense, but it can only apply to the landowning classes, as far as I can see. Fertility decline affected all of France, and dramatically so. What could explain France’s fertility collapse in the 1800s — among all its classes?

By the way, in case anyone is under any misapprehensions, and thinks France’s apparent low population-growth might be because by French outmigration, famines, plagues, or any other fantasy:

“Before 1800, marital fertility in France was similar to that of other European countries, but after 1800 the French rate declined rapidly. By 1840 it was 2/3 of the 1800 level, and by 1900 it was 1/2 of the 1800 level. In other European countries marital fertility did not begin to decline until the 1870s. “The fall of marital fertility in nineteenth-century France“, European Journal of Population (Jan. 1985)”


Update: Commenter RS has posted a great deal of further TFR information in the comments below, which confirms that France’s TFR was the lowest in Europe by 1820. Unexplained is why.


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66 Responses to Why did French fertility collapse in the 1800s?

  1. j says:

    France was by far the most advanced and industrialized country of Europe. It is natural that it entered the demographic transition a generation before Germany, which was a rural country. Germany industrialized very late in the end of the 19th Century.

    • Hail says:

      — I don’t know much about France’s industrialization, but its fertility sagged way below Industrial Giant and indisputably-first-to-industrialize Britain’s. If it were a simple “Industrialization causes low fertility, period”, we would not see this:

      –1816 : 29.9 million
      –1860 : 36.5 million [+22.1%]
      –1910 : 39.5 million [+8.2%]

      United Kingdom
      –1816 : 19.8 million
      –1861 : 29.1 million [+47.0%]
      –1911 : 45.4 million [+55.7%]

      Something else must be going on here.

      — It is not correct that “Germany industrialized very late in the end of the 19th Century.” Germany was second only to Britain in industrialization.

  2. coldequation says:

    Could it be something to do with the decline of religion in postrevolutionary France?

    • Hail says:

      Religion in France before and after 1789 is a subject I confess to not knowing much about.

      You are on the right track to point to 1789 as tipping point, though, I think.

      It could be simple cultural-pessimism, in the wake of Robespierre and then Napoleon’s endless wars. France had a truly rough 25 years there, when its slowdown began.

  3. R[ob] S says:

    Check the TFRs, possibly more informative than the pop — Britain’s TFR declined rapidly and monotonically from 1878 or so. Thus, they were undergoing demographic aging even as the population continued to go up.

    Of course, la TFR de France did decline earlier than Britain’s — I’m not denying that.

    This trend in Britannia began suddenly — there’s almost a ‘corner’ in the graph, a vertex, as opposed to a curvy bend or rounded corner. This is a big reason why Mr Winston, despite his still-awesome navy, had to bow and scrape before his inferior FDR. Churchill was a good man who at least understood that Gentile-Jewish conflict was an important and dagerous dimension of affairs, not least the Russian Revolution. To me he’s a saint eternal for his strident anti-bolshie activism. Herbert Hoover:

    Winston Churchill, representing the British Cabinet, appeared before the Big Four on February 14, 1919, and demanded a united invasion of Russia.

    This would have spared us the ’24 famine, the Holomodor, Hitlerism, and basically all things deeply fucked up. You defend Wilson’s domestic orientations on the other thread, but he was the decisive actor in leaving Churchill and other sages (the majority of the French and Brit power elite, and much of the rest of Europe) with blue balls. For that he is ever a sinner — but this was only the first of three or four stone-dumb interwar acts of the USA.

    The Brit and Frog elites should have done something about their population problems. For them to have been hegemon, and then ‘let themselves go’, let themselves gradually de-hegemonize in favor of partying (material consumption and relaxation), was not such a great thing for them or anyone else. On a continent with so many world powers crammed in right next to each other, a stable balance of power had always been the great desideratum and primary collective goal.

    • Hail says:

      Rob S wrote:
      This trend in Britannia began suddenly — there’s almost a ‘corner’ in the graph, a vertex

      There is a corner turned in France’s TFR line, too, that being at 1790. It looks like France’s TFR in 1810 is only 75% the 1789 level. By the 1890s it was 50% the 1789 level.

      I strongly suspect, then, any explanation for France’s dramatic fall in fertility two to three generations before the rest of us must lean heavily on 1789 and subsequent events.

    • Hail says:

      The rest of your comments, about Churchill and so, on are not as tangential as they seem, which is the point of the offhand comment that gave rise to this post in the first place. (See OP).

      “Demographics is Destiny” may be a cliche but it is a powerful one. War broke out in 1914 in the West because Britain and especially France were afraid of Germany’s growth. The dramatic turn in German-vs.-French population balance, over a single century, made war inevitable.

