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Epidemics in Renaissance Florence

Epidemics in Renaissance Florence

By A S Morrison, J Kirshner, and A Molho

American Journal of Public Health, Vol.75:5 (1985)

Abstract: Epidemics and mortality in 15th and 16th century Florence, Italy, were investigated by use of records of the government-sponsored Dowry Fund. These records contain the date of birth, date of investment, and date of dowry payment or death of 19,000 girls and women. Major epidemics (“plagues”) occurred repeatedly. The most severe were in 1430, 1437-38, 1449-50, 1478-79, and 1527-31. Annual death rates of girls enrolled in the Dowry Fund increased by 5 to 10 times in each of these periods. During the last period, at least 20-25 per cent of the population of Florence is likely to have died. Recurrent epidemics accounted for 38 per cent of the total mortality experienced by girls enrolled in the Dowry Fund. The frequency of serious epidemics diminished with the passage of time, and overall mortality declined by about 10 per cent over the 15th and 16th centuries. Epidermic mortality was not consistently related to age. The effects of epidemics were most severe in the summer and autumn. Non-epidemic mortality was also greater in the summer and autumn than in the winter and spring.

Between the Black Death of 1348 and the French plagues of the 1720s, western Europe was struck by a series of epidemics. These epidemics were a major historical force and they continue to be the subject of investigation and debate. We have a rich heritage of literary and pictorial images of the suffering, terror, and devastation that were created, but we lack many of the corresponding numerical facts: the severity and even the existence of specific outbreaks, mortality by time and by age, and the contribution of these epidemics to the total death rate.

Some of this information is derived from records which have survived in archives throughout Europe. Much of what has come to light so far is drawn from death registrations; the London Bills of Mortality are the best-known source of this type. Early death registrations were the forerunner of present-day death certificates. However, the registrations were crude. They give at most only a rough indication of age; they usually cannot be linked to populations of known size; and the sources varied greatly in their thoroughness from time to time.

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See also our feature on The Black Death

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