Demographic Aspects of the Early Modern Times

The Example of the Zurich Countryside in a European Perspective

by Walter Letsch (Author)
©2017 Thesis XVI, 794 Pages


The study deals predominantly with basic questions of Historical Demography that have so far not yet been tackled, as no adequate sources seemed to exist, or the effort for digging into these problems seemed outrageous. Many major gaps are filled in this study, based on two types of sources: 14 census-like nominal population listings for 126 parishes of the Zurich countryside, complemented by 52 parishes of adjacent areas, and four reconstituted communities with very early parish books. This allowed coming up with detailed population structures by year of age, sex and marital status for the year 1634, with regional variations. Full, detailed mortality tables by sex and for all ages could be calculated for the period 1634–37, by far the earliest mortality tables worldwide. Mortality during plague epidemics was analysed in detail, too, resulting in the first and only plague mortality table. Model life tables are presented as well, showing a pattern that differs strongly from what has been assumed so far. New insights could also be gained about premarital sex and the importance of remarriages.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1 Earlier Focal Points for Demographic Studies
  • 1.1.1 Defining the Subject
  • 1.1.2 Local Analyses with an International Orientation
  • 1.1.3 Sources and Methods
  • 1.2 Gaps in Demographic Knowledge and Wishes for Future Research
  • 1.3 Statistical Bases in Switzerland and in Other Countries
  • 1.4 Local and Regional Results Instead of Country-wide Averages
  • 1.5 Interdisciplinary Approaches: Quantitative and Qualitative Demography
  • 1.6 Specific Objectives of the Study on Marriages and Fertility
  • 1.7 Studies to Date in Switzerland
  • 1.8 General Objectives and Scope of the Subject
  • 2. Demographic Sources
  • 2.1 Parish Registers
  • 2.1.1 Earliest Parish Registers in Europe
  • 2.1.2 Parish Registers of Selected Countries
  • 2.1.3 Inception of the Zurich Parish Registers
  • 2.1.4 Chronological and Regional Aspects of the Zurich Parish Records
  • 2.1.5 Quality Aspects of the Zurich Parish Registers
  • 2.2 Population Censuses
  • 2.2.1 Population Censuses of Selected Countries
  • 2.2.2 Population Registers of the Zurich Countryside
  • 2.2.3 Quality of Data and Characteristics of the Zurich Population Censuses
  • 2.3 Other Demographic Sources
  • 2.3.1 Other Demographic Sources in Europe
  • 2.3.2 Other Demographic Sources in Switzerland
  • 2.3.3 Other Demographic Sources for Zurich
  • 2.4 Overall Assessment of Zurich’s Demographic Sources
  • 2.5 Area and Time of Research
  • 2.5.1 The Zurich Territory
  • 2.5.2 Subdivision into Regions
  • 2.5.3 The Regions and Their Demographic Bases
  • 2.5.4 The Seventeenth Century – a Time of Crises
  • 2.5.5 Overview of the European Climate History
  • 2.5.6 Methodological Aspects of the Data Analysis
  • 3. Births, Marriages, and Deaths
  • 3.1 Parochial and Demographic Events
  • 3.1.1 Parochial Events in Parish Books
  • 3.1.2 Corrections to Entries in Parish Books
  • 3.2 Births and Marriages
  • 3.3 Deaths
  • 3.4 Interrelations between the Various Demographic Data
  • 3.4.1 Marriages and Births
  • 3.4.2 Births and Deaths
  • 3.4.3 Deaths and Marriages
  • 3.4.4 Other Dependencies
  • 3.4.5 Demographic Data and Population Growth
  • 3.5 Natural Population Development
  • 3.5.1 Absolute Population Development
  • 3.5.2 Rates of Population Movements
  • 3.5.3 Example of the Population Development of a Community
  • 3.6 Fluctuations in Vital Events
  • 3.6.1 Definition of Demographic Anomalies
  • 3.6.2 Fluctuations of Vital Numbers outside the Crises
  • 3.6.3 Some Methodological Remarks Regarding the Population Development
  • 4. The Population and its Development
  • 4.1 Absolute Population Figures
  • 4.1.1 European Perspective
  • 4.1.2 Population Development in Switzerland
  • 4.1.3 Overview of the Population Development of the Zurich Area
  • 4.2 Population Development in Rural Zurich 1634–1708
  • 4.2.1 Bases and Procedures
  • 4.2.2 The Population Development of the Regions of the Zurich Countryside
  • 4.2.3 Population Development for Rural Zurich as a Whole
  • 4.2.4 Comparison with the Population Development in Neighboring Regions
  • 4.3 Differences between Urban and Rural Areas
  • 4.3.1 The Demographical Importance of Cities
  • 4.3.2 Demographic Aspects of Swiss Cities
  • 4.3.3 The Cities of Zurich and Winterthur
  • 4.4 Growth Rates for Various Regions and Periods
  • 4.4.1 The Long-term Growth in Europe
  • 4.4.2 Stable Population Developments
  • 4.4.3 Growth Rates in the Zurich Countryside
  • 4.5 Reduction Factors for the Deduction of Population Figures from Other Sources
  • 4.5.1 Overview of the Most Important Reduction Factors
  • 4.5.2 Reduction Factors for Switzerland
  • 4.5.3 Number of Inhabitants per Household in the Zurich Countryside
  • 4.5.4 Households and Houses
  • 4.5.5 Conscripts
  • 4.5.6 Communicants
  • 4.6 Back-Calculation of the Population Size
  • 4.6.1 Possibilities and Limitations for the Calculation of Population Size from Vital Numbers
  • 4.6.2 Inverse Projection and Similar Methods
  • 4.6.3 Estimates and Back-Projections for the Sixteenth and Fifteenth Centuries
  • 4.6.4 Implications for the Estimate of the Total Swiss Population
  • 4.6.5 The Problem of the ‹Absent› Persons
  • 4.7 Summary and Conclusions
  • 5. Population Structures
  • 5.1 Age Structure
  • 5.1.1 Age Pyramids and Age Measures
  • 5.1.2 Availability of Age Information in Europe
  • 5.1.3 Age Indications in Switzerland
  • 5.1.4 Age Structure of the Zurich Countryside in 1634
  • 5.2 Gender, Marital Status, Children and Adults
  • 5.2.1 Sex Ratio at Birth
  • 5.2.2 Sex Ratio in the Population
  • 5.2.3 Sex Ratio in the Zurich Countryside of 1634
  • 5.2.4 Children and Adults
  • 5.2.5 Structure of Marital Status
  • 5.3 Change of the Population Structure as Secular Trend
  • 5.3.1 Theoretical Context
  • 5.3.2 Empirical Results
  • 5.4 Impact of Epidemics and Migrations on the Population Structure
  • 5.4.1 General European Experience with Plague Epidemics
  • 5.4.2 The Plague in the Zurich Countryside
  • 5.4.3 Influence of Migration on the Population Structure
  • 5.5 Assessment and Quality of Age Indications
  • 5.5.1 Survey on the Usual Errors
  • 5.5.2 Methods for Correcting Errors
  • 5.6 Stable Populations
  • 5.6.1 Stationary Populations
  • 5.6.2 Stable Populations with Growth
  • 5.6.3 Determination of the Vital Numbers for Stable Populations
  • 5.6.4 Equivalent Stationary Age Structure of the Zurich Countryside of 1634
  • 5.7 Relation between Population Structure and Population Movement
  • 5.7.1 Effects of Natality and Mortality on the Population Structure
  • 5.7.2 Influence of the Age Structure on the Vital Processes
  • 5.8 Summary and Conclusions
  • 6. Mortality
  • 6.1 Mortality Measurement
  • 6.1.1 Mortality Rates
  • 6.1.2 Model Life Tables
