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Demographic Aspects of the Early Modern Times

The Example of the Zurich Countryside in a European Perspective


Walter Letsch

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.

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3. Births, Marriages, and Deaths


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3.   Births, Marriages, and Deaths

3.1   Parochial and Demographic Events

3.1.1   Parochial Events in Parish Books

From the demographic point of view, we are interested in births and deaths, not in baptism and burials. We are analyzing biological events, not parochial ceremonies. However, what we find in the parish records are mainly baptisms and burials, at least in the earlier documents. The relation between birth and baptism has been a topic of considerable interest in England, much more so than in any other European country. This is due to the relatively large proportion of dissenters, and the increasing interval between birth and baptism, also for members of the Church of England. Corrections are not easy, as the chronological change is irregular, and there are also regional differences. The approach of the Church of England was put down in black and white in the prayer book of 1549. Newborn should be brought to public baptism in the church within seven days after birth, except in case of immediate danger of death. Already in the prayer book of 1662, the interval was extended to the first or second Sunday after birth.1 The sparse information available suggests that the interval between birth and baptisms was short in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but became much longer around 1800. So, newborn were increasingly baptised on Sundays, as endorsed by the Church, with weekday baptisms reserved for very feeble infants.2

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