by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the September 2000, A.S. XXXV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
As I’m writing this on Labor Day weekend (Valor having been moved off the weekend this year) I decided to look at the medieval common man. So this essay will look at the numbers commonly quoted to describe the medieval experience and what they do and not say about that experience. Now my writing has been described as being dry, and this can be a very dry subject. So I’ll endeavor to make this as lively as possible.
Before we get into the actual numbers, a word about medieval statistics. True statistical record keeping did not arise till the 19th century, a product of Florence Nightingale’s work. There are two reasons for this. First, the medieval bureaucracy was not up to such a task over any large region. England’s Domesday Book is a remarkable exception and unique to the period. Secondly, numbers and the medieval mind were only loosely connected, worthy of an article all of its’ self. It is not that they were incapable of exactly counting things, there are plenty of records showing they could. It was just that they were unconcerned, most of the time, with doing so.
The result of the above is that all medieval statistics quoted are derived from secondary sources. This means part of the population tends to be excluded from the calculations. What part of the population depends on what particular source the data is extracted from. And, of course, they only recorded things they were interested in, not what we would be interested in. The final result is that anytime you are dealing with medieval statistics, must be careful with how you interpret them.
The best known of all statistics is life expectancy. The tricky part of this statistic is the infant mortality. Something on the order of 30 percent of all children died before the age of 5. Thus the life expectancy at birth was somewhere between 17 and 20. However, the life expectancy who made the age of say 15, would be roughly 35. Nevertheless some 10 percent of the population lived to or beyond the age of 60. Unlike today, women had shorter life expectancies, primary due to deaths while giving birth.
To make better sense of these numbers, demographers have a graph called the age tree. The trunk is an axis marked off in ages, while the branches are the numbers of people of that age, one side being females, the other male. It is roughly shaped as a triangle, though certain events can alter that. For example, the tree for the current United States has a large bulge around the forties and fifties age marks, which represents the baby boomers.
For the Middle Ages, this tree had a wide base representing the high birth rate. But has considerably narrowed by the age of five, indicative of the high infant mortality rate. The tree continues to narrow down, though at a slower rate, to about age 20. There it stabilizes to the early thirties when it begins its steady drop to zero somewhere in the mid-sixties. So while the Middle Ages were a youth dominated society where death came early, that did not mean that older adults were a rare commodity.
One expected effect of the above facts would be an early age for marriage and children. But that is not the actuality. For men, the age of first marriage was in the upper twenties, while that for women was the early twenties. Another unexpected twist is the average size of the household. A woman, over her lifetime, would have 5 to 7 children about two years apart. But the mortality was such that the average household was between 3.5 and 5 persons.
Another commonly quoted fact about medieval people was that they were shorter. An assessment that would be agreed to by anyone who had to duck their way into medieval buildings. While this is not wrong, the difference is not as great as expected. Working from skeleton remains, the average height for a man was 5’7”, and for a woman 5’2”. These figures are only two inches shorter then the current averages.
And this being Labor Day there is the point of what did they do and how much did they make. It is no surprise that 3/4 of the population was involved in agriculture or day labor. But the rest held a wide variety of jobs. Over a hundred occupations can be categorized. Many of which still exist today. Which of these jobs predominated depended on the natural resources of the area. But in towns of sufficient size most of them were represented.
How much a person could make is a much more difficult problem. For most of the period, people were paid in goods as much as they did in coin. Kings also made a regular habit of devaluing the coins. And daily prices were not something medieval people made a habit of recording. It is a subject that economic historians spend careers on. But a broad sketch can be seen in the following facts. Ten percent of the populace controlled over half of the wealth and income. The bottom 25% had also nothing at all. About half the population shared about 15% of the wealth. The rest represented what is now known as the middle class.
The above figures are but a broad composite of medieval Europe. Many variables can vastly alter them for any given time and place. Famine, war, and the big one the Black Death, can in the short run make them meaningless. And while they are surrounded by large uncertainties, they are still an important part of the background to understanding the Middle Ages.
Cipolla, Carlo. Before the Industrial Revolution. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1976.
Grubb, James. Provincial Families of the Renaissance. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Herlihy, David. Medieval Households. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.
Russell, Josiah Cox. British Medieval Population. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1948.
Schofield, John, and Alan Vince. Medieval Towns. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.