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.
Bloody Hell! We nearly had a King called Alphonso! King Fonz the first? I did not know that.
By that logic, Italy must have the finest healthcare in Europe. (Or is it Portugal that has the lowest birth rate? I can never keep up.)
None of which seems to me to explain why “fertility has fallen” or indeed whether it has.
Additionally, royals are not a good example. More likely to be inbred for a start (the Hapsburgs were a particular example). Royalty and aristocracy have suffered from clan type marriage systems, which suffer the disadvantages of endogamy. Ordinary people in early modern England- like us- followed the exogamous nuclear/fissile model. A couple did not marry (somebody unrelated) until the mid to late twenties when they had acquired sufficient resources to form a new family unit (mostly through servitude or apprenticeships). This is rather different to Isabella, who was married to Edward at the age of 12.
Isabella is one of my favourite women of history by the way. Rubbish king Edward II sent her to France to get him some support; instead she raised an army, came back and deposed him. You go, girl.
And I still don’t see how kids dying from various poxes and agues has anything to do with fertility.
IanB, the number of kids dying is connected to fertility in that in the past parents had to sire more kids to ensure that a few survived to sire yet more kids. Now with modern medicine the fertility rate has dropped because families don’t need to churn out the babies and can get by with just one or two kids.
Fertility is the ability to conceive children, not the tendency to do so.
Not in economics and demography it’s not. Fertility rate is number of live children born.
Ian B: Isabella is one of my favourite women of history by the way. Rubbish king Edward II sent her to France to get him some support; instead she raised an army, came back and deposed him. You go, girl.
Yes, a remarkable woman and the only one of the Philip the Fair’s children not to be a dud. But her visit to her native France was to accompany her son, the future Edward III, who was to swear fealty to Charles IV, her brother, a very considerable dud and King of France.
Edward II, a spectacular dud, a dud’s dud , made over the Duchy of Aquitaine (what was left of it) to his 14 year old son so that, poltroon that he was, he shouldn’t have to journey to France where his stock was rather low.
Isabella returned to England with a small contingent of English knights and a modest force from Hainaut and when she ultimately acquiesced to her husband’s assassination once her son was on the throne, it was at the insistence of Mortimer. All in all a fairly bloodless and popular revolution but I’ve not seen the Channel Four treatment, of course.
God knows how football ever came into existence back in the day. If you are only a broken leg away from starvation it is an extremely risky pastime.
It’s obviously because in those more caring and sharing, bygone past halcyon days when we had a real, true society, there was excellent welfare provision both formal and informal for those unfortunate enough to suffer from self-inflicted injuries. It’s all been cut by the tories in the last few years, with the result that single mothers of 16 are destitute in the street.
I’m certain that alcohol was involved.
It is possible that Edward and Eleanor had such a hard time with their children because they had the very best doctors. Reading anything about medical practices before the mid 19th century or so would lead you to the the conclusion that they could easily do more killing than curing.
Surely while this has a good deal to do with declining birth rates, it doesn’t explain why rates have fallen to the point that they are below replacement rate in many western societies (including the uk if you take out the recent immigrant population).
Generally, the number of children that survive to adulthood has been a trend that heads a bit over “replacement rate” We now need a lower birth rate to achieve this, but birth rates have dropped below even this low point
Bill, the great Theodore Dalrymple would say that nothing much has changed – on the average, of course.
Conditions from the nineteenth century can be inferred from Trollope’s “Barchester Chronicles”. When we first meet Archdecon Grantly in “Barchester Towers” he has five living children; by the conclusion of the saga in “The Last Chronicle of Barset”, despite his family living in the healthiest conditions Victorian England could provide, two of them (Samuel and Florinda) have died without this being treated as at all remarkable. It is left unclear whether Bill Whittaker would justified in suspecting Doctor Filgrave in these two cases, but his record with the Gresham family was not impressive.
theProle – “Surely while this has a good deal to do with declining birth rates, it doesn’t explain why rates have fallen to the point that they are below replacement rate in many western societies (including the uk if you take out the recent immigrant population).”
Humans have evolved to like sex, not giving birth. Science has cut the link. Of course rates have fallen – in large part because of deliberate government policy. They can get a short term boost in tax payments and overall GDP if they encourage women to move out of the home – where their labour is vital but not paid – and into the work force. So that women drop their children off at some other woman’s home, then go to work cleaning up after someone else’s elderly and incontinent parents – every step is not monetarised and counted for the GDP and taxed. Even if actually everyone is worse off.
