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Friends in Life and Death.

This long-awaited book from the E.S.R.C. Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structures is the seventeenth volume in the series Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time. The work has been a major effort to try to explain historic change by the effective use of vast amounts of data, newly gathered and analyzed. Demographics have moved far from speculative interpretations of crude birth and death rates. Historians bearing computers, and as much statisticians as historians, are organizing and quantifying what before had been fundamentally impressionistic. Using analytical methodologies only possible with a computer, the Cambridge group has provided a breakthrough in historical writing in a way that Oxford and the L.S.E. have not. The work is yielding conclusions that are massively different from traditional analyses, and if true, turn the discipline upside down.

Building on earlier demographic work by Laslett, Wrigley, and Schofield, Richard Vann, who is an historian, and David Eversley, an economist and demographer are experienced scholars whose purpose is to contribute concrete evidence to the arguments which surround the interpretations of the rapid demographical growth in Britain and Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Did the great population increase result from more births, fewer deaths, earlier marriage, higher fertility, better food, medicine or sanitation, all explanations put forward by historians. Control of fertility also required more exacting examination. Because the Quakers were unparalleled keepers of records, probably the most complete and accurate registers kept by any group in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, changes in their patterns of nuptiality, fertility, and mortality, linked to social and economic changes, might well suggest answers to questions about the population at large. Moreover, because Irish Quakers were generically English, comparable population groups, both urban and rural could be examined, and the impact of the Irish milieu isolated to help explain the contrasts between the English and Irish populations.

When word circulated that the book was in preparation, historians working on the Irish Quakers hoped that an analysis of the Irish Friends by a scholar who has written on Quakers would at last identify them. Relatively few Irish Friends appear in the great compendium of names in the dictionary of Quaker biography, a vast file at Friends House, London. Those hopes expired as Vann and Eversley took some pains to expand on the nature of Quaker records. Quaker journals and obituaries are usually testimonies to the individual's spiritual life, and offer little practical information. An address, particularly in Ireland will not reveal whether the person was an owner or tenant, a farmer, artisan or trader, an employer or employee. Was a "linen bleacher" on a marriage register the owner of a works or the humblest labourer? Moreover, Quaker terminology lagged behind reality, still describing the Gurneys of Norwich as worsted weavers when they had become wealthy financiers, by far the wealthiest family in the city. Furthermore, another point has to be made about using Quaker pamphlets, records, and journals as evidence. A code permeates Quaker writing which is grasped by immersing one's self in the cadences of their sentences and through understanding the unique and specific meanings of words in Quaker terminology. Knowing how long they lived is important but how you read what the Quakers wrote is crucial. Richard Vann has written widely on the Quakers and does understand their unique nature, however, the bulk of evidence used comes from registers, Irish family lists, and genealogies where the problem is not as intrusive.

Its title and such chapter headings as "marriage according to truth," or "the fruitfulness of the faithful" might suggest that the book is a scholarly narrative of family life among a unique sect. Rather, using the technique of family reconstruction and computer analyses of marriage, fertility, and mortality, which are laid out in complex tables and charts, the authors provide the empirical evidence to conclude that the data they collected and analyzed, which had not previously been used except for a study of the peerage, does show some basis for historical change. The Quakers were in the vanguard in changes in nuptiality, control of fertility and mortality. Vann and Eversley conclude that it was in their patterns of marriage and fertility that British Quakers seemed closest to the rest of the population in the century before 1750, but after that date, they diverged. When the age at marriage fell among most of British society, the Quakers married later. Irish Friends however, were closer to Irish patterns of earlier marriage, while suffering a much lower level of child mortality than did the English. Economic factors suggest that the highest level of births among the Quakers, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, was linked to expanding opportunity in those areas where the Quakers were strongly represented: overseas trade, manufacturing, banking, engineering and food and drink. But after 1825, economic opportunities appeared to recede and were paralleled by a falling Quaker birthrate which accompanied later marriage and a conscious limitation of family size. By 1850 they showed patterns which became general in the English population after 1875, and even later, the authors believe, in Ireland. That latter conclusion is at some variance with the conclusions reached by Mokyr, Crotty, and O'Grada, whose work has shown that demographic changes of higher age at marriage and lower fertifity among the Irish were in fact in place well before the Great Famine of 1845-49, once belicved to have precipitated them.

For this reader, dashed of hopes that specific information on the Irish Friends would one day appear, the immediate questions to be asked about statistics on marriage, fertility and death concerned comprehensibility and how to allow for the impact of the genetic pool on an enclosed, small, and endogamous sect over two hundred and more years. The authors acknowledge this issue, but separate the Quakers from such isolated groups as the Amish and Hutterites because the Quakers, despite "cherished peculiarities," associated with society sufficiently to share such ideas as limiting fertility. Moreover the nature of Quakerism, they point out, was supportive rather than antithetical to science and medicine, and would see illness or high child mortality as challenges to be overcome, not heavenly dictates. When combined with an income generally about ten times higher than the national average, a healthier life style and the unique serenity bestowed by the Quakers' religious experience, the lower mortality rates among Friends are explained. With respect to comprehensibility, the book is primarily directed to demographic scholars, for its core is made up of charts, tables, and analyses combined with a grasp of the literature which sometimes turns three-quarters of a page to footnotes. Nevertheless, care was taken to make the work intelligible to those interested in Quakers but not skilled in new computer techniques. The introduction, opening two chapters and the conclusions may be readily understood by the general reader. And although the authors modestly declare that their work is a starting point for future work, the book stands not just as partial explanation of historic demographic change, but as a valuable insight into the life of a sect, elusive but vitally important in British history.
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Author:Hatton, Helen E.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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