      This may have even fed into what became the Voelkisch movement in Germany — German writers from the 1870s already wrote of France as enfeebled, decadent, even degenerate, inspiring Voelkisch intellectuals perhaps to be even harder-line in defense of European Mankind, which “naturally should be led by the dynamic Germans” (who were growing while France was shrinking).

  4. RS says:

    Here’s a nice TFR chart going way back, for France, England-Wales, and Sweden. Scroll to the next page for more great numbers.

    Germany was poor and crowded, relative to France. In early Nazi times about 1/3 of the working pop was still farmers — many of them busting ass very hard on small plots. France, in contrast, definitely had a good deal of unused agricultural capacity. If Frog farmers were richer (were they? certainly seems like they shoulda been), that could be a reason for having less kids than Kraut farmers, who needed a source of income in old age, and, if they were poorer, would have been less successful at saving money during youth and middle age.

    • Hail says:

      Thanks for this find. I have rehosted the graph for ease of viewing.
      TFR in England, France, and Sweden

      Methodological concerns with using TFR:
      — A potential problem with using TFR is: It loses its magical quality when death rates are not steady and predictable. On the high end, hunter-gatherers need a ~6.0 TFR for zero-growth, because 2/3rds of children don’t make it to maturity. Today we only need 2.1 to replace the two parents, but in the past it was higher. So, if France had medicine far superior to Britain in the mid-1800s, France could have easily outgrown Britain, which they certainly didn’t.

      — On the “plus” side, TFR is independent of migration pressures.

  5. RS says:

    German TFRs — scroll down one page.

    As you can see… Germany was still rocking hard right up to 1914, though starting to drop off — while England and France were undergoing partial demographic age inversion (France was the most aged nation of them all).

    To round out the great powers, here’s Russia — scroll down one page.

    Russian fertility was much higher than the Western Allies’ or Germany’s. Since we know that German concern with rising Russian power was one cause of the war, it’s interesting to observe that German fertility had been dipping in the years leading up to 1914, while Russian fertility was much higher and not dipping at all.

    Of course, the Franco-Prussian war c. 1870 was not economically deterministic, in the WWI sense of an ongoing contest of war production, and there was probably little reason to suspect, at its launch, that WWI would be either. (Although armies everywhere had taken the lessons of the Franco-Prussian to heart, and copied the Prussian command organization, railroad deployment system, etc.)

    Nevertheless, you have to wonder — would Germany have been as keen on war, had the Brits and French demographies not transitioned so, sooo much earlier than her own? It would be interesting to also see the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman numbers, and American, but I’m about done looking things up for the day.

    • Hail says:

      I am not sure if German concern for Russian growth was one of the triggers leading to war, nor that the German state was “keen on war” in July 1914. German diplomats were constantly trying to hold everything back, restrain the Hapsburgs’ revenge war against Serbia (“Halt in Belgrade”), refusing to mobilize even when others were gearing up to, having their diplomats use all channels to de-escalate.

      The literature I am familiar with, written in the mid and late 1920s by Americans like Barnes, Cochrane, and Fay, seems to prove that Germany desperately tried to avoid war in the east, but that Russia pushed full-steam-ahead, and mobilized along the German border a full two days’ ahead of Germany’s call to mobilize. (Germany and Russia were neighbors at the time).

      The July 1914 Crisis was among the trickiest diplomatic crises of all time. If you are Germany, what do you do? Do you support the Hapsburg Empire in their war against Serbia, which was apparently involved in, and still harboring, assassination conspirators that had killed your next head of state? The Hapsburgs thought, probably correctly, they would lose viability for their fragile Frankenstein-Superstate if Serbia got off scot-free. But Russia stepped in and refused to give old man Hapbsurg a free hand to kick around the Serb troublemaker. This is a conundrum. What is Germany, the Hapsburgs’ only ally, to do?

  6. RS says:

    > A potential problem with using TFR is: It loses its magical quality when death rates are not steady and predictable as they are today.

    Yes. It depends on what interests you on a given day. Suppose we are concerned with geopolitical power. Then people over 60 may on average be a liability rather than a credit — and so improvements in medicine might not be as big a net gain as one might think. Suppose we are concerned with geopolitical power, or alternately perceived power, specifically before the first appearance and recognition (c. 1915 or later) of economo-determinism in war — then, men of the reckless age (16 to 24), and future supplies of such men, matter much more than men aged 30 to 55. After 1900, Britain and France were ever-shorter of wild n crazy, I-wanna-die young fellas. That was a major weakness in 1913 or 1914, especially if you were to calculate the balance of power, at that time, under the assumption that future wars would be ‘Westphalian’ — ie short, with an unstable front and early peace negotiations.

