March 11, 2014 by

Life Expectancy in the Middle Ages

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Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , ,

How long did people live in the Middle Ages?

That, of course, varied according to diet, climate, location, relative wealth, etc., but the answer is surely not as long as we do now. For starters, infants and children died at a horrific rate (some say up to 1/3 of all died before the age of 5) and a significant percentage of women died in association with childbirth: 5% perhaps from the birth itself, often dying with the child, and a further 15% from childbed fever–the infections that followed a poorly managed delivery (by our standards).

Following that, if a person made it out of childhood, they could be expected to live into their middle forties, provided they maintained good health and weren’t killed in war.  Both those, of course, are big ‘ifs’.

Below is the recorded birth and death date for the adult royal family of Wales and associated Marcher relations, beginning with Joanna (the daughter of King John of England) and Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great, the Prince of Wales).  Eliminating individuals who died before adulthood completely, from the dates recorded below, the mean life expectancy for women was 43.6 years, with a median of 42/43; for men, it was a mean of 48.7 and a median of 48/49.

Please be aware that these people are of the highest class of society at the time, granting them (possibly) an easier life and longer life spans.  I have indicated in parentheses the cause of death when it wasn’t old age or disease.

Joanna:  1190-1237 (daughter of King John of England; wife of Llywelyn Fawr) (47)
Llywelyn Fawr:  1173-1240  (Prince of Wales) (67)
Tangwystl:  1168-1206 (mistress of Llywelyn Fawr) (38)
Gwladys:  1206-1251 (princess of Wales) (45)
Ralph Mortimer 1198-1246 (husband of Gladwys) (48)
Gruffydd:  1196-1244 (Prince of Wales) (fell from a rope while escaping the Tower of London) (48)
Roger Mortimer:  1231-1282 (51)
Maud de Braose:  1224-1300 (76)
William de Braose:  1198-1230 (hung by Llywelyn Fawr for sleeping with his wife, Joanna) (32)
Eve Marshall:  1203-1246 (43)
Dafydd ap Llywelyn:  1208-1246 (Prince of Wales) (42)
Isabella de Braose:  1222-1248  (wife of Dafydd) (26)
Eleanor de Braose:  1226-1251 (25)  (childbirth)
Humphrey de Bohun:  1225-1265 (40)  (war)
Edmund Mortimer:  1251-1304 (53)
Margaret de Fiennes:  1269-1333 (64)
Humphrey de Bohun:  1249-1298 (49)
Maud de Fiennes:  1254-1296 (42)
Llywelyn ap Gruffydd:  1228-1282 (54) (war)
Elinor de Montfort:  1252-1282 (30)  (childbirth)

Archaeological evidence indicates that Anglo-Saxons back in the Early Middle Ages (400 to 1000 A.D.) lived short lives and were buried in cemeteries, much like Englishmen today. Field workers unearthed 65 burials (400 to 1000 A.D.) from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in England and found none who lived past 45. This site and this site has similar statistics.

Kings did better. The mean life expectancy of kings of Scotland and England, reigning from 1000 A.D. to 1600 A.D. were 51 and 48 years, respectively. Their monks did not fare as well. In the Carmelite Abbey, only five percent survived past 45. This site says wealthier people would have a life expectancy of more than forty years.

Several sources on the internet argue that if a person could get through childhood and early adulthood, he could expect to live into the 60’s or even 70’s.  That claim is not substantiated by the data I’ve found.  It also seems like a specious argument to say that a person could live to be 64 IF he didn’t go to war, she didn’t have a baby, and nobody got sick.  Each of those conditions was endemic to life in the Middle Ages.  A calculation of average—whether median or mean—life spans HAS to take this into account.  That’s like saying “all the men in my family would have lived to be 91 if they hadn’t all died of heart attacks at 63”.  It also implies 1) that children aren’t ‘people’; and 2) that ‘people’ aren’t women—since pregnancy and childbirth were unavoidable for women in that era unless they were barren or nuns.

