Equal in life and death? Living standard, inequality and mortality in Sweden 1600-1800.

Project: Research

Project Details


Life expectancy is a basic and widely accepted measure of living standards. Since the
industrial revolution, thanks to increasing prosperity and investments in health, the life
expectancy of the world’s population has steadily increased. Much less is known about life
expectancy and its relation to living standards before 1800. The main hurdle has been the lack
of data covering extended periods of time. The earliest comprehensive measures of life
expectancy which exist are from Sweden, beginning in the 1750s as a result of the foundation
of Statistics Sweden’s predecessor Tabellverket. Before this date, evidence is scattered, and
reliant on limited samples or inconsistent sources.
Based on digitalized burial records from Swedish church books, we build a new dataset
of more than 1 million deceased in Sweden in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With
this massive new dataset, made possible by the previous data work by genealogists, it is
possible to analyze the development of life expectancy both in general and in relation to
contextual variables such as region, social status, and material living standards. Because
living standards are intrinsically linked to inequality and how resources are distributed, the
question of how different groups faired must be addressed in order to meaningfully discuss
actual changes in living standards, a premise acknowledged by both Malthus (1798) and
Engels (1887). Answers to the questions of when, for whom and where life expectancy began
increasing are thus crucial for understanding the long run development of living standards.
The proposed project will provide new estimates of life expectancy, inequality and living
standards for the early modern period (1600-1800) in Sweden, a period which saw shifting
fortunes in terms of wars, famines, plague, incomes and cost of living. We will build a large
new database encompassing mortality data, probate records, wages and prices, which allows
us to study the life expectancy of different socioeconomic groups of men and women over a
200-year period.
The project has four primary research objectives which will further our understanding of
early modern Sweden (1600-1800):
• Provide new comprehensive estimates of life expectancy for the period before official
statistics become available in 1750
• Measure material living standards for different socioeconomic groups, men and
women, and urban/rural populations
• Analyze the relationship between material living standards and life expectancy
• Evaluate socioeconomic and gender differences in life expectancy
Short titleEqual in life and death?
Effective start/end date2022/01/012024/12/31