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Life Expectancy in the Middle Ages

Discussion in 'Research' started by TheokinsJ, May 3, 2014.

  1. TheokinsJ

    TheokinsJ Troubadour

    The title of the thread is self explanatory I suppose. I am in the process of writing a novel set in the late dark ages/early middle ages. I've heard conflicting facts about average life expectancy during the time; with some people telling me that the average lifespan was somewhere between 25-30 years, others saying early forties. Is this true?. Perhaps for a working-class peasant, but what about a high-born lord or someone who did not work in the fields and lived a comfortable life? Were they likely to live longer or were they just as susceptible to diseases etc?
  2. ACSmyth

    ACSmyth Minstrel

    What you have to remember is that a lot of the "life expectancy" statistics are the life expectancy at birth. There was a high rate of infant mortality back then, which brought the LEAB down a lot.

    Way after the middle ages, but I have two families in my family tree, one from the 1700s and one from the 1800s, which each had 16 children. Eight in each family didn't make it past their 5th birthday. Those children would have affected the LEAB. So for instance, if those 8 children had died at 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, and 4, but their siblings had died at 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, and 47, the average life expectancy of *that family* would have been 23. But the life expectancy of the 8 that survived infancy would have been 43.5. That's where the 20s and 40s thing comes from. In fact, many of the 8 that survived infancy lived well past their 40s, but that's later than the period you're looking at. I just used that to demonstrate. :)

    As to the life expectancy of nobility, if you look here,
    List of English monarchs - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    there's a list of English monarchs and the ages at which they died. With the exception of those who were murdered or died in battle, there's a fair few made it into their late 40s/50s and even 60s.

    Life expectancy is an average. People didn't make it to that age and die. There will always be outliers. I'd say it's a fair bet that a lot of the older outliers were in people who had access to better nutrition etc.
    Last edited: May 3, 2014
  3. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    ACSmyth is bang on...
    Infant mortality really skews the average mature life expectancy age.
    As an example, the Romans didn't count children as alive until their first birthday [you could just bury/dispose of an infant as you saw fit if they died before then] and examinations of reliquary bones under Rome showed that average of death was in their 60s...
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    The years of man are three score and ten. I think that one's in the Bible, so it's pretty old.

    I wrote a blog post on this last year. Rather than repeat myself, I'll just give the link
    How Old Was Old | Altearth

    Here I just want to emphasize one point. What we really want as writers is a sense of the age at which someone was considered a child, a youth, an adult, or aged. Life expectancy isn't really the question. People have all sorts of incorrect notions about childhood in the Middle Ages (I talk about this in the blog post, too), so it's worth doing a little research on the topic.
  5. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    Also, with life expectancy, you must look at what killed people younger. It wasn't that their hearts gave out, but that they had no effective way to combat disease and until the crusaders returned with Middle Eastern medicine and sanitary ideas, Europe had little use for "science".

    So, if your world is devoid of those myriad of diseases, your life expectancy will be higher.

    Also, one little thing about diet. While stone age man was tall and lean, with shiny hair and strong teeth, Medieval man was short and sickly and his teeth were rotting out of his skull. That was the price of farming. The diet of the poor was mostly grains (cheap food) and the more fish, meat, and vegetables and fruit people ate, the healthier they were. Hence why the wealthy tended to live longer. Lords protected their forests and game and hung poachers. SO the poor people didn't have access to many of the things we take for granted now.

    Before the Black Death in 1348 (?) there was a huge problem of overpopulation. to put it in perspective, each acre of farmland produced 1:40 of what it does today. So there were many people who died young of hunger. Hungry people die easier of disease. In fact, after the plague, many things changed, once poor people began to earn a liveable wage.

    I guess you'd have to look at the reasons for your young deaths to properly decide on how old is actually old in your novel. If you don't have small pox, ergot poisoning, syphilis, anthrax, and bubonic plague... well your people might live quite a bit longer.
    TheokinsJ, Jabrosky and ACSmyth like this.

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