  • 6.1.3 Possibilities of Indirect Mortality Measurement
  • 6.1.4 Possibilities for Direct Mortality Measurement
  • 6.1.5 Errors and Their Correction
  • 6.2 Adult Mortality and Age at Death
  • 6.2.1 Definitions and Problems
  • 6.2.2 Development and Heterogeneity of Longevity
  • 6.2.3 Mortality Differences between Males and Females
  • 6.2.4 Mortality Differences by Marital Status
  • 6.2.5 Mortality Differences by Social Strata
  • 6.2.6 Development of Adult Mortality and Model Life Tables
  • 6.2.7 Distribution of Ages at Death in the Zurich Countryside
  • 6.3 Infant Mortality
  • 6.3.1 Definitions and Methodology
  • 6.3.2 Stillbirths
  • 6.3.3 Infant Mortality in Switzerland
  • 6.3.4 Infant Mortality in the Zurich Countryside
  • 6.4 Child Mortality
  • 6.4.1 General Issues Regarding Child Mortality
  • 6.4.2 Child Mortality in Switzerland
  • 6.4.3 Child Mortality in the Zurich Countryside
  • 6.5 Construction of Survival Orders and Mortality Tables
  • 6.5.1 The Qualitative Profile of the Mortality Curve
  • 6.5.2 Mortality Table Concepts
  • 6.5.3 Possibilities for the Construction of Mortality Tables for the Zurich Countryside
  • 6.5.4 Data for the Mortality Tables of the Zurich Countryside
  • 6.5.5 The Mortality Tables for the Zurich Countryside
  • 6.5.6 Survival Orders of the Zurich Countryside
  • 6.6 Model Life Tables for Populations with Low Life Expectancies
  • 6.7 Maternal Mortality
  • 6.7.1 Definition and Demographic Context
  • 6.7.2 Level of Maternal Mortality in the Early Modern Period
  • 6.7.3 Maternal Mortality in the Zurich Countryside
  • 6.8 Summary and Conclusions
  • 7. Population Crises
  • 7.1 Population Crisis and Recuperation
  • 7.1.1 Definition of Population Crises
  • 7.1.2 The Recuperation after Population Crises
  • 7.2 Plague Epidemics
  • 7.2.1 The Plague in Switzerland
  • 7.2.2 The Plague Epidemics in the City of Zurich and in the Zurich Countryside
  • 7.2.3 The Epidemics of the Sixteenth Century in the Zurich Countryside
  • 7.2.4 Plague of 1611 in the Zurich Countryside
  • 7.2.5 Plague of 1629 in the Zurich Countryside
  • 7.2.6 Plague of 1635 in the Zurich Countryside
  • 7.2.7 End of the Plague in the Zurich Countryside, and some Conclusions
  • 7.2.8 Detection of Plague Epidemics with Marriage Data
  • 7.2.9 Plague Mortality Table 1635 for the Zurich Countryside
  • 7.2.10 Model Life Tables for Populations in Times of Plague
  • 7.2.11 Traces of Plague in the Age Pyramids
  • 7.3 Other Diseases and Famines
  • 7.3.1 Overview on Diseases
  • 7.3.2 Smallpox
  • 7.3.3 Dysentery and Typhus
  • 7.3.4 Famines in Switzerland
  • 7.4 Summary and Conclusions
  • 8. Longevity and Long-term Developments
  • 8.1 Long Life and Longevity
  • 8.1.1 Important Definitions
  • 8.1.2 Uncertainty and the Development of the Survival Order
  • 8.1.3 The Development of Longevity
  • 8.2 Development of Life Expectancy
  • 8.2.1 Development of the Life Expectancy in Switzerland
  • 8.2.2 Life Expectancy in the Zurich Countryside
  • 8.3 Secular Development of Mortality and Life Expectancy
  • 8.3.1 Overview of the Demographic Variables, and the Basis for Comparisons
  • 8.3.2 Graphical Comparisons of the Main Demographic Variables
  • 8.3.3 The Secular Increase in Life Expectancy
  • 9. Marital Status and Marriage Behavior
  • 9.1 Nuptiality
  • 9.1.1 Marriage Models
  • 9.1.2 Marriage Age and the Proportion Single in the Zurich Countryside
  • 9.1.3 Marriage Rates
  • 9.1.4 Nuptiality and Mortality
  • 9.1.5 The Marriage Behavior as Population Regulator
  • 9.2 Celibacy
  • 9.2.1 Never Married Persons
  • 9.2.2 Celibacy in Switzerland
  • 9.3 Age at Marriage
  • 9.3.1 The Age at Marriage as Part of a Regulatory Framework
  • 9.3.2 Age at Marriage in Switzerland
  • 9.3.3 Age at Marriage in the Zurich Countryside
  • 9.4 Age Differences of the Spouses
  • 9.4.1 Difference and Mean Age at Marriage
  • 9.4.2 Age Difference of the Spouses in Switzerland
  • 9.4.3 Age Differences of the Spouses in the Zurich Countryside
  • 9.5 Widowhood and Remarriage
  • 9.5.1 The Demographic Importance of Widowhood and Remarriage
  • 9.5.2 Widowhood and Remarriage in Switzerland
  • 9.5.3 Widowhood and Remarriage in the Zurich Countryside
  • 9.5.4 Waiting Period until Remarriage
  • 9.5.5 Marriage Durations
  • 10. Fertiliy
  • 10.1 Total Number of Children
  • 10.1.1 Human Biological Thoughts on the Number of Children
  • 10.1.2 Number of Children and Family Size
  • 10.1.3 Number of Children in Switzerland
  • 10.1.4 Number of Children in the Zurich Countryside
  • 10.2 Birth of the First Child
  • 10.2.1 Menarche
  • 10.2.2 Premarital Conceptions
  • 10.2.3 Protogenetic Intervals and Premarital Conceptions in Switzerland
  • 10.2.4 Protogenetic Intervals and Premarital Conceptions in the Zurich Countryside
  • 10.3 Sequence of Births and Intergenetic Intervals
  • 10.3.1 Individual Phases of the Intergenetic Intervals
  • 10.3.2 Intergenetic Intervals and Breastfeeding Behavior
  • 10.3.3 Intergenetic Intervals in Switzerland
  • 10.3.4 Intergenetic Intervals in the Zurich Countryside
  • 10.3.5 Age of the Mother at the Birth of her Children
  • 10.3.6 Parity and Parity Progression Ratio
  • 10.3.7 Survey on the Intermediary Variables of Fertility
  • 10.4 Fecundity and Fertility
  • 10.4.1 Human Biological Bases of Fecundity
  • 10.4.2 Demographic Bases of Fecundity
  • 10.4.3 Natural Fertility and Early Birth Control
  • 10.4.4 Measurement of Fertility
  • 10.4.5 Marital Fertility in Switzerland
  • 10.4.6 The Marital Fertility in the Zurich Countryside
  • 10.5 Extramarital Births
  • 10.5.1 Definition and Measurement of Illegitimate Sexuality
  • 10.5.2 Extramarital Births in Switzerland
  • 10.5.3 Extramarital Births in the Zurich Countryside
  • 10.6 Reproduction Coefficients
  • 10.6.1 Gross and Net Reproduction Rates
  • 10.6.2 Correlations for Stable Populations
  • 10.7 Summary and Conclusions
  • 11. Conclusions and Outlook
  • List of Tables
  • List of Figures
  • List of Maps
  • Unprinted Sources
  • Bibliography
  • Name Index
  • Place Index
  • Subject Index
  • Series index

← 4 | 5 →

1.   Introduction

1.1   Earlier Focal Points for Demographic Studies

1.1.1   Defining the Subject

Title and subtitle of this study indicate the topic, the approximate geographical area and time frame. With Demographic Aspects we basically mean the description of a specific population with regard to its size, structure, development, and demographic characteristics, with the aim to draw from the analyses some general conclusions that can be applied to other regions and periods. Demographic aspects include population numbers, split between males and females and into age groups and groups of marital status, the growth or decrease of these numbers in absolute and relative terms (growth rates). Analyzed are specifically births (fertility), marriages and deaths (mortality), all broken down into appropriate categories, such as e.g. first and second marriages; infant, child, and adult mortality. Out of scope of this study are migrational movements.

