Friday, 8 July 2011

Oh dear! II

From an article about the plague on the Channel 4 History website:

‘Being exact about the size of the population and mortality (deaths) so long ago is fraught with problems. Although there was a national system of registration of births, marriages and deaths, some families - for reasons of religious dissent or moral conscience - avoided the process.’

This historian evidently knows something the rest of us don’t!

Even the greatest expert can get it wrong sometimes. But this is a fairly fundamental misunderstanding (or at best a very poor explanation) on the part of someone who has an interest in population history.

As every family historian knows, there was no national system of registration in England before 1837. There was parochial registration.  Each of the nine or ten thousand parishes of England kept records individually. They did not record births, marriages and deaths; they registered baptisms, marriages and burials.

The lack of a national system of registration is precisely why reconstructing  the population of England in the past is ‘fraught with problems’!


  1. [At the time of the Great Plague] ...there was a national system of registration of births, marriages and deaths...

    Well, damn. All that time spent squinting my way through 17th century wills and I could have just looked in the “national system of registration”? I don’t suppose I would have learned so much though...

    This fellow should be ashamed of himself. Even if you give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s talking about the Church of [the whole country of] England, the nearest they got to “national” was the Bishops’ Transcripts system. Which is “regional” at best, if they even had them in 1665.

    ...some families – for reasons of religious dissent or moral conscience – avoided the process

    With the exception of one line of Huguenots, most of my lot seem to have been content to “register” their hatching, matching and dispatching at the local CofE, so I really couldn’t comment on Dissenters and Non-Conformists in 1665, but honestly - moral conscience? What’s that got to do with “registration”? Of course, we’re talking about the finer points of “avoiding” a “process” which didn’t actually exist, so I don’t suppose it matters very much. Perhaps the poor man is confusing himself. Perhaps he’s thinking of people avoiding the census for political or personal reasons, or baptisms for financial reasons, or registration before 1874 for simple reasons of ignorance.

    I went to have a look at the Macfarlane work you linked. Urgh. Although I love reading history, I found this to be pretty indigestible stuff (even leaving aside things like run-on sentences and incorrect usage of “disinterested”). Far too much passive/impersonal/conditional/whatever for my taste. Perhaps it’s professional-historian-speak?

    On which note, there’s a book I’m thinking of buying - On the Parish?: The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England 1550-1750 by Steve Hindle. I found it via google books when I was searching on a particular parish, and what I read across various chapters I found fascinating. For example:

    “At North Crawley [in 1603], a parish of 435 inhabitants, the weekly assessment of 5s was raised by contributions from only twenty-seven (or 29 per cent) of the households, six of whom bore almost half of the burden.”

    Having traced one of my OH’s lines back to people born in North Crawley around the 1630s, I really wanted to read the rest. However, when I went to Amazon to check it out and read the introduction, I decided not to bother:

    “Slack and others ... were, however, the first historians to set early modern social policy in a more richly realised socio-economic context. The findings of this phase of historiography, not only the first to be influenced by the Thompsonian paradigm of ‘history from below’ but also the first to take advantage of the findings of historical demography, were creatively synthesised in Poverty and Policy.”

    Someone’s forgotten that people who have worked their way back to this period have done so because they’re interested in their forebears’ lives, not because they enjoy reading arcane specialist jargon! Either that or he’s totally discounted the fact that family historians who might want to read his book don’t necessarily have any “education” in history at all, just a huge interest and a fair amount of knowledge...

    Interesting post, thank you! I do always read, I just don’t often find that having the time to reply coincides with a post I really want to talk about.

  2. The English Historian9 July 2011 at 17:16

    I have one lot of ancestors who were Baptists for much of the 17th century. After several generations they all drifted back to the C of E in the 18thc. One branch of the family were baptised into the C of E en masse as adults. From other sources it seems that there was a big family falling out around the same time, I assume the two things were related.

    The Macfarlane work is methodological rather than narrative or interpretive - and is somewhat dated now anyway. But the contents list makes the point I wanted to make about the range of source materials historians have to look at in the absence of any 'national system' of registration.

    I know what you mean about jargon, and the fact that historians forget that they're writing about real people. Some academic historians seem to think that the more obscure their style, the cleverer it makes them look. I've come across some classic examples of obscurity at times, but of course can't find them again when I want to cite them as examples.

    If you're interested in the Poor Law generally, rather than that specific place, I can suggest a few things to read, if you like.

    Thanks for commenting. Do go back and comment on some older posts that caught you attention, if ever you have the time and inspiration!