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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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6. Mortality


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6.   Mortality

6.1   Mortality Measurement

6.1.1   Mortality Rates

Compared with fertility, mortality appears to be a simple topic. Death is an event that occurs only once in every life, and essentially depends on the age, the sex, as well as health and environment of the person in question, while births normally occur more than once in the life of a woman and depend on a variety of factors, including the marital status and social influences. Ultimately, fertility is not a property of women, but a property of couples. As will be shown, also mortality is not as simple a subject as it may appear. First of all, we should very clearly define what we mean by death. Death is the definitive cessation of all vital functions after a live birth has taken place. Today the first part of the sentence seems more important because the individual organs cease their life functions at different times. In historical times this aspect was of course irrelevant, but not the second part of the sentence. In many parish books, especially in Catholic areas, deaths were registered, which do not meet this definition, namely cases of stillborn babies, which were still baptized by the midwife for religious reasons.

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