A certain focus will be on population crises, major epidemics and widespread famines that have a clearly measurable local or regional impact on the population. We don’t have to deal with the impact of wars, although the War of Thirty Years was a very major event in the seventeenth century, because Switzerland was no theater of war, and it was only marginally affected by the war, which caused a boom in the demand for agricultural goods and articles of craftsmanship. We will take a top-down approach to population crises. We will analyze the timing and spread of known epidemics, rather than searching through the data with statistical methods to find major fluctuations in demographic figures that might be interpreted as crises. This means that we will not try to find local epidemics of children diseases, such as measles or whooping cough, as reasons of death are usually not indicated in the parish books, and deaths of children are often not registered, at least not in the earlier times.

The area of the Zurich Countryside will be presented in some detail later on. The territory under control of the City of Zurich in the Early ← 5 | 6 → Modern times is almost identical with the area of today’s Canton Zurich, with very few minor changes at the borders of the territory. In total, we are talking of 126 rural parishes within these borders, complemented by the two cities of Zurich and Winterthur; this in a compact area of today 1729 km2 (668 sq. miles). Some of these parishes were relatively large and were split up into smaller units in later years, resulting in an increase in the number of parishes. On the other hand, 20 communities were incorporated into the City of Zurich, twelve in 1893 and another eight in 1934. Six communities were incorporated into Winterthur in 1922. On occasions, we will expand the area of analysis slightly to encompass also some selected parishes of the neighboring modern Canton Thurgau, in the northeast of Zurich, which belonged to the Reformed Church of Zurich. However, such extensions will only be made, when it is deemed useful for the specific topic under consideration. With Countryside, we mean the rural communities, excluding the two cities of Zurich and Winterthur, mainly for two reasons. Combining demographic data of the cities and the rural communities would distort many characteristic figures, rates and ratios; for the calculation of averages, the area under consideration should be more or less uniform. Furthermore, detailed data are available for the rural parishes, but not for the cities. Quite a few European demographic studies deal with cities, while rural areas are mainly represented by local reconstitution studies, with only few studies treating larger rural areas in their totality.

This study will focus on the seventeenth century, a period that has not often been covered by demographic studies. Plague data available for the cities are often not extant for the rural parishes, due to the scarcity of the available data in most countries. After a short survey on the plague epidemics in Europe, we will have a look at the plague epidemics in the second half of the sixteenth century in the Zurich area, especially those around 1564 and 1581, which have hardly ever been treated quantitatively. And then, we will mainly focus on the plague epidemics of 1611, 1629, 1635, and 1668, the last plague epidemic in Switzerland, affecting only few communities in rural Zurich. Another major population crisis was the dysentery epidemic around 1691, which caused a substantial drop in population. For many data series of vital figures (births, marriages, deaths), also for non-plague periods, we will not stick to the seventeenth century, but start with the earliest available data and present them up to the nineteenth century, but without delving into later centuries in any detail. ← 6 | 7 →

It should be mentioned that we are dealing only with the quantifiable demographic aspects. Accordingly, no general descriptions of marriage and family life in the Early Modern period can be expected, unless they are of demographic significance, or serve to illustrate or clarify the demographic context. Thus, literary sources will be mentioned at most in passing. The economic aspects are treated only as far as this is necessary for the subject. The emphasis within this broad range of issues is on the one hand on the evaluation of the baptismal and marriage books, as well as the population registers of Zurich Countryside, and on the other hand on the international demographic literature. Demography lives to an essential part of comparisons – between various periods, countries and regions, social classes and religious denominations. But with comparisons alone it is of course not yet done. Today, counting is less important for demographers than in the past. It is more important to understand how and why something happened, than just to keep track of how often and when it happened.

It should be noted at the outset that the sources for the Zurich Countryside are unusually good. On the one hand we have relatively complete and generally well-run parish registers of all communities in the Countryside of Zurich, on the other hand a series of population directories (excluding the cities of Zurich and Winterthur) that seem to be unparalleled in Europe. These population directories start in 1634 and continue to about 1710, usually with an increasing degree of quality and completeness. They cover all households, including details on the head of the household, his wife, and the children in order of decreasing age. For the children, the ages are usually specified, for the adults they are at least partially available. This is noteworthy because normally such detailed surveys are not available until the early nineteenth century. Earlier censuses are very rare in Europe, typically covering only small areas, and hardly ever giving information on more than the number of households, the taxpayers, or the conscripts. This has the consequence that many demographic questions can often not be studied, such as the population structure by age and marital status. The issues related to household structures and the use of male and female servants can only sensibly be dealt with on the bases of complete population directories, but not with the parish books and family reconstitutions.

In the world of demography all variables are more or less closely related with each other. The most important demographic variables of population structure and mortality are also of great importance for marriage ← 7 | 8 → and family. The population structure determines the marriage market, the mortality rate determines the duration of the marriage, the frequency of widowhood, and subsequent marriages. The infant and child mortality are of central importance for the birth order, the number of births, and finally for the family size. Conversely, fertility also affects the infant mortality rate. However, fertility also depends on the population structure and the marriage behavior. Fertility and mortality together describe the natural population growth. The Demographic Transition, from populations with high fertility and high mortality to populations with low fertility and low mortality, was in Europe the main cause for the strong population growth in the nineteenth century, and this growth – in conjunction with various crises – was in its turn the essential prerequisite for emigration, the colonization of other continents, but also for several wars.

It would therefore not be without problems to try to treat the themes of marriage and family in a well-rounded way, without simultaneously treating also the other aspects to some extent. The first part of this study deals with the aspects of population structure and mortality. A survey of the parish registers and population directories is included, and their historical development in various regions will be discussed, supplemented by information on the scope and content of these sources in the Zurich area. The method of family reconstitutions is indispensable for the study of fertility, and the advantages and disadvantages of this method will be discussed for the various demographic questions.

The vital data recorded in the parish books, the births (or baptisms), marriages and deaths (or funerals) are also presented, including a discussion on the detection of errors and ways to correct them. It should be pointed out that capturing and correcting defects in the baptismal registers have been one of the most important research topics for English demographers, while the corresponding situation for the Zurich countryside creates no special problems, since the baptismal books are practically without gaps and are easily and completely available. The interplay of the vital numbers results in the natural population movement from which the population growth can be derived. In demographic crises, vital figures were subject to more or less strong fluctuations, especially in the number of deaths. The marriages and births show also significant fluctuations during and immediately after population crises. Population development and population size can be discussed without direct reference to marriages and births, although they are of course causally connected with these variables. ← 8 | 9 → If we want to simply extrapolate the population development backwards, beyond the earliest censuses, the marriage numbers appear more suitable for this purpose than numbers of births or deaths.

The population structure is decisively influenced by marriages and births, but these act in turn back to the population structure. In fact, the shape of the age pyramid is primarily dependent on the birth rate and only secondarily on the mortality rate. The marital status structure depends largely on the marriage behavior, especially on the average age at marriage and the remarriages after widowhood. While in most countries information on the population structure is only available from the early nineteenth century, for the Zurich Countryside such information exists since 1634. This allows examining for the first time issues which are, because of a lack of proper documents, possibly not accessible elsewhere.