    (Conversely, in the lead-up to the second war, a higher degree of econo-determinism on the battlefield was probably expected, than actually happened in the first 1/3 or 1/2 of the war. Later it did become much more econo-deterministic.)

    • Hail says:

      Excellent points.

      This may also explain why the American Revolution of the 1770s was successful? If Ben Franklin’s comments are to be believed, USA’s TFR was much higher than Europe’s, hence a higher-share of “wild n crazy, I-wanna-die young fellas”.

  7. RS says:

    > German diplomats were constantly trying to hold everything back, restrain the Hapsburgs’ revenge war against Serbia (“Halt in Belgrade”), refusing to mobilize even when others were gearing up to, having their diplomats use all channels to de-escalate.

    I’m certain I’ve read the exact opposite in Wik — that Germany pressured Austria to declare war, over and over in literally tens of communiques, primarily because Germany knew Russia was getting more powerful by the decade, and the time to act was now. Maybe what I read was propaganda.

    • Hail says:

      Austria-Hungary (the Hapsburg Empire) did declare war, but only on Serbia, which was its only interest: Its geopolitical goal was to punish Serbia and thus retain its prestige. Otherwise its Frankenstein-State could have easily unravelled, ala the Soviet Empire in the 1980s.

      The problem was, Russia stepped in and declared itself Serbia’s protector in the name of pan-Slavic and Orthodox something or other. This was the essence of the diplomatic conundrum. American historians eventually settled on blaming Russia for its hard line that pushed Europe across the line for war.

      Philosophically, of course, “Austria-Hungary” should never have existed at all, if one believes in the idea of the nation-state. Nor should the Czar’s Empire, though, which was only 44% ethnic-Russian in 1910, IIRC. Even Germany had millions of non-Germans it had conquered living under its domains.

  8. RS says:

    > This may have even fed into what became the Voelkisch movement in Germany — German writers from the 1870s already wrote of France as enfeebled, decadent, even degenerate, inspiring Voelkisch intellectuals perhaps to be even harder-line

    That’s fascinating to learn. I know Nietzsche, depsite being Francophile and anti-nationalist, wrote such things about French culture and French ‘weakness of the will’ in the 80s and perhaps also the 70s, but I have yet to learn anything much about the Voelkisch Movement. Wiki has a whole article, though a short one, on the concept of degeneration from 1850-1945. Degeneration/decadence is central to Nietzsche’s philosophy, not least in its most nazoid aspects, but was also wielded by others to attack Nietzsche from the 90s onward.

    • Hail says:

      “Today, the history of the Kingdom of the Franks is ended. It matters little whether France is governed by clerical power-seekers or inane “free-thinkers”: the great creative impulse is moribund. France will henceforth be afflicted by an instinctual racial angst…however superficially secure she may appear to be.”

      — Alfred Rosenberg [an NSDAP leader], “Myth of the 20th Century” [written 1929, seen as a basis for Nazi ideology].

      In writing those words, he was following in a tradition of writers with racialist sympathies, going back 50 years at that point, of pointing to France as “the sick man of Western Europe”.

  9. RS says:

    Very likely, what I read (several months ago) about German belligerence was this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/July_Crisis#German_attitude_to_war

  10. RS says:

    Yes, getting back to the why, try page 55 at the ref from my second post.

    It tends to agree that the revolution was involved. Largely through separating people from the moral urgings of religious authorities. It says fertility dropped fastest in the most secularized areas.

    So, Cold Equation is right.

    It also cites the decline in the use of the family as an economic unit (for farming, cottage industry, very small family business I reckon). Men, and increasingly women as well, would be hired by someone not necessarily interested in integrating any kids of theirs into the business.

    In contrast, if you have your own farm or business, your kids can start doing useful work at a young age — and soon reach a high level of productivity, long before age 18. Because of genetic affinity you can cooperate effectively with your kids, which tends to compensate for their low intelligence and conscientiousness compared to adults. All this makes the net cost of having kids is very low.

    As a kid I visited my Midwestern farming cousins. In spite of the mechanization of farming, they can still incorporate the labor of children easily to this day — including me and my sister, even though we only visited for a couple weeks and had no skills. It’s pretty trivial to learn to whitewash fences, toss food to chickens, etc. Most of the families I met had two or three kids. And they were all evangelical I think.

    • RS says:

      pp 53-4 are hidden on google, but I got into them on amazon.

      It said that birth control in France was primarily effected by coitus interruptus, though there was also a level of (illegal, and sometimes primitive) abortion since time immemorial. The condom and diaphragm were later and so had more effect on Britain-Scandinavia.

      It also said that interrupted coition had been the special preserve of prostitutes and was ‘rehabilitated’ partly by the influence of malthusian and ‘neo-malthusian’ schools of thought/policy. But I’m not sure the French religious authorities accepted those methods. I’m guessing they didn’t.

