In an insecure political environment, the family group is often the only protection. The more children a person has the better. In an insecure social environment, the only people we can trust and be relaxed and honest with are close relatives. So the more relatives one has, the merrier. Having many children adds to a woman’s standing in the community and the increasing prestige of the group in general. It helps to overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation.
In most civilizations, much of economic production depends on human muscle power, so the more workers the better. Crises are frequent, sickness, accident, loss of home or livestock are always feared and in such crises only family can be depended on. A person spreads the insurance against risks by investing in people. This is far safer than hoarding money which can be stolen.
Family members are particularly essential as an insurance for old age where there are no pensions and few social services or hospitals. Without sons and brothers a man (or woman) is at high risk. All this encourages large families. The joys and pleasures of children is another attraction. There is also the biological drive and pleasure of sexual intercourse.
The desire to have as many children as possible is both reflected and re-enforced by the family and religious system. In most societies a great emphasis is put on the family line. The ancestors are important and still interested in their descendants. They require people to keep their shrines attended and a child (often a son) to carry through an effective funeral ritual.
Even God or the gods are concerned that a person has offspring. The fertility of animals, crops, humans and spirits all become intertwined. Continuation of the society and continuation of the family and individual are all linked in popular thought. The Chinese used to have a saying that ‘the lack of filial piety to one’s ancestors and family is seen in three ways, the first and most serious is having no child.’
Is it difficult to have many children?
Many infants die at birth, others in childhood, women in childbearing, men in work and war. In order to ensure even a couple of living male descendants, given such risks and the unpredictability of the sex of infants, a family will need to use every device available to maximize fertility.
Girls will be married off at, or before, sexual maturity. Those families which do not have the right number of heirs will adopt them from other kin. This is a world of enormous pressure on the individual and family to produce as many children as they can.
For thousands of years this pressure has been felt in the majority of human societies. It tends to produce large numbers of births balanced by high numbers of deaths. In good years births dominate, then a crisis occurs and the gains are wiped out by war, famine or disease. Despite this crisis, the family and the society, having built up a surplus, survives.
The fact that a number of these crises are partly precipitated by the preceding high fertility is not appreciated, or, if it is, seems unavoidable. Heirs are generated in excess to protect against crises which are partly caused by the over-production of heirs.
This is a situation we find almost everywhere in the past. It is a pattern of high birth and death rates which has profound implications. Any resource improvement, a new crop or technology, will almost inevitably soon be swallowed up by rapid population growth. A more precarious situation is the outcome. Yet, given the interlocking set of pressures, it is difficult to see how individuals or families can behave otherwise. Political alliances, social status and co-operation, economic production and religious merit, all are dependent on having large families.
Indeed, over time, the situation becomes more difficult. Any success in overcoming an obstacle will lead to greater population. This then feeds back into increased political risks, higher mortality from the diseases of crowding, a larger number of priests and elders to tell people that their spiritual salvation requires that they have many descendants. In particular, as more human labour becomes available, it characteristically becomes cheaper, driving out alternatives such as animals. Diet deteriorates as meat and milk are replaced by cereals, and the strain on the human body increases. More children to labour in the fields are needed.
Why have fewer children?
The puzzle is why people sometimes want fewer children. Some argue that there was a three stage sequence. In the first period, high numbers of births and deaths more or less balance each other. In the second period, the number of deaths falls dramatically. After a period of very rapid population growth there is a drop in the number of births. Deaths and births balance each other at a low level.
Reasons for the move to the final stage are crude but plausible. The number of deaths was reduced by external factors, a vaccination campaign or clean water drinking system in a Third World country, for example. After a few years of experiencing children surviving in larger numbers, people began to realize that they did not need so many in order to ensure heirs. So they limited their fertility.
Are there cases which do not fit?
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in a few parts of Europe such as Norway, Switzerland and England, people were not reproducing at the ‘natural’ level. Some were not having children at all, most women were marrying some eight to ten years after they had reached child-bearing age. All this in a period when there had been no obvious medical or sanitary revolution.
There is no real evidence that England ever had a high birth and death rate. Instead it seems that the number of children was controlled by rules which encouraged late and selective marriage. There is no evidence that, apart from the higher aristocracy, women married in their teens. On the other hand there is evidence throughout the ages of quite large numbers (perhaps up to a quarter) of women never marrying.
There was no possibility of legal adoption in English law until the later nineteenth century. There is no need for descendants to ensure a prosperous after-life and no worship of ancestors. There is no inspection of the bride to see if her child-bearing potential is unsullied. There is no special interest in having large families. Women’s status was not dependent on how many children (particularly sons) she had. Men’s power and authority did not depend on kin. Children were only of minor importance in crises or old age. Children were ultimately, as one person put it, ‘pretty things to play with’, an antecedent of modern consumer durables or pets.
