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The early modern demographic dynamic : celibates and celibacy in seventeenth-century England

Spicksley, Judith Mary


Judith Mary Spicksley


Donald Woodward


Chapter One begins by locating the rise in celibacy within the demographic context of Tudor and Stuart England. The most prominent feature of population change in the seventeenth century was the stagnation that occurred around 1650, following on as it did from a hundred years of almost uninterrupted national expansion. Though the significance of changes in nuptiality, here defined as patterns in the timing and incidence of marriage, had been a feature of demographic analysis since its inception in the 1660s, the spectre of increased mortality as a result of overpopulation, which was first articulated in the writings of Thomas Malthus at the very end of the eighteenth century, had entered into the history of population change in the nineteenth century and succeeded in capturing the academic high ground. Thus for many years shifts in mortality, largely as a result of variations in patterns of disease, were the dominant interpretative element in explanations of early modern population change. The problem was essentially one of measurement - there was a distinct lack of accurate information on fertility change - and even though the role of fertility was mooted in modem demographic texts from as early as the 1950s, it was not until the 1980s that robust estimates of shifts in fertility became available. Nevertheless the patience of the pro-fertility lobby was amply rewarded: the publication in 1981 of Wrigley and Schofield's first volume on population history revealed the general dominance of fertility movements in directing population change throughout the early modern period. 8 More significantly in terms of this project however, it revealed that the contraction of the population in the mid-seventeenth century could most realistically be interpreted in terms of a fall in the rate of marriage, revealing celibacy in the process as the demographic dynamic of the Tudor and Stuart periods.

Chapter Two seeks to locate the rise in celibacy in its social context by highlighting the strength of the marriage discourse. In this chapter the discourse of marriage is revealed as a potent force, drawing its ideas and authority from a wide range of spheres of thought, including those of religion, medicine, law, gender and sexuality. By the seventeenth century, shifts in marriage theory, having their origins in the humanist movement of the early sixteenth century, had raised the profile of marriage above that of celibacy, for the benefit of the individual and also of society at large. In the social arena, marriage gained credibility on account of the fact that it provided units of productive and reproductive activity that were capable of securing inheritance, expanding the numbers of the church and state, and legitimising and controlling sexual desire. In the personal arena, marriage, for women in particular, came to represent the pinnacle of social achievement, since it was understood that entry into it served above all to fulfil their scriptural and biological destiny. To this end social customs and practices developed that detached married people of both sexes from their single counterparts, by linking personal identity, social status and full community participation to the institution of marriage. Moreover, in establishing marriage as a valuable and honourable estate of lifelong dimensions, the discourse encouraged the development of a theory of marital choice, which, if faithfully adopted, could provide the basis for a stable and permanent marital union. Despite demographic evidence of falling marriage rates, therefore, the institution itself appears to have retained a position of considerable power in the contemporary imagination.

Nevertheless, as historical demographers have indicated, there was a rise in the proportion of those who did not marry during the course of the seventeenth century. Chapter Three then seeks to examine existing explanations of marital decline, and in addition offers a further analysis of the roots of change. Current interpretations, heavily influenced by the strength of the marriage discourse, have tended to direct attention towards a number of factors that were likely to discourage entry into marriage, the most common of which appear to have been economic: couples either lacked the financial resources required in the process of setting up and running a new household, or they were prevented from marrying by local officials who feared they would become a burden on the poor rate. Shifts in the sex ratio as a result of migration and emigration, largely occasioned by structural shifts in the economy or death from disease or war, are also a feature of the explanatory framework. But Chapter Three also considers the possibility that a greater number of individuals may have preferred to remain single, a factor that to date has received little historical attention. For there was a discernible broadening of the discussion on the relative merits of marriage versus celibacy in the later seventeenth century, both in the religious and the secular spheres, which, when taken alongside an increasing emphasis on the role of marital choice, may have had considerable implications in terms of individual action. Though later seventeenth century concern over falling marriage rates was articulated largely in terms of the increasing preference of men for the state of celibacy, such ideas were themselves a function of discursive understandings of womanhood in which female adult identity was formulated exclusively in terms of marriage and motherhood. Yet single women were equally likely to have provided the dynamic. The inability of historians to conceptualise a shift in female attitudes to celibacy arises in part from their uncritical approach to contemporary ideas about female adulthood, and in part from their belief that women's inferior economic status - at least for the majority of those below the level of the gentry - precluded any serious element of choice. The most novel feature to emerge from this project, therefore, has been the discovery that single women of middling status with access to liquid capital were heavily involved in the process of money-lending for profit. Whereas previous understandings of the labour market have marginalized the role of single women to the point at which economic independence was largely unattainable, the discovery that a considerable number may have had the capacity to maintain an independent existence requires that historians look again at female motivation.# Chapter Four shifts the focus of the dissertation to the sexual lives of early modern celibates. The marital discourse would have enjoyed little validity in the Tudor and Stuart periods had access to procreative intercourse outside of marriage been acceptable. The fact that both legitimate and illegitimate fertility fell in tandem with marriage rates, however, suggests that restrictions on all extra-marital procreative intercourse were successfully enforced. This chapter therefore examines the extent to which early modern celibates were able to indulge in procreative intercourse outside the bonds of matrimony, while also considering the relative role of the church, the state and the community in the maintenance of sexual continence. Though there has been much debate as to whether religion or economics constituted the more significant element in deterring undesirable sexual activity, the fact that it was the cultural setting in toto that conspired to suppress extra-marital sexual incontinence reveals once again the pervasiveness and strength of the marital discourse. However, this chapter is also concerned to problematise the historiographical image of celibate sexual activity. By interpreting marriage as a life-cycle phenomenon with procreative sex as its ultimate aim, historians have given primacy - whether wittingly or unwittingly - to the act of intercourse between man and a woman, and relegated a range of other sexual activities to a position of lower value. In contrast, this chapter argues not only for the presence of other forms of sexual gratification within Tudor and Stuart society, but suggests in addition that rather than view them as the precursor to full penetrative intercourse, they should be understood as satisfactory and fulfilling expressions of sexuality in their own right.

The final chapter examines the role of the marriage discourse in directing the employment opportunities, social status and cultural identity of single people in seventeenth century England. Here the effects of the discourse, which sought to promote the inevitability of entry into marriage as a general truth, are revealed in a gendered approach to training and employment, differential levels of access of men and women to land and property, and a concept of personal and social identity that for women was linked almost exclusively to marriage as a lifecycle phenomenon. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the extensive social and cultural ramifications of a rise in the proportion of lifelong celibate females, a situation that, regardless of its causes, required single women to reassess the image of themselves as wives and mothers and construct an alternative personal and social identity outside the standard marital paradigm.


Spicksley, J. M. (2001). The early modern demographic dynamic : celibates and celibacy in seventeenth-century England. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Apr 3, 2012
Publicly Available Date Feb 22, 2023
Keywords Economic and social history
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Economic and Social History, The University of Hull
Award Date Jun 1, 2001


Thesis (23.8 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2001 Spicksley, Judith Mary. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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