    • Hail says:

      Was 1789 particularly “anti-religion”? I suppose that was a part of it, even if not the main part.

      Fertility always drops fastest in the most secularized areas, so that alone is not necessarily evidence of primarily religious causation.

      One wonders why France saw no recovery of fertility during the years of Napoleon’s glory and his seeming invincibility? And after status-quo-ante was declared by Metternich and the gang, why did France’s fertility continue to slide even though a monarch was in Paris again, the fires of “anti-religious” revolution put out?

  11. Hail says:

    Another tie-in to religion? —
    I have heard it speculated that, if not for the generations-long brain-drain of the Huguenots, 1789 may never have happened. The Huguenots were said to be principally drawn from the educated middle-classes, that is to say not the peasantry and not the aristocracy.

    Their persecution was a boon for Prussia, Britain, Netherlands, which took them in, and even the American colonies (Paul Revere was descended from Huguenots) and the Boers in Africa, who got more than a few. Every society that took them in benefited from their talent, ingenuity, work ethic.

    France lost out. The removal by emigration, or worse, of ~15(?)% of France’s population, which included likely a great bulk of its native talent, was a body blow to the French Nation that likely changed the nature of social dynamism in France. By the mid to late 1700s, social dynamism had shifted the sort of rabble which stormed the Bastille, and then to the megalomaniacs of the Robespierre variety who leapt forward to “lead”.

    • John M. says:

      The Huguenot exodus was not quite that large. Protestants peaked in proportional terms in France in the 1560s, when they may have been 10-15% of the population, but almost all of them were new converts and some reverted back to Catholicism as the Wars of Religion dragged on, particularly after tens of thousands of Protestants were killed in the St. Bartholomew massacre in 1572.

      By the 1680s, it is believed that there were about one million Protestants in France, out of a total population of 18 million or so. Of these, about 200,000 fled the country when the Edict of Nantes was revoked; the remainder either “converted” or toughed it out through the period known to Protestants as “le Désert.”

      The post-1685 exodus amounted to about 1% of the population (there were some earlier flights out of the country, notably after 1572, but this one was definitely the largest numerically). However, it is true that those who left were frequently highly skilled, and they boosted the economy of the countries they arrived to.

      • “tens of thousands of Protestants were killed in the St. Bartholomew massacre in 1572”

        It was hundreds, not thousands.

        • Laurence says:

          There were a number of massacres nationwide, following the one in Paris. The total number of Protestant deaths has been variously estimated from 3,000 to 30,000 (probably closer to the lower number).

  12. RS says:

    Wow, I had no idea that the Huges were remotely so numerous.

    As for religion in the Revolution . . . there was some friction . . . I don’t know if it was the policy of the left or of the LEFT-left, or whether it was liberal-christian-deist or actually anti-christian, but,

    After the French Revolution, anticlerical policies and the execution of King Louis XVI led to the Revolt in the Vendee. This counter-revolution produced what is debated to be the first modern genocide. Monarchists and Catholics took up arms against the revolutionaries’ French Republic in 1793 after the government asked that 300,000 Vendeans be conscripted into the Republican military. The Vendeans would also rise up against Napoleon’s attempt to conscript them in 1815.

    I’m guessing ‘anti-clerical’ here doesn’t mean anything so strong as it means in the Spanish Civil War 150 years later. Maybe just cutting into the number of clergy, and their perquisites and power.

    • Hail says:

      As you imply, though, there is a difference between “anti-clerical” and “anti-religion”, though Theocrats would claim there is not. Another weakness in the theory is that “Old Time Religion” was declining in all European countries at the time, possibly excluding the USA, yet none saw a fertility collapse like France’s until much much later.

      What else about the Revolution could cause a century-long slow decline in fertility?

    • John M. says:

      “I’m guessing ‘anti-clerical’ here doesn’t mean anything so strong as it means in the Spanish Civil War 150 years later. Maybe just cutting into the number of clergy, and their perquisites and power.”

      Actually, it was stronger than that. For a time during the Terror, Christianity was abolished and churches were renamed “Temples of Reason.” Many churches were ransacked during this time. Notre-Dame de Paris, for instance, had all of its statues destroyed and it was used as a grain storage. The anti-Christian persecution began to ease up after Robespierre’s death, but relations with the Vatican were not restored until the Concordat of 1801.

  13. zhai2nan2 says:

    The French population declined because their civilization gave too much freedom to decadent art and hedonism. Catholicism was decadent, but the downfall of French morals after Catholicism collapsed was even worse.

    This is not to say that all Frenchmen were hedonists, but hedonistic Frenchmen controlled too many resources. Also women gained too much power by mere sex rather than by virtuous child-bearing.

