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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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11. Conclusions and Outlook


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11.   Conclusions and Outlook

The starting position for this study can be characterized by two facts. On the one hand, there are a fair number of rather fundamental demographic issues that are still open after decades of endeavor. The reason is basically that appropriate sources and data were hardly available. On the other hand, the Zurich State Archives keep detailed population directories for the seventeenth century, as well as early parish books of good quality for about 150 communities, starting in the early sixteenth century. These sources made it possible to address many of these fundamental problems, but it took some audacity to tackle such a substantial task, and also perseverance to carry it through.

The parish books of the Rural Zurich communities start partially in 1528, only a couple of years after Zwingli’s Reformation in Zurich. Their purpose was initially to keep the Anabaptist movement, which started in the community Zollikon near Zurich, under control by registering all baptisms, and to fight the concubinage by registering the marriages. The 14 population directories of the Zurich Countryside and of some of the adjacent regions from 1634 to about 1710 were meant as an instrument for regularly monitoring the religious education of the youth. Contrary to listings for tax purposes or for military conscriptions, there were no specific reasons for withholding or distorting information. Both sources are of excellent quality and completeness. The population directories, an early precursor of a kind of censuses,...

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