Agriculture, population and peasant life in the 18th century

Efforts in the field of hygiene were the cause of the population boom, although advancement was modest and uneven across urban and rural areas. Due to widespread hostility against change, conventional farming practices persisted during the 18th century.

When it comes to agriculture, demography and peasant life. Significant changes and advances occurred in the 18th century, after what has been called a “miserable 17th century,” defined by many economic challenges and social conflicts. Faith in the advancement of reason and technology won out during the Age of Enlightenment and was used as a rallying cry for those who wanted social change. Despite the fact that civilization had been defined for many centuries by three extremely powerful limits (biological, nutritional, and material), the 18th century undoubtedly exhibited a more favorable condition that would progressively tear these barriers down. Population growth and significant changes in agriculture’s technological, structural, and cultural aspects provide striking examples of this trend.

Population surge in the 18th century

Throughout the modern century, France had been Europe’s most populous country, but its population of 20–22 million people appeared to be its limit. This was a significant gap from the 7 million in England, the 13 million in Germany and Italy, and the 8 million in Spain. There was widespread population expansion throughout Europe around the turn of the 18th century; by 1725, France had 25 million residents, and by 1770, it had 28 million.

A dramatic drop in death rates was mostly responsible for this development since it affected natural growth. During the Ancien Régime, a high birth rate (40 per 1000) was cruelly regulated by a high mortality rate (30 per 1000), especially among young children; one in two did not reach adulthood; life expectancy did not exceed 30 years, and the population ultimately did not grow very much. Death rates dropped (particularly among young people), while birth rates stayed about the same, leading to a rise in the proportion of males in the population beginning in the 18th century.

The general improvement in biological circumstances was the main reason for this decrease in mortality. The conquest, war, hunger, and death, a.k.a. the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” at the root of the severe population decline, were now less frequent. But poor harvests due to unfavorable meteorological conditions contributed to rising grain prices across Europe, especially as a recurring theme in the Ancien Régime crises in France.

Since the majority of the peasant’s income was going toward bread at the time, they found themselves in a difficult position as prices continued to rise, especially during the time just before the harvest when grain was at a premium. Disputes erupted as a result, especially since some people stocked up on grain and then sold it at a higher price, intending to make a profit.

Droughts, of which contemporary observers were well aware, tended to be followed by other droughts. Not because there wasn’t enough food, but because it was too costly to buy. People got hungry because they didn’t have enough money to buy food, and they frequently died after eating disgusting things like bran bread, nettle soup, animal viscera collected from slaughterhouses, etc.

According to historians, rotting food was the leading cause of death worldwide. As a result of this general decline in organism strength, deadly epidemics broke out, sometimes wiping out entire villages (as happened with the plague and smallpox), wreaking havoc on the most vulnerable members of society (including children and the elderly), and driving mortality rates through the roof, as happened in Marseilles during the plague epidemic of 1750, when 50,000 people lost their lives.

These catastrophic outbreaks ended when people began eating a more diversified and regular diet in the 18th century. Crop failures became less frequent as the climate warmed up from the harsh conditions of the Little Ice Age, which had lasted for the preceding century. The introduction of potatoes and corn (5 times more nutritious than wheat), as well as the development of vegetable crops, allowed everyone to better resist epidemics and very frequent and symptomatic deficiencies (large bellies, teeth problems, etc.) People were generally better nourished and healthier.

In the 18th century, basic hygiene practices improved, which helped keep infants and mothers healthy. But the well water was often tainted by the manure at the peasants’ doorstep. In the realm of birthing, which had hitherto been the domain of matrons with only empirical knowledge and no consideration for cleanliness, significant strides were achieved. With the advent of more sophisticated infrastructure and educated staff, medicalized births became the norm.

The midwife Angélique du Coudray, who in 1756 was granted a royal patent allowing her to teach the art of delivery in the provinces, or the “surgeon man-midwife” Mauquest de La Motte, who in 1715 produced a treatise on natural and unnatural childbirth. Because of the shocking death rate among young children, attitudes about children were shifting worldwide, and more and more individuals were diligent about placing youngsters in foster homes.

The number of wars that occurred outside of the kingdoms likewise decreased in the 18th century. Previously, many lives were lost on the front lines because of war. Yet its repercussions were as devastating: damage, fires, theft of food and cattle, etc., happened all along the route of the soldiers, who brought a lot of illnesses to their countries. Therefore, the significance of peace was evident but still limited to far-off lands like the War of the Austrian Succession, for example.

As a result, in the 18th century, the population increased dramatically around the world due to the favorable biological circumstances brought on by the peace.

Changing agriculture

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Summer, Brueghel the Younger. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

To meet the food needs of a growing population, agriculture also progressed, undergoing significant changes during the same period. The first was the development of more efficient tools. Since the last 1000 years, it had changed very little. It was mainly constructed of wood, yet it was fitted to the farming methods of the period and still resulted in subpar harvests. The technological systems, however, progressed in the 18th century.

The historian Bertrand Gille introduced this concept which outlines a cohesive group of technologies that together represent a distinct epoch in the development of both technology and society. When the peasants began to access better tools, the resulting increase in revenue was substantial in the 18th century. So, a bigger plow was accomplished by developing a plow with more iron and using the third horse for the carriage. At this time, the scythe replaced the sickle.