    I should still have an essay somewhere on my hard drive about the rise of French courtesans and the downfall of French fertility. I’ll have to search for it.

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  15. josh says:

    I don’t know if anybody is still reading this thread, but the mention of Malthus jogged my memory of his reference to vice (prostitution) as a means of population control.

    A quick perusal of wikipedia mentions:

    “Réglementation (Regulation)
    In 1804 Napoleon ordered the registration and bi-weekly health inspection of all prostitutes. State controlled legal brothels (then known as “maisons de tolérance” or “maisons closes”) started to appear in Paris and in other cities and became highly popular throughout the century. By law, they had to be run by a woman (typically a former prostitute) and their external appearance had to be discreet. By 1810, Paris alone had 180 officially approved brothels. Prostitutes working in the maisons, or any woman arrested twice for soliciting had to be registered as such.[15] Registration involved having your name on a national register, and agreeing to abide by the regulations and twice weekly medical examinations.[16] In addition women endured long hours, poor working conditions and police harassment.[17][18] This pattern of regulation rapidly spread throughout Europe, partly aided by the Napoleonic occupations.”

    Not sure what the revolutionary regimes policies were, but I think changes in prostitution may be part of the answer.

    • Hail says:

      This is an intriguing piece of the puzzle you bring up, Josh.

      Note that the downward trend on fertility began about 1790, according to sources RS found. So a full 15 years before Napoleon’s promotion of prostitution began, if it’s true that he began pushing it in 1804. Unless the terror-dictator Robespierre was a whoremonger himself, then any rise in prostitution cannot explain why the “corner was turned”, though it could explain in part why it continued to slide through the 1800s.

      One thing that doesn’t make sense to me:
      Prostitution and Marriage are two very different things (the old feminist cynicism to the contrary notwithstanding). One of the great English poets wrote that love and lust were as different as “a flowerbed and a brothel”. What I’m trying to say is, a rise in prostitution does not inherently imply a decline in fertility, does it? It seems to me that a steady slide in fertility, as seen in post-Revolutionary France, means families were having the decision to have fewer children by choice, e.g. by use of coitus-interruptus as referenced by commenters above.

  16. RS says:

    How is mercenary love involved in population control? Helps men to delay marriage (including shotgun marriage)?

    • Hail says:

      By “mercenary love” you refer to prostitution, I presume.

      As bad as prostitution is, it is probably true that “the prostitute safeguards the virtues of wives and daughters.” (–Bertrand Russell)

      (At least that was true in previous ages. Today the virtue of wives and daughters seems increasingly to be out the window.)

      In other words, many thinkers saw prostitution as a necessary evil, but in itself would not depress fertility (of the vast majority of girls, the “virtuous”), would it?

  17. zhai2nan2 says:


    In 1877 France, the underlying social contract was that prostitutes were allowed great luxury and wealth – but NOT public identity. A prostitute had no social standing, no recognition.

    Nana was a subversive painting because to acknowledge the comforts of prostitution in public. That undermined the social contract.

    The essay that I saw explained all of this in detail but I still can’t seem to find it.

    @josh: thanks for the comment on Napoleonic code, that is a major piece of the puzzle.

    • Hail says:

      zhai2nan2, when you find that essay be sure to post it here, I am interested to read it.

      Your comments on the Nana painting imply, if I read you correctly, that it was not prostitution but the loosening of sexual-morals (the “social contract”) that it represented, which depressed fertility. That makes sense. But if that is the case, we are looking at correlation and not causation!

  18. Rollory says:

    “it can only apply to the landowning classes, as far as I can see. ”

    Well … define “landowning classes”.

    My ancestors, down to my grandparents’ generation, were poor peasant farmers – my grandmother often talks about “we never had two pennies to rub together” and deals were always done in terms of barter, trading cows and pasturing rights and things of that sort. One story she likes telling is how her great-uncle made a deal with his brother: he’d give up all claims on the inheritance, in exchange for room and board for the rest of his life. His brother agreed promptly, allowing him to spend his life writing poetry and corresponding with the likes of Victor Hugo.

    I don’t have hard evidence that splitting inheritances wasn’t a factor in earlier centuries. But it seems pretty clear to me it wasn’t just something for nobles to worry about. And the peasantry have always been the broad base of the French population.

    I don’t disagree that there may have been a psychological/social effect of the Revolution – it was a disaster in more ways than one. I just propose this as one of the methods it may have manifested.

    • Hail says:

      Are you saying most French families owned land in the 1800s?

      For what it’s worth, your great-great uncle made a wise choice. Free room and board for life in exchange for some future abstraction of a (presumably not enormous) land inheritance? That should be an easy choice.

