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FAR TOO MANY WOMEN? JOHN GRAUNT, THE SEX RATIO, AND THE CULTURAL DETERMINATION OF NUMBER IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND*

  • MARGARET PELLING (a1)

Abstract

John Graunt's analysis of the London Bills of Mortality of 1662 is famous as a pioneering contribution to the study of human populations. But comparatively little attention has been given to his highly influential discovery that the numbers of men and women were evenly balanced. Why did Graunt think that what we now call the sex ratio was important, and why did he see it as essential to contradict received opinion? What can we deduce about Graunt's own attitudes to women? Why was he concerned to discredit polygamy? Further investigation suggests, not that Graunt shared the misogyny of many of his contemporaries, but that he was motivated by the dangers inherent in his own shifting religious views, which included Socinianism and anti-Trinitarianism. The religious controversialist Bernardino Ochino can be detected as a dark influence behind Graunt's thinking. An exploration of Graunt's cultural hinterland confirms that men did indeed believe that they were outnumbered by women, a conviction accentuated by the unnerving upheavals of religious conflict, plague, and civil war, and apparently confirmed by prophecy. Seventeenth-century misogyny seems to present itself to us as qualitative, but it included a numerical dimension which was in effect culturally determined.

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Corresponding author

Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford, ox2 6pe Margaret.pelling@history.ox.ac.uk

Footnotes

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*

The first version of this article was given at a conference on gender and health organized by Sarah Toulalan at Exeter in 2008. I am grateful to her and to the audience there for their comments, as also to the audience who heard a much-revised version in Oxford in 2012, and to two anonymous referees of this journal. I owe thanks in addition to Erica Charters, Eddy Higgs, Joanna Innes, Lauren Kassell, Claas Kirchhelle, Anne Laurence, Rhodri Lewis, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Ross McKibbin, and Stephen Thompson. Particular thanks are due to Vanessa Harding, Paul Slack, Charles Webster, and Philip Kreager who kindly commented on the final version and provided me with copies of his latest work on Graunt.

Footnotes

References

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1 For an invaluable reassessment of the afterlife of Graunt's work, see Kreager, P., ‘Histories of demography: a review article’, Population Studies, 47 (1993), pp. 519–39.

2 C. H. Hull, ed., The economic writings of Sir William Petty together with the Observations upon the Bills of Mortality more probably by Captain John Graunt (2 vols., 1899; repr. New York, NY, 1963–4), ii, pp. 385–6 (n.b. Hull's footnote, p. 385). Hull reprints the 5th edition (1676), and this edition will be quoted unless otherwise stated. For present purposes, the 5th edition is not materially different from the 1st edition of 1662 (see ibid., ii, pp. 317–18).

3 Ibid., ii, pp. 546, 603.

4 See for example Thompson, R., ‘Seventeenth-century English and colonial sex ratios: a postscript’, Population Studies, 28 (1974), pp. 153–65, at p. 164. One of the few to take some note is Endres, A. M., ‘The functions of numerical data in the writings of Graunt, Petty and Davenant’, History of Political Economy, 17 (1985), pp. 245–64, at pp. 248–9.

5 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, pp. 383, 385–6, 334; Pett quoted in ibid., i, p. xliv. For Graunt's method in its Baconian and mercantile context, see Kreager, P., ‘New light on Graunt’, Population Studies, 42 (1988), pp. 129–40; P. Kreager, ‘Death and method: the rhetorical space of seventeenth-century vital measurement’, in E. Magnello and A. Hardy, eds., The road to medical statistics (Clio Medica No. 67, Amsterdam, 2002), pp. 1–35.

6 On Graunt's life, see Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, i, pp. xxxiv–viii, xli, xlv; C. G. Lewin, ‘Graunt, John (1620–1674)’, Oxford dictionary of national biography (ODNB); Glass, D. V., ‘John Graunt and his Natural and political observations ’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 19 (1964), pp. 63100 .

7 Sarah Mortimer, Reason and religion in the English revolution: the challenge of Socinianism (Cambridge, 2010), esp. pp. 218–20.

