EPIBEL work in progress presented at Posthumus Conference

The EPIBEL team members continue to broadcast their preliminary findings. Late June 2022 Isabelle Devos and Wouter Ronsijn presented their work at the annual Posthumus Conference in Rotterdam.

Wouter talked about “Social and demographic inequalities and the 1690s dysentery epidemic in the Southern Netherlands: the case of Sint-Niklaas“. In this novel paper, we reconstruct social and demographic differences in mortality due to the dysentery epidemic in Sint-Niklaas, a large parish in Flanders (c. 6000 inhabitants around 1690) developing into a town. This is possible thanks to a unique set of sources: a parish register recording the sex, age at death and poverty status of the deceased; a status animarum of 1687 listing all inhabitants within their households, and a tax list of 1692. By combining these sources, we can reconstruct the social and demographic profile of dysentery victims in the early modern period.

This work is important because we still lack a proper understanding of the many dysentery epidemids. The dysentery outbreak of the mid-1690s was probably the deadliest epidemic of the early modern period in Flanders and Brabant. Dysentery is caused by a bacterial infection, after the consumption of contaminated water or food. Patients suffer from bloody diarrhoea and dehydration, and the illness can quickly become life-threatening, especially for the young. A dysentery epidemic in the mid-1690s in Flanders and Brabant lifted the number of burials up to twice the number of births in 1694, the highest recorded ratio for the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The epidemic fell in the middle of the Nine Years’ War (1689-1697) and in between two harvest crises (grain prices peaked in 1692-3 and 1697-8).

Isabelle’s presentation was titled “War, Peace and Pandemics: the Spanish Flu in Belgium (1918-19)“, and expanded on our earlier publication on the Spanish flu in Belgium (Devos et al. 2021). In the context of the long and devastating First World War, Belgium – an occupied country and a major battle site on the western front – represents an interesting case study, as the war played a crucial role in the spread and the severity of the pandemic. In a follow-up study focusing on the port city of Antwerp, we examine who were the main victims during the three waves of the pandemic. Using a unique cause-of-death register and other individual-level sources for Antwerp, we discuss its interactions with diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, and the socio-demographic profile of the victims (age, sex, religion, occupation) from one wave to another. Particular attention is paid to socioeconomic inequalities. Mortality from the flu was long considered socially neutral, but recent studies of this pandemic and more recent flu episodes dispute this view. We show how the pandemic differently affected Belgian and German military men and highlight the importance of the workplace for the mortality risks of civilians.