Europe’s population in the Middle Ages, between the years 1000 and 1300, roughly doubled. This fact may not seem remarkable to modern readers, but historically, it was unprecedented. Discover previous obstacles to population growth, as well as the factors accounting for this expansion.
Population Growth in Medieval Europe
In the High Middle Ages, between the years 1000 and 1300, the population of Europe roughly doubled. When I announce in my classes that this is the single most important fact about high medieval history, I’m usually met with bewilderment, disappointment, and a sense of anticlimax.
“What about the Magna Carta? What about Thomas Aquinas?”
This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Compared to demographics, those two events pale in comparison. The demographic growth of high medieval Europe seems underwhelming to many modern individuals, because we live in a world where the population of the globe, not just one continent, increased at an enormous rate, for several centuries in a row, and will double in a matter of decades, regularly, according to the model of the 20th century. If the trajectory of population growth is to increase, how much impact can there be by having the population double over the course of three centuries? A huge one, depending on the context.
Population Differences Between the Ages
Remember that the population growth of the High Middle Ages, 1000 to 1300, was unusual by medieval standards. This growth was wedged between two different demographic periods: the Early Middle Ages, 500 to 1000, and the Late Middle Ages, 1300 to 1500. During those two periods, the population of Europe did not increase appreciably.
In the Early Middle Ages, population totals in Europe were relatively stagnant, growing very slightly from the 6th through 10th centuries. The population of Europe was sparse and during the final few centuries of the Roman Empire’s existence, the population of Europe had fallen, century after century.
The Late Middle Ages, from 1300 to 1500, was not a period of population growth. At first, the population was at a very high level in 1300 but had not grown appreciably by 1350. The arrival of the plague in 1347 and 1348 plunged Europe into a period of demographic free fall with the population then dropping to precipitously calamitous levels for more than a century.
By about 1460, the population of Europe was less than half of what it had been in 1346. Given the context in which the High Middle Ages took place, we begin to understand that population growth was an unusual phenomenon. Population growth had far-reaching consequences, leading to the revival of urban life, which in turn led to the phenomenon that historians refer to as the Commercial Revolution.
Learn more about the Commercial Revolution
Pre-Modern versus Modern Demographics
Compared to today, the demographic profile of Europe in 1300, as in 1000, seems thoroughly pre-modern. These demographics are characterized by three phenomena: high mortality rates, high fertility rates, and low life expectancy. Modern demographics are precisely the opposite: long life expectancies, low fertility rates that are often below replacement levels, and low mortality rates, as well.
Despite the pre-modern demographic profile of high medieval Europe, important changes took place between 1000 and 1300. The life expectancy was closer to 25 years of age around 1000 and moved closer to 35 years of age by around 1300.
Specific figures do not exist for the High Middle Ages, but it seems reasonable to suggest that of all newborn infants that were born between 1000 and 1300, one-quarter died before the age of one, and another quarter died before the age of twelve. The odds of your surviving infancy were about 50-50.
Life expectancy at birth was somewhere in the range of 25 to 35 years of age, but this figure must be considered carefully. It is not the case that you reach that age and suddenly die. The high infant mortality rates knocked the life expectancy far down. If you survived infancy and childhood, then you had a fairly good chance of living to old age, 55 or 60. By that point, odds were that you would die.
By 1300, the population of Europe had reached somewhere in the range of 50 to 100 million. Europe’s population would not exceed the limits reached in 1300 until about 1600.
Many regions of Europe would not be this populated again until 1700, and in some regions, not until 1800. More people were alive in the 1300s in Europe than ever before. Why?
Removing the Brakes of Demographic Growth
For Europe to break out of this demographic slump in the Early Middle Ages and grow demographically, it took a remarkable combination of factors and coincidences to jump-start the European demographic engine. Let’s divide the factors that caused demographic growth in the High Middle Ages into two groups: the brakes and the engine.
During the High Middle Ages, certain factors that had acted previously as brakes on population growth and kept the levels low were taken off, creating room for the population to grow. At the same time, other factors—the engines—actively propelled the population upwards at the same moment. The result was three centuries of population increase.
Concerning the brakes that disappeared in the High Middle Ages, the first and most significant of these was the bubonic plague. Bubonic plague was one of the great killers of the Middle Ages; it was fatal in about 50 to 60 percent of the individuals affected.
Bubonic plague was spread quickly by the rat flea, a particularly hardy type of flea that can survive in many different climates.
Bubonic plague first reached Europe in the 6th century A.D. Europe’s population had already fallen substantially at that point. The illness administered the coup de grace to Europe’s population, but for reasons that are not well understood, bubonic plague disappeared from Europe during the first half of the 8th century.
The plague did not reappear until 1347 and 1348. For that reason, the High Middle Ages were spared the scourge of bubonic plague, its absence allowing the population to reproduce itself.
Learn more about where the term “Middle Ages” comes from
Impact of Invasion on Growth
In addition to the absence of bubonic plague, another factor that played a crucial role in the demographic history of high medieval Europe was outside invasion. During the 9th and 10th centuries of the Early Middle Ages, Europe had been invaded from outside numerous times.
Vikings had attacked from the north, Arabs had attacked from the south, and Hungarians and Magyars had attacked from the east. All of these groups had run roughshod over Europe for 100 to 150 years.
They looked for loot, and in the particular case of Vikings, they looked to carry off human beings who would then be sold as slaves, mostly to Middle Eastern markets.
These outside attacks in the 9th and 10th centuries fragmented Europe politically and broke up the Carolingian Empire, which had ruled Europe up to that point.
Demographically, a substantial part of the European population was taken. As the attacks petered out during the course of the 10th century—sometimes in response to European military victories—the absence of attacks allowed the population to reproduce itself once again.
Slavery and Serfdom in Medieval Europe
A third brake that had kept population levels low before 1000, and was absent after 1000, was large-scale agricultural slavery. The Romans kept many slaves, especially in the western half of the Roman Empire, which included Europe. There, the presence of large estates, which were farmed by slave gangs, was common. At its height, the slave population may have comprised one-third of the population of Italy during the Roman Empire.
The Roman slave population did not reproduce itself biologically. The conditions Roman slaves lived in were harsh, such that enslaved people were often kept in barracks and not allowed to have their own families. More enslaved people died than the number of people born into slavery. To replenish the slave population, Romans constantly imported enslaved people from outside the Roman Empire.
The presence of a large chunk of the population that did not reproduce itself biologically acted as a huge drag on population growth. Roman slave gangs and slave farming outlived the Roman Empire.
The practices were still there in the 6th and 7th centuries, even long after there was no longer a Roman emperor to rule over Europe. Beginning in the 6th and 7th centuries, however, and up to about the year 1000, slavery began to die out within Western Europe. A new type of peasant servitude took its place: serfdom.
Serfdom was a less harsh, onerous form of servitude. Serfs were able to reproduce themselves biologically in a way that slaves could not, and by 1000, serfdom had more or less supplanted slavery as the most characteristic form of agricultural labor and servitude.
The enslaved people that you would find in 1000 in Europe tended to be urban household slaves. Once slavery was gone and serfs had become the norm, the population grew again.
Common Questions About How Population Doubled in the Middle Ages
The population grew in medieval Europe largely due to climate change. As things warmed up, farms were able to produce more food, and people were able to circumvent diseases much easier. Additionally, political conditions from invasions had calmed quite a bit, leaving less violence.
Peasants who worked the fields and farms numbered as high as 85 percent of the population during the Middle Ages.
The “Black Death” is believed to have decimated Europe’s population by 30 to 60 percent, which took the world almost 200 years to recover from.