What part did marriage play?
Whereas marriage and the maximum number of children are ‘natural’ in most societies, they have been turned into matters of choice and conscious weighing of advantages in England. There are arguments for and against getting married and we find them throughout English literature from the earliest fragments of poetry. These arguments are given particular expression in the system of romantic love which I described in another letter.
This peculiar and long-term English pattern which ties marriage to love and makes children an option, a cost as well as a benefit, is not easy to explain. The key lies in the way in which biology is linked to other forms of continuation of the society, that is to say the reproduction of power (politics), wealth (economics), spiritual status (religion). If all of these are closely linked together, then in order to reproduce them, the production of human beings will be emphasized. If there is little or no connection, an individual can decide whether he or she wants the pleasures of children.
Almost everywhere, the family is the foundation upon which society is built. Whether in India, China or elsewhere, much of the political, social, economic and ritual world is based on family ties. What is odd in the English case is the separation of these different spheres. The political and legal system, developed from Anglo-Saxon England onwards and maintained to this day, has not rested on the family but rather on abstract relations between those living within a state, subjects of the Crown. The political and legal security of the English was mainly guaranteed by contractual links and not by birth and blood.
There were few economic pressures to breed. As today, there was a downward flow of wealth through the generations. Children cost money and time to raise, train and marry off. Children are always costly, of course, but unlike almost everywhere else they could not then be depended on to return the expenditure. They, in turn, could not automatically expect to receive anything from their parents. At any point a parent could decide to leave his or her property to a chosen heir and, if necessary, exclude one or all of the children.
Nor was economic production based on family labour. There might be, as there are today, family firms. Yet the normal work force consisted of a group of fellow villagers, manorial tenants, apprentices or servants, hired workers. The work force was recruited on the basis of market forces, not family ties. There was no institution similar to that in China, India and many parts of Mediterranean Europe whereby parents and their married children, or one married child, jointly owned and produced as a family enterprise. Nor did brothers and their wives co-own and co-produce.
Once a person had left home or married he was economically, as well as politically, independent. Thus there is no evidence from Anglo-Saxon times onwards of those extended families which appeared over much of Europe in the later middle ages and which are the dominant form in Eastern Europe, China and India.
Finally, spiritual reproduction was not linked to the family. There might be family prayers or even, among the wealthy, a family chapel. Yet for the vast majority, and particularly after the Reformation of the sixteenth century, religion was largely a private matter. Christianity in general set its face against any acknowledgement of a link to dead ancestors. Even for the rich, the memorial services and feasts by descendants are not expected to bring blessings or avert wrath, but merely to be a thanksgiving and remembrance.
Heaven is not barred to those who do not have a son to light the funeral pyre (or instruct the crematorium attendant how to dispatch the dead). Parents are as little concerned with their children’s religious beliefs as they are with their political and economic opinions. The sins of the father are only indirectly visited on their children through loss of income or bad upbringing. The sins of the children are not visited on their parents.
This is unlike the situation in most societies. For instance, in ancient China nine generations of the family were to be executed for a serious crime of one member, often involving hundreds of individuals from the great grandfather’s generation down to the great-grandchildren of an accused individual.
With chastity so cherished by Christians, it seemed clear that God had little interest in whether a person has children. Indeed sexual intercourse and child-bearing are widely considered a second best, a fall from grace, a sometimes necessary but unfortunate effect of our fallen nature. If possible, abstain from sex and marriage; if not, then marry and have children, this is the message of Christianity.
How did choice become possible?
So the political, economic, social and economic worlds were split apart and dealt with by different institutions. The market as a separate institution with its own rules was already beginning to be developed in England over a thousand years ago. Political and legal life was also partially segregated, as were religious and ritual activities. Each had its rules largely independent of the family. The family gave comfort, companionship, meaning, love, childrearing support, as it does today. Yet it was not the building block out of which society was constructed.
Where society continues free of other pressures, people can respond in an unusual way to changing circumstances. If there are strong demands for human labour, reasonably paid jobs are plentiful, people are optimistic, there may be a rise in fertility as there was in the later eighteenth century in England. People feel that they can ‘afford’ to get married and have a child. In many ways child bearing was like house buying and the demand for mortgages. When the economy is booming and confidence is high, a house and children seem inviting.
On the other hand, when the economy is flat or in decline, or people start to prefer goods other than children, then the number of babies per family starts to drop. Consumerism may lead couples to prefer cars or holidays to children. Women may decide not to get married at all or to postpone marriage and child-bearing until some later date.
This is a very different attitude to that in the majority of societies where childbearing is encouraged for everybody. Yet it is an attitude which is sweeping across the world as part of the package of individualism, consumerism and capitalism. Many people now feel that they can only ‘afford’ only one or two children.