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Famines in the Nordic countries, AD 536 - 1875

By Martin Dribe, Mats Olsson and Patrick Svensson


The first part of this paper aims at identifying the timing of famines in the Nordic countries since the middle ages. This is done by using qualitative famine reports from the literature since quantitative data on famines are scarce or non-existent, at least before the early modern period. We supplement the reports with climate data and price data. Our survey indicates that widespread famine was always a rare occurrence in the Nordic countries, despite frequent crop failures. The second part studies the regional famine pattern and its demographic characteristics in Sweden 1750–1910. This part is based on demographic data on parish level from the official statistics and price data. We identify two periods of excess mortality: the last major famine in Sweden in the early 1770s and the excess mortality in 1809 due to epidemic outbreaks. Examining the age-specific mortality and seasonality pattern in these two years of mortality crises in Sweden we show a highly similar pattern explained by similar causes of death being involved: dysentery and typhus. All age groups were affected during the crisis, but children over the age of one were hardest hit. Mortality was highest during the summer and early fall as epidemics spread rapidly through water and food. Thus, while Nordic people clearly were vulnerable to economic fluctuations, conditions rarely deteriorated to famine levels, which can be explained as a combination of a reasonably well-functioning market, a diversified economy, a population density in line with resource availability and the absence of serious political or war-related conditions conducive to famine

Topics: Economic History, famine, mortality, climate, food prices, harvests, Nordic countries, Middle Ages, 19th century
Publisher: Department of Economic History, Lund University
Year: 2015
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