8 J. Bonar, Theories of population from Raleigh to Arthur Young (London, 1931), p. 133; Thompson, ‘Seventeenth-century English and colonial sex ratios’, p. 161; Glass, ‘John Graunt’, pp. 77, 87; Kreager, ‘New light on Graunt’, p. 140; P. Biller, The measure of multitude: population in medieval thought (Oxford, 2000), p. 89. On King, see esp. Brooks, C., ‘Projecting, political arithmetic and the Act of 1695’, English Historical Review, 97 (1982), pp. 3153 .

9 See for example Birdsall, Nancy, ‘Women and population studies’, Signs, 1 (1976), pp. 699712 ; Hill, Bridget, ‘The marriage age of women and the demographers’, History Workshop Journal, 28 (1989), pp. 129–47; Anne-Lise Head-König, ‘Demographic history and its perception of women from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century’, in K. Offen, R. R. Pierson, and J. Randall, eds., Writing women's history: international perspectives (Basingstoke, 1991), pp. 25–44.

10 Marcia Guttentag and P. F. Secord, Too many women? The sex ratio question (Beverly Hills, CA, 1983); R. Finlay, Population and metropolis: the demography of London, 1580–1650 (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 130–1, 140–2; J. Boulton, Neighbourhood and society: a London suburb in the seventeenth century (Cambridge, 1987), p. 130; J. Landers, Death and the metropolis: studies in the demographic history of London, 1670–1830 (Cambridge, 1993); Harding, V., ‘The population of London, 1550–1700: a review of the published evidence’, London Journal, 15 (1990), pp. 111–28.

11 Guttentag and Secord, Too many women; Dyson, T., ‘Causes and consequences of skewed sex ratios’, Annual Review of Sociology, 38 (2012), pp. 443–61; Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, Women in early modern England (Oxford, 1998), p. 168. See also, most recently, Bardsley, Sandy, ‘Missing women: sex ratios in England, 1000–1500’, Journal of British Studies, 53 (2014), pp. 273309 .

12 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, i, p. li, ii, pp. 320, 432, 660; Anon., Reflections on the weekly Bills of Mortality for the cities of London and Westminster (London, 1665); John Graunt [of Bucklersbury], A defence of Christian liberty to the Lords table (London, 1646).

13 For a full and balanced assessment, see Glass, ‘John Graunt’, pp. 78–89. Hull suggested that the epistle to Moray might be by Petty (Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, i, p. lii), and others have read the Conclusions as unlikely to be by Graunt (e.g. E. Strauss, Sir William Petty: portrait of a genius (London, 1954), pp. 188–92; see esp. p. 189). But see P. Kreager, ‘Graunt, John’, in K. Kempf-Leonard, ed., Encyclopedia of social measurement (3 vols., San Diego, 2005), ii, pp. 161–6, at p. 166.

14 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, pp. 483, 603; Glass, ‘John Graunt’, pp. 79–80, 87.

15 J. Aubrey, Aubrey's Brief lives, ed. O. L. Dick (Harmondsworth, 1972), p. 274; Glass, ‘John Graunt’; Kreager, ‘New light on Graunt’; H. Ellis, ed., The obituary of Richard Smyth (Camden Society, London, 1849), p. 102; Kreager, P., ‘Aristotle and open population thinking’, Population and Development Review, 34 (2008), pp. 599629 , esp. pp. 623–4; John Carpenter, A preparative to contentation: conteining a display of the wonderfull distractions of men in opinions and straunge conceits (London, 1597).

16 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, pp. 396, 355, 352, 358, 359.

17 Ibid., ii, pp. 373, 375; Biller, Measure of multitude, pp. 101–2; Mendelson and Crawford, Women in early modern England, p. 28.

18 Naomi J. Miller, ‘“Hens should be served first”: prioritizing maternal production in the early modern pamphlet debate’, in C. Malcolmson and M. Suzuki, eds., Debating gender in early modern England, 1500–1700 (Houndmills, 2002), pp. 161–84, at p. 166.

