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Understanding Your Western European Ancestors:
Demographics: Death and Illness

The final of the big three records is, of course, death records. When looking for death records, the most important thing to remember is that early deaths, particularly infant deaths, were common. Nearly every parent lost a young child and many lost spouses as well. One writer concluded around the end of the eighteenth century that only seventy-eight out of one thousand people would die of old age. The rest would die before their time and by chance.

For example, in the mid nineteenth century, between seventeen percent (in Sweden) and nearly thirty percent (in Germany) of infants died before their first birthday. Although death rates slowed after the first year, children and young adults still died at high rates. In fact, in the mid 1800s, life expectancies were only in the high thirties or early forties. Despite this, some people, of course, did live to be quite old.

For more information, read the sections below. Also, try the Parish Records section. Finally, a number of great books for more information can be found in the Useful Links and Sources for Western European Ancestors.

Infant Mortality and Breastfeeding

High infant mortality rates plagued communities throughout Europe until the beginning of the twentieth century. Even in the middle of the 1800s, a quarter of all babies born in many European countries died before their first birthday. At the start of the nineteenth century in France, less than one half of children lived to be ten years old. In Sweden as a whole, the infant mortality rate in the late 1700s was about twenty percent.

One important predictor of infant mortality was breastfeeding. In areas where mothers didn’t breastfeed their babies, infant mortality rates soared, sometimes reaching thirty to forty percent. Beliefs about breastfeeding differed greatly between areas, sometimes even between villages. Peasant women were influenced by authority figures from doctors to pastors who expressed doubts about the value and even morality of breastfeeding. Many wealthy women hired wet nurses to avoid having to do the questionable task themselves. Of course, peasant women couldn’t afford wet nurses. In some areas then, the majority chose not to breastfeed at all. Even those who intended to breastfeed had a difficult time juggling this with their normal tasks which often required them to work in the fields all day.

Peasant women who didn’t breastfeed turned to artificial feeding. Unfortunately, during this time period no healthy alternatives to breastfeeding existed. Mothers fed their babies undiluted cow’s milk, sucked through a cloth or quill that had received little or no cleaning. Some mothers offered a form of solid food to their babies when they were as young as two months old. This often consisted of chewed up adult food wrapped in a cloth for the newborn to suck. Not surprisingly, these feeding practices disturbed the newborn’s developing digestive system, causing sickness and even death.

Childbearing

Another group hit hard by early death was women who were bearing children. Childbirth presented serious hazards to both the mother and child. In the mid 1700s, there were about 1,000 to 1,200 maternal deaths per 100,000 births. Given that the average woman had about five or six children, the cumulative probability of dying during childbirth came to between five and ten percent. Mothers have delivered their babies at home, probably with the help of their mother, mother-in-law, or other female family member as well as a community “midwife.” Men didn’t help deliver babies or even remain present in the room. Midwives, the closest thing to an expert available, had only the training of experience. They also had few tools. Although the spreading use of forceps to help pull a baby from the womb greatly affected childbirths in this century, it only slowly reached peasant households.

Illness and Medical Care

Although many death records include the cause of death, understanding what killed your ancestors may still be difficult. Different types of disease predominated in earlier times. Even those still rampant today were categorized and labeled differently.

Part of this confusion was due to the inconsistent and poor quality of care in the countryside. Many peasants died without seeing a doctor. One study of rural France, for example, concluded that 2.4 licensed doctors served 10,000 people. Peasants in the countryside usually couldn’t afford the services of doctors even when they were available. Even when doctors visited, they often didn’t identify diseases correctly.

Instead, mothers often served as the primary provider of health care for their children. Mothers often treated their children with herbal remedies, ointments, and other natural treatments that they had learned from their mothers and other women in the area. When a child became gravely ill, families may have called on a local healer to assist. These healers usually had no formal training, but instead had learned their skills from watching other local healers or perhaps even from reading books. Trained doctors complained that these healers were ignorant and even dangerous. But, rural peasants had no other options.

Especially before the nineteenth century, epidemic diseases wreaked devastation on many communities. After outbreaks of the plague subsided in 1720, smallpox took the lead as the most lethal epidemic disease. Although smallpox struck people of all ages, children were more likely to die. Healthy adults could often fight off the illness. Evidence of their fight with it, however, sometimes stayed with them for the rest of their lives in the form of disfiguring marks that covered their bodies.

A vaccine developed at the end of the century eventually put a stop to the devastation of smallpox. Even at the beginning of the 1700s, some people began using an inoculation against it. For the inoculation, matter from a pox was inserted into a scratch or cut on the person’s arm, giving them a mild form of the disease. The inoculation had problems, though. First, it was risky as people could still die from smallpox this way. In addition, the expense kept the inoculation out of reach for peasants.

Typhoid fever and other contagious diseases may have claimed the lives of several family members in one tragic sweep through the family. Chest infections were also a leading killer, with pneumonia and other serious infections overcoming people of all ages. Accidents occurred among both the old and young as well. Vague descriptions such as “old age” or “childhood illness” were commonly used to describe little understood causes of death.

Variations

Of course, death rates varied over time and place. For example, by the mid nineteenth century, 151 of every one thousand babies born died before age one in Sweden. By contrast, 294 died in Germany. Northwestern European countries tended to have lower infant mortality rates and longer life expectancies than their southern and eastern counterparts.

Although a decline in mortality didn’t hit some Western European countries until one hundred years later, in France, Czechoslovakia, and Scandinavia a gradual decline began in the last years of the eighteenth century. Some historians attribute this decline to the decrease in epidemic diseases and to medical advances. Edward Jenner’s discovery of a small pox vaccine and other small medical advances made an impact.

However, most historians feel that improvements in living conditions, particularly improvements in the diets of the lower class, may have had an even greater impact. Improved nutrition kept people healthier. The introduction of the potato helped lengthen life spans. The potato provided peasants with a cheap, healthy, mostly dependable food that became a staple in many of their diets. In addition, more knowledge about hygiene and public sanitation lowered death rates, especially in the cities.

Nearly all of these innovations occurred in northwestern Europe first. Scandinavian countries already experienced higher standards of living that most other European counties. These things together led to a big difference in demographic patterns.