March 11, 2014 by

Life Expectancy in the Middle Ages


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:

To see the family tree of the Royal House of Wales see:


35 Responses to Life Expectancy in the Middle Ages

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  2. John Kunkle

    I have examined my family tree on my father’s surname back 18 generations. They were glass makers and were not nobles, soldiers, or serfs. They had an average of about ten children or so per generation, although there were a fair number of bachelors. What I do know through the study of history that knights lived to be an average of about 38 years old. That was roughly the age of gunslingers in the old West in the US frontier. These occupations are somewhat analogous to professional athletes in today’s world, who had a an occupational time span of approximately 20 years while at peak athletic health. Some lived shorter and some lived longer, but sooner or later you’d end up in a battle that didn’t go your way. A study of centurions during the times of the Roman legions only estimated that 1 out of 100 legionaries collected their pension after 20 years (age 38). Romans lived an average age of 21 during the peak of the Roman empire. My observation of my family history was that 1) there were a lot of children 2) there was a high rate of infant mortality 3) there were women who died in childbirth, although I saw many women who had 13 children without issue while my great grandfather was married three times due to deaths in childbirth by two of his wives. Many ancestors were involved in battle, some dying. However, the vast majority of health benefits showed up in the human race when we started practicing more hygienic practices. Going from an average age of 21 in Rome and only 1 in 100 living to age 38 in the Roman legion to people living longer in pre industrial America had much to do with better living conditions, hygienic practices, and better food. The average life expectancy in the US was 46 in 1900. As antibiotics, reduced infant mortality, vaccines, and advanced medical practices developed people are now living into their 80’s from a life expectancy of 67 in 1935. There are so many variables involved: social status, war time or not, plagues, types of occupations, crop failures and famines, being in the middle of a war zone, versus relatively good times. Scholars and nobles had more exciting lives and better care and resources. However, ambition on the part of relatives can result in the early end of life as well.

  3. Mariska

    That was an interesting article and it put things nicely in perspective.

    Like the author of the article, I don’t entirely agree with the claim ‘if a person could get through childhood and early adulthood, he could expect to live into the 60’s or even 70’s’. The statement is wrong because can’t assume no disease or war can make victims after early adulthood. However, it should be noted that it was possible people could live their 60’s and 70’s and in rare cases maybe even older and I think it’s important people on the internet pointed that out. There are people who don’t realize that and believe people in the middle ages didn’t get older than 30, which is untrue.

    It’s true that the average life-span was somewhere in their 30’s, taking into account deaths at childbirth, diseases, etc, but when I see someone on the internet say ‘people in the middle ages didn’t get older than 30’, that’s when I say ‘if they didn’t get sick they could live up to 70’.
    Of course they had to have a bit of luck to not get any diseases that would end your life before that, but since the ‘they didn’t get older than 30’ statement became a bit of a ‘fact’ on the internet (instead of the average it is with its highs and lows on either side) I think people started going against it by pointing out how old people could get.

    Nowadays men on average live up to 72. Saying men will only live to be 72 is wrong, some do get older and some die before that. That’s what makes it an average.

    • Sarah Post author

      Yes, you’re right. Certainly people could live to 70 and did! That was partly why I wrote the post too–just because the average life expectancy was 30 doesn’t mean that everyone died then. It also doesn’t mean that a thirty-year-old was old. Though I can see why knowledge of how short life could be could make things like early marriage make a lot of sense, or the idea that you should live each day as if it were your last 🙂

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  6. Mary pearlman

    Thank you Sarah Woodbury. You are well informed and not dogmatic. Reporting recent research. You have not here included clues from linguistic theorists. Or I missed. I’m speaking of the Origen of celts. What do you know of that?

  7. Jack Waldron

    Interesting, but in contradiction to what I have found in my own family tree. Granted it’s only 7000 people covering a span of 6 centuries (it’s very incomplete). You’ve given the royals a longer life time. That would seem to contradict medical fact. The royals were highly in-bred and as such should have lower life expectancy. The largest segment in my family lived into their 50s to 80s. I don’t doubt the mean age, or even median age would be in the 40s. Accidents were quite often fatal back then. A lot more deaths from simple infections. Women died in large numbers from childbirth. I have many cases of women who never married or had children. It is not as rare as you might think, and it didn’t require being infertile or a nun. You can’t really count children in the mix though. Not really fair to do that. Yes they died in much greater numbers. Life expectancy barring accidents and war would surely have been much higher than the 40s. I don’t know what types of graves those sites cover. So can’t speak to how representative they are of the general population. But looking at the actual church records, might give some better indications, but that’s a major task.

