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April 30, 2003
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v2.1 Reference

Strength in Numbers

Population, Reproduction, and Power in Eighteenth-Century France

In the eighteenth century France became convinced it was losing population. While not technically true (France was merely failing to gain population as rapidly as Great Britain and the German states), the public's belief in a national fertility crisis had far-reaching consequences. In Strength in Numbers: Population, Reproduction, and Power in Eighteenth-Century France, Carol Blum shows how intellectuals used "natalism" as a means of criticizing the monarchy and the Church in their pursuit of social change.

In addition to the arguments over celibacy, divorce, and polygamy, other, more radical, proposals were put forward to free potentially fruitful male desire from the tedious ties of European matrimony. The question of whether sexual violence was a crime or rather an imperative of nature was passionately debated, as was the abolition of the incest taboo. Descriptions of exotic locales where uninhibited natives were alleged to copulate freely and procreate abundantly became a popular literary genre of erotic fantasy, made respectable by a framework of natalist discourse. The wish to reject the Church's moral guidance and return to the "laws of nature" led philosophers such as Diderot and Voltaire to question the institution of marriage itself.

Centered on the eighteenth-century struggle to define moral authority, Strength in Numbers is the account of freethinkers' campaigns against the Church and monarchy; of the conflicts concerning the good and evil of "natural" sexuality; and of the ways in which natalism was used not only as a passive instrument in the wars of Enlightenment but as an active force shaping mentalities.

About the Author

Carol Blum is Research Professor of Humanities at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. She is the author of Diderot, the Virtue of a Philosopher and Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution.


"Blum has provided a rich body of material and insights that will be utilized by historians of sexuality, gender, and the family in the future."—David Klinck, H-France

"Examining a wide range of major and minor writings, Blum skillfully disentangles various threads of natalist thought advocating divorce, attacking the Church's position on celibacy, and even fantasizing about polygamy in the cause of procreation."—Choice

"Carol Blum has written a fascinating and very readable history of an odd controversy that provoked spirited polemics from the famous and not-so-famous of eighteenth-century France: the depopulation of the nation . . . Scholars of French intellectual and social history will learn a great deal from Blum's brief but deft handling of the ideas of a wide range of authors."—Kevin McQuillan, American Historical Review

"All dix-huitièmistes have something to learn from this subtle and lucid book."—Jeffrey Merrick, Journal of Modern History

"In tracing the rise of demography as an administrative science in in Enlightenment and Revolutionary France, Blum demonstrates that debates about population helped to undermine the traditional authorities of Church and Crown."—Lisa Jane Graham, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"A work of originality and insight. It explores a completely neglected dimension of French population thought, and in so doing adds depth and context to the historiography of eighteenth-century ideologies of gender."—John Shovlin, Histoire Sociale

"A rich and well-crafted book . . . Blum is particularly adept at combining the different kinds of sources that participated in a sort of extended dialogue throughout the eighteenth century . . . Blum's concluding chapter is a tour de force, and should stand as a model for anyone trying to do intellectual or cultural history that connects to society."—Cynthia J. Koepp, Eighteenth-Century Studies

"Strength in Numbers is destined to become an essential reference for scholars and students of eighteenth-century French culture and literature . . . A complete and insightful overview of the beginnings of modern population anxiety."—Mary McAlpin, Journal of the History of Sexuality

"This book makes a distinct contribution by examining Enlightenment populationist thought. Carol Blum illustrates in original fashion how natalism intersects with multiple other strands of the Enlightenment, from anticlericalism to the critique of social customs. This is a work that opens up new territory."—Suzanne Desan, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Johns Hopkins University Press

9780801874680 : strength-in-numbers-blum
Electronic book text
280 Pages
$54.00 USD

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