a1 Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure
HISTORIANS have long been interested in the subject of population, but it is only recently that they have begun to apply the formal techniques of demography to the study of population in the past. This has happened because historians have begun to ask questions about population and its relationship with the historical, social and economic environment which can only be answered if the demographic components of fertility, nuptiality and mortality can be identified and measured. Originally historians were concerned with relatively straightforward questions about population, such as the number of people alive at a given time. But knowledge of the size of a population is in itself seldom informative; it becomes meaningful when it is compared with other information, for example with the size of the population at another date, so that the direction and rate of population change can be inferred. Sometimes the bare facts of population change are all that the historian needs to know; for example some independent evidence on changes in the size of the population of England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries would be a welcome addition to the current debate on the sixteenth-century price rise. But historians have seldom remained satisfied with the knowledge that population is growing or declining; very properly they have wanted to know why this was so.