Even the topic of mortality cannot be discussed in detail without addressing natality to some extent. This is especially true for issues related to infant mortality, which is very much dependent on the breastfeeding behavior of the mothers. Prolonged breastfeeding reduced fertility, and at the same time the infant mortality. Early weaning increased the infant mortality, and resulted at the same time in an increase in conceptions and thus in fertility. Already in the Early Modern times, population groups existed with a rapid sequence of births and high infant mortality, and others with long breastfeeding, relatively low fertility, and correspondingly lower infant mortality. High fertility also increased childbirth mortality of mothers, thus had repercussions on adult mortality. Also regarding the seasonality of births and deaths, there are clear dependencies for infants. If births show pronounced seasonal variations, these influence, with a certain time lag, the seasonal variation of infant deaths. According to recent studies, even the life expectancy seems to correlate slightly with the birth month.

The abrupt increase in marriages and – after a time lag – in births by plague and other epidemics, has always fascinated the demographers, and occasionally led to hardly provable conjectures. Thus, it has been repeatedly pointed out that marriages of young people should be seen in connection with the taking over of vacant farmsteads, and a revived zest for life. In fact, the relationship between mortality and marriages is inasmuch not very easy to analyze, as often the proportions of the first and subsequent marriages cannot be clearly separated from each other. In addition, the remarriage of widows and widowers was very commonly made with single persons, often much younger ones. As it could well be observed ← 9 | 10 → again and again that the birth rate in the early years after major epidemics were significantly higher than under normal conditions, this raised, of course, the question, how much of this was due to first and to subsequent marriages, and how much may have been due to a temporary increase in marital fertility. Without a good understanding of the relationship between infant mortality and fertility, such questions can hardly be tackled in a promising way.

1.1.2   Local Analyses with an International Orientation

This study deals with demography in a regional context, the rural Zurich area where, as we will see later in detail, the demographic sources are of excellent quality and comprise of regular census-type population listings starting in 1634, a source of unique value that has never been exploited so far. These sources are not just of regional interest; they are of European significance and are suitable to answer questions that could not have been answered so far, because of the nonexistence of comparable sources anywhere else. In many studies in France, England, Germany and Switzerland, a relatively small region, a group of villages or a city is selected, but usually only for a rather short period. The demographic aspects are mostly handled with the methods developed by Louis Henry and his ‹French School›. Thus, the individual studies, comparable to mosaic pieces, should contribute to a gradually emerging demographic picture of the country. Limitations arise from the usually insufficient quality of the sources in many regions, and from the enormous amount of time needed for family reconstitutions. The result is that many of these studies arrive at similar demographic results, which are then compared with some selected similar studies of other regions. All too often, however, the comparability of the results is limited by the fact that different definitions, age groups or time periods are chosen. Only few of these studies break new ground regarding content or methodology, and they seldom provide fundamentally new demographic insights that may be of interest beyond the national borders.

The present study will try to achieve more, in several respects. First, the work will be anchored in the international demography. The exercise ground is indeed the rural Zurich area, due to the excellent source material, ideally suited for demographic questions, but the issues to be addressed will not be restricted to local or regional aspects, but are meant ← 10 | 11 → to contribute to demographic topics of international interest. To achieve this ambitious goal, it must first be determined what kind of open issues or problem areas there are in demography, waiting to be tackled. It is not necessarily the aim to contribute to the most recent demographic issues, using the data of rural Zurich, as – at least in Continental Europe – such issues have moved gradually to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and often to the actual situation in developing countries. This shift in time and space is probably due to a lack of high-quality sources reaching back to the seventeenth or even to the sixteenth century. As such sources are available in our area, we will try to contribute to questions, which have been left untouched for decades, due to the supposed lack of appropriate data and documents, although the open issues would be of great interest.

These issues include, for example, the population structure and the adult mortality in the period before the 1800s, or the mortality during plague epidemics. However, we have not only the aim of focusing on those issues that may reveal new aspects or clarify untreated questions. As the demography of the Zurich Countryside has so far almost never been studied, all these Zurich data will be collected and evaluated, in line with the numerous regional studies for other areas. With regard to the comparability with such earlier studies, the results should also be presented in the same form, with the same split into periods and age groups; but unfortunately, such an approach following firmly established rules is not possible, because such rules have never been used consistently. The Zurich Countryside is still a major missing piece in the puzzle of the demographic landscape of Switzerland. But filling this gap is not the main purpose of this study. As our region is equipped with very good source material, this study is not only important in view of filling a regional gap, but also in view of tackling a few demographic issues of European interest.

The situation in Switzerland, which is quite well documented thanks to numerous studies in German and French, will be shortly presented. Here we will try to achieve certain completeness in the comparison of key results. Only then the issues will be looked at for the Zurich Countryside. Where it seems appropriate, the Zurich Countryside will be slightly expanded, by incorporating adjacent areas. Likewise, we will not always stick exactly to the specified time frame of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. We will occasionally go further back in time, if this may help to make the later situation better understood. The onset of the Demographic Transition at the end of the eighteenth century will not be a theme of ← 11 | 12 → this study, as this would require an extensive treatment of the nineteenth century as well. Moreover, this issue has for decades attracted so much international attention that an in-depth treatment of this topic also for the Zurich Countryside does not appear necessary.

Quite deliberately, we will deal in this study neither with the total population of Switzerland, nor with a detailed description of individual communities, but with a region that included a population of about one hundred thousand people in the considered period. This is done out of the conviction that for many demographic questions, a more or less homogeneous regional study area can lead to more significant findings, than an area that is either too large or too small, like an ill-chosen scale of a map or a wrongly chosen magnification in microscopy may lead to unsatisfactory results. If too large an area or too great a period of investigation is chosen for a macro-demographic survey, average figures may arise which are not very meaningful and often hide interesting details, and short-term and small-scale features may be lost in such global figures. On the other hand, micro-demographic studies of very small areas often show a great temporal variability and the influence of many coincidences, while numbers for short periods of time express themselves in a large geographical variability. Therefore, both sets of figures – countrywide and local – are therefore mostly not representative. Ideal seems to be a regional approach, somewhere in the middle between Scylla and Charybdis. But we cannot help but confine ourselves for many questions to examples of individual communities in order to keep the research effort within reasonable limits.

1.1.3   Sources and Methods

Also the sources and the working methods used are different for macro- and micro-demographic studies. Studies that describe whole countries usually depart from census figures, which are rarely more than two hundred years old, and try, starting from these figures, to reconstruct the earlier past. The result of such work is typically a population projection for centuries before the first reliable census, and an emphasis of such work typically lies in the methodological refinements of the projection technique. The best examples of this are the brilliant Cambridge studies on the English population of sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. If, on the other hand, we limit ourselves to a single community or parish, it is possible, by applying ← 12 | 13 → the reconstitution technique to at least a part of the stationary population, to gain essential knowledge on marriage patterns, fertility and infant mortality, but the size and structure of the underlying population cannot be so easily determined, and a generalization of the findings, obtained only for a minority of the total population, is usually problematic. If the technique for the reconstitution of families is extended to larger areas, you usually reach very quickly the limits of feasibility. To be sure, regional studies are presented repeatedly, but then these are often geared more towards historical or economic aspects and are mostly limited, in terms of demographic statements, to aggregated figures for the most recent time, and on a very selective analysis of the region. There can be no question, to list here in detail the issues that have already been dealt with and have been answered by studies of historical demography, and to treat exhaustively questions waiting for future research. It is not easy to keep track of what has been achieved, to identify the existing gaps, and to formulate suggestions for future research. This is attempted from time to time, but such a comprehensive description of the state of research would often not specifically deal with historical demography, but rather with problems of the demographics of today’s populations, predictions for the future and issues connected with other disciplines, such as social security studies.1

Historical Demography is more than just the demographics of earlier centuries. Demography always has a historical aspect – even if it is not Historical Demography in the strict sense – and many demographic variables obtain only then a clearer meaning, if they are compared with the past. Moreover, there are even topics, such as natural fertility, that can hardly be studied in today’s industrialized world, because of widespread birth control; historical studies are therefore essential in such cases. The historical development is, to some extent, always included in the current demographic data. Like the annual rings of old trees reflect the climatic development of past decades, so the population processes of the past generations have embossed their characteristics in the structure of present populations.