19 Compare John Bell, Londons remembrancer (London, 1665), sig. [A4], who defends the searchers in terms of the ‘eminentest men of the Parish’ who selected them.

20 This is Hull's suggestion: Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, p. 356. Very little seems to have been written about this legislation, but see Woodward, D., ‘The impact of the Commonwealth Act on Yorkshire parish registers’, Local Population Studies, 14 (1975), pp. 1531 . For a different interpretation, see R. Munkhoff, ‘Reckoning death: women searchers and the Bills of Mortality in early modern London’, in Jennifer C. Vaught, ed., Rhetorics of bodily disease and health in medieval and early modern England (Farnham, 2010), pp. 119–34, at p. 131.

21 Hilda L. Smith, All men and both sexes: gender, politics and the false universal in England, 1640–1832 (University Park, PA, 2002); Margaret R. Sommerville, Sex and subjection: attitudes to women in early modern society (London, 1995), pp. 44–5, 56, 68.

22 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, p. 367. For Petty, see ibid., ii, pp. 604–5.

23 Wittkowsky, G., ‘Swift's Modest proposal: the biography of an early Georgian pamphlet’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 4 (1943), pp. 75104 , esp. pp. 96ff; Briggs, P. M., ‘John Graunt, Sir William Petty, and Swift's Modest proposal ’, Eighteenth-Century Life, 29 (2005), pp. 324 , esp. pp. 9, 16; David Hume, Political discourses (Edinburgh, 1752), p. 174; Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, pp. 372ff.

24 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, i, pp. lxxxvii–viii, ii, p. 342. Graunt appends tables for several ‘country-parishes’ where distinction by sex for burials was recorded as early as 1560: ibid., ii, pp. 412–21, 430–1.

25 Ibid., ii, p. 347, in ch. ii, ‘General observations upon the casualties’. Bell, Londons remembrancer, traces the evolution of the Bills but does not mention distinction by sex.

26 Robertson suggests that the reason was contemporary awareness of greater female mortality from plague: Robertson, J. C., ‘Reckoning with London: interpreting the Bills of Mortality before John Graunt’, Urban History, 23 (1996), pp. 325–50, at pp. 332–3.

27 Bonar, Theories of population, p. 196; Amy Froide, Never married: singlewomen in early modern England (Oxford, 2005), p. 2; Joshua Milne, Treatises on the law of mortality (1837), facs. repr. in E. Halley et al., Mortality in pre-industrial times: the contemporary verdict (Westmead,  1973), pp. 513–15, 518, 525 (excess of females).

28 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, pp. 396–7; J. F. Pound, ed., The Norwich census of the poor 1570 (Norfolk Record Society, [Norwich], 1971); Francis Bacon (and Francis Godwyn), The history of the reigns of Henry the Seventh…and Queen Mary (London, 1676), pp. 22 (1517, May Day riots), 110 (1544, siege of Boulogne).

29 See for example Bonar, Theories of population; Mildred Campbell, ‘“Of people either too few or too many”: the conflict of opinion on population and its relation to emigration’, in W. A. Aiken and B. D. Henning, eds., Conflict in Stuart England (London, 1960), pp. 169–201; P. Slack, ‘Plenty of people’: perceptions of population in early modern England (Stenton Lecture, Reading, 2011).

30 Kreager, ‘Histories of demography’, pp. 522–3.

31 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, pp. 396–7, 347. Compare Kreager, ‘Graunt, John’, pp. 162–3, 166.

32 II Samuel c. 24; Tessa Watt, Cheap print and popular piety, 1550–1640 (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 115–16, 126, 201–2; Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, pp. 350, 352; C. Hill, The English Bible and the seventeenth-century revolution (Harmondsworth, 1993), pp. 77, 96, 262,  347, 377, 379, 404.

33 Thomas Adams, God's anger, and man's comfort: two sermons (London, 1652/3), pp. 18, 52, 53; Henry Adis, A fannaticks mite cast into the kings treasury (2nd edn, London, 1660), pp. 38–9.

