Mortality Patterns of Cardinals (Sixteenth – Twentieth Centuries)

By Alessio Fornasin, Marco Breschi, Matteo Manfredini


This article investigates the characteristics and mortality patterns of cardinals in the Catholic Church between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. Cardinals are high prelates who perform an essential role in the functioning of Catholic Church, and whose main duties are to elect and assist the Pope in office. Thanks to a database containing remarkably accurate and continuous biographical data on cardinals since the fifth century, some of their specific demographic characteristics can be analysed. During the study period (1586-1958), the Sacred College of Cardinals, with a maximum of 70 members, formed a fairly homogeneous group. Nearly all cardinals came from the economic elite, the majority were Italian-born and held residence in Rome. Their life expectancy levels during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are not dissimilar to those of “ordinary” European villagers. However, a striking observation is the subsequent absence of significant improvements in these levels from the 1830s onward; a pattern which is notably out of keeping with most of the rest of Europe. This may be due to the risks associated with the cardinals’ behaviours and lifestyles. The periods in which lower life expectancies are observed coincide with the most turbulent political times for the Church. Cardinals were nonetheless penalized throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it was not until the 1930s that their life expectancy started to catch up with that of the general population.


  • mortality
  • religion
  • cardinals
  • life expectancy at age 60
  • sixteenth-twentieth centuries
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