Historical Social Research

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Hilde Bras: The Influence of Popular Beliefs about Childbirth on Fertility Patterns in Mid-Twentieth-Century Netherlands [Abstract]

Ever since the Princeton European Fertility Project on the decline of fertility, the question of how (changes in) cultural beliefs have influenced the historical fertility transition has been in the forefront of historical demographic research. Previous research has however mostly assessed the influence of religious denomination and has not examined the impact of wider beliefs or ‘cultural life scripts’. On the basis of a folklore questionnaire, this article examines the occurrence, content, and geographical patterning of popular beliefs about childbearing in relation to fertility patterns in 1,022 rural Dutch communities during the nineteen forties. Beliefs in isolation and churching of women existed in almost half of all communities, particularly among Catholic populations, while fear of enchantment of infants was still alive in about a fifth of all municipalities. To be sure, such popular beliefs were rapidly vanishing and remnants were still found in isolated and strongly religious areas. A multivariate analysis shows that in communities where beliefs in churching and witchcraft still existed, birth rates were significantly higher. The study shows the salience of including popular beliefs in studies of fertility behavior and fertility decline. Moreover, it extends the concept of cultural life scripts beyond that of age norms to include prescriptions on social contexts, conducts, and practices surrounding important life passages.

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