34 Bell, Londons remembrancer, sig. [D2v]. On sex ratios in plague mortality, see P. Slack, The impact of plague in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1985), pp. 179–81.

35 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, i, p. lxvii, ii, pp. 383–6, 401, 405; Bonar, Theories of population, p. 79. Modern demographic historians have made good use of the ‘Settlement of tithes 1638’, but this listing was limited to householders only: Finlay, Population and metropolis, pp. 71ff.

36 Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, The glory of women: or, a treatise declaring the excellency and preheminence of women above men, trans. E. Fleetwood (London, 1652), p. 15.

37 Biller, Measure of multitude, p. 41; Sommerville, Sex and subjection, p. 164; [Bernardino Ochino], A dialogue of polygamy (London, 1657), pp. 13–14, 21–3, 53.

38 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, pp. 320, 374.

39 Ibid., ii, pp. 377, 378.

40 Herlihy, D., ‘Biology and history: the triumph of monogamy’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 25 (1995), pp. 571–83; Sommerville, Sex and subjection, pp. 151, 160; Aldridge, A. O., ‘Polygamy and deism’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 48 (1949), pp. 343–60; Aldridge, A. O., ‘Population and polygamy in eighteenth-century thought’, Journal of the History of Medicine, 4 (1949), pp. 129–48; Aldridge, A. O., ‘Polygamy in early fiction: Henry Neville and Denis Veiras’, Publications of the Modern Language Association, 65 (1950), pp. 464–72; Carol Blum, Strength in numbers: population, reproduction, and power in eighteenth-century France (Baltimore, MD, 2002), ch. 5. But see McLaren, Anne, ‘Monogamy, polygamy and the true state: James I's rhetoric of empire’, History of Political Thought, 25 (2004), pp. 446–80, esp. pp. 469–75; L. Miller, John Milton among the polygamophiles (New York, NY, 1974); J. Cairncross, After polygamy was made a sin: the social history of Christian polygamy (London, 1974).

41 Sommerville, Sex and subjection, p. 151; Grieser, D. Jonathan, ‘A tale of two convents: nuns and Anabaptists in Münster, 1533–1535’, Sixteenth Century Journal, 26 (1995), pp. 3147 ; Miller, John Milton, pp. 13–23; Cairncross, After polygamy was made a sin.

42 M. Taplin, ‘Ochino, Bernardino (c. 1487–1564/5)’, ODNB; Anne Overell, Italian reform and English reformations, c. 1535–c. 1585 (Aldershot, 2008), esp. chs. 2 and 5; Mary Ellen Lamb, ‘The Cooke sisters: attitudes toward learned women in the Renaissance’, in Margaret P. Hannay, ed., Silent but for the word: Tudor women as patrons, translators and writers of religious works (Kent, OH, 1985), pp. 107–25. On the Dialogue, its status as a plagiarism, and Ochino's defence of it in old age, see also McNair, P., ‘Ochino's apology: three gods or three wives?’, History, 60 (1975), pp. 353–73.

43 [Ochino], Dialogue of polygamy; Francis Osborne, Advice to a son (6th edn, Oxford, 1658). For Osborne, see Marie C. Henson, ‘Osborne, Francis (1593–1659)’, ODNB; S. A. E. Betz, ‘Francis Osborn's Advice to a son’, in R. Shafer, ed., Seventeenth-century studies (2nd ser., Princeton, NJ, 1937), pp. 3–67, esp. pp. 50–67.

44 Eugenius Theodidactus [John Heydon], Advice to a daughter, in opposition to the Advice to a son (2nd edn, London, 1659); [John Heydon], The ladies champion (n.p., 1660), pp. 5–6, 8 (ref. to Ochino). See I. W. McLellan, ‘Pecke, Thomas (b. 1637, d. in or after 1664)’, ODNB; P. Curry, ‘Heydon, John (b. 1629, d. in or after 1670)’, ODNB. On the authorship of the 1657 Dialogue and its impact, cf. Miller, John Milton, pp. 28–33.

