The Malthusian Intermezzo - Women’s wages and human capital formation between the Late Middle Ages and the Demographic Transition of the 19th century

Number: 
14
Author: 
van Zanden

Why did the European Marriage Pattern that emerged in the North-Sea region in the late Medieval Period not result in a continuous shift from ‘quantity’ to ‘quality’? This paper addresses this question focusing on the changing labour market position of women in England between  1500 and 1800. It is demonstrated that the gender wage gap increased strongly in this period; wages of women working in agriculture fell from about 80% to 40% of the wages of an unskilled labourer. This was probably the result of a decline in the demand for female labour in this period due to changes in the structure of agriculture, and was possibly also related from the movement from a labour scarcity economy in the 15th century to a labour surplus economy in 18th and early 19th century. This decline in female labour participation and in particular in the relative wages earned by women had important consequences for demographic behaviour and investment in human capital of children. It helps to explain the ‘baby boom’ of the second half of the 18th century, and the stagnation in human capital formation that occurred at the same time – in short, it contributes to the understanding of the ‘Malthusian intermezzo’ of this period.