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Q: What was the average life span in Tudor England?

A: 35 years, according to Wikipedia; “barely thirty”, according to another source (pdf).

Life was nasty, brutish and short. Or was it?

from Holbein’s Dance of Death

I do have a problem with such estimates, because they don’t tell the full story. In particular, while taking into account the high rate of infant mortality, they fail to point out the high rate of survival after infancy. The results are skewed.

Actuaries, who specialise in the useful application of statistics, prefer to use cohort life expectancies, ie. the measurement of how long a person of a particular age could be expected to live on average.

H.O. Lancaster, professor of mathematical statistics, provided some suprising insights in his book Expectations of Life (1990) – here’s a table relating to our period, based on life expectations of males at the age of 21 years (p.8):

Time Period Number of Males Observed Further years of life expected at age 21
1200-1300 7 43.14
1300-1400 9 24.44*
1400-1500 23 48.11
1500-1550 52 50.27
1550-1600 100 47.25
1600-1650 192 42.95
1650-1700 346 41.40
1700-1745 812 43.13
*black death

The data are taken from the English aristocracy, and the results confirm my impression from reading the biographies of wealthy Tudors – mankind mostly lived a long life. But that impression is just my bias, and is quite worthless without evidence. I suspect the low estimate in the Wikipedia statement, based on the failure to point out a relatively healthy survival rate, reflects a celebration of progress. Maybe life does improve down the centuries, but not necessarily.

The most important point is that sources should always be questioned, with special care in the treatment of statistics so as to avoid false confirmation of what we consider self-evident.

Another point from Lancaster’s research is that there’s no clear reason to deny the results would apply to the rest of the population too. I’m sure that’s a tricky proposition, so I won’t get into it. One would have to feed in data on the vulnerability of the poor to episodes of famine, but also on premature deaths among the wealthy through military service, and of course on the risks run by women during pregnancy and childbirth. (The size of the samples is also questionable – fallacy of hasty generalisation? – but the analysis is by an expert.)

On the whole it seems that, if all the hazards of birth and childhood ailments were avoided, a subject of Henry VIII could be expected to make it past the age of 71 years.

What did you expect? Hehe!


ps. A paper from 2011 (46pp. PDF) that supports the notion of three-score-years-and-ten through human history- here’s the takeaway:

“The modal age of adult death is about seven decades, before which time humans remain vigorous producers, and after which senescence rapidly occurs and people die.”