45 See for example William Lucy, Observations, censures and confutations of notorious errours in Mr. Hobbes his Leviathan…to which are annexed, occasionall animadversions on some writings of the Socinians (London, 1663), pp. 315–17; [S. J. Brown] [?Evan Griffith, John Clement Gordon], Pax vobis: or, gospel and liberty: against ancient and modern papists (5th edn, n.p., 1687), Preface and pp. 7–8, 43, 61, 63. Further editions of the Dialogue appeared in the 1730s: Aldridge, ‘Polygamy and deism’, pp. 345–7.

46 Thomas Browne, Religio medici (1643; edn of 1682), in C. Sayle, ed., Works (3 vols., London, 1904; Edinburgh, 1907), i, pp. xxviii, 32–3 (pt i, sect. 20), 100 (pt ii, sect. 9).

47 See Capp, B., ‘Bigamous marriage in early modern England’, Historical Journal, 52 (2009), pp. 537–56.

48 [Ochino], Dialogue of polygamy, Stationer to the Reader, p. 25.

49 Ibid., pp. 61, 62, 83. My italics.

50 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, Ep. Ded. to Robartes, p. 320. For Petty's critical appraisal of Advice to a son and its reputation, see Pepys, Diary (27 Jan. 1664).

51 Aldridge, ‘Polygamy and deism’, pp. 351, 355; Kenelm Digby, Observations upon Religio medici (London, 1643), p. 33; Cairncross, After polygamy was made a sin, pp. 126–36; K. Thomas, ‘The puritans and adultery: the act of 1650 reconsidered’, in D. Pennington and K. Thomas, eds., Puritans and revolutionaries (Oxford, 1978), pp. 257–82; Mary Fissell, Vernacular bodies: the politics of reproduction in early modern England (Oxford, 2004).

52 B. Capp, ‘Separate domains? Women and authority in early modern England’, in P. Griffiths, A. Fox, and S. Hindle, eds., The experience of authority in early modern England (Houndmills, 1996), pp. 117–45, esp. pp. 127, 136; [Samuel Rowlands], Tis merrie when gossips meete: newly enlarged, with divers merry songes (London, 1613); Anon., The virgins complaint for the losse of their sweet-hearts (London, [1643]), p. 5.

53 Anon., The virgins complaint, p. 7; no rationale is given for these figures. Froide, Never married, p. 220.

54 Froide, Never married, cf. pp. 22, 160–1; Patricia Crawford, ‘Women's published writings, 1600–1700’, in Mary Prior, ed., Women in English society, 1500–1800 (London, 1985), pp. 211–82; Patricia Higgins, ‘The reactions of women, with special reference to women petitioners’, in B. Manning, ed., Politics, religion and the English Civil War (London, 1973), pp. 179–222; Anne Laurence, ‘A priesthood of she-believers: women and congregations in mid-seventeenth-century England’, in W. Sheils and D. Wood, eds., Women in the church (Studies in Church History, 27, Oxford, 1990), pp. 345–63; Patricia Crawford, ‘The challenges to patriarchalism: how did the Revolution affect women?’, in J. Morrill, ed.,  Revolution and Restoration: England in the 1650s (London, 1992), pp. 112–28; Phyllis Mack, Visionary women: ecstatic prophecy in seventeenth-century England (Berkeley, CA, 1992); Fissell, Vernacular bodies.

55 Mack, Visionary women, p. 117; Anon., The womens sharpe revenge (London, 1640), pp. 134, 117; [Ochino], Dialogue of polygamy, pp. 47–9, 83.

56 K. Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic (Harmondsworth, 1980), pp. 465, 486, 490ff; [Ursula Shipton], Mother Shipton: a collection of the earliest editions of her prophecies (Manchester, [1882]); T. Thornton, Prophecy, politics and the people in early modern England (Woodbridge, 2006), esp. pp. 60–98; William Lilly, A collection of ancient and moderne prophesies concerning these present times (London, 1645), Preface to the Reader and pp. 35–9; see also pp. 13, 20–1.