Historical Demography comprises the quantitative analysis of human populations of earlier centuries, based on historical records. Researched are size and structure of populations, the vital events of birth, marriage, family formation, and death, and the dependency of these events on ← 13 | 14 → economic, social, and biological factors. Migration, family structures, and life cycles are further areas of research. Important aspects concern the critical use of sources, and a certain restriction on formulating hypotheses, models, and generalizations. Initially, Historical Demography was mainly interested in the size and development of populations, but the focus of interest soon shifted to the decrease of mortality and fertility, which caused the demographic transition. Studies on marriage markets and early household structures were developed at around the same time. The changing demographic interest can be followed on the basis of four important demographic journals, Annales de démographie historique, Population and Development Review, Population Studies, and Population.2 Various research institutes have accomplished remarkable achievements. and have done a great job since decades. Among them are the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, the Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques in Paris, the Office of Population Research in Princeton, and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock,3 with each of them working on specific topics of research.

A couple of concepts and research methods have given a strong impetus to the Historical Demography. Important new concepts were e.g. the population models developed by Alfred Lodka in 1922 and Ansley Coale in 1972, especially the theory of stable populations. In 1945, F.W. Notestein coined the notion of the Demographic Transition, the transition of a ‹high pressure› system of high mortality and high fertility to a ‹low pressure› system of low mortality and low fertility. Of especially high practical importance were the new methodology of the family reconstitutions by Louis Henry in 1956,4 and his concept of natural fertility, the maximum fertility in populations without any kind of family planning. The new techniques for family reconstitutions have triggered hundreds of local studies in France, England and other countries. 1965 was an important year for demography. John Hajnal formulated his hypothesis of a European Marriage Pattern, Peter Laslett suggested a classification for the family structures, and Glass and Eversley published their important book ← 14 | 15 → ‹Population in History›. A somewhat later achievement was the method of ‹Back Projections›, developed by the Cambridge Group for Demographic Studies, which allowed a new assessment of earlier population figures.5

Without diminishing the role of the family reconstitution technique, it is still unavoidable that, because of its main sources used and the possibilities offered by this technique, some very important areas of demographic research had to remain untreated. Suffice it to mention the analysis of population structures according to sex, age, and marital status, as well as the mortality of youngsters and adults. The countless studies on infant mortality, admittedly a highly interesting topic, are mainly attributable to the fact that the topic can be analyzed on the basis of births and subsequent deaths, given a good enough quality of parish books, and often helped by the application of Henry’s techniques, whereas the calculation of adult mortality and the structure of populations under risk have hardly ever been undertaken for earlier centuries. As a proxy, it became a common world-wide standard to use model mortality tables,6 often of questionable suitability, for rough approximations on mortality and life expectancy, even for periods as far back as the Roman Empire. Over time, an increasing agreement developed that these tables, including the mostly applied ‹Table West› cannot be correct, even if they produce the proper life expectancies. These tables are still regularly used today, with or without proper understanding of their intrinsic flaws.7

A perusal of the literature indicates that one of the main obstacles for demographic research is the inadequate data quality. In many instances, extensive corrections have to be applied to the raw data, before they can be used for calculations. The more we regress in time, the more the data become fragmentary und defective. In many countries research is also hindered by poor accessibility and decentralized archives. As we will see, Zurich provides excellent conditions in this respect. ← 15 | 16 →

1.2   Gaps in Demographic Knowledge and Wishes for Future Research

The following will provide a survey on gaps in demographic knowledge, as pointed out in the literature, and will mention suggestions and wishes for future research. The assumption would be wrong that a perusal of the literature would mainly unearth recommendations for further research in areas that are currently worked on, due to the specific interest of these authors. Most clearly requested is research on adult mortality, population structure, and marriage behavior, all topics that can hardly be studied with the possibilities of family reconstitutions that are today so intensively applied.

Only few research articles and books contain suggestions for further research. Some of these recommendations date back to the 1960s, and it might be assumed that these requests have been dealt with in the meantime. Interestingly enough, this is mostly not the case. This seems to indicate that we are dealing here with problems that are difficult to tackle, as some of them turn up again like a ceterum censeo. We will arrange these suggestions into categories and will first address general and methodological issues, before turning to demographic topics. Two subject areas will be left out: Migration and family structures, although for both areas still much is left for further study, and family structures are of relevance for the last chapter of this study, but there are simply too many research desiderata.

(a)   Researched Periods

Already in 1965 Hajnal pointed out that more effort should be put into the evaluation of source material of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.8 And Glass asked in the same year for more analyses of vital events over short periods,9 instead of just describing them in the long run.

We will focus on the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, with specific emphasis on the plague epidemic of 1635 and the dysentery epidemic of 1693. ← 16 | 17 →

(b)   Regions and Social Groups

Another request that is occasionally brought forward is an analysis of demographic variables according to different regions and social groups, in view of reaching at a better understanding of the correlations between these variables.

In the early seventeenth century, the Zurich area comprised of a population of some 100,000 inhabitants in 126 rural communities and the cities of Zurich and Winterthur. This area will be divided into regions, characterized by different forms of settlement and economy. Where possible, demographic data will be collected regionally, and the spreading of epidemics will be analyzed with local data. On the other hand, a differentiation into social groups appears impossible, as the social differentiation does not play any role in parish books.

(c)   Methods

Etienne van der Walle asked in 1972 for the publication of census-type population listings for the past,10 and Hollingsworth wrote in 1969: «The possibilities of further work on old censuses in other countries must be very great. A census is almost always the best source of demographic information; and, in any enquiry, a great effort should be made to find any censuses of interest, partial or otherwise, before turning to less promising sources.»11 Others suggested a combination of family reconstitutions with anthropological methods,12 to combine representative micro-demographic studies with appropriate aggregative methods, and to increasingly replace average values by distributions.13 Kertzer (1984) would prefer to put less emphasis on typical life cycles, and investigate instead the individual, social, economic, and demographic factors resulting in specific household formations. Already in 1977, Laslett drew our attention to the «history of boarding and lodging», i.e. tenants not belonging to the families, which have hardly ever been taken note of so far.14 Similar requests were made by Hareven in 1991.15 ← 17 | 18 →

Population registers (census data) will receive special emphasis in the present study, and the request to combine micro- and macro-demographic analyses will be consequently followed up with. Distributions of variable will be used instead of only averages. Apart from typical life cycles those life cycles could be presented that result from serious population crises, including the position of tenants, orphans and other individuals in households. This work has been done, but will have to be deferred to a further study.

(d)   Population Structure

Various researchers pointed out that we have virtually no knowledge of the age structure and the marital status of the populations in Early Modern times. Gautier and Henry called attention to this shortcoming already in 1958,16 because without this information neither the mortality of a population nor the proportion of unmarried people, in view of calculating the fertility of a population, can be properly assessed. For Wrigley (1997) the knowledge of the age structure would be especially important in view of analyzing the development of mortality over time. For Dupâquier (1981) the frequency of unmarried persons has never ever been correctly calculated. As an approximation, the percentage of single persons at age 50 and over is used, although the marital state is not independent from mortality and from the propensity to migrate.17

The lack of detailed population structures given for individual ages, not only 10-year age groups, sex and marital status is one of the greatest gaps of Historical Demography for the whole of Europe, and it seems that the impact of population crises on such population structures has, for want of respective data, never been analyzed. This big gap will be filled by the present study, at least for the early seventeenth century. This will allow establishing a firm base for the calculation of mortality rates for both sexes and all ages.

