How does a change in the mortality rate explain population growth in the early modern period

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Last updated: April 12, 2019

Throughout the early modern period the mortality rate varied a great deal, and was generally characterised by “dramatic short run fluctuations,” low life expectancy, high infant mortality and increased quantities of deaths as a result of severe epidemic outbreaks.

1 Throughout this era, Europe experienced numerous mortality crises in which the number of deaths vastly exceeded the average number of deaths.An example of this mortality crisis can be observed by looking at the parish of Os, Norway. 7 deaths was the average number of expected mortalities per non crisis year between 1669 and 1735. Os experienced 9 crises throughout this 60 year period in which the rate of deaths grew by 50%. 2 This pattern was common throughout Europe. There were three key factors that caused these great fluctuations in the amount of deaths between 1500 and 1789 and they were; epidemics, war and famine.

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Epidemics of the plague and diseases such as influenza, typhus, typhoid and smallpox were a principle reason behind the millions of deaths throughout Europe.Figures show the devastation caused by these epidemics; it has been claimed that during the period of 1557 to 1559 “a tenth of the English population died”3 as a result of influenza. The infamous plague ravaged through many European towns and cities and caused an increase in the mortality rate. In London, for example, in the three key years of 1603, 1625 and 1665, in which the Plague struck this city approximately 200,000 people were killed. In other European countries such as France, between “2. 2 and 3.

3 million”4 people fell victims to the plague in a large part of the seventeenth century.Amsterdam, Santander and Barcelona are also key examples of municipalities in which the plague killed masses of civilians. These epidemics spread uncontrollably throughout Europe and being so deadly played a significant role in the great increase in the mortality rate at certain points throughout this era.

Although epidemics played the chief role in increasing the mortality rate at certain points throughout the early modern era, famine and the inability for average citizens to gain access to sufficient food sources also led to many deaths.Bad harvests often led to shortages of food and in turn weakened immune systems and a person’s ability to fight disease. From this perspective it is hard to put a figure on the amount of deaths caused by famine and a lack of food, as usually the starvation experienced did not actually cause death, but instead it made a large contribution to the increasing mortality rate at certain points throughout this time period. The disastrous affects of this famine are evident when looking at the example of the city of Galicia, Santiago in which it has been claimed that “most of the (Galician) people died of hunger. 5 Finland also fell victim to the harsh reality of poor harvests and suffered a possible loss of “one quarter of the country’s population in the course of 1696 and 1697. “6 Evidently, famine was an important contributory factor to the health problems of Europe in this time period, and at times did have a great influence on the mortality rate throughout Europe, depending on the region of Europe and its susceptibility to poor harvests and shortages of food.

The problems of war also proved to have a distinct influence over the mortality rate in the early modern period. Deaths are always expected as a result of violent conflict and this was certainly no different in the wars of this era. In the English Civil War, it has been calculated that approximately 3. 7% of the English population died due to war-related causes. Other European wars also accounted for incredible amounts of deaths, for example, The Armada of 1588 killed 15,000 Spanish civilians and the French Civil Wars of 1562 to 1598 wiped out thousands.The Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648 became infamous for the amount of deaths it caused, as regions such as Lippe lost 35% of their population between 1618 and 1648. 7 Although these figures convey the extent to which battles throughout the European lands affected the rate of deaths, the majority of deaths were actually caused by the spreading of epidemics throughout the armies; this fact again emphasises the importance of the epidemic outbreaks on the mortality rates.

The ever fluctuating mortality rate of the early modern period, explained by the three killers of epidemics, famine and war, can be held accountable for the changing population rate of this era. Without a doubt, the mortality crises “interrupted normal population growth. ” 8 Not only did the increasing mortality rate highlight the fact that the population growth was affected in the way that simply the amount of people dying increased, but also that these deaths then had a knock-on effect, and shaped population growth in other ways.A decline in marriages was experienced as a consequence of an increased mortality rate, as civilians found themselves more unwilling to marry into an uncertain future or simply because they lost their future spouse to one of “Malthus’s three positive checks”9 of war, epidemic and famine. Giessen, Germany is an example of a town in which the amount of marriages was affected by the rate of mortality, as marriages declined by 40% because of a crisis year.

0 Clearly, an increasing birth rate would counteract an increasing mortality rate, and if both rates had experienced similar patterns, then the population growth would have remained stable and natural. However, in the early modern period at times both the mortality rate increased and the birth rate decreased and this in turn had a vast impact on population growth. Birth rates decreased due to several reasons. Expectant mothers often died due to the menaces of either starvation or disease.

Expectant mothers also often had miscarriages or still births because of their ill health.Abandonment of infants became increasingly common as fragile mothers could not deal with the increasing pressures of bringing up a child in a society ridden with disease and low life expectancy. Marriage and birth patterns therefore changed as a result of the sporadic alterations in the mortality rate and this in turn led to a change in population growth. Although the impact that mortality rates had over population growth was extremely influential, it can be argued that there were other factors that affected population growth, that were not an aspect of the mortality rate.The age at which two partners marry can be essential in the fertility of a woman and the amount of children she will have.

As Eversley argues, “women bear children more frequently, in all societies, in the early twenties than in the late twenties, and so on, until child-birth becomes something of a rarity above the age of 40. “11 The financial status of a couple can also influence the rate of marriage a great deal, especially in the early modern period; statistics show that there was a distinct “positive correlation between marriage and economic activity. 12 Once again, if the economy was in a slump for example, marriage would decrease and as a result the amount of children produced would also decline. In this era, women also became more inclined to have an abortion due to either the avoidance of illegitimacy or a woman simply wanting to practice stricter birth control. In conclusion, a general pattern of early modern population growth is evident when observing statistical information.

Clearly there was a post Black Death recovery, followed by a 16th century growth period.This then led to a declining population growth in the 17th century and finally an increasing growth rate in the 18th century. This broad population growth pattern highlights the sharp fluctuations that characterised this era. Although throughout Europe differing regions had differing experiences and one must be careful when making generalisations about the population rates of such vast lands and over such a vast time period, it is evident that mortality rates were essential in determining population growth.

This is due to the fact that the population growth was affected throughout this era by the increasing numbers of deaths, the decline in marriages and the decreasing birth rates at certain crisis points, all of which are aspects or knock-on effects of the mortality rate. It is evident the crucial factor which changed population growth throughout this period were the epidemics. As Flinn argues, “the key to population growth or decline in early modern Europe (was) .

.. infectious disease. 13 For example, if it had not been for these epidemics, the rate of deaths would have not been so incredibly high, which in turn would have meant there would have been more civilians to marry and reproduce and also increased levels of confidence in starting a family. Although the issues such as the age at marriage, financial status and birth control affected the population growth, the mortality rate, and in particular the wide spread epidemics, experienced throughout this era explained and accounted for a huge proportion of the population fluctuations and growth.

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