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A landscape of early modern mortality: Spatial perspectives and methodological thoughts on eighteenth century diseases

Journal article
Authors Daniel Larsson
Published in Scientia Danica
Volume 7
ISSN 1904-5506
Publication year 2016
Published at Department of Historical Studies
Language en
Keywords Disease, history, pattern, diffusion, intensity, dysentery, smallpox
Subject categories History and Archaeology, History


Based on data gathered from church records in two Swedish counties, this study shows that it is possible to conduct relatively detailed spatial analyses of epidemics in the 18th century. The outbreak of two diseases, smallpox (1751-52) and dysentery (1772-73), are in focus. They differ in several ways (e.g. various microbes transmitted in different ways), as did the counties (e.g. population density, topography), but nonetheless there is a striking similarity between the outbreaks. Long, low intensity initial phases with a few local epidemics were followed by an intensive diffusion phase where the diseases gained an epidemic character in a few weeks. In both counties the diffusion pattern was irregular with epidemics in parishes located far apart. Their spread was moderated in the winter but then had a renewed impetus in their second year. In several cases the infection spread to neighbouring parishes from those affected early on. Still, we can barely see any obvious traces of epidemic “roads” or “waves”. One reason for the irregular patterns is probably that the diseases are mapped out through mortality instead of morbidity. But it may also be that this, albeit roughly, is actually the main pattern of early modern epidemic diffusion. The assumption of expected epidemic “roads” or “waves” may be incorrect. People interacted more, and moved over greater distances than one readily believes.

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