On the myth of short life expectancy, and COVID complacency

When you are in my line of work, well firstly, you don’t have any. (Zing! LOL, help, join my Patreon.) Secondly you spend a bunch of time fighting against the myths about a thousand years of history or so that we have created to feel better about ourselves. One of the really rampant myths that I deal with on a regular basis is about life expectancy in the medieval period. What gets trotted out, over and over, is the idea that “the average life expectancy in the medieval period was 35, so when you were 32 you were considered an old”. Friends, this is extremely not true, and this myth is also damaging to us now. Allow me to elaborate.

First of all, the idea that the “average life expectancy” means that “most people” only lived to 35 is way off. Do you remember how averages work? A quick refresher: to get the average age of death you take the age of death of a total population, and then divide that by the number of people involved. That gives you an average.

Here is the thing about that: in the medieval period, just like in the early modern period, just like in the modern period up until we invented vaccinations, infant mortality was incredibly high. For more on this, go have a look in any graveyard even from the Victorian period and see how many children are buried there. It was the same six hundred years or so before that. How high? Well roughly half of all people born died between being born and two years of age or so. Now if you remember how averages work, you will realise that if half the population are dying before they are two, and the average age of death is 35, that means that if you made it out of infancy (a pretty big if, TBH), you were likely to make it into your seventies or even later.

There are, of course, some caveats to this. Women, for example, die at a really high rate in childbirth. That is still actually the case! It was also, of course, the case in the early modern period, and the modern period up until the twentieth century, really. That is because it is a massively traumatic event and there are any number of things that can go wrong, both for those giving birth and those being born. In a world where blood transfusions are not available and germ theory hasn’t been conceptualised yet, (Again! As was common up until the past hundred or so years!) there are even more issues to considered. So, there we do have a particular pitfall as well. Having said that, those who do survive through giving birth have every chance of making it into old age.

And here is the thing, medieval people were super clear on the idea that life was long. A great way of learning more about this is looking at medieval conceptions of the stages of life. Because medieval conceptions of health and life were built around humorism, some systems conceptualised the life cycle as being divided into four distinct periods which corresponded to the humors and the seasons. Infancy was likened to blood, the spring, and was hot and wet. Youth was linked to yellow bile, the summer, and was hot and dry. Adulthood (or middle age), was linked to black bile, autumn, and was cold and dry. Finally, old age was linked to phlegm, the winter, and was cold and wet. We have some pretty cool diagrams of this conception as well, like so:

Universitätsbibliothek Tübingen, Tübinger Hausbuch,  MS Md 2, 23r.

There were, within this conception, further distinctions. It was super common to denote seven distinct life periods, like so:

Walters Museum MS W. 171 f. 30 r.

The seven stages of life are fun because they often also correspond to planets. They are infancy (moon), childhood (Mercury), teenage (Venus), youth (Mars), middle age (Jupiter), old age (Saturn), and dotage/death (you don’t get a planet, you are dead).

This is particularly instructive for our purposes because it shows us that medieval people certainly did have conceptions of life stages which included old age. Even more interesting is the fact that for medieval people the ideal age here was middle aged, at least for men. This was considered a time when they were wise and even tempered and best able to exercise their judgement, unlike the horny teenage period, or hot headed youth.

It also helps to push back against the pervasive myth that medieval people didn’t have a conception of childhood. They most certainly did so, understood children as in the process of formation and requiring care and attention, but that is the subject of a rant for another day.

The point is that there was a very strong conception of the lifecycle and how it would run in an ideal world. Obviously, the world is not always ideal. If you get killed in a war or die of the Black Death then all bets are off. However, such deaths were considered exceptional, and also tragedies, not simply the sort of thing that one shrugged off.

So why is it that we consider that medieval people died early? Well, one reason is that in the medieval period in Europe there was a very real interest in warning theoretical good Christians that they needed to take that possibility seriously. See, the medieval Church felt exactly the opposite to how basics now feel about medieval life. As far as the Church was concerned, people were way too assured that they were going to live to a ripe old age, and were not considering what would happen if they died before that. They thought people were too complacent about death and having enough time to prepare their souls for it.

In order to combat this, in the fourteenth century in particular they came up with some pretty cool ad campaigns to remind people that death lurked, constantly, and they needed to get their souls right. One of these is the legend of the three living and the three dead. The story that goes along with it is that one day three rich dudes (sometimes kings, princes, popes, or nobles, occasionally three noble women) were out hunting and being very fancy indeed. Suddenly they were greeted by three corpses in varying stages of decay who had gone all revenant to remind them that even if they were very fancy now, one day they would be gross and decaying, so they should confess their sins and prepare to hang out with God.