    • Paola Idro

      Even if there were genetic issues for interbreeding, the royalty lived more on average for having a decent nutrition (it wasn’t marvelous, though, but at least they didn’t sleep with the stomach empty), whereas everyone else suffered constant undernourishment, which made you far more susceptible to illness. This specially applies if we ignore infant mortality, since born issues for a poor genetic killed most of them before adulthood, whereas undernourishment affected roughly equally everyone (poor growth during infancy is directly related to a poor health in adulthood).

      Also, you might be misunderstanding something: medicine is not doing ANYTHING to make us age slower or better, what medicine does is to prevent those “accidents” from killing you. Caught smallpox like the 30% of the people during an outbreak? Aww, bad luck! Better luck in the next life! Caught syphilis? It must suck to be you! That injury from a cow that kicked you got infected? Let’s amputate it and if you’re really lucky you will not die immediately! A cholera outbreak? Well, we didn’t know that washing our hands was important at all!

      And the “accidents” part is also largely related to luck, specifically where and when you lived. Northern Europe in the last 4 centuries got a lot of luck with the crops (aside two Ireland’s famines), end of plagues by mere luck, earliest industrialization which greatly reduced hunger, political stability, no social collapse whatsoever, no wars fought in the homeland, very low syphilis levels (for mere isolation from the outbreak zones), great wealth from imperialism (so very few poor people out there for the ages standards), early vaccination against some of the most terrific bastards, and the biggest game-changer: America’s crops were already introduced in large scale to Eurasian, which massively reduced famine, so your numbers are the ones from a very long golden age (and definitively not medieval, neither).

      Medieval Europe wasn’t nothing of that, plague alone whipped out half the population many times (not really discriminating with kids or adults). Also saying that you shouldn’t be a mother to live long is a bit silly considering most girls ended up pregnant soon or later (just like today), or that war, vandalism, crime and other stuff should be ignore because I don’t know, when they were far more common back then and it was a real deal for most the world population.

      But of course, if you were a lucky bastard no accidents for you, no plague, no war, no crime, no social or local collapse, no kids, no cows kicking ya’, no crop failure, no poverty, no dangerous or toxic work, no rats, never traveled and many more ifs, sure, you can easily hit 70s, since even modern medicine wouldn’t do anything too important for you anyway, a divine mantle of luck has fought back anything that might kill you! Of course, the average citizen lacked the same luck until the early-modern times (and even then, it wasn’t until sanitation and modern medicine that we granted good luck to almost everyone).

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  10. 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): 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:; note what Latin American third-world country compares best with the U.S. Then check out this short article about why that is: Then there’s and article on what Cuban doctors making a dent in the problem globally: (or any other article in MEDICC). Also, read this:, 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.”

    • Paola Idro

      What? Latin America has almost the triple of infant mortality (18) than the US (7): the unique country which has roughly the same digit is Chile (8), that is the wealthiest country in Latin America (already considered developed by most institutions as of 2016).

      Cuba (with 6) is an exception because it pays its doctors and college professors the minimum to live, and at the same time it restricts their capability to travel outside the country, which ends up in isolating Cuban medics from worldwide competition in salaries. Also Cuba is the third wealthiest country in Latin America, just surpassed by Panama and Chile and is very close to the developed status in all its statistics as well.

      So before calling a country a third world and assuming all the third world is the same you should understand that there is a relevant difference between the realities of Haiti with Guatemala, and from Guatemala with Peru, and from Peru with Cuba or Chile (you can check them yourself in infant mortality!).

      Also the dynamics in which infant mortality happens when the numbers are 10 from 1000 or lower is starkly different. While in earlier numbers the reduction is greatly attributed to vaccination, reduction or end of hunger, assisted birth in a hospital and finally some degree of access to antibiotics, after you have archive all that your numbers are very close or lower 10, and all that remains is access to high-end medical care for complicated cases and specific cases, which while the US has plenty of it, the access is limited for some for the nature of social coverage in the US, and also there is the topic of immigrants’ naturalization playing against: if you exclude kids from immigrants parents the US numbers are far closer to the European Union.

  11. 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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  13. 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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  15. 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.


    • Sarah Post author

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

  16. 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:
      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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