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Session Overview
6A: Religious Differentials in Causes of Death, 1850-1940. Part I
Thursday, 09/Sept/2021:
10:45am - 12:00pm

Session Chair: Prof. Angélique Janssens, Radboud University Nijmegen

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Religious differentials in causes of death, 1850-1940. Part I

Chair(s): Janssens, Angélique (Maastricht University and Radboud University Nijmegen)

Historical analyses of the relationship between religious affiliation and demographic behavior have focused on Catholic, Protestant and Jewish differentials, with most studies showing the highest mortality for Catholics. Explanations for the differences have been wide-ranging, pointing to specific religious values, attitudes and/or life styles. Definitive answers remain elusive. In two sessions we present studies from the SHiP network. The network focuses on port cities with individual-level cause-of-death data for the period 1850-1950, supplemented by data for specific subpopulations such as hospital patients. Information on the causes of death of these population groups can clarify how religion affects health.


Presentations of the Symposium


Mortality and Causes of Death in Nineteenth-Century Venice. A Comparison of Jews and Catholics.

Derosas, Renzo, Munno, Cristina
Ca' Foscari University of Venice

Countless studies showed that in the past and throughout the world, infant mortality in Jewish communities was dramatically lower than in their host populations. Comparisons of mortality at later ages are less common. However, there is enough evidence suggesting that also the mortality of Jewish adults and the elderly was lower, although in a lesser measure, prompting a wider consideration of Jewish specificity. Rates eventually converged, but the Jewish advantage persisted before and during the mortality transition, until well into the twentieth century.

Scholars suggested a variety of factors to explain the lower mortality of Jews, but none seems fully convincing and the issue remains controversial. To disentangle the features of Jewish mortality, in this paper we adopt a comprehensive approach. We compare the members of the Venetian Jewish community to a large sample of the Venetian population around mid-nineteenth century. The two groups shared the same environment and were socially similar. At that time, Jewish integration was well underway, and two thirds of the Venetian Jews dwelled outside the ancient Ghetto.

We combine longitudinal data drawn from the population registers with information on the causes of death, and use a competing-risk approach to carry out cause- and age-specific analyses. In this way, we highlight the different patterns of Jewish and Catholic mortality, and ask whether they concerned only levels or involved any major cause of death. This will contribute to a deeper understanding of the Jewish mortality conundrum.


A World of Difference? Religion, Neighbourhoods, and Infant Mortality in Mid-Nineteenth Century Amsterdam

Muurling, Sanne
Radboud University Nijmegen

Until the end of the nineteenth century the city of Amsterdam had been characterised by high, above national average infant mortality rates. As in other cities, this death toll was not distributed equally; overall, large differences can be observed between the poorer and more well-to-do neighborhoods. Surprisingly, a number of poor neighbourhoods experienced lower infant mortality rates than one might expect based on income levels. Neighbourhoods that were mainly Jewish stand out, but differences also arose between other religious denominations. Geographical isolation, differing lifestyles within communities, breast-feeding practices, and religious precepts are considered important possible explanations, but have proven difficult to particularize based on city-level mortality rates alone. Information about causes of death may provide additional clues, particularly in relation to feeding practices. This paper will therefore draw on the newly digitized registers of causes of death that provide micro-level data. By comparing disease categories (e.g. water- and foodborne diseases, airborne diseases, etc.) across various socioeconomically comparable (sub-) neighbourhoods in Amsterdam in 1856, it hopes to shed further light on the complex relationship between religion, social class, residential environment, and infant mortality.


Causes of death of Catholics and Jews in the city of Antwerp, 1928-1939

Devos, Isabelle
Ghent University

Many of the historical analyses of the relationship between religious affiliation and demographic behaviour have focused on Catholic and Jewish differentials, with most studies showing the highest mortality for Catholics and the lowest for Jews. Using data from the unique cause-of-death register of the city of Antwerp (1820-1946), recently collected via a large-scale citizen science project ( we examine in this paper the main causes of death of Catholics and Jews. Although the register does not mention the religion of the deceased, religious affiliation can be detected for the years 1928-1939 from the place of burial and the funeral director. Taking into account the age and social composition of these populations, we examine which diseases were more frequent among Catholics and Jews, as such enabling us to get a better insight into the underlying determinants of the mortality differentials and the ways in which religion could influence health and mortality in the past.