“Generally, the number of children that survive to adulthood has been a trend that heads a bit over “replacement rate” We now need a lower birth rate to achieve this, but birth rates have dropped below even this low point”
There is no logical reason why birthrates would trend to replacement. There is no reason why they won’t trend to zero. Especially as the government, the Left and all the organs they share are united in demeaning motherhood, encouraging girls to reject motherhood and work – even if it means putting marriage and children until they are 30. Which is now the standard model pushed by every teacher and every TV programme in Britain.
What we need is to get women out of the workforce and back at home. They mostly do non-jobs we can do without anyway. No one has ever died because of a lack of Human Resource officers. We need to stop demeaning mothers. And above all, we need to stop mocking fathers.
Wasn’t fertility rather low in Britain in about 1936. (Thankfully I was born in 1935.)
Doesn’t abortion etc come into the low birth rates especially these days..
Plus the rather huge financial deterance for males to get married.
john malpas – “Wasn’t fertility rather low in Britain in about 1936. (Thankfully I was born in 1935.)”
A politician in Cambridge had to resign for stating the obvious – that high house prices were contraceptive. At least they are for Northern Europeans. Jamaicans? Less so.
“Doesn’t abortion etc come into the low birth rates especially these days..”
I doubt it. People who want to have children, have children. People who don’t, don’t. British women do report wanting more than they can have, but it is not that they are being dragged off to abort them.
Although the media does have a relentless campaign trying to show that abortion is the solution to every problem. It is never presented in a bad light. It is always a positive good.
“Plus the rather huge financial deterance for males to get married.”
Marriage was never a good deal for men. But Western men did it because Western men are basically decent people. Or have been until recently. It has become a really bad deal in recent times. There is no sane reason to marry now – except that everyone benefits when men man up and do it. It is not just financial. There are no benefits to men at all. There is a big push in America for men to have a “man cave”. Really? You work hard all your life, pay off your home and your reward is that one room, or perhaps the shed, is yours with reason? Husbands are still expected to stop doing anything they want and to spend all their money on their wives. That is what wives mean by “doing things together”. Shopping. Not hanging out with mates. This needs to change.
Just in passing, this is what poor health care looks like:
At least for the really unlucky.
Good point. Are docs even in positive territory yet?
My dad, a pathologist, had a very dim view of doctors even in modern medicine.
Easy for him, maybe, rootling about without fear or favour. But the take away was a history of mistaken diagnosis, over prescription and occasionally the discovery of surgical swabs or even instruments left in the patient.
On the other hand plasters (literally plaster) can help with wounds, and some pre modern techniques are being looked at again. Skeletons from pre-historic caves sometimes show healed bones, so bone setting and immobilisation was known to our forefathers.
Probably a Pareto ratio then. 80/20 murderous then, 20/80 now.
Inbred Royals? Sure. But in the particular case you are talking about the high noon of serfdom. Not even market town. Most serfs did not venture further than a couple of miles, so marriage to the girl or boy next door was the norm, so likely a cousin of some sort.
Thank God for those randy priests, who introduced a bit of genetic variety. (But that’s another subject.)
“Ordinary people in early modern England- like us- followed the exogamous nuclear/fissile model. A couple did not marry (somebody unrelated) until the mid to late twenties when they had acquired sufficient resources to form a new family unit (mostly through servitude or apprenticeships). ”
I’m not sure you’re reflecting the realities of medieval Europe there Ian. What you’re describing is a town. A fair sized one, at that. That accounts for only around 5% of the population.
As BiF says, for the rest it’s different. I’ve stayed a while in a small village in SW France. It’s essentially unchanged from the C13th. About a dozen dwellings. Say 50-60 people max at its prime. Tried walking over to the next village along the original route. It’s about 4 miles & the return trip’s a hard day’s traveling. The town, at 12 miles, you’d possibly squeeze in a day. That’s going to be your life’s horizons except in the unlikely circumstance you leave the land. Not easy for a feudal peasant.
So you’re total gene pool, of all ages, won’t be much more than 2-300. Your cohort not much different from a school classroom. Most of whom you mightn’t see from one year to another. Your population is going to resemble the Kentucky hillbillies the Yanks make jokes about. Same reasons.
At least the Royals get to travel. Maybe the odd lusty stable lad gets to inject some diversity.
Ian B – “Additionally, royals are not a good example. More likely to be inbred for a start (the Hapsburgs were a particular example). Royalty and aristocracy have suffered from clan type marriage systems, which suffer the disadvantages of endogamy.”
I expect that the English Royals at this time married more widely and more diversely than at any time since.