Longevity and the Rise of the West: Lifespans of the European Elite, 800-1800

Neil Cummins

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) – Department of Economic History


I analyze the age at death of 121,524 European nobles from 800 to 1800. Longevity began increasing long before 1800 and the Industrial Revolution, with marked increases around 1400 and again around 1650. Declines in violence contributed to some of this increase, but the majority must reflect other changes in individual behavior. The areas of North-West Europe which later witnessed the Industrial Revolution achieved greater longevity than the rest of Europe even by 1000 AD. The data suggest that the ‘Rise of the West’ originates before the Black Death.

Longevity and the Rise of the West – Introduction

The `Rise of the West’ has recently been traced to events long preceding the Industrial Revolution. This paper shows how the spatial patterns of the lifespans of Europe’s nobility suggest a European mortality pattern that has existed since 1000 AD. The parts of Europe that later experience the Industrial Revolution first (the North-West) have higher lifespans than those who later lag behind (the South-East). Nobles transform their behavior over the long run. Before 1550, about 30% of noble men die in battle. After 1550, the figure is less than 5%. Surprisingly, the Black Death and subsequent waves of pestilence kill nobles at a lower rate than the general population and the lethality is higher for women. There is a structural break in noble lifespan about 1400, where lifespan increases from around 50 to 55. These findings suggest that the origin of the divergence of the `West and the rest’ has its origin even earlier than recent research suggests.

The emergence of modern economic growth during the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by an explosion in Europe’s population. Demographic factors are not tangential to mankind’s escape from the Malthusian nightmare: they are theorized to have played a causal role (Becker et al. (1990); Clark (2007); Galor (2004)). The reasons behind the modern rise in lifespan are debated. One notable absence for these debates is an international time series to characterize trends over the long run. A major issue is the fact that before 1538, individual level demographic data is sparse. However, one sub-population that have left abundant evidence of their lives are the European nobility. This analysis exploits recent mass digitization of family trees to examine trends in adult lifespan over the millennium between 800 and 1800.

The paper is complimentary to recent work by David et al. (2010) and de la Croix and Licandro (2012). David et al. (2010) use Alison Weir’s genealogy of the British Royal family to explore the evolution of life expectancy between 1500 and 1799. de la Croix and Licandro (2012) use a data-set of over 300,000 famous people from the Index Biobibliographicus Notorum Hominum examine the long time trend in lifespan. They argue that average age at death was stationary until the birth cohort of 1640. However, they decide to omit any analysis of the time-trend in lifespan before the 15th century; They only estimate trends post-1430. This analysis examines trends beginning over six centuries before either David et al. (2010) or de la Croix and Licandro (2012).

This paper has 6 sections. Section 2 discusses the data, section 3 details the methodology for the analysis while section 4 presents the results. The results section has four principle subsections: On violence (4.1), plague (4.2), time-trends (4.3), spatial patterns and time-trends by region (both 4.4). Section 5 discusses the implications of these ndings and section 6 concludes. The appendix details the underlying distributions and supplementary regression results. A separate stand alone appendix (Cummins (2014)) details the data collection strategy of 1.3m records, the date coding of 402,204 string dates, the Geo-coding of 117,975 unique addresses, the categorization of nobles into 17 ranks and a sample of random sources and observations.


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