Thursday, July 10, 2008

Misunderstanding Life Expectancy

I have to admit that I have been living with a completely wrong conception of what life was like in Medieval Pre-Industrial Europe. Based on their life expectancy of 38, I believed that the the average person got married right after puberty, had a few kids and then died around 38, with hardly anyone living beyond 50. If there had been a retirement I expected it would be around 35 with most people quickly dying off upon reaching that age. I also believed that the average age of marriage has been gradually increasing over time mirroring increases in life expectancy and level of education.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I had this misunderstanding cleared up reading A Farewell to Alms.

While life expectancy at birth was 38 in England from 1750-99, what this really reflected was high child mortality. Infant mortality was 17% and only 69% of newborns made it to 15. But those that did make it to 15 could expect to live another 37 years. If you made it through childhood you would likely make it into your 50s, and many lived much longer as 15% of the English men making wills in the 17th century died at age 70 or above.

And instead of getting married very early, marriage occurred quite late. The average age of marriage for women before 1790 was 25.2 in England, 25.3 in France, 26.5 in the Netherlands and 26.6 in Germany. Many women did not marry until their mid-thirties or later.

While the age of marriage has been increasing in the US, this is a rather recent trend. In 1890 the average (median) age of marriage in the US was 26.1 for a man and 22.0 for a woman. This gradually lowered to 22.8 & 20.3 in 1950, before steadily rising again to 26.8 & 25.1 in 2000. The age of marriage for a woman in the US in 2000 was therefore very similar to a woman in medieval Europe.


Al Fin said...

Medieval Europe lasted from 500 to 1509 Common Era.

By 1750 Europe was well beyond the medieval period. I haven't read the book you reference (although it sounds excellent), but I suspect his source of vital records may not have included every layer of the 18th century English population.

Industrialism was already underway, capitalism was taking off, Europe had suffered and recovered from the loss of 1/3 of its population in the plague, had already begun colonising the new world, Africa, and Asia, and was proving itself the most dynamic continent on Earth.

Sometime between the 14th century and the 19th, Europeans bred like rabbits. Perhaps fertility rate would have been a better metric than age at marriage?

Fat Knowledge said...


Good point on this not being Medieval Europe. I was off on that.

The label on the chart for the marriage age is "pre 1790", which is kind of vague. I believe based on the text that precedes it that this is 1540-1790.

As for the average life expectancy, I think during the Medieval times it was a bit lower, based on another chart in the book, but it still held that most of the deaths were before age 15, so if you made it to 20 you were likely to make it to around 50.

I can't say on the accuracy of the records.

My main points were just that I was wrong in thinking that when you got close to hitting the life expectancy of 38 that you were about to die and that marriage was always done really young in the past. I think both conclusions still hold.

I don't know on how much population grew from 1300-1800 in Europe. I have tried to look for some numbers but the only stuff I found was sketchy.

For the points I was trying to make, average age of marriage was the interesting statistic, but I can see if you are looking at something slightly different how TFR would be the better metric.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about the peasant class, I assume given their constant exposure to disease, constant hard labor and potential for infection in childbirth would place their life expectancy easily in the thirties. However, to get a full picture we must also look at those of the upper classes who's lifestyle was much different.

Here are just a few, I have many more if desire:

Eleanore of Aquitaine, 1st wife of Louis VII of France, 1st wife of Henry II (England) - 1122-1204 (82) > cause unrecorded

Marie of France, Countess of Champagne (eldest daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France and possibly the Marie de France who wrote Arthurian romances) 1145-1198 (53)> cause not recorded

Alix of France (2nd daughter of Eleanore & Louis) 1151-1199 (48) > cause not recorded

Matilda of England, Duchess of Saxony (eldest daughter of Henry II & Eleanore) 1156-1189 (33) > cause not recorded

Eleanore of England, Queen of Castile (2nd daughter of Henry & Eleanor) 1162-1214 (52) > illness, 28 days after the death or her husband (said to have been "from grief")

Joanna of England, Queen of Sicily (7th child of Henry & Eleanor) 1165-1199 (34)> died in childbirth

William, Count of Poitiers (first child of Henry & Eleanor) 1153-1156 (2 1/2) > seizure

Henry "The Young King" (2nd son of Henry & Eleanor) 1155-1183 (28) > dysentery

Richard I (3rd son of Henry & Eleanor) 1157-1199 (42) > arrow wound to neck turned gangrenous

Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany (Henry & Eleanor) 1158-1186 (27 1/2) > 2 versions, 1: trampled in joust , 2: acute abdominal pain following a boastful speech to Phillip of France

John of England (youngest of Henry & Eleanor) 1167-1216 (49) > dysentery

Branching out from Eleanor's possibly vigorous bloodline:

Margaret of France (Henry "The Young King"'s wife) 1157-1197 (40) > died on pilgrimage to the holy land, cause unrecorded

Berengaria of Navarre (Richard I's wife) 1165 or 1170 - 1230 (60-65) > cause unrecorded

Constance, Duchess of Brittany (Geoffrey's wife) 1161-1201 (40) > conflicting opinions: some believe leprosy, others that she died due to complications in childbirth

Isabel, Countess of Gloucester (John's 1st wife) 1173-1217 (44) > cause unrecorded

Isabella of Angouleme (John's 2nd wife) 1188-1246 (58) > cause unrecorded

Branching further out:

William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (said to be "The Greatest Knight") 1146-1219 (73) > "health failed him"

Isabel de Clare (William Marshal's wife) 1172-1220 (48) > cause unrecorded, buried at Tinturn Abbey

Maud Marshal (daughter of William & Isabel) 1192-1248 (56) > cause unrecorded

Isabel Marshal (daughter of William & Isabel) 1200-1240 (40) > liver failure contracted in childbirth

Sibyl Marshal (daughter of William & Isabel) 1201-1245 (44) > cause unrecorded

Eva Marshal (daughter of William & Isabel, direct ancestress of Anne Boleyn) 1203-1246 (43) > Cause unrecorded

Joan Marshal (daughter of William & Isabel) 1210-1234 > cause unrecorded

William & Isabel also had 5 sons, all made it past 35, most into their forties with one dying @ 37 > the eldest, William's cause of death is unrecorded @ age 41, Richard @ 43 died of wounds while in captivity, Gilbert was killed in a tournament @ 46, Walter's cause of death @ age 49 is unrecorded, Anselm's cause of death @ 37 is also unrecorded.

Barring complications in childbirth, violence or disease, life expectancy for this class was easily past 40, if not later.

Anonymous said...

It also depended a lot on where you lived. While I don't know a whole lot about European statistics, one of my textbooks on the Restoration and Enlightenment period in England (about 1660 through the 18th century) says that during this time the life expectancy in London was aproximately 11 years shorter than in most of the rest of England and that over half the children born in London died by the age of 10. Yikes!

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