The English population question in the long eighteenth century is explored and
investigated further by using the results from the demography available from the 30
year study by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social
Structure, together with an understanding of the impact of ergot contamination of
diet on female fertility.
The hypothesis presented is that the staple rye diet at the end of the seventeenth
century was contaminated with ergot which acted as a contraceptive and abortive
agent and in addition could have had an influence on both the survival of women and
children if given accidentally or deliberately during labour. Within this thesis it is
argued that when the ingestion of ergot on rye was reduced within the diet from
around the third decade of eighteenth century onwards this would have removed or
released these fertility constraints and therefore it would have allowed women to
become more fertile, while improved midwifery practice curtailed the negative
effects of ergot ingestion during childbirth. These findings and their timing closely
parallel the demographic changes reported by the Cambridge Research Group.
Sufficient accumulated circumstantial evidence was found to support the hypothesis
to suggest that ergot could have been a factor in both the fertility changes during the
long eighteenth century and the perinatal mortality rate. The conclusions of this
thesis need to be taken forward in additional local parish research by others to further
substantiate these findings.