by Doctor Science
I'll get back to some of the topics I've kind of left dangling, but first I need to put up a review of Japan's Medieval Population: Famine, Fertility, And Warfare in a Transformative Age by William Wayne Farris before Inter Library Loan wants it back.
This is what I think of Inter Library Loan, btw:
this image taken, by me, from Dürer's "Triumphal Chariot of Maximilian I". (I got distracted into putting together a better version of the whole thing, but I'll post about that later. I digress.)
Japan's Medieval Population is just the sort of history book I love. It's a broad, rapid tour through material I knew basically nothing about, but with a framework I'm very familiar with. Farris uses crucial principles from William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples, which is one of the books that's shaped my thinking, as well.
In particular, Farris uses McNeill's concepts of "microparasitism" and "macroparasitism". McNeill defines "microparasites" as the usual: diseases and other parasites, all much smaller than an individual human. They are the standards "plagues" of human history.
"Macroparasites" may be predators (lions and tigers and bears, oh my), but for most of human history the real culprits have been the upper classes. McNeill points out that in traditional agricultural societies, everyone has to be fed by the efforts of the peasant majority. In such societies the upper classes -- the rulers, priests, and warriors -- give so little back that they may as well be called parasites on the peasant hosts.
When we talk about any pre-modern population, then, we should be talking most of all about the peasants or other low-level food producers. They were, to a first approximation, the people. Whether the population grew or not depended on:
- how much food they could get or grow
- minus what they lost to microparasitic diseases
- minus what they lost to macroparasitic thievery, destruction, or taxation
So the population almost tripled by 1600, and almost doubled again in the following 120 years. Farris's data suggest that about half that growth was matched by expanding the area under cultivation, half by increased rice yields.
What's striking to anyone who knows about European history in this period is the dog that did not bark: plague. At the other end of Eurasia, this is what happened to England:
That cliff is the Black Plague -- half the population died between 1348 and 1351. Farris describes any number of waves of epidemic disease in medieval Japan, but nothing with a similar effect.
However, almost in passing he says that between about 730 CE and about 1150
repeated outbreaks of lethal epidemics cut deeply into a population that often had no previous experience with a particular pathogen. The result was massive die-offs -- as high as 25-35 percent approXimately every generation.Yet he also estimates that during this period population numbers for the Japanese archipelago remained roughly stable -- the epidemics were horrible, but not catastrophic. I wonder why not?
Part of the Kyoto Hungry Ghosts scroll, dating to the early medieval period. The ghosts, tormented by thirst, are appeased by people pouring water on a funerary marker.
As in Europe during its medieval period, medieval Japan experienced famines due to crop failure fairly frequently. When this happened during the first half of the era, Japanese peasants (= people) would often take their houses to pieces and sell the parts, then take that money and go to either the mountains (the wilderness region) or to the shore, to find food by foraging (hunting-gathering) or fishing. They did *not* go to the cities, which emptied out. It's only in the second half of the era that we see a pattern familiar from Europe, where starving peasants flock to the cities where the upper classes are keeping whatever food there is.
As the Japanese peasants weren't terribly attached to any location or home, they also had a fairly flexible family structure. Japanese families were not yet based on the ie or "traditional" patrilineal, patriarchal structure. Descent was reckoned bilaterally (both your mother's and your father's relatives "count"), sexual mores were not strict, and marriage wasn't particularly binding. It sounds to me as though the rather free-wheeling sexual and emotional lives of characters in The Tale of Genji, which I had assumed just reflected a wealthy, court society, were actually rather similar to those of regular people -- only with much prettier clothes.