Mortality Rates

One of the hard things about imagining oneself in the middle ages, or writing a character who lives then, is figuring out the odds of them living at all.  The median lifespan of an individual living in the US was 78.7 years in 2010, unchanged since 2004.

I’ve posted before about life expectancy in the Middle ages ( and, indicating that among the elite, both men and women–if they survived childhood–couldn’t reasonably expect to live out of their forties.  Some people did, but what were the mechanisms that kept mortality high?

Mortality rate is a measure of the number of deaths (in general, or due to a specific cause) in some population, scaled to the size of that population, per unit time. Mortality rate is typically expressed in units of deaths per 1000 individuals per year; thus, a mortality rate of 9.5 in a population of 100,000 would mean 950 deaths per year in that entire population, or 0.95% out of the total.”

Some of the more immediate causes of early death are war, maternal mortality, and disease.

War:  War wasn’t necessarily more common in the middle ages, if the 20th and 21st centuries are anything to go by.  At the same time, it’s been over 100 years since a war took place within the borders of the United States.   One of the cruelties of war is that if it occurs on farmland and in villages, crops can’t be sown and people starve.  They might not die from battle itself, but they die from its repercussions.  From my reading of the Chronicle of the Princes, war in some measure was nearly constant, up through the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282 and beyond (because then Welshmen were recruited to fight in Edward’s war against Scotland).

Childbirth:  In fifteenth century in Florence, the best estimate for maternal mortality is 14.4 deaths per 1000 births, which 1.44%–so actually pretty rare.

This is compared to the U.S. maternal mortality rate of 13 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2004, or .013%

Other sources state:  “Studies by Roger Schofield, B. M. Wilmott Dobbie, and Irvine Loudon estimate that maternal mortality rates between 1400 and 1800 were between 1 and 3 percent. Most often, women died in childbirth due to protracted labor caused by a narrow or deformed pelvis, fetal malpresentation, postpartum hemorrhage, or puerperal fevers. The health risk was renewed at each pregnancy. Since a woman averaged five pregnancies, 10 percent of these women died during or soon after childbirth.”

Diseases such as the Black Death:

“Credible death rates  between one quarter and three quarters complicate reaching a Europe—wide  figure. Neither a casual and unscientific averaging of available estimates to  arrive at a probably misleading composite death rate nor a timid placing of  mortality somewhere between one and two thirds is especially illuminating.  Scholars confronting the problem’s complexity before venturing estimates once  favored one third as a reasonable aggregate death rate. Since the early 1970s  demographers have found higher levels of mortality plausible and European  mortality of one half is considered defensible, a figure not too distant from less  fanciful contemporary observations.”

For an extensive summary of mortality in the United States 1935-2010 see:

Child Mortality in the Middle Ages

One of the hardest things to read about is the infant/child mortality rates that were prevalent up until the invention of antibiotics–and certainly in the Dark and Middle Ages. It may be that it was much worse in Victorian England, when cities grew large, but looking at King Edward I’s progeny, your heart just bleeds for him and his wife (even if he was a tyrant to the Welsh!).

Edward and his first wife, Isabella, produced 16 children. Of those, five were sons. Of those, John lived five years; Henry, six. Alphonso lived until he was eleven, and only Edward, their last child, born in 1284, lived to adulthood and inherited the kingdom.

Of their 11 daughters, five lived to adulthood and six died before the age of three. As a mother of four, to think about losing a child is awful and the mind shies away at the very thought. It is the one thing I cannot even begin to contemplate. As a human being, how do you survive losing half your children to disease? Or more than half?

On top of which, out of his 19 total children (3 by his second wife, Marguerite), 8 lived to grow up. However, only two lived what we would consider longish lives.   The mean for the adult women is 41.8 with a median of 35; the mean for adult men is 36.6 with a median of 38.  Combined, the mean is 39.8 and the median is 35/38.  That is much worse than the Welsh/Marcher nobility documented here:

Children of Edward I:

Daughter:  1255 (stillborn)

Katherine:  1261-1264 (age 3)

Joan:  1265-1265 (infant)

John:  1266-1271 (age 5)

Henry:  1268-1274 (age 6)

Eleanor:  1269-1298 (age 29)

Daughter: 1271 (infant)

Joan:  1272-1307  (age 35)

It does not seem that either Eleanor or Joan died in childbirth, or if they did, the child died with them and there is no record of their births.