To see the life expectancy of the family of King Edward I: http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/sick-kids/

To see the family tree of the Royal House of Wales see:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/family-tree-of-the-royal-house-of-wales/

 

24 Responses to Life Expectancy in the Middle Ages

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  3. Carolfrances Likins

    I appreciate this info for a historical novel that I’m writing. However, upon reading your expressions of sympathy for the mothers and fathers of that period, I could not help thinking that, though we can do nothing to change their situation so many centuries in their futures, we can challenge the same problems today. Check out this on infant mortality rates (the number of infants that die before their first birthday out of every 1000 live births): https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/09/29/our-infant-mortality-rate-is-a-national-embarrassment. Then as far as child mortality rates, (the number of children that die before their fifth birthday out of every 1000 live births), study well the graphs on: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.DYN.MORT?end=2015&start=2014; note what Latin American third-world country compares best with the U.S. Then check out this short article about why that is: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-anne-mercer/preventing-infant-deaths-_b_6812102.html. Then there’s and article on what Cuban doctors making a dent in the problem globally: http://www.medicc.org/mediccreview/index.php?issue=15&id=185&a=va (or any other article in MEDICC). Also, read this: http://www.ciesin.org/docs/001-233/001-233.html, which includes the sentence (for those who feel like third-world deaths are ok because they’re believed to “decrease the surplus population,”) “reducing child deaths slows down the rate of population growth.”

  4. Fergal

    Most people couldn’t read or probably count. They also would avoid conscription and pretend to be younger if they wanted a husband. There were impersonators, pretenders, In conclusion there is no accuracy to midieval data case closed. There are some osteoarcheological data I guess but is this completely verifiable ?

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  6. Terrence Richmond

    It seems that the notion of an heir to the home or throne, a dowry, wide hips and healthy/chunky sized woman, stress and pressure to have many children all come into play as people were literally trying to maintain the human race. How many times have we, as humans, been put in this position in the story of planet earth?

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  8. Walt Socha

    Thanks for the article.

    Does anyone have a good reference for the causes of infant deaths in the Middle Ages? There are lots of numbers for the mortality rate…but none for the specific causes.

    thanks!

    • Sarah Post author

      Specific causes were disease and maternal death, analogous to the reasons for infant death in modern preindustrial societies. I googled it 🙂

  9. Andrew Boughton

    The real question to me is why we need to be so sure people died so much younger in ye olde darke dayes? Just a cursory reading of history tells us that no, in fact, everyone who survived the turbulence lived into their 70s. The same age as the life-prolonging medical interventions of our day. But why this obsession to prove otherwise? That’s what I find interesting.

    • Sarah Post author

      It was surviving the turbulence that was at issue! And, of course, the child mortality rate. I suspect that we have some kind of need for our current time to be better than past times.

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      • Croquantes

        I’d caution against taking at face value most of Shakespeare’s stuff to be indictative of how life was like during the middle ages. For example, Romeo and Juliet is a satire of romantic love so it was deliberately over the top.

      • Eryn

        Juliet was 13 (“On Lammas Eve at night shall she be 14”) and Romeo was probably a few years older. Lady Capulet, fun fact, was 25 (she says to Juliet, “I was your mother much upon these years that you are now a maid,” meaning she had her at age 12). The median age at first marriage in England at the time was about 23 for women and 26 for men, and Shakespeare wrote in a poem “…come kiss me, sweet and 20/youth’s a stuff will not endure,” implying that 20 was considered young. They were not middle aged; they seemed just as ridiculously young to Shakespeare’s audiences as they did to us. Furthermore, Shakespeare wasn’t writing in the Middle Ages but rather the Renaissance, so his plays are irrelevant to this article.

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    • Sarah Post author

      That’s a bit after my era, so I don’t have anything to hand. A quick google search shows: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/londondisease.html
      They put life expectancy at 35 years, which is pretty vague because it doesn’t break it down by gender or what it was if a person survived the first 5 years.
      City dwellers tended to have a lower lifespan than country ones, due to the way disease spread more easily and quickly in the city.

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