(e)   Mortality

Family reconstitutions allow analyzing in detail the infant mortality, and to some extent also the child mortality. Accordingly, countless studies have been published in the past decades on this topic, and it seems that not too ← 18 | 19 → many wishes are left for further research. By detailed analysis of infant and child mortality Livi Bacci hoped to get better model life tables. Galley and Shelton suggest in 2001 to examine more closely the relation between infant mortality and early child mortality.18

With family reconstitutions, it is close to impossible to deal with juvenile and adult mortality. Many demographers have pointed out this big gap that has so far not been closed. Goubert complained in 1965 that we almost did not know anything about adult mortality,19 and in the same year, independent of each other, Glass and Hajnal requested more accurate investigations on the decline of mortality.20 In 1972 Wrigley asked for insights into regional and local mortality differences and their development over time.21 Demonet stated 1977 in few words, what is missing: «Nobody has ever succeeded in constructing an acceptable life table for the seventeenth century, nor a nuptiality table, nor a good age pyramid.»22

Schofield and Reher (1991) make it clear that the scantiness of mortality studies is a serious obstacle for the understanding of the mortality decline in the eighteenth century.23 In 1996, Saito still sees the same problems as Henry did forty years earlier: «An innovative method which would deal with mortality at adult ages is urgently needed for use in studies of family reconstitution …».24 Infant and child mortality may be regarded today as well researched, but the almost complete lack of research on adult mortality is still a problem. This substantial work appears imperative for the present study, as otherwise the mortality during population crises cannot be compared to ‹normal› mortality. For the early history, the existing Model Life Tables are totally inappropriate.

Of paramount importance are the relative weights of infant, child and adult mortality, as this is of prime relevance in the Model Life Tables. These tables have been used on a world-wide basis for more than half a century, partly uncritical, partly with considerable reservation, but they are still indispensable because no alternative is available. We will have to try to develop an alternative set of Model Life Tables for the earlier times. ← 19 | 20 →

(f)   Population crises

Mortality during plague epidemics, often accompanied by famines and other diseases, still pose unsolved questions. Hatcher reminded us in 1977 that the epidemics did not only take a heavy toll on human life, but also changed the sex and age structure, which is why these dependencies should be studied. But he was not very optimistic in this context: «It would clearly take some very sophisticated demographic analysis to calculate the precise effects of age- and sex-selective mortality…». Furthermore, he assumed that the sources would probably not be sufficient.25 Walter and Schofield were of a similar view and requested further studies on the regional pattern of crisis mortality in the sixteenth century.26 Bourdelais demanded in 1997 an updating of epidemiological studies and an analysis of the reasons for the decline in mortality since the end of the seventeenth century.27 As many studies on plague deal mainly with cities, Benedictow remarked in 2004 that «estimates of the mortality among the peasantry are generally far more important and useful than studies of any other social category. Studies comprising peasant populations are a necessary requirement for generalization to national or regional mortality rates in the Black Death.»28

Population crises are a main focus of this study. The objective is to come up with detailed research on the difference in mortality (according to age and sex) between plague-free years and years of plague for the same region, including the change in the age structure of the population by the plague. The demographic mechanisms for growth, including the ‹Recuperation Phase› postulated by Mattmüller and taken up by Pfister, will be investigated.29

(g)   Marriage Behavior

Marriage behavior is a topic with still many open questions, because family reconstitutions are only partially able to contribute to these questions. Already 1965 Hajnal pointed out that we have only few data at our disposal, describing the marriage behavior until the middle of the seventeenth ← 20 | 21 → century;30 and Knodel thought in 1970 that such information is very scarce even until the middle of the nineteenth century.31 Livi-Bacci would have liked to get models of ‹survival tables› for marriages, as a function of the level of mortality and the marriage pattern. A need to catch up exists also for the marriage behavior of widowers and widows: The frequency of secondary marriages depends not only on the level of mortality and the age of the widowed person, but also from the number of surviving children and the social group. D.S. Smith (1977)32 and Klein (1996)33 drew attention to the issue of the age difference between the spouses, which has not yet been studies sufficiently, be it theoretical or empirical. Anderson (1985) wanted to know more about courtship, the role of sex for precipitating marriages, conditions for remarriages, and changes in marriage ages.34

In the present study, we will look at the marriage behavior in ‹normal› times as well as during and immediately after major population crises, with special emphasis on relations between first and secondary marriages. Of special interest are marriage ages and age differences between the spouses in ‹normal› times and in times of plague. We will deal with marriage exogamy, and the role of pre-marital sexual relations.

(h)   Fertility

There is hardly another demographic topic that has attracted a similar amount of research as the wide field of fertility, especially the studies made with the instrument of family reconstitutions. Accordingly, not too many basic questions seem to be left for future research.

Based on the reconstitutions of four parishes, we will produce the same kind of figures published in other studies, to allow for comparisons. Furthermore, we will develop some new results, such as the parity progression ratios.

(i)   Family and Household

There is a huge number of research desiderata regarding this topic. A lot of requests concern specific household structures, such as nuclear families ← 21 | 22 → and certain multiple household forms in Eastern Europe. Many researchers want more in-depth studies of the Hajnal border line, not so much in view of locating this line more precisely, but rather in view of accepting that drawing a line would not be appropriate, given the considerable local and regional variations.35 These issues go beyond the present study.

1.3   Statistical Bases in Switzerland and in Other Countries

It is understandable that most of the historical demographers deal with those areas that are best known to them, and with those sources, which appear to them most easily accessible. This has the consequence that we have excellent studies on certain areas or time periods, but that other areas and time periods have not yet received much attention. Especially France, England, Switzerland and Scandinavia may be regarded as well researched. Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe have not yet really been tackled, except for a few studies in Italy, Spain, Hungary and Austria. Huge archives of the Ottoman Empire are probably waiting for their evaluation, but this would need not only a good knowledge of the former Turkish language, but texts were written in Arabic letters, making the job even more demanding, and this is obviously a bit too much to ask for most of today’s demographers. The backlog of the work in Germany is still mainly due to the unfortunate compromising of population research in the Third Reich, a problem that even at the beginning of the 21st century, seems not yet fully overcome. Accordingly, limited literature is available in German language, and the most important studies on the Historical Demography of Germany have been done by Americans, English, French, and Swiss. This is all the more regrettable as it is likely that in Germany some excellent sources are available, in particular the ‹Ortssippenbücher›, the local lineage books. These are also for Switzerland quite interesting because a number of them relate to villages in the immediate vicinity of Basel, just north of the border to Germany.36 ← 22 | 23 →

In Switzerland, several population-historical studies have appeared in recent decades. Active were in particular the universities of Geneva (Prof. Perrenoud) and Basel (Prof. Mattmüller). Internationally known are only the excellent studies on the Geneva bourgeoisie. Certain parts of Switzerland are also relatively well covered, typically in the form of regional studies, in which the population history is often only one aspect of the study. Some of these works led to interesting findings, others bring little new insights for demography, because the sources for earlier periods are often unsatisfactory, and historians may have shied away from the huge effort needed for extensive reconstitutions of the population. Thus, mainly projects were started which seemed quite feasible, considering the sources available and the time needed. What is missing in Swiss studies almost entirely is including foreign experience and embedding the results into the European demographic scenery. Accordingly, the international impact of these mostly very carefully written books was rather low, even more so that they appeared almost exclusively in German or French, languages that do not seem to be known to many demographers.

