One of the many Dance of Death pictures
I won’t name the two famous and wealthy futurologists who were telling us about the wonderful world of AI and self-driving cars due to hit us in 10 to 15 years. I’m being kind and saving their blushes because as they chatted on the video about how terrible everything was in 1000 AD (or CE), they were making an elementary and annoyingly common statistical mistake about history. I mean, I understand that they’re Futurologists and don’t care all that much about history before 2000 or know much about it that isn’t from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But still! I admired these guys and it was painful to hear them.
I forget which one repeated the old fictional chestnut about people dying at age 20 in AD 1000 and girls having babies at 13 and being old grannies at 26. I know they want to make the figures for modern life expectancy look even better than they in fact are by exaggerating the awfulness of medieval life. It’s an old trick, also used by Mark Twain. He just couldn’t be bothered to do any research (he admits it in the Forward to A CONNECTICUT YANKEE AT THE COURT OF KING ARTHUR). They were trying to reassure themselves that they could make it to immortality, which is, as always, about 30 years away.
I understand, really I do. But this is not good enough, chaps, and undermines everything you tell me about the wonderful future you’re hoping to live in.
OK, so was everyone old when they got to age 20 in AD 1000? No, of course not. According to the BBC, the average life expectancy for a male child born in the UK between 1276 and 1300 was 31.3 years. But even that was starting from birth. It included the enormously high (by our standards) infant and child mortality and that skewed the life expectancy.
Imagine a giant sieve, held by a nasty-looking skeleton with a scythe. Imagine 100 medieval babies falling into it, all wrapped in swaddling clothes. Come on, you can do it. Think Hieronymus Bosch.
Around one in four of the babies, 25%, died before the age of one, most of them around birth and the first six weeks. It was probably one in three babies, but let’s be optimistic and one in four is easier to calculate. So 75 babies slip through the sieve and Death goes off with an evil laff to tip out the 25 that died. According to Medieval theology, all these babies went straight to Heaven providing they had been christened into the Catholic church. If not, they went to Limbo along with all the heathens, pagans and Jews born before Christ.
They died of all sorts of things – infections, congenital problems and malnutrition (as in my book A CLASH OF SPHERES). Often a baby that died wouldn’t even be named or the cause of death noted – it died of being a baby.
After that, around one in five, 20%, of the remaining children died before they reached puberty. Death’s next sieve was a little better but of the 75 babies that got through the first one, 15 died and maybe went to Heaven. They died mainly of infections and violence and accidents.
So of the initial 100 babies, 60 were left by the age of 10, dancing Ring-a-ring-a-rosie in their cute tunics. 40% had been tipped away by Death, cackling and dancing. Do you think their parents didn’t care? They did, but at least the deaths could be blamed on God so there was none of the terrible guilt modern parents feel if their children die.
But that enormous child mortality means that the lifetime mortality figures were badly skewed. If you pull the child mortality figures out of the figures, men have an average life expectancy in AD 1000 of around 40-45 years (longer if you were an aristocrat). It was fairly similar by AD 1800 but after that date the child mortality slowly started to reduce. First came the smallpox vaccine and hygiene, then came more vaccines against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, later, measles, mumps, rubella. Doctors were even able to help congenital problems. By the beginning of the 21st century global child mortality had dropped to under 5% and overall child mortality in the UK to 0.5% (one child in every 200). The death of a child has gone from being a normal part of life to a huge and horrifying surprise.
Child mortality has turned out to be the low hanging fruit. It’s comparatively easy to stop most children from dying of infections and accidents and violence. It’s going to be considerably harder to stop old people dying of old age.
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