Projects - VIDI-Project


Nature or nurture? A search for the institutional and biological determinants of life expectancy in Europe during the early modern period


Although Western society is ageing rapidly, our knowledge about this process is far from complete. In particular the very roots of the comparatively high levels of life expectancy in Western Europe are still a mystery. In literature it has been suggested that the rapid loosening of family ties in Northwestern-Europe from the late medieval period onwards led to hardship for the elderly in this period. This change in family relationships was a consequence of the emergence of the European Marriage Pattern (EMP). Both men and women started marrying later, and, created a (nuclear) household on their own, away from their parents’ households. This led to a situation in which children – who often no longer lived close-by- became parents themselves at the moment when their own parents started to need support. This so-called Nuclear Hardship Hypothesis (Laslett 1983) is contradictory to the (limitedly available) data on life expectancy which suggests that people in Northwestern-Europe did live longer than their counterparts in the South of Europe. In Southern-Europe men and women usually married considerably younger than in NW-Europe and often resided with the parents (of the groom) after their marriage, and took care of their parents during old-age. In this project we test two potential explanations for this conundrum, by comparing Northwestern- and Southern-Europe between 1500 and 1900.


First of all, we test the biological assumption that reduced fertility positively influenced life expectancy (in Northwestern-Europe). Due to the later marriage age women in Northwestern-Europe also started reproducing later. The so-called Disposable Soma Theory, which was developed in the late 1970s by evolutionary biologist Tom Kirkwood suggests that there is a close relationship between the number of children one 'produces' and longevity. Linked to the differences in marriage behaviour in Northwestern- and Southern-Europe, the Disposable Soma Theory can then potentially explain the differences between both regions. The theory has been tested to some extent but these studies have not given any conclusive results, mainly due to a lack in the type of source-material that is needed to study this. Understanding the long-term effect of this change in demographic behaviour requires an entirely novel method that allows us to study many generations for very long periods back in time. It requires a reconstruction of demographic data over many generations in order to trace the evolution of longevity and the relationship with fertility levels. This biological question thus requires a historical approach. To obtain sufficient, reliable data, different types of sources and datasets will be used. A large dataset of genealogical family trees will be constructed and will be combined with both location-specific family reconstitutions –such as the well-known CAMPOP data and data about the lives of inhabitants of religious communities, which can be used as a control-group (of non-reproducing men and women).


Secondly, we examine whether the diversity in institutional solutions (provided by the church, state, collective, and market) to be found in early modern Northwestern-Europe could have increased the welfare of the elderly, by creating overviews of such solutions, comparing these to institutional solutions in S-Europe and linking these to results research activities mentioned above. The history of Northwestern-Europe shows that already from the late Middle Ages onwards institutions were developed, both by the church, the state, and by collectivities of citizens (such as the guilds, but also proveniershuizen) to offer relief in times of hardship, also to elderly. Furthermore, the capital market was offered interesting saving opportunities for old age. Instead of the reduction in fertility, it might well be that the institutional framework offered elderly sufficient tools to survive old-age in relatively good circumstances.


A third subproject studies the impact of (biological) life-cycle events and socio-economic behaviour on life-expectancy, with regard to household structures and saving behaviour, thus bringing the insights from the other subprojects together on the household level. Decisions taken during the life-time (marriage, number of children, labour market participation, saving) would have influenced the type of household and as such may have had an impact on the quality of life and consequently life expectancy of elderly people.

Our results will be shared with interested parties via channels already created by the applicant (, a newsletter, large contacts database) and a newly created knowledge exchange platform set-up with active elderly-care providing institutions in the Netherlands. The project will also collaborate intensively with the CLIO-INFRA-project.

Applicant of this project

Prof. dr. Tine De Moor (Utrecht University)

Advisory board

Prof. dr. Jan Kok (Radboud University Nijmegen / International  Institute for Social History, Amsterdam)

Dr. Thijs Lambrecht (Ghent University)

Prof. dr. David-Sven Reher (Universidad Complutense de Madrid)  

Prof. dr. Frans van Poppel (Utrecht University / Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demoghraphic Institute, The Hague)

Project members

Prof. dr. Tine De Moor (Utrecht University), project co-ordinator)

Dr. Anita Boele (Utrecht University, Postdoc researcher), from January 2014

Dr. Corry Gellatly (Utrecht University, Postdoc researcher), from January 2014

Dr. Charlotte Störmer (Utrecht University, Postdoc researcher), from January 2014

Affiliated researchers


Projectcode Utrecht University


Additional information

Working Paper (PDF)

Bouman, A., Zuijderduijn, J., and De Moor, T., 2012. From hardship to benefit; a critical review of the nuclear hardship theory in relation to the emergence of the European Marriage Pattern. CGEH Working Paper Series 28. Click here for PDF.

PowerPoint Presentation (through Slideshare) Presentation on VIDI-project Nature or Nurture. Click here to view (opens in a new window)

Extended version 

> Click here for the extended version of the project description


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