PhD defence: Born close to death, region versus religion
Between 1860 and 1874, roughly 1 out of 5 Dutch children did not survive the first year of life. During the last three decades of the 19th century, infant mortality in the Netherlands declined, except in the predominantly Roman Catholic provinces of North Brabant and Limburg. Historian Nynke van den Boomen investigated how this came about. She will defend her thesis on 24 November.
Did Roman Catholicism have a disastrous effect on child health? That suspicion arose when, from the 1870s onwards, infant mortality began to decline sharply throughout the Netherlands, except in the Roman Catholic provinces of North Brabant and Limburg. Historian Nynke van den Boomen studied the municipal differences in infant mortality in the Netherlands between 1875 and 1899. Her research shows that there is no evidence that the Roman Catholic faith was of decisive importance.
Van den Boomen used municipal cause-of-death registers from 1875 to 1899 as source material. ‘That is a unique source: with the help of many people, the registers of all 1,121 municipalities of the Netherlands at the end of the 19th century have been digitised for this project', Van den Boomen explains. 'In addition to figures on infant mortality and causes of death, for each municipality we also collected data on the religious composition, fertility, migration, population density, soil type, labour participation of women, the share of the population working in agriculture, the number of doctors and the number of midwives.’
'With the help of many people, the registers of all 1,121 municipalities of the Netherlands at the end of the 19th century have been digitised for this project'
Using the source material, Van den Boomen investigated whether the patterns of infant mortality in the Netherlands between 1875 and 1899 were determined by Roman Catholicism. To this end, she distinguished between religious and regional characteristics that could influence infant mortality. Van den Boomen: 'Religious characteristics are high marital fertility, the use of artificial nutrition instead of breastfeeding at a time when there was no good artificial nutrition, and a general resistance to modern ideas on health, disease prevention and childcare. Regional characteristics include standard of living, urbanisation and ecological conditions.’
In the study, Van den Boomen found no evidence that Roman Catholicism was an important explanatory factor in infant mortality differences in the Netherlands between 1875 and 1899. Van den Boomen: 'Although infant mortality did indeed decline faster on the coast and more slowly in the south-east of the country, many municipalities deviated from this trend. This does not mean that religion had no effect at all on the level of infant mortality, but it does mean that the role of Roman Catholicism has been given too much weight in previous research.’
But if it was not Roman Catholicism, what factors were decisive for infant mortality patterns between 1875 and 1899? Van den Boomen identified several based on the source material. Labour participation among women appeared to play a role in infant mortality among boys. Because of their work, mothers could not stay at home, which meant they could not provide their children with breastfeeding or proper care. Moreover, female labour participation may be a distorting factor for poverty, as poverty forced more women into the paid labour market. 'In other words, living conditions may have been worse in municipalities with high female labour participation', says Van den Boomen.
'In other words, living conditions may have been worse in municipalities with high female labour participation'
The presence of good midwives also seems to have been important for the chances of survival of the very youngest. Van den Boomen: 'But in some municipalities, especially in the southern parts of the country, there was often no midwife at all.’
The decisive factor for infant mortality in Van den Boomen's research is perhaps a surprising one: soil conditions. 'Soil types with poor permeability are associated with a greater risk of exposure to infectious diseases. In municipalities where the dominant soil type was sand, fewer infants died from infectious diseases; probably because pathogens had less of a chance due to the higher permeability, which reduced the risk of contaminated water or soil’, Van den Boomen explains.
According to Van den Boomen, the infant mortality patterns in the Netherlands between 1875 and 1899 are thus largely explained regionally rather than by Roman Catholic characteristics. Her research therefore shows the complex relationship between religion and region in late nineteenth century Netherlands. Van den Boomen: 'When we measure Roman Catholicism, we measure more than faith alone; it also tells us where a municipality was located. More importantly, both high and low infant mortality were determined by the mortality levels in surrounding communities. In the future, we will have to focus on these local mortality regimes so that we can determine what shaped them.'
Nynke van den Boomen will defend her thesis on 24 November: Born close to death. Region, Roman Catholicism and infant mortality in the Netherlands, 1875-1899.