The real breakthroughs in life expectancy came very late, starting in earnest after 1800 CE with major breakthroughs that reduced maternal, infant, and child deaths mostly due to breakthroughs related to the germ theory of disease, antibiotics, vaccines, and sanitation in medical work including labor and delivery.
But the lives of nobles who managed to live to adulthood started to get significantly longer, starting around 1000 CE in Northwest Europe.
I analyze the adult age at death of 115,650 European nobles from 800 to 1800. Longevity began increasing long before 1800 and the Industrial Revolution, with marked increases around 1400 and again around 1650. Declines in violent deaths from battle contributed to some of this increase, but the majority must reflect other changes in individual behavior. There are historic spatial contours to European elite mortality; Northwest Europe achieved greater adult lifespans than the rest of Europe even by 1000 AD.
Neil Cummins, "Lifespans of the European Elite, 800–1800" 77(2) Journal of Economic History 406-439 (June 12, 2017) (open access).
The introductory body text of the article notes that:
Although individual level demographic data before 1538 is sparse we have abundant evidence of the lives of the European nobility. This analysis exploits recent mass digitization of family trees to examine trends in elite adult lifespan over the millennium between 800 and 1800. The majority of the sample are from Northwest Europe, but there is substantial representation from all across Europe. Understanding that the sample is heavily skewed, and that this skew changes over time, I have four principle findings.First, plague, which afflicted Europe 1348–1700, killed nobles at a much lower rate than it did the general population.
Second there were significant declines in the proportion of male deaths from battle violence, mostly before 1550. I am able to estimate, from the timing of deaths within the year, the fraction of males who died violently in each epoch. Before 1550, 30 percent of noble men died in battle. After 1550, it was less than 5 percent.Third finding there was a common upwards trend in the adult lifespan of nobles even before 1800. But this improvement was concentrated in two periods. Around 1400, and then again around 1650, there were relatively sudden upwards movements in longevity. In England and Wales, for example, the average age at death of noble adults increased from 48 for those born 800–1400, to 54 for 1400–1650, and then 56 for 1650–1800. This rise is independent of the fall in violent battle deaths.
Finally, I find that there were regional differences in elite adult lifespan favoring Northwest Europe, that emerged around 1000 A.D. While average lifespan in England in 1400 was 54, in Southern Europe, as well as in Central and Eastern Europe, it was only 50. The cause of this geographic “effect” is unknown.
The total sample from 800-1800 CE was as follows:
The most elite title was Emperor (rank 1) of which there are 94 in the final adult lifespan subsample analyzed in this article.There are 843 Kings (rank 2) and 422 Grand/Archdukes (rank 3); 1,598 dukes, 683 prince/prince-electors, 4,787 Earls and Counts, 2,262 Marquesses and Margraves, 986 Viscounts, 6,444 Barons and Lords, 5,968 Baronets and 3,321 Knights constitute ranks 4–11.Esquires and Gentlemen along with other lesser noble titles, 1,795 persons, were assigned to group 12.A “Geographic’” title (rank 13) was one of the 699 cases where a person was listed as “of” a certain specific location.There were 69 military titles such as Captain and Colonel (rank 14) and 692 religious titles (rank 15, including 12 popes and 533 nuns).Occupational titles accounted for 1,343 (rank 16) and 83,644 had no suffix (rank 17). Those with no suffix represented the non-titled family members of the elite family trees.
The last case of trial by battle in England was in 1818. [Ashford vs. Thornton, I Barn. & Ald. 405] Parliament abolished the right to trail by battle in England in 1819.
When this subject comes up in research, I always find myself sighing. What, exactly, is the question of interest? Death in battle surely explains itself. One can woder how old the combatants were, but that adds nothing to our understanding of why people died at particular ages independent of the obvious. Same with plague - we already know that. What is left is the still unknown causes of lifespan variation over the centuries. We know that poor people today, living with air and water pollution, processed foods, systematic racism, and every other cause du jour, live decades longer than the nobles cited in this study. We also know that many of the medical and public health breakthroughs that have increased our modern life span were just correctives for modern conditions with modern causes. The deaths of mothers due to septic doctors in European hospitals is just one example. Benjamin Franklin lived to be 85 - he certainly predated any modern medical magic - how did 45 get to be 85? Statistical studies will never tell us that.
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