This naturally raises the question whether Switzerland, with the resources at its disposal, could provide significant contributions to international demographic research. The enormous importance of the demographic work on the Geneva bourgeoisie alone should alert us and provoke the question why Geneva was so important for the European historical demography. The short answer is: because the demographic sources date back to the time of the Reformation. And the same answer applies also to the question of why special contributions to historical demography could be expected from Zurich. As a matter of fact, a major part of the very data that is sorely missed in the rest of Europe is available in Zurich in excellent quality, and even for early periods. Thus, it is to be expected that the sources available in Zurich could give results of international importance for demographic research.

These are not at all new findings and new assessments. Roger Mols pointed already in 1955 to the potential of Swiss sources, including the population listings.37 Hollingsworth highlighted in 1969 the great age of the earliest Swiss parish registers, but without mentioning the population ← 23 | 24 → listings.38 But these hints were apparently later largely forgotten, but not by Hajnal, who wrote in 1983: «The Zürich archives may contain material for the kind of comprehensive study accomplished for medieval Tuscany by Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber39

1.4   Local and Regional Results Instead of Country-wide Averages

Belletini has pointed out that meaningful regional studies are possible by appropriate selection and aggregation of local studies,40 but a prerequisite is the use of the same methods, periods, age groups etc. Starting point is first of all the set of already existing local studies. From these, a representative selection has to be made to take the regional specificities into account. Because of the large variability of many demographic phenomena a grouping within a larger region is often inevitable, but with the danger that significant local features may be lost in regional averages and ratios. The formation of groups or subgroups according to certain characteristics results in a reduction in the variability of the observed features, because of the greater homogeneity of the combined data. In regional studies the question of local variations is often neglected, and it is tempting to choose a parish and declare it to be typical for its region.

Wilson and Airey share the view that averages may be problematic very clearly: «A significant feature of demographic measurement is the tendency to ignore the range of experience and to concentrate instead on average measures. […] This leads us to ignore the diversity of experience, in spite of the well-documented potential power of heterogeneity in shaping demographic patterns.»41 In a nutshell, the issue is to arrive at conclusive results, not at ‹meaningless means›.

If you take from the outset global instead of local data, you have to accept the fact that much information of great interest may not be available. But such information may be crucial in many cases for an understanding ← 24 | 25 → of the underlying phenomena. The same also applies to the selection of periods that are too long. As an example, we could mention the mortality that can be subject to large fluctuations from year to year, especially during epidemics and famines, but which shows also considerable geographical differences, especially regarding infant mortality, and furthermore exhibits great social differences as well.42 Goubert writes: «It is also probable that we shall find great divergences not only from one region to another but also from one type of locality to another.»43

If possible, a progression from local to regional studies is recommended, with detailed information recorded at the local level and then appropriately aggregated at the regional level. Local results are not always meaningful because of their small data basis. Therefore, a combination of date in groups may be advisable. Henry points to the problem: «Le besoin d’étendre les recherches à des grappes de villages contigus est ressenti depuis déjà des années, mais il reste difficile de les réaliser en raison de la longueur des relevés et de l’exploitation». (The need to extend the research to clusters of adjacent villages is felt for years now, but it remains difficult to achieve it due to the long time needed for the survey and the analysis.)

It should also be clearly defined for regional studies what constitutes a region. An obvious classification is according to the landscape and to the economic activities, as e.g. the predominant form of agriculture (livestock farming, grain cultivation, viticulture). A regional pattern may also be exhibited by regional customs, family sizes and house types, or characteristics of succession, which may differ from that of the geographic characteristics or the economic activities. In this sense Willigan and Lynch argue: «One of the most promising strategies for capturing the demographic histories of individuals and families in the period covered by the parish registers is the adoption of a regional perspective. This method entails identifying an area that has an ecological, socioeconomic or cultural identity and carrying out demographic analysis within it.»44 Such regional patterns may exhibit a long-term stability.

But we should be careful not to see in a regional study just an average between a local and a national study, distinguished only by a different level of data aggregation. As already mentioned, a properly chosen scale ← 25 | 26 → for a map can unearth insights that are not visible in larger or smaller scale. Moreover, Schofield points out that each of them has its own level of abstraction: «To move from a national investigation to a regional one is, therefore, to add a new level of understanding.»45 And Landers states «The study of regional systems should be seen as a complement, rather than an alternative, to those at the national or local level.»46 In regional studies, the approach is – according to the data available – either to break down global numbers into regions, or to bring together local numbers into regions. Just as a population group may be too small to draw valid conclusions, a group can also be too large.

The above considerations on micro and macro studies and on regions, apply mutatis mutandis also to the dimension of time. As average figures for a century can be problematic, so caution is also needed when dealing with figures for short periods. Long time periods are usually chosen when the database – for example for a single village – is so small that only longer-term averages are free from random fluctuations. On the other hand, in the investigation of large areas, depending on the method, perhaps only a short period of a decade is chosen to keep the workload within limits. The selected years certainly need not be representative if they include years of population crises. While the issue of proper regions or groups is addressed again and again, the question of the appropriate time frame rarely receives the necessary attention. But it is not simply a matter of choosing the appropriate region and period, depending on the problem, to arrive at meaningful averages. It is more sensible to compare individual regions and periods with each other, whenever possible with the help of graphs and maps, since numbers alone are only of limited value – even when population size and standard deviation are indicated. Quite generally speaking, demographers understand much by comparison – between regions, between time periods, and between social and economic groups, while anthropologists are usually less interested in comparisons.47

We will have to come back to the temporal averaging in connection with the discussion of the pros and cons of period and generational considerations. While periodic mortality tables clearly show the temporal variations of demographic values, in generation mortality tables, averaged over periods, the fluctuations largely disappear. On the other hand, it could be ← 26 | 27 → argued that generation tables represent the actual mortality experience of specific cohorts, while periodic tables are based on synthetic cohorts that do not exist in reality. In practice, generation tables are constructed from a series of periodic tables with appropriate mortality extrapolations. The image of the real world does not seem to be so simple, as we may sometimes believe.

1.5   Interdisciplinary Approaches: Quantitative and Qualitative Demography

Many demographic studies require an enormous amount of time, often unmanageable for a single researcher. What else is needed apart from time? Hollingsworth characterizes the issue as follows: «The ideal historical demographer will need to have a keen historical sense and a command of all the knowledge and resources of modern demography, requiring a thorough acquaintance with the methods and findings of every national system of census and vital registration in the world. He will be deeply versed in economics, sociology, religious observance, archaeology, anthropology, climatology, epidemiology, and gynaecology; and he will understand the mathematical techniques of the statistician so well that he can advance improvements on them of his own.»48 Hollingsworth mentions also, inter alia, the importance of good language skills and the ability to keep abreast of the extensive and increasing literature. That such an ‹ideal historical demographer› does not exist, does not need to be emphasized. The common conclusion is, of course, that for many problems only teamwork can help. Although this may be contrary to the spirit of the times, we endeavor to incorporate the findings in other fields without relying on teamwork. It remains to be shown that this is possible.

Christian Pfister offers a similar view: «Wie kaum ein anderer, ist dieser in Frankreich entstandene Zweig der historischen Forschung mit einer Vielzahl von Nachbardisziplinen, wie Medizin, Biologie, Psychologie und Soziologie, ja im weiteren Rahmen sogar mit den Ernährungswissenschaften, ← 27 | 28 → der Agronomie und der Meteorologie verzahnt.»49 (Like no other branch of historical research, this one, originated in France, is interlinking with a variety of disciplines, such as medicine, biology, psychology and sociology, and is even intertwined in a wider context with the nutritional sciences, agronomy and meteorology.)