57 Anon., The prophesie of Mother Shipton (London, 1641). The image used for this early edition is of a woman in Tudor dress, of no particular age.

58 Thornton's very thorough discussion in Prophecy, politics and the people stresses the connections with York and Scotland. It does not deal with the prophecies relating to scarcity of men.

59 Graunt also mentions the lack of hands for the harvest as a measure of epidemic disease: Observations, ed. Hull, ii, p. 391.

60 Anon., The mid-wives just petition (London, 1643), sigs. A2r–[A4r, including marginal reference to Mother Shipton]. My italics.

61 Anon., The coblers last will and testament [London, 1660?]; Henry Bold, Poems lyrique macaronique heroique (London, 1664), pp. 70–1; Henry Bold, Latine songs, with their English: and poems…collected…by Captain William Bold (London, 1685), p. 145.

62 Harris, Frances, ‘Lady Sophia's visions: Sir Robert Moray, the earl of Lauderdale and the Restoration government of Scotland’, Seventeenth Century, 24 (2009), pp. 129–55, esp. pp. 132–4. On Moray, see also Kargon, R., ‘John Graunt, Francis Bacon, and the Royal Society: the reception of statistics’, Journal of the History of Medicine, 18 (1963), pp. 337–48.

63 Miller, John Milton, p. 39;  Sommerville, Sex and subjection, p. 161; Biller, Measure of multitude, pp. 98, 104, 399; R. C. et al., The compleat midwife's practice enlarged (London, 1659), pp. 289, 290.

64 Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, ii, pp. 374, 389.

65 Miller, John Milton, p. 39; Cairncross, After polygamy was made a sin, p. 27; C. Webster, Paracelsus: medicine, magic and mission at the end of time (New Haven, CT, 2008). I am indebted to Charles Webster for this account of the text somewhat sketchily quoted by Miller and Cairncross, as well as for his judgement that it can safely be attributed to Paracelsus (it is included by Sudhoff among Paracelsian texts of doubtful authorship). Webster dates the text as from before 1531 (personal communication).

66 Note that the discussion in this article is confined to published works in English.

67 For an acute analysis of ambivalences in Graunt's approach, see Kreager, ‘Graunt, John’, and idem, ‘Death and method’.

68 Cairncross, After polygamy was made a sin, pp. 11, 27.

69 Aubrey's Brief lives, pp. 274–5; Graunt, Observations, ed. Hull, i, pp. xxxvii, xlv; Glass, ‘John Graunt’, pp. 68, 94; Lewin, ‘Graunt, John’; Kreager, ‘Graunt, John’, pp. 162, 163. Kreager finds conclusions consistent with ‘Republican’ Socinianism in (for example) the second dedication of the Observations.

70 [John Clare], The converted Jew (n.p., 1630), esp. pp. 33, 101; Mortimer, Reason and religion, pp. 76, 218.

71 Buck, P., ‘Seventeenth-century political arithmetic: civil strife and vital statistics’, Isis, 68 (1977), pp. 6784 ; Endres, ‘The functions of numerical data’; Kreager, ‘Graunt, John’.

72 Statistics and their raw materials are, of course, also social products.

73 Raleigh as quoted by Bonar, Theories of population, p. 20; William Temple, Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands (2nd edn, London, 1673), p. 234. See also Francis Bacon's ‘idols of the tribe’.

* The first version of this article was given at a conference on gender and health organized by Sarah Toulalan at Exeter in 2008. I am grateful to her and to the audience there for their comments, as also to the audience who heard a much-revised version in Oxford in 2012, and to two anonymous referees of this journal. I owe thanks in addition to Erica Charters, Eddy Higgs, Joanna Innes, Lauren Kassell, Claas Kirchhelle, Anne Laurence, Rhodri Lewis, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Ross McKibbin, and Stephen Thompson. Particular thanks are due to Vanessa Harding, Paul Slack, Charles Webster, and Philip Kreager who kindly commented on the final version and provided me with copies of his latest work on Graunt.

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