      Especially because in those days anyone could see the Industrial Revolution was underway. Future economic power would not derive from land holdings, though most regular people probably did not realize it yet.

    • M says:

      This is coming 8 years later so I imagine the commentors will never see it, but for anyone who stumbles across I’ll back this up with my own experience; my family records go back to the early 1600s and as far back as we can find the family owned tracts of land. In a village now part of Belgrade’s airport, I am told, each family had a small plot of land in a section for their own ethnicity, except for gypsies who lived on the outskirts, according to a map found in archives.

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  20. Rollory says:

    Uh, no.

    The father had died. The inheritance had to be dealt with. It was time to split the land between the two brothers. It was not an abstraction, it was a clear and present immediate choice. I mention it not because of the value judgement you are making – which, in point of fact, had absolutely nothing to do with their lives; the Industrial Revolution had no direct impact on these farming communities (except maybe for making migrant labor during the winter less valuable) – but as evidence that land ownership was common even among the poorest classes and that it was a concern.

    The great-great-uncle never had children as a result of this choice. Had the land been split, he might have, but both families probably would have been less prosperous – and as I mentioned, they were already dirt poor.

    And yes, most peasants (at least within the past few centuries) owned the land they worked. Serfdom went out after the Hundred Years War. The family has documents going back well into the 1600s concerning such matters, and they weren’t by any means unusually prosperous. It was the norm. You might not even have a house, sleeping in a stone shack with whatever farm animals you had, but at least you had a field to sow; that was what kept you alive. If you had animals you would work out pasturing rights with other peasants in the area – pastures that belonged to somebody local, and who could dispose of them – subject to a web of other agreements made with other locals.

    Basically, you seem to have this impression that it was all sharecroppers, Dixie style. That’s completely wrong.

    • Rollory says:

      btw, my apologies for not getting that threaded correctly with the previous comments, I’m used to blogspot.

    • Hail says:

      Thanks for the clarification, Rollory.

      One point: I have no way of knowing what precise timeframe you were referring to, but by the last years of the 1800s it was surely very clear that Industrialism was making rural land ownership much less significant for economic well-being. This would facilitate the kind of land-coalescence you describe between this pair of your relatives. In other words, things can be practical and abstract at the same time!

      One other point: The USA, by the time of independence, had gotten rid of any lingering laws of primogeniture it had inherited from British law (AFAIK). Yet USA’s fertility did not sag into the doldrums as was the case in France. One might explain this away by saying there was plenty of land to be had, free or nearly so, on the American frontier, which was not true in the old world.

      Comparisons to other states in Europe would be more apt.
      What kind of correlation is there between an end to land-inheritance primogeniture in the other nations of Europe and their trends in fertility?

      I am glad you raised this point, because it is something I had not considered before.

    • Hail says:

      A further thought on the subject.

      Students of history will know the following pattern well:
      1.) Great empire is established by a general- or warlord-king.
      2.) This central figure dies.
      3.) He has multiple successors, who inherit part of his vast realm.
      4.) The inheritors (usually various of the founder’s sons) spend their time squabbling, feuding, or even waging war against one another.
      5.) Lacking cohesion, wracked by internal strife, the once “great empire” proves to be a flash in the pan. All traces of cohesion are gone with a generation or two or three.

      Of course, the mechanics behind rises and falls in empires are not the same as those driving rises and falls in fertility, so I don’t know how relevant this might be.

  21. Pingback: Primogeniture and Fertility | Hail To You

  22. Kubrik says:

    Urbanization may have played a role. Families in rural areas tend to be more locked into the traditional life and religion, and therefore have more children. The US at the moment also has a fairly high fertility rate, and while the majority of its population is ‘urbanized’ they really aren’t – definition of urban population dramatically changed in the past century with cities getting ever larger.

    • Hail says:

      I’d think so too. However, it seems urbanization was not the driving cause of France’s fertility decline. Though it may have contributed later on, it did not begin the trend nor can it explain most of it.

      France slowly urbanized:

      Share of French Living in Cities of 3,000+
      1810s: ~15%
      1850s: ~20%
      1890s: ~30%
      1910s: ~35%
      2010s: ~85%** [CIA].

      If TFR in 1789=100, in 1840 it was 70. By the 1910s it was 50. (See OP graph). So, most of France’s TFR-decline came before 1840, yet urbanization had not really even started yet.

      (** — Poetically, the urban-rural ratio in France has precisely flipped in precisely two centuries.)

    • Hail says:

      Here is another dataset, which speaks for itself:

      Share of French Engaged in Farming
      . 1788: 70%(?)
      1810s: 66%
      1850s: 54%
      1890s: 44%
      1910s: 38%
      2010s: 2% [CIA]

      Note that most of France’s move away from farming came after 1911. (If 1788 was 70% and today’s is 2%, 1789-1911 saw a 32-point loss while 1911-2011 saw a 36-point loss.