Yes, I have some cool examples, thanks for asking!

British Library MS Arundel 83 II f.127.
 A pope and kings version! British library Harley MS 2917, f. 119r
Sometimes the dead got kinda violent with it. British library Add MS 35313, f. 158v.

Another similar trope is the old-fashioned Momento Mori, a reminder that you could at any moment drop dead even if you were now young and hot. To whit:

British Library, MS Yates Thompson 7, f. 174r.
Bodleian Library MS. Douce 268, fol. 123r

Getty Museum MS 109 (2011.40), fol. 156. Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death

If this wasn’t enough (it wasn’t) there was also the emerging Danse Macabre genre that dropped in the fifteenth century and looked like so:

Brittany, France, Fresco depicting a Danse Macabre Getty Images 120404853, via the British Library.
The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel.
Hrastovlje, Slovenia, Danse Macabre of Hrastovlje.

I would argue that because we have a lot of art that makes it seem like medieval people were very certain that they were about to die at any moment, it feeds into our assumption that, well, they were. However, these images are showing us exactly the opposite thing. They are instead begging their audiences to consider their mortality and their souls which will suffer if they die unprepared, which is something that absolutely can happen.

Were there medieval people desperately frightened that they could die at any moment? Yes, of course. Concerns about mortality are nothing new. However, we should take these warnings about the shortness of life not as evidence that medieval life was short, so much as evidence that not everyone spent all their time considering that.

Our willingness to read medieval art, and medieval life more generally as dominated by an ever present death also has a lot to do with us. One of the ways we like to relate to history is as a glorious march up to the present where everything is now good and fine. We cast the past as a terrible time because we want to reassure ourselves that the present is Very Good and we don’t have any reason to grumble about the position we are in. In fact, we should stop complaining right now, after all it’s not like we are living in the medieval period when things were bad and everyone died by 35!

I have been thinking about this a lot lately as we continue (!) to live through the COVID pandemic. Here in the UK we have one of the highest death rates per capita, and we also have a population who are largely rather fine with that. One of the reasons that is often cited for the reason why it is apparently totally fine that we have had over a hundred thousand excess deaths due to COVID is that everyone who is dying of it is “old or had underlying health issues”, as though that makes it absolutely fine that they died. As a part of this, I have seen it repeatedly said that living into old age is a new phenomenon, and people used to die of illnesses all the time! So dying of this one is just no big deal, and we have to accept that.

This attitude is nonsense.

No one’s life is expendable. Not now. Not if they are older. Not if they have underlying health problems.

There was never a time when being old was abnormal, and never a time when an otherwise healthy older person dying in a pandemic wasn’t a tragedy. Medieval people were sad when their parents, or grandparents, or elders, died. Sure, they might reflect on a long life well lived at their time of death, but if their loved one died of plague they weren’t like, “Oh well, screw them because them being alive at this point was an anomaly.” They didn’t think being old was a luxury then, and we shouldn’t start thinking that way now. And we definitely shouldn’t be throwing medieval people under the bus to justify the massive shortcomings of our government’s response to COVID.

If medieval people knew how to control the plague and save their loved ones they would have. They didn’t necessarily expect that they would live long lives, but they knew it was possible, and it was something that they strove for. Once again this is something that we see in medieval art. Alongside the grim warnings about what happens if one dies unexpectedly, there is also a motif known as “the good death”. In it, an older person dies in their bed, having confessed their sins to the priest, or priests, in attendance and surrounded by their loved ones, and often with a doctor on hand. They can die safe in the knowledge that everything has been done to save their bodies, and that their soul has been saved. However, we can see the concern on the faces of the living, who know that they are about to mourn someone they cared for.

Hours of Catherine of Cleves The Morgan Library & Museum MS M.917/945.
Office of the Dead in the Spinola Hours, about 1510–20, Master of James IV of Scotland. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 18, fol. 184v. Note the contrast with sudden death in the surrounding image.

We see images like this, where families have come to see off their loved ones, and are still dragging physicians in at the last minute to attempt to stave off death fairly regularly. This is because people considered that other people were worth caring for in the medieval period. Because they and always have been.

