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The Measure of Multitude: Population in Medieval Thought.

The Measure of Multitude: Population in Medieval Thought. By Peter Biller. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xxi, 476. $55.00.)

The author observes that this work might have been titled Medieval Demographic Thought, and although the term "demography" suggests a risk of anachronism, the analogy with such mainstream topics as medieval political or economic thought suggests that the concept is not all that far-fetched (5). Peter Biller explores how medieval people thought about demographic questions such as population, sex ratio, and life span, focusing on the period from the 1100s to the eve of the Black Death.

The book's first section draws heavily on canon-law texts and pastoral manuals to examine ecclesiastical interest in population issues, particularly as manifested in church ideas on marriage, sex, and the divine precept of multiplication. In the second section, Biller turns to medieval perceptions of global demography, emphasizing geographical writings, and political discourse relating to Christendom's interactions with the broader world. The third part focuses on the reintroduction of Aristotle's Politics to the West and its impact on medieval thinkers' capacity to formulate demographic ideas. Finally, Biller devotes an engaging chapter to the question of population in the culture of thirteenth- to fourteenth-century Florence, deploying a variety of sources ranging from the holdings-lists of Florentine libraries to contemporary Florentine street wit. Throughout, Biller finds evidence of increasing application of practical, even scientific, modes of thought to demographic topics.

Biller heavily contextualizes his material, making the work a valuable resource for further research, but also diluting the specifically demographic content. In fact, the theological, medical, and geographical writings on which Biller draws are so rooted in modes of thought already well developed in the Middle Ages that the demographic content often seems overwhelmed by its intellectual context. Nonetheless, Biller's work does much to show medieval thinkers as people grappling in substantive ways with current realities and to elucidate the emergence of new vocabularies to address demographic issues.

Jeffrey L. Forgeng

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Author:Forgeng, Jeffrey L.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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