      By the 1910s France’s fertility had finished falling. It was nearly at its present-day subreplacement level, yet 4-in-10 French were still on farms!

  23. Hope says:

    I have a theory that it may be linked to a change in diet which started around then. Baguettes and other breaded foods that are so central to the French diet could have lead to undiagnosed endometriosis or PCOS in women, hampering their ability to reproduce.

    • Hail says:

      Very interesting idea.

      But surely bread was being eaten in France for thousands of years? What is special about baguettes?

      Is there evidence that “endometriosis or PCOS” (I am unfamiliar with the terms) are higher in France?

  24. Gen says:

    French fertility decline actually started at the end of the 18th just before the Revolution. Here is an interesting link.

    Click to access France%20TSA%20MAY_2011_BODY.pdf

    • Gen says:

      Marital Fertility and Wealth in Transition-Era France, 1750-1850
      Neil J. Cummins

      Department of Economics, Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY)
      May 19, 2011

      It has been long established that the demographic transition began in 18th century France, yet there is no consensus on exactly why fertility declined. This analysis links fertility life histories to wealth at death data for four villages in transition-era France, 1750-1850. For the first time, the individual-level economic correlates of the French fertility decline can be reported. Where fertility is declining, wealth is a powerful predictor of smaller family size. This paper argues that fertility decline in France was a result of changing levels of economic inequality, associated with the 1789 Revolution. In cross-section, the data support this hypothesis: Where fertility is declining, economic inequality is lower than were fertility is high.

  25. Anonymous says:

    sexual diseased infertile degenerates perhaps

  26. John M. says:

    I am a French history buff and I’ve pondered this question for some time. I don’t think there is one “smoking gun” that can explain it all. France was not, by any means, a homogenous society during this time. A good two dozen languages/dialects (usually dubbed “patois”) were spoken during this time, and only a minority of the population was actually fluent in French. Some regions remained strongly Catholic throughout this period. Some regions were more agrarian, some more urbanized, and so on. The laws about inheritance have been proposed as a cause, but the decline started before then, and France was not the only place where equal-inheritance laws were implemented (French Canada actually did likewise and its birthrate remained sky-high).
    It’s hard to find one underlying connection here that explains the low fertility. For whatever reasons, attempts at birth control were relatively widespread in France and not elsewhere.

    One thing we should note is that the raw birthrate in the 1800s was still considerably higher than today; it was just balanced by an equally higher death rate. One issue to ponder might be simply if mortality (infant or otherwise) and life expectancy in France were notably different from in its neighbors.

  27. Pingback: Family Type and Fertility | Hail To You

  28. Benben says:

    Could it have something to do with women’s education ?

  29. Your graph shows that the French fertility started to collapse immediately after the break of the Great French revolution. Napoleonic code may have contributed to it, but it did not trigger the collapse.

  30. Bar Tar says:

    French fertility collapsed because the French Revolution destroyed patriarchy and emancipated women. Germany was unassailably anti-liberal until 1913, and strongly anti-liberal until 1945, whereupon Germany was conquered, patriarchy was destroyed and women were emancipated, so fertility collapsed. In 1945, Japan was also conquered, patriarchy was destroyed and women were emancipated, so fertility collapsed.

    The reason it happened suddenly in these countries and gradually in other countries, namely the Anglosphere, is because the French left went fully insane immediately, whereas the Anglo left has been going insane slowly. And whereas Germany and Japan were strongly anti-liberal until 1945, after they were conquered they were rapidly brought “up to speed” and in line with the Anglosphere which had conquered them, thus their fertility converged with the Anglosphere.

    The few places where patriarchy is still extant and women are still un-emancipated are the few places with healthy fertility, namely the Middle East, including such countries as Afghanistan (5.0), Yemen (4.0), Iraq (3.0), Jordan (3.0), Oman (3.0), Pakistan (3.0), and a few others. The strength of the patriarchy in question can be measured by this one vital statistic.

    African countries proper cannot be counted because peoples evolved to civilization cannot be reliably compared with peoples evolved to primitive subsistence hunter-gathering.

    • Laurence says:

      This is greatly overstated. The Napoleonic Code curbed a lot of the gains women made in the Revolution and France returned to being very patriarchal. France actually ended up being one of the last European countries to grant women the vote (in 1946).

    • Laurence says:

      Also, your last paragraph is quite offensive.