While this thematic breadth of historical demography is hardly questioned, and there is little doubt about the need for interdisciplinary work, the increasing use of quantitative methods still seems to provide certain uneasiness. There is a widespread reluctance to adopt modern methods. Such an attitude is understandable, but still unfortunate, because demography lives between qualitative and quantitative thinking, this use of exact methods in history and sociology, and this intensive exchange of ideas between various disciplines.

In the present study, we will incorporate interdisciplinary aspects, whenever that seems appropriate. Interdisciplinary work must not be just a slogan, it must be practiced. In the Population History, this means, first, to use appropriate quantitative methods and models, and not to retreat into purely ‹historical› questions. On the other hand, a certain approach to scientific questions must be attempted. This includes in our context among other things human biology, epidemiology and climatology. To some extent this probably means to include anthropology that is dedicated up to this day largely to qualitative methods, and exhibits extreme difficulty to deal with quantification and an approach to demography.50 Only with a multi-disciplinary approach we can hope to make real progress. An interdisciplinary approach not only adds additional aspects, it produces new insights and knowledge that cannot be achieved otherwise.

The following comments deal specifically with the demographics of the Zurich Countryside 1500–1800 regarding marriage behavior, fertility, family, and household formation. Such studies cannot do without family reconstitutions, if they are to lead to meaningful results. The present study will be embedded in the international literature, to properly position the issues in the demographic research landscape. We will introduce each chapter with the results of Switzerland, with an occasional glance at other European countries, and then present the new results for the Zurich Countryside. It is not the purpose of this work to submit still another local study, ← 28 | 29 → but to contribute to the European population history with the help of the extensive documentation available for Zurich.

An accurate delineation of the Early Modern times, the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, is neither possible, nor is it sought; it should only indicate the rough time frame for this study. The earliest baptismal and marriage records of the Zurich countryside go back to the late 1520s, the latest entries were made to 1875. On the one hand, it is essential to also touch on the situation before 1500 and its development, on the other hand the Demographic Transition to low mortality and low fertility starts in the late eighteenth century (France somewhat earlier), so occasionally a view beyond the year 1800 may be required. For various basic questions, we will even have to mention the very early history.

Finally, we will also seek to tackle the issues associated with marriage and family with an interdisciplinary spirit. Counting and evaluating alone are insufficient to arrive at deeper insights. Church history, including canon law, is essential for the understanding of marriage behavior. The marriage behavior is also heavily influenced by economic realities. Unlike birth and death, marriage is subject to the human will, even if it was influenced by traditions, social constraints, ecclesiastical and governmental regulatory and economic factors. Marriage was therefore not necessarily just an act of free will of the spouses, but was entangled in the tension between individual desires and societal expectations and constraints. The marriage was in the first place an institution with an economic purpose. Romantic feelings played usually only a minor role, especially for common people. What is required in this situation is the ability to think historically. It is not about presenting the marriage behavior from today’s perspective, with our moral concepts and economic realities. In particular, we also have to take note that in the Early Modern era, a marriage could only be divorced in extremely rare cases; so as a rule it was only dissolved by the death of one of the spouses.

Another bridge we attempt to build here is one to the international literature. The literature tends to remain largely within the borders of its own language region, and language barriers are broken through only rarely. Particularly pronounced is this with certain British and American authors, of which many do apparently master not even one foreign language. Unfortunately, this is also the case in the Historical Demography. The topic of fertility has been studied first by French demographers, since the population growth of France significantly lagged that of other European countries ← 29 | 30 → since the mid-eighteenth century. The most important works, primarily those of Louis Henry, have also been taken note of outside of France, and the method of family reconstitutions, meticulously described by him in his Manual, developed into a general standard.51 Numerous other works on fertility, however, have been taken note of to only a limited extent, because of the language barriers. It is easier for authors publishing in English, as they may assume a larger spread of English language skills, but they often disregard foreign language literature. Demographers of German or French mother tongue, in turn, often shy away from British or American authors and try to concentrate on what is published in their own language. So everyone judges publications in his own language as particularly relevant, and it is then often not researched where the current state of international discussion is, where questions are pending, or where demographers in the sheltered garden of their own mother tongue developed research activities. The relevant historical demographic literature is now largely English, the early works of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, however, were to a large extent in French. Without sufficient knowledge of French, Historical Demography in certain areas, especially fertility, is therefore not without problems.

1.6   Specific Objectives of the Study on Marriages and Fertility

For the investigations of the issues to be discussed here we have, on the one hand, the baptismal and marriage books of the rural Zurich parishes and, on the other hand, the population directories at our disposal. Both sources are not only of very high quality, but also of remarkable completeness. Moreover, the sources reach far back. The first parish books have begun in 1528, initially only for baptisms and marriages, while the dead have only been registered with a major delay. From the parish books, most have survived in good quality; the gaps are not very important. They have in general been kept quite reliably, and the under-reporting of religious dissidents, which raises serious questions in England, is here no problem at all. The registration is complete, because Catholics were tolerated at ← 30 | 31 → most as servants in the Zurich area, while the dissident Anabaptists were fully recorded. The population directories are, without restriction, available for all parishes, some of them even for neighboring areas outside the Zurich area, but the registration was not always made in all communities at exactly the same time.

Given this very good state of the sources, the only major restriction for investigations is the substantial workload. For questions that can be dealt with using the population directories, an exhaustive coverage of the whole territory of the Zurich Countryside is targeted, to also reveal regional differences within this relatively large area. Since the earliest population lists are available already from 1634, the data situation is of course very much better than in other countries where such directories are only available for the first time from the early nineteenth century. As the population lists were collected initially every three years, it is possible to closely track the population over a certain period, which is, among other things, of interest for the observation of the household formation. In addition to cross- sections through the population, also longitudinal sections of shorter duration are, within certain limitations, possible. Moreover, the most important figures collected from cross-sections can be tracked over time.

For those questions that can only be tackled with the help of reconstitutions of the populations in some communities, this kind of comprehensive approach is of course not possible, since the effort would be far too big. Here, then, only local soundings are possible. We have a number of communities that are, in view of age and quality of their data, suitable for early reconstitutions; for reasons of the amount of work involved, a selection of a few has to be made. The interest lies in going back as far as possible for the reconstitutions, to be able to analyze data, such as age at marriage and number of children, already for the late sixteenth century. While this is more difficult than evaluations for the eighteenth century, the greater effort can be justified by the fact that early data are rare and therefore claim a higher interest.

With regard to the analysis and interpretation of data, the interest is directed not only towards performing the usual analysis, but to enter as far as possible some new territory in terms of content, as well as of methodology, to take up some of the suggestions to be found in the literature, and to apply them on the available data and results. Of course, there is also a concern to tackle the most important of the above-mentioned open questions. Studying the Zurich Countryside is not about fitting in still another ← 31 | 32 → piece into the puzzle of the European demographic landscape, but about using the good sources to tackle as far as possible open questions, especially those questions of general demographic interest, for which it must be assumed that the lack of respective data elsewhere has prevented them from being investigated so far.


XVI, 794
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (August)
Population structures age pyramids mortality mortality tables marriages premarital sex fertility population crises plagues plagie mortality
Bern, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. XVI, 790 pp., 227 b/w ill., 169 b/w tables, 3 maps

Biographical notes

Walter Letsch (Author)

After a study of physics (MSc) and a successful career in the financial services industry in Switzerland and for operations in North and Latin America, Asia and Australia, Walter Letsch turned his interests to history and demography, graduating with an MA in history and presenting with the present study a short version of his PhD thesis.


Title: Demographic Aspects of the Early Modern Times
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