To write anyone’s life off as excess or frivolous is, quite frankly, monstrous. Medieval people would not have accepted the death of everyone over a certain age as inevitable or excusable. To say that we should now because of their average life expectancy make no sense, and is nothing short of thinly veiled eugenics. If you feel like relating to life and pandemics this way, then I am afraid you are actually treating people more brutally than they were treated half a millennium ago. Reflect on that and do better.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more myths about the medieval period, see:
On treating sex with the utmost reverence
Plague Police roundup, or, I am tired, and you people give me no peace
How to win friends and influence people in medieval Europe on History Hit
If you are going to talk about the Dark Ages, you had better be right
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church
On Medical Milestones, Being Racist, and Textbooks, Part I
On Medical Milestones, The Myth of Progress and Being Racist, Part II
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
I assure you, medieval people bathed.
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
“I wasn’t taught medieval history so it is not important” is not a real argument, but ok
There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK
On the Concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya
FUCK YEAH Genghis Khan – an emergency pubcast
On why the misuse of the word ‘medieval’ is a bad thing

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

12 thoughts on “On the myth of short life expectancy, and COVID complacency”

  1. I totally agree about the cluelessness about averages, and enthusiastically agree that using myths about the Middle Ages to support retrograde, inhuman attitudes about sickness and death in the present is a dirty trick.

    Not medieval but Early Modern: a thing in Bach cantata texts where death is wished for, invited, looked forward to. “Komm, du süsse Todesstunde!” “Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde,” “Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust” And one that’s structured like a playlet: the first aria says “Ich wünschte mir den Tod wenn du mein Jesus mich nicht liebtest,” in the next Jesus reassures the believer (“Ja, ja, ich kann die Feinde schlagen”) and the conclusion is this positively celebratory aria

    that deserves quoting in full:

    “Ich ende behände mein irdisches Leben,
    Mit Freuden zu scheiden verlang ich itzt eben.
    Mein Heiland, ich sterbe mit höchster Begier,
    Hier hast du die Seele, was schenkest du mir?“

    I gather (standard consumer warning: I am NOT a scholar) that these are products of a particular doctrinal current in 17th century German Lutheranism. But why there, why then? Recent memory of the Thirty Years War?


  2. Nicely put, as usual! I am always telling my students this when they say “Augustus died at 76, but I thought people didn’t use to live that long!” Since I teach about ancient Rome and Greece, I also include deaths in warfare as part of lowering the average.
    I love the Latin caption of British library Add MS 35313, f. 158v “the day … will come like a thief”, but I’m awful at reading medieval script, do you know what the second word is?
    Diu (but the last letter is different from the other letter u)? Din (but is that even a word)? Div (some shortening of divi)?


  3. Hear, hear.

    When you do your post about medieval childhood, please tell me you’ll address the pernicious myth that People in the Past just didn’t love their children like we do (because they had so many of them and they died like flies, I guess?)


  4. I always learn from your posts…. agreed that the myth that people died at an earlier age is common. I noticed that in medieval times, based on the art depicted, a fascination with death (well, sort of) and today we push all thoughts of death away. Modern medicine leads us to believe all illness can be cured. Perhaps Covid has made us realize that is not the case.
    Regardless, I’ll pass on the pairing of skeletal glee. 😊


    1. Yes there is a much bigger culture of interfacing with death in the medieval period, whereas now we like to sweep it under the rug. It is a big shift in the perception of death where we know it is inevitable to an extent, but also assume that there are ways to postpone it.


      1. I really, really wish we would stop doing that.

        I have found that it hampers the ability to grief in a healthy way and therefore does lead to more trauma for everyone involved. Then that gets buried immideately, so we can function again, despite that even a healthy process of grieving takes up to two years.

        It also makes people be really awkward around their dying relatives, unsure how to act and to be there, and how to be in pain (it is okay to be in pain! of course you are in pain!) about losing someone they love. Also probably one large reason why families keep pushing their elderly to often go on with treatments, and those elders then consequently constantly being in the hospital with complications from that treatment, instead of living out the rest of their time at home, with hospice care, with their families.

        Everything has to be done, because we can’t handle death, at any cost.

        I work as a nurse on an oncological ward. This seems to be the biggest tragedy in the field. It feels like it is getting somewhat better, the more widespread the concept of hospice becomes, but the cases that keep me up at night, were everything went wrong, no acceptance was reached at all, and it’s just trauma and pain all around… there usually related to that. :/


  5. I love the skeleton on the right in Arundel 83, who’s breaking the 4th wall to just shoot the reader a big ol’ grin. Not even bothering to mirror the corresponding fancy person on the left, just staring at the audience, smiling away.


      1. So many different possible interpretations! Is it reveling in the audience’s discomfort? Is it assuring us that being dead ain’t so bad? Did it see a good dog out of frame, and completely forget that it was supposed to be menacing fancy people? Is it just happy to be here? I’ve ascribed a rich inner life to that skeleton, is what I’m saying.


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