      • Je suis la petite pamplemousse au fromage qui qui says:

        Whether you are a racial creationist who believes evolution affected everything in races except for cognitive and behavioural traits, and that hormones levels stop affecting behavior if they are caused by genetic differences, or just offended, doesn’t change the fact that, at the very least, birth rates are affected by cultural/societal factors. Much of subsaharan africa has been living in traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles up until the last few centuries while most civilizations have been agricultural societies for more than 5000 years, and to my knowledge all civilizations are inherently built around an agricultural system. For this reason, birth rates in cultures that evolved as hunter-gatherer tribal cultures until very recently are not comparable to those long adapted to agriculture. Being offended is normal, all too normal, but contributes nothing to the discussion.

  31. Hail says:

    It turns out that French demographic troubles predate the nineteenth century:

    We find a similar problem with weak fertility and sluggish growth, even outright population decline, back in the Louis XIV “Sun King” absolutist era: The French population declined between 1650 to 1725.

    The Germany of 1650, meanwhile, then-recently ruined by war (the Thirty Years War), had nearly a full population doubling in the century after the war. France, theoretically one of the winning parties of the war and whose domestic population was untouched by the war directly, on net lost population.

    As remarked upon by many, high German population growth [driven in part by high fertility] against low French population growth [sapped by low fertility] is the pattern that would repeat itself in the 19th century and into the 20th century, a structural cause of the three unfortunate “Thucydides Trap”-type Franco-German wars of the 1870-1940 period. But there was an apparent precursor in Louis XIV’s time. What was the relation of the 1650-1725 demographic crisis in France to 1789?

    One can always say population statistics are questionable for the 17th/18th centuries, or dismiss French population population sluggishness as a hitting up against the Malthusian Trap. But here is something curious: We find Montesquieu (1689-1755) appearing to comment on this fertility decline in France. Speaking through the voice of a literary character on population stagnation and decline in France:

    “…c’est qu’elle se dépeuple tous les jours ; et, si cela continue, dans dix siècles elle ne sera qu’un désert. [….] mais à peine s’en est-on aperçu, parce qu’elle est arrivée insensiblement, et dans le cours d’un grand nombre de siècles ; ce qui marque un vice intérieur, un venin secret et caché, une maladie de langueur qui afflige la nature humaine.”

    “…[T]he depopulation goes on daily: if it continues, in ten centuries this will be a desert. …[W]e have scarcely perceived it, because it has stolen upon us gradually in the course of a great many centuries, which denotes an inward defect, a secret and hidden poison, a malady of declining, afflicting human nature.” (Persian Letters [1721], Letter 113.)

  32. Hail says:

    The Louis XIV-era demographic crisis in France, which predates and foreshadows the 19th century fertility fall-off, is dealt with in a ten page paper:

    Dupâquier, Jacques (1989): “Demographic Crises and Subsistence Crises in France, 1650–1725,” pp. 189–199 in John Walter & Roger Schofield (eds.): Famine, Disease and Social Order in Early Modern Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    I cannot find a copy.

  33. Hail says:

    Back to the 19th century:

    Here is a useful, simplified diagram on what happened with fertility and average life expectancy (a proxy for wealth) in various countries between 1750 an 1850:

    This Figure 10 (with two label additions by me for clarity) from The Population History of Germany: Research Strategy and Preliminary Results, 2010 paper by Ulrich Pfister and Georg Fertig, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research; pdf.

    Pfister & Fertig’s Fig. 10 is a simplification of their almost-unreadable Figure 9, a line graph for each five-year period for each country. Their Figure 9 has the fertility decline in France predating 1789, a steady slow and steady decade over decade between 1750 and 1850 and without an immediately apparent inflection point at 1789. I’ll also post Figure 9 for reference: France is the line following the circle with the solid dot (why people don’t label graphs better, I’ll never know):

    Here are the general patterns for the ca. 1750 to ca. 1850 period, most easily seen in the simplified graph (Figure 10, the first one posted here):

    – As life expectancy rose in Germany and Sweden, fertility stayed high.

    – As life expectancy rose in France, fertility declined.

    – Life expectancy did not change in North Italy but fertility rose.

    – As for England‘s strange up-and-down pattern: It reflects a little-commented-upon 1800-1830 baby boom, especially in the years after 1815. If the “baseline” is a one-to-one decline of fertility with rising life expectancy (the pattern in France), England was noticeably above the baseline for most of the first half of the 19th century, regressing to the baseline in the 1830s and returning to the “baseline” by ca. 1840.

    England’s 1810s-20s fertility spike follows Waterloo — connection with the victory in the Napoleonic wars? But unusually high fertility for their given economic level occurs throughout the Napoleonic Wars. This thirty-plus year period of high fertility will have given Victorian-era Britain added vigor of the kind always seen with bulge generations.

  34. Stephen Reiss says:

    Appreciating the persistence you put into your blog and extensive information you provide.

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