In the long struggle between the European nations for hegemony, there was an enduring theme—a “long sixteenth century,” or long duree, of population growth and price inflation during which the Mediterranean basin largely remained the economic and military heart of Europe. In the past a steady increase in population tended to exceed the capacity of a society to feed the new mouths.
This was true until the eighteenth century in Europe and remains true in certain parts of the world today. The great population rise between 1450 and 1650 was followed by regression, while that after 1750 was not, for society had changed in ways that made it possible to feed the increase. These changes—in political, social, family, and economic structure—were in progress during the long duree, but their impact was not felt for over a century.
However, since the first genuine census was not taken until 1801, and then only in England, all population figures are guesswork for the sixteenth century. The lowest estimate of world population for 1300 is 250 million people, and the highest estimate for 1780 is 1,380 million people. Conservatively, historians accept that from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries world population at least doubled, despite economic and physical disasters.
Europeans expanded during this time into vast new lands that had not been systematically tilled by their native populations. While the specific interpretations remain controversial, historians today generally agree that this systematic extension of agriculture and industry into new areas was made possible by a combination of social and technological changes, as well as by rhythms of climate variation.