Alphonso:  1273-1284 (age 11)

Margaret:  1275-1333 (age 58)

Berengaria:  1276-1278 (2)

Daughter: 1278 (infant)

Mary:  1279-1332  (53)

Son:  1281 (infant)

Elizabeth:  1282-1316 (aged 34)  She was married to Humphrey de Bohun (4th Earl of Hereford) and died in childbirth, having attempted to give birth to her 11th child in 13 years.

Edward:  1284-1327 (age 43)

Thomas:  1300-1338 (age 38)

Edmund:  1301-1330 (age 29)

Eleanor:  1306-1310 (4)

To include all children in the mortality rate brings the mean down to 18.4 and the median to a hideous 6.

Life Expectancy in the Middle Ages

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:


Medieval Life Expectancy: Muslim World verses Christian World

It is taken as given in this day and age that people living in Europe in the Middle Ages didn’t bathe much, if at all, had no real knowledge of science or medicine, and their high mortality rates were a consequence of this general ignorance.  Neither of the these assertions are, in fact, true, but the average human life span in the Middle Ages was significantly lower than the modern one nonetheless.   I have discussed this in several places on this blog.

Here: I discuss the life span of the royal house of Wales and the Marche.  Eliminating individuals who died before adulthood completely from the equation, 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.  That I elminiated those who died in childhood changes the equation and it’s hard to know in all these calculations if the statistician’s numbers indicate mean (the average number), median (the middle number), and what effect including infant deaths has on the statistics.

Furthermore, here I discuss the mortality rates among King Edward I’s own family.  Out of his 19 total children (3 by his second wife, Marguerite), 8 lived to grow up. However, only two lived what we would consider longish lives.   Of those who actually grew up, the mean for the adult women is 41.8 with a median of 35; the mean for adult men is 36.6 with a median of 38.  Combined, the mean is 39.8 and the median is 35/38.  To include all children in the mortality rate brings the mean down to 18.4 and the median to a hideous 6.

What, then, were the mortality rates in the Muslim world?  Muhammad promoted explorations in the sciences, including medicine.  Did this increase the general lifespan of the population?

It appears not.

From my reading, not only was their little difference in lifespan across Europe, from the UK to Italy and Spain (it wasn’t cold that killed people so much as density of population that spread disease.  Warfare and child birth killed people in equal measure in Italy as England–maybe more warfare in Europe, come to think on it), but into Asia as well.

This paper ( suggests that child mortality was equally high in the cities of the Middle East as in Europe.  This is further confirmed by other sources (Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, by James Lindsay page 187).  If child mortality was high, then death in childbirth was probably also high, and thus the average death rate of women would likely match that of the rest of the medieval world.

The long citation at Wikipedia  presents divergent views, with some texts suggesting that medieval Muslim clerics lived very long lives in comparison to the lifespan of Europeans–though some studies have shown comparable lifespans for monks/nuns in Europe, since that profession removes both childbirth and war as likely causes of death.

From that source:  “The demographics of medieval Islamic society varied in some significant aspects from other agricultural societies, including a decline in birth rates as well as a change in life expectancy. Other traditional agrarian societies are estimated to have had an average life
expectancy of 20 to 25 years, while ancient Rome and medieval Europe are estimated at 20 to 30
years. Conrad I. Lawrence estimates the average lifespan in the early Islamic Caliphate to be above 35 years for the general population, and several studies on the lifespans of Islamic scholars concluded that members of this occupational group had a life expectancy between 69 and 75
years, though this longevity was not representative of the general population.

The Citations are all in Wikipedia so you can look them up.  Once again, it is unclear if the authors are talking about median or mean, and to what extent ‘average’ lifespan includes children who die in childbirth or before the age of five.  has a nice list of books for further exploration of this issue.