Death rates in history

I have just finished one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. It was by an American historian called Robin Fleming, and called Britain After Rome.

She really brought the centuries after the end of Roman Britain to life; and she didn’t assume that her readers would have a detailed knowledge of the period. I really enjoyed reading it, and found it very thought provoking.

I want to talk about one or two points she raised in later posts, but for now, let me just pass on to you some astonishing statistics.

An analysis of burials in cemeteries dating to 6th, 7th and 8th century England shows just how short people’s lives were in those days. Girls had not much more than a 50% chance of living to the age of 15. Most of those who did not reach this age died in the first year or two of life. Of those who did, not much short of half would die before their 25th birthday. At birth a girl had only about a one in ten chance of living into her mid-30s.

This sort of information sheds a powerful light on the lives of past generations, doesn’t it. It has made me wonder to what extent mortality rates differ in different times and places in history – in pre-modern history, that is. Where they the same in Roman times as in Anglo-Saxon times? Or what about Tudor times? And what about in Tang dynasty China or Moghul India? Or indeed West Africa at the time of the Slave Trade: if mortality levels were as high as they were in early Anglo-Saxon England, how on earth could that region cope demographically with so many thousands being shipped away each year? And if mortality rates do differ markedly between period and place, why?

I really am not very knowledgable about all this, and if I want to make good my claim to be a world historian, I need to be. Time for some research, I think.

By Peter Britton