Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Ages in history

I've decided to occasionally post my thoughts and ideas about historical matters, especially what I see as errors.

As I mentioned at the beginning, one misleading piece of information is that the life expectancy in the past was something like 35 years. "How terrible," people say. "No wonder they married young, but even so, they wouldn't see many of their children reach adulthood."

A glance at real people immediately shows this to be ridiculous. (They didn't marry that young, either, but that's for another day.) My own family tree shows most of them living beyond that age and in fact into what we consider late middle age or later, and they weren't particularly privileged people.

I remember one tour of a historical site in which the guide put great weight on the short life expectancy in the 18th century, then led us through a graveyard full of stones recording death in the 50s, 60s, and older. She even told stories of famous people who died in old age, but didn't seem to see any conflict. She swallowed facts without digestion.

Why the discrepancy? Statistics. If we take all the births and divide by all the deaths, we can come up with a short life expectancy, but there was a tragically high death rate among the young. In those days babies and children were vulnerable to many diseases and accidents so the number of people who survived to adulthood was much reduced.

However, if someone reached 21, their chances of living to 60 and ever older were not much reduced from modern times, especially as the survivors tended to be sturdy and with good immune systems.

So when writing, we're not fantasizing to have our characters see their children into adulthood, and possibly even their grandchildren, and people in the past wouldn't have been amazed at the sight of a 60 year old. Someone who reached a 100, yes, but there were some of those, too.


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