In this period, the constraining crop rotation systems started to change, demanding that farmers observe certain planting and harvesting cycles, as well as rest intervals in between harvests. A quadrennial rotation, also known as the “Norfolk rotation” or “Norfolk four-course system,” was actually first adopted in England in the 17th century, evolving from the bi-annual rotation (alternating a cultivated plot with a fallow plot) and the tri-annual rotation (a plot of winter wheat, a plot of spring wheat, and a fallow plot). An example of the Norfolk rotation was the plot of wheat, the plot of fodder turnip, the plot of barley, and the plot of clover. 

This rotation had the advantage of eliminating fallow land and promoting livestock. By including animal grazing on clover plots as part of the rotation, a significantly more efficient source of nitrogen was made available compared to the conventional manuring methods of using ashes and manure.

As a result of this boost in output, individual vineyard sites became more highly specialized. Large swaths of land across Europe were now devoted to grain monoculture, whereas the poorer soil was more likely to be used for market gardening. These places honed their craft and were dedicated to producing only the highest quality crops, such as wine.

More grains also implied more straw and other feed for cattle. Livestock had traditionally been relied upon as a safety net in times of need; however, because of the prevalence of feed crises, these animals were generally of low quality and quantity. Increased cattle productivity throughout time improved soil fertilization methods.

Manure was formerly only accessible in limited amounts, was easily spoiled, and allowed for only average soil preparation, but now some farmers were able to trade straw for it. In addition, the gradual elimination of grazing and the enclosure of land, both of which were already practiced in England and which gradually saw the emergence of private property and facilitated the implementation of the new techniques mentioned above, resulted from the improved availability of fodder.

New crop species, such as potatoes and corn, were developed in the 18th century after being transported from the Americas towards the end of the 16th century. With corn’s greater yield than wheat, inexpensive flour could be produced, making it a viable alternative to more costly grains like rye, barley, and buckwheat. After being put to use as fodder for cattle to help with the perennial issue of cow feeding, it found its way into the diets of the impoverished as a supplement. Even though wheat was considered a staple food, potatoes were five times more nutritious.

Clearly, agriculture was flourishing, as shown by the plethora of agronomy books. In the wake of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the physiocrats around the year 1750, led by François Quesnay, agriculture was seen as the sole productive sector of the economy. A large portion of the nobility and wealthy landowners were swayed by the physiocrats’ ideas. They tried growing several kinds of plants, using crop rotation strategies, etc. Lavoisier, a scientist, professor, and farmer-general, was actively engaged in this movement.

The agricultural sector, which accounted for three-quarters of the physical product in the 18th century, saw significant improvement due to the convergence of a number of factors (tools, new crops, physiocrats, etc.). This allowed the sector to increase its yield and its production, thereby supporting the rising population.

Peasant life in the 18th century

Even with the observed population improvement, stark differences were present. The first was the inevitability of death. Infant mortality had gone down, but it was still terrible since advancement was gradual, hygiene standards hadn’t improved much, people lived in crowded, unsanitary conditions, and animals were close by, all of which contributed to the spread of illness. Education in general and literacy specifically were both on the rise. However, ignorance persisted, particularly in rural areas.

Some scholars started to believe that a significant number of fatalities could be attributed to the lack of education among mothers. As if that weren’t enough, there was also the burden of tradition and superstition, both of which were condemned by Erasmus, for instance, in the 16th century. Most moderns were aware of this condition of widespread belief and recognized it for the constraining force that it was. As a preventative measure against rabies, local farmers traditionally took their animals to churches to be blessed.

Most people, especially farmers (who made up the vast majority of the population), still lived in abject poverty. Even though the number of crises was decreasing, people were still vulnerable to epidemics like the one in Marseille in 1750 and natural disasters like the Great Frost in 1709. In addition, each crisis was accompanied by the phenomenon of wandering as people tried to escape their current situation in the hopes of finding a better one elsewhere. Those living in dire circumstances typically took on debt well in excess of their property’s worth to cover costs like taxes, seeds, and farm equipment.

Even though there were more people to feed as a result of the population boom, and this boosted agricultural output to some extent, the reality was that the influx of people led to a fragmentation of land and estates, worsening the already precarious situation of the peasants, especially as rent rose and the owners became wealthier and more able to exploit them.

Persistently traditional

There had been development in agriculture, to be sure, but by no means can we call it a revolution. The rate of development varied widely from one state to the next. As a result of a number of incremental improvements, a step forward was made, albeit only in a certain area. In this mostly wooden society, iron tools were still a rarity, and the transmission of information from generation to generation within the agricultural community was not conducive to technological advancement.

Farmers in regions where life was based primarily on cereal monoculture were much more vulnerable to the effects of a bad harvest than their counterparts in other regions where a more diverse culture was possible thanks to favorable climate and soil conditions, even if bread continued to form the basis of the food bowl.

The new crops were met with stiff opposition. Corn and potatoes, despite their numerous benefits, continued to be utilized primarily as livestock feed and as emergency food sources. Despite the favorable attitude toward corn in certain lands, these plants were having a hard time breaking through. This opposition existed in part because local farmers feared economic ruin if they “missed” a harvest of a plant they had never cultivated before. In 1840, around one-third of most European agricultural lands were still considered fallow.

After all that, the English enclosure system, popular since the 17th century, was seen as a threat to communal farms. A sizable portion of the peasant population had their access to resources cut off as a result of these field enclosures and grazing prohibitions.

Efforts in the field of hygiene were the cause of the population boom, although advancement was modest and uneven across urban and rural areas. Due to widespread hostility against change, conventional farming practices persisted during the 18th century.

By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.