Early Modern Europe 15501800

What began in the Renaissance continued and accelerated in Early Modern Europe, except that new diseases were not a significant factor within Europe. The population recovered surprisingly quickly from plague epidemics. Some of the Italian city-states made grants of citizenship easier to obtain, so as to repopulate. Plague gradually became less common. Venice enjoyed more than half a century without an epidemic before the outbreak of 1630. By the eighteenth century, plague was rare indeed.

Cities remained unhealthy places, however. It is unclear if major cities could maintain their own population or continued to demand an influx from the countryside. Smallpox was probably the single worst childhood killer, although a variety of unidentifiable diseases took their toll. Among adults, it is assumed that tuberculosis was on the rise, although again evidence to support this contention is precarious. Many diseases can imitate tuberculosis, and tuberculosis can imitate many other diseases. Because the diagnosis became very reliable in the nineteenth century and because tuberculosis was then a severe problem, it is assumed that the same was the case in Early Modern Europe. It may well have been.

The countryside remained healthier than the city. Country homes for the wealthy city noble or merchant probably owe much to this fact. It is interesting to speculate how many of the magnificent villas along the Brenta near Venice would be there if plague had not so often threatened their owners' lives in the city. The population remained predominantly rural, and there are clear signs of population pressure for the first time since before 1300.

Although the first voyages to the Americas were primarily searches for trade routes and later for indigenous wealth to be returned to Europe, more and more colonists left Europe for the New World. At first, the settlers were primarily Spanish and Portuguese, but the British and French soon followed. Behind this one assumes a favorable turn in the disease ecology of Europe, allowing populations to increase. The gradual cessation of plague epidemics cannot have been the only factor. Leprosy maintained a foothold primarily in Scandinavia. What had been a European disease became a largely regional one. Plague pandemics gave way to much more local epidemics, with those more widely spaced in time.

Even medicine, in a practical way, began to offer some help. The discovery of quinine for use against malaria made life less risky in the tropics and even in those parts of Europe where malaria remained. The discovery of the use of citrus fruit to prevent scurvy allowed sea voyages to be longer without the risk of that peculiar ailment, only understood in near completeness in the twentieth century. Variolation and later vaccination began to bring the long reign of smallpox to an end. Smallpox was a perfect disease to attack by vaccination. The causative virus is not known to mutate, and is antigenically similar to the much less virulent virus that produces cow-pox. This explanation was beyond the state of medical knowledge of the time, but many other positive contributions in medicine also have arisen pragmatically, whereas theory has often led to adverse treatments. In actual fact, medicine had only a very small impact on disease overall. The hospital, a medieval invention, remained for the most part a charitable rather than medical institution. In eighteenth-century France, 63 percent of all hospital beds were used to look after the needy, not to treat disease (Joerger 1980). In this period, those engaged in child-birthing care in Provence, France, underwent a change from older women serving simply as mid-wives, to younger, stronger women who could exert the strength sometimes necessary in dealing with difficult labor. An eighteenth-century tract on obstetrics comments on 600 difficult cases, in which 78 mothers and 230 infants died (Laget 1980), hardly a testimony to medical progress in this vital area.

Even the combination of all these effects seems inadequate to explain the growth of Europe's populations. Still, demographic balance is often precarious. Slight shifts in even a small number of diseases can mean the difference between population growth and decline. Clearly the population of Europe was increasing and had been since some point, not clearly identified, when plague no longer killed off as many as had been born and survived childhood.

It was during this period that Europe as an exporter of diseases proved spectacularly lethal. Measles, introduced into some of the South Pacific islands, resulted in essentially 100 percent mortality. In one sense, there is nothing more fittingly symbolic of the growing power and influence of Europe than the ability accidentally to kill off an entire population.

Just as the greatest generals of the ancient world gave insights into disease demography, so also does the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, with which we may end this brief discussion of the eve of the Industrial Revolution. At the time of Napoleon, we again see armies in the field numbering in the hundreds of thousands of men. Rome also produced armies of such magnitude (even if they were not concentrated in one place), but a very long interval elapsed before this phenomenon repeated itself.

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