Height in the Middle Ages, or How Tall Are You? - Sarah Woodbury

Height in the Middle Ages, or How Tall Are You?

Determining height in the middle ages, and over time in general, is not easy, but we have some good data coming in of late that indicates the average height of people who lived in the 9-11th centuries in Britain was comparable to ours today.

According to the report, “Mean Body Weight, Height, and Body Mass Index (BMI) 1960-2002: United States,” from the CDC (Center for Disease Control), the average height of a man aged 20-74 years increased from just over 5’ 8” in 1960 to 5’ 9 ½” in 2002.  At the same time, the average height for women increased from slightly over 5’ 3” in 1960 to 5’ 4” in 2002.

If you visit houses built in the 18th century, however, door frames were much lower than they are now.  The obvious assumption, then, is that people were much shorter then, than they are now.  And they were.   But according to Richard Steckel, a professor at the Ohio State, it hasn’t been a steady change over time.  From his research, the average height of people who lived in the 9-11th centuries was comparable to ours today.  It then declined slightly during the 12th through 16th centuries, and hit an all-time low during the 17th and 18th centuries–when those doorframes were made.

By the 1700s, Northern European men had lost an average of 2.5 inches of height compared to the Dark Ages, a loss that was not fully recovered until the first half of the 20th century.

He came to this conclusion by analyzing height data from skeletons excavated from burial sites in northern Europe dating from the ninth to the 19th centuries.

The real question is . . . Why?

It has to do with health, primarily.  According to  Steckel, height is an indicator of overall health and economic well-being.  From the study of human growth, “average height reflects the overall health of a population-its diet, wealth, quality of housing, levels of pollution, disease, and stress-particularly for infants and adolescents.”

Over the last 50 years, according to statistics kept by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the average height of Japanese 11-year-olds has increased by more than 5 1/2 inches. The height of girls, who grow faster at that age, meanwhile, has increased even more.  This is attributed to general better health, less disease, and the doubling of protein intake by the average Japanese person since 1960.  http://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/01/world/tokyo-journal-the-japanese-it-seems-are-outgrowing-japan.html

Further, “The Dutch are currently tallest, measuring about two inches taller than Americans,” Steckel states. “Why? They have very high income levels, they have perhaps the best pre-natal and post-natal care in the world, and they have a relatively equal distribution of income.”

Height research conducted with European populations appears similar to American studies. A study of nearly 10,000 5-to-11-year-old English and Scottish children found a clear connection between a child’s height and whether the father had a job. In each social class group, children with unemployed fathers were shorter.


People reached heights comparable to ours during the Dark Ages because, despite our  lack of information about those years (thus, the term, ‘dark’), people were healthier in terms of food quantity and quality of life then they were later.  The 17th and 18th centuries were the beginning of the industrial revolution.  If you think about the squalor and poverty of London, for example, in the 1800s, that conclusion is not at all surprising.

Thus, a man born in the Middle Ages would have been equally likely to reach the height of 6 feet as a child born in Wales today.


  1.  Steckel, Richard H. (4 January 2016). “New Light on the ‘Dark Ages“. Social Science History28 (2): 211–229. doi:10.1017/S0145553200013134.
  2. ^ Koepke, Nikola; Baten, Joerg (1 April 2005). “The biological standard of living in Europe during the last two millennia”. European Review of Economic History9 (1): 61–95. doi:10.1017/S1361491604001388hdl:10419/47594JSTOR 41378413.

10 Replies to “Height in the Middle Ages, or How Tall Are You?”

  1. After 1492, diet changed in Europe which means their information is possibly corrupt. They went from a diet of a few foods, to a diet of a wide variety of foods by 1700. They discovered all kinds of new foods in North and South America which took time to reach certain European locations. Those locations are located mainly in west Europe yet Russia also invaded North America. Europe became very wealthy. Their information about height of Europeans before 1492, must be excluded. Why? Few examples! Most Europeans were buried in isolated locations or not at city cemeteries. And by mid 18th century England, France, Italy and Spain had become very wealthy. By then they were taller than most other Europeans. Wealth is a leading factor in how tall one becomes. However, try comparing well off people to middle class and poor people. You’d probably notice more middle class and poor people tend to be overweight. If that’s correct than exclude wealth. If wealthy people tend to be at average weight or under, than there’s another unknown factor. Wealthy people are probably taller than middle class and poor people. It may be hereditary. Most wealthy families have likely been wealthy for many generations.

  2. I saw actual clothes from the 1700’s worn by English aristocracy in a museum display. This was decades ago so I don’t remember much about it other than my amazement at how tiny these people must have been to wear these clothes. They were all made for people who were 5′ tall or shorter.

    1. Yes, they were much smaller. But again, they were malnourished compared to centuries earlier and modern times. Sometimes there is also a bias for museums as to what items survive. The belief that armor was heavy was derived from suits of armor on display that were either for display only or were used in the very late middle ages only for jousting.

  3. I’d just like to suggest that heights, weights and sizes in general – could this not be from the growth hormones we treat our crops and live stock being fed to us through what we eat and drink ? If we’re using these growth fertilising sprays to make them bigger it would seem an obvious condition to pass onto ourselves. Obesity is being blamed on fast food stuffs, but aren’t these foods the same ones that use chicken or beef from animals fed with growth hormones?? Just food for thought 🙂

    1. We sure do put hormones in our food, and there are good reasons to be concerned about it, but it probably can’t account account for our current height, and certainly not for the average height in a place like Wales in the early Middle Ages, where people grew to approximately our size now.

  4. Today’s doorways are6′ 6″. Is that an accurate reading of our height?
    Conserving wood and keeping heat from getting wasted are reasons for low doors and ceilings. We do not evolve fat enough in 200 years to make that much of a difference in our height.

    1. In the early and middle ages, it wasn’t, actually, particularly among rural populations. The arrival of the Normans in 1066 made the population poorer and less free, but the Normans didn’t conquer Wales until 1282, and Wales was much richer nutritionally, relying as it did on cattle and sheep (so lots of meat). Nutrition declined in quality throughout the late middle ages into the renaissance, reaching its nadir during the Industrial Revolution. City life was very unhealthy for the vast majority of the population, which is why they were so short.

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