I have always taken great offense to the idea that everyone in the Middle Ages died young. Along with telling me Medieval people were dirty and ignorant, the quickest way to annoy the living daylights out of me is to tell me that hardly anyone in the Middle Ages lived past 40.
IT’S NOT TRUE.
So I started out a couple of weeks ago doing some research, compiling some names and dates of Medieval people along with their causes of death, so that I could do a blog post about life expectancy in the Middle Ages.
Then literally in the middle of that research I received a call telling me that my older brother was diagnosed with cancer. Everything got put on hold. I spent more than a week in Ohio with him and his family before I needed to come home. Two days ago, on Saturday afternoon, my loud, vibrant, larger-than-life brother passed away. His cancer wasn’t discovered until the very, very end. He suffered a little for a very short time before passing peacefully out of this life and on to whatever is next.
That got me thinking.
While it is not true that everyone in the Middle Ages died before they reached 40, many people did. Even I, Medieval Apologist that I am, can’t argue with the statistics. But I think that people in the modern era looking back at the Middle Ages misunderstand what death was really like in that world.
My brother passed away in a hospital, surrounded by machinery that told an entire staff of nurses all kinds of statistics about his breathing, pulse, and blood pressure. Had he lived in the Middle Ages his death would have been sudden, surprising, and baffling. There would have been no MRI to find the tumors or nurses to give him pain meds. The best doctors of the time might have examined him and determined that he had a fever or an imbalance of the humors or even that he was possessed. I don’t think the actual cancer would have ever been discovered since autopsies were hardly known and considered a grave sin in the Middle Ages.
So what about all of those people who died in the Middle Ages? What about the families and friends that were left behind? What did they think of all this?
My research on life expectancies in the Middle Ages consisted of going on Wikipedia, looking up well-known figures and finding their date of birth and death and scanning the article for a cause of death. I also followed all links to other people that were mentioned in the articles. I figured Wikipedia was as good a place as any to do this because the information I was looking for was simple. I had over 100 people and their dates and causes of death on my list before I stopped. (I’ll do a full post on life expectancies once I do a little more research)
At least one third of all of the women on that list died in childbirth. At least one third of the men on that list died of dysentery or other battlefield wounds while on campaign. Other causes of death included the plague, food poisoning, murder, execution, unknown illness, and my personal favorite “struck down by the hand of God”. A small number of people lived into their 60s and even 70s with no cause of death listed, leading me to believe they just got old.
From this I conclude that death in the Middle Ages came suddenly for most people. While any woman going into labor or any man charging into battle would know there was a strong chance they wouldn’t make it out alive, few people had warning that the end was actually near. Like my brother, they were probably blindsided by the cause of their death. And because no one knew when death would come for them, life must have been conducted very differently than it is in the modern world.
There was actually a lot written in the 14th century by people who experienced the ultimate in Medieval death: The Black Death. The shock of the plague left people throughout Europe reeling from the sudden, horrible demise of so many of the people they knew. Boccaccio and his friends fled from Venice and kept themselves amused (and quarantined) by telling themselves salacious stories that were later written into the Decameron. The reaction to death in this case was to live it up, to be as hedonistic as possible. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.
On the other hand, many people’s reaction to the Black Death was extreme piety. If this world had nothing to offer but hardship and brutality, then why not cash in all your chips early and devote yourself to God. Of course, in the case of the flagellates, this meant extreme physical punishment. Which just underlines how miserable the 14th century was.
But what about the rest of the Middle Ages? How did people react to death and dying in the prosperous and enlightened 12th century? Or in the age of Charlemagne? How did they react with the threat of Viking marauders or civil wars or Muslim invasions?
Well we don’t really know. But I would posit that because of its sudden swoop and inevitable presence, death wasn’t actually as big of a bugaboo as it is today. Yeah, you heard me. If there’s one thing that Medieval people knew that I think modern folks have lost touch with it’s that life is meant to be lived without worrying about death. Death will come soon enough, so act while you still can.
Why do I think this? Because one of the other things I discovered in my research about life expectancy and the causes of people’s deaths in the Middle Ages is that people rarely stood still for death. Just about every woman whose husband was struck down at an early age remarried within a year. Every man who lost his wife found another one. Military campaigns continued, monasteries continued to reform and help their surrounding areas, and educational institutions continued to advance learning. Furthermore, I think that your average Medieval young person would be able to name so many more friends and loved ones who had died than a modern person would. Death, sudden as it was, wouldn’t have been a shock. It would have been as common as birth, marriage, or any other life event.
So while modern people discuss how unfortunate it was that Medieval people died so young, I think that Medieval people would shake their heads over how worked up modern people get about the end of a life. After all, death is something we all experience at some point and none of us really know when. Maybe we should approach life more like Boccaccio and his buddies and enjoy every moment that we live and breathe with joyful abandon instead of fighting tooth and nail to stave off the inevitable with drugs and machines and treatments that extend our length of life while lowering its quality.
As my niece told me about her dad, my brother, the doctors said that even if he had been diagnosed six months earlier the outcome would have been the same. But he would have spent those six months in emotional and probably physical agony due to chemotherapy. My niece said she was kind of glad he spