November 14, 2012 by

Life in the Middle Ages not so Bad :)

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

We have a view of life in the Middle Ages as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”, thanks to the quote from Thomas Hobbes.  However, he wasn’t talking about life in the Middle Ages, though somehow that’s what his quote has become to mean. Instead, he is talking about a fictive moment in human history before the development of formal society, which he viewed as the natural state of humanity. He saw it as a “warre of every man against every man”.

The cultures of Great Britain have maintained a formal society for thousands of years, and even then, as an anthropologist, what Hobbes might have called ‘primitive societies’ often had a strong social order and a way of life which was very far from his war of every man against every man.

The majority of medieval people were ‘poor’ by our standards, certainly, but as you can see from posts about such things as ‘mob ball’, while brutal could certainly apply, and short, there was fun to be had.

Furthermore, “Economists at the University of Warwick found that per capita income in England during the late Middle Ages was likely around $1,000 in 1990 dollars.”

This makes the people of that era better off than many people living in many countries in the world today.   This article is also in keeping with the analysis of height in the Middle Ages (I blogged about that here).  In the Middle Ages (meaning post-Roman Britain) the average height of individuals was not being so different than the height of an average person today.  Height is an indicator of nutrition and social welfare.  Smaller people are generally less well fed.

The paper, BRITISH ECONOMIC GROWTH, 1270-1870, states:  ” . . . a large share of the English population were already in a position during the late Middle Ages to afford what Allen calls the “respectable lifestyle”, with a more varied diet including meat, dairy produce and ale, as well as the less highly processed grain products that comprised the bulk of the bare bones subsistence diet.”

The document is full of fascinating charts, one of which shows population in England over the period discussed:

English population, 1250-1700

population (millions) Total population Year Total population
1250 4.23 1400 2.08
1290 4.75 1450 1.90
1300 4.73 1490 2.14
1315 4.69 1560 3.02
1348 4.81 1600 4.11
1351 2.60 1650 5.31
1377 2.50 1700 5.20


Note the sad drop-off starting 1351 after/during the Black Death.  The population doesn’t recover until after 1600.

This second chart shows population growth rates:

Growth rates of population (% per annum) 10-year averages
1270-1300 0.27 1270/79 – 1300/09 0.23
1300-1348 0.04 1300/09 – 1340/48 -0.02
1348-1400 -1.60 1340/48 – 1400/09 -1.33
1400-1450 -0.18 1400/09 – 1450/59 -0.14
1450-1490 0.29 1450/59 – 1480/89 0.29
1490-1560 0.55 1480/89 – 1553/59 0.54
1560-1600 0.60 1553/59 – 1600/09 0.67
1600-1650 0.51 1600/09 – 1650/59 0.45
1650-1700 -0.04 1650/59 – 1691/1700 -0.08
1270-1700 0.04 1270/79 – 1691/1700 0.04

To compare, the population growth of the United States, from the 2010 census was .097 or 9.7%.  As a side note, this not to be confused with the birth rate–which was the lowest in a century in 2009 at .0135.  The US population growth is fueled by immigration, which was not the case in medieval England.

3 Responses to Life in the Middle Ages not so Bad :)

  1. Pingback: Greatest number of combat deaths in one day, ever? - Page 2 - Historum - History Forums

  2. Amos Rudderow

    I enjoyed the G & G books becaues I enjoy the detective stories, but my best liked is Children of Time because it ties the After Cilmeri series together.