Death suffered its worst setbacks in the arena of child mortality. Until the twentieth century, between a quarter and a third of the children of agricultural societies never reached adulthood. Most succumbed to childhood diseases such as diphtheria, measles and smallpox. In seventeenth-century England, 150 out of every 1,000 newborns died during their first year, and a third of all children were dead before they reached fifteen. Today, only five out of 1,000 English babies die during their first year, and only seven out of 1,000 die before age fifteen.
We can better grasp the full impact of these figures by setting aside statistics and telling some stories. A good example is the family of King Edward I of England (1237–1307) and his wife, Queen Eleanor (1241–90). Their children enjoyed the best conditions and the most nurturing surroundings that could be provided in medieval Europe. They lived in palaces, ate as much food as they liked, had plenty of warm clothing, well-stocked fireplaces, the cleanest water available, an army of servants and the best doctors. The sources mention sixteen children that Queen Eleanor bore between 1255 and 1284:
1. An anonymous daughter, born in 1255, died at birth.
2. A daughter, Catherine, died either at age one or age three.
3. A daughter, Joan, died at six months.
4. A son, John, died at age five.
5. A son, Henry, died at age six.
6. A daughter, Eleanor, died at age twenty-nine.
7. An anonymous daughter died at five months.
8. A daughter, Joan, died at age thirty-five.
9. A son, Alphonso, died at age ten.
10. A daughter, Margaret, died at age fifty-eight.
11. A daughter, Berengeria, died at age two.
12. An anonymous daughter died shortly after birth.
13. A daughter, Mary, died at age fifty-three.
14. An anonymous son died shortly after birth.
15. A daughter, Elizabeth, died at age thirty-four.
16. A son, Edward.
The youngest, Edward, was the first of the boys to survive the dangerous years of childhood, and at his father’s death he ascended the English throne as King Edward II. In other words, it took Eleanor sixteen tries to carry out the most fundamental mission of an English queen – to provide her husband with a male heir. Edward II’s mother must have been a woman of exceptional patience and fortitude. Not so the woman Edward chose for his wife, Isabella of France. She had him murdered when he was forty-three.
To the best of our knowledge, Eleanor and Edward I were a healthy couple and passed no fatal hereditary illnesses on to their children. Nevertheless, ten out of the sixteen – 62 per cent – died during childhood. Only six managed to live beyond the age of eleven, and only three – just 18 per cent – lived beyond the age of forty. In addition to these births, Eleanor most likely had a number of pregnancies that ended in miscarriage. On average, Edward and Eleanor lost a child every three years, ten children one after another. It’s nearly impossible for a parent today to imagine such loss.