Life Expectancy in the Middle Ages

Life was tough in the Middle Ages, albeit no tougher than it had been for millennia before, and would remain for centuries afterwards. But then, life in some places on the eve of the 21st Century can be about as tough as it was in the 14th.

Life expectancy was pretty abysmal. The figures which follow are based on statistics for landholding families in England. The source had figures for various periods from 1200 through 1450, but those for 1276-1300 have been used because the effects of Plague are minimized.

Life Expectancy: Males Born 1276-1300
Age /Prospects /Total
0 / 31.3 / 31.3
10 / 32.2 / 42.2
20 / 25.2 / 45.2
30 / 21.8 / 51.8
40 / 16.6 / 56.6
60 / 8.3 / 68.3
80 / 3.8 / 83.8

(Age is current age ("0" is newborns.) Prospects is the number of years expected to live at each age. Total is current age plus Prospects (or "life Expectancy.) After age 80, prospects plummeted, people in their eighties being the high end of life expectancy in this period.)

The biggest danger for all children was surviving childhood, particularly the first few years, when a child’s immune system was getting itself organized. After that, males had to worry about accidents (most of the population engaged in manual labor, and the nobles had hunting accidents and the rigors of warfare to worry about.) Once a male passed age 40, and became an "old man," he generally stayed away from dangerous activities and had good prospects of living to a ripe old age.

For women the picture was a little different. They managed to survive their first 10 years about 10% better than men. This is a natural phenomenon that is still true today. Then they began to fall seriously behind as they reached childbearing age. Women 14-40 had a life expectancy only about 50% that of males in the same group. The reason was quite simple; having babies was more dangerous than going to war. However, after 40, female life expectancy ran about 10% better than male. Again, this was the naturally greater robustness of females, plus the fact that they tended to look after themselves more carefully. At a guess, a woman who was never pregnant probably maintained that 10% edge throughout her life. This was one reason for becoming a nun, not all women were keen on having children and even many that were found them terrified of the prospect of facing the dangers of childbirth.

There seems to have been a tendency for women ---even noblewomen-- to have about one pregnancy every 18 months. Look at all the kids Edward III & Philippa had. The birth rate was apparently rather astonishing, perhaps 35%, and right up there with the rest of the Third World. However, the infant mortality rate was also Third World.

Women's Death RatesAge Deaths/1000/%
0-4 / 325 / 32.5
5-9 / 239 / 23.9
10-14/ 104 / 10.4
15-19/ 71 / 7.1
20-24/ 9 / 0.9

This data is for unmarried women whose fathers had registered them with an endowment fund. They would deposit a sum of money at birth and it would pay off in a dowry at the time of marriage depending on how long the money had been in the fund. As such, it reflects the life expectancy of fairly well-off folks. It was almost certainly worse for the lower classes.

People born 1200-1275 had apparently better chances than those born later. This could be due to poor records, but there were demographic forces at work as well. Overpopulation began to become a problem in the early 14th Century, while the climate began to noticeably deteriorate. And, of course, the Plague came along midway through the century.

Marital Age Patterns.
Apparently women got married off pretty early, being considered eligible at 14, but their husbands usually ran more than 10 years older. Among nobles, and especially royalty, there was less predictability, so you get frequent infant marriages --or at least betrothals-- and occasional unmarried noblewomen in their early 20s. These last may have had something to do with their prospects. A female heir might be able to stave off marriage in hopes of getting a really good catch, like the king. Generally the older a noble spinster was, the younger her eventual husband was likely to be.

And forget about looks or true love, with the aristocrats is was genealogy and money that counted most. This led to the general acceptance of mistresses for the men, although wives faced severe sanctions if their extramarital activities were found out. Nevertheless, it did happen. It was just more dangerous. The most famous female rake was Isabeau, the Queen of France and wife of the deranged Charles VI. The king was so mentally unbalanced that he was, according to his wife, unable to perform his "husbandly duties." Isabeau declared quite publicly that her children were not sired by the king. This may have had a lot to do with the succeeding Valois kings being so much more able than their predecessors. It was just such a rumor that caused Charles VII to pray to God to be sent a sign that he was the true King of France. A sign provided by La Pucelle.

Borrowed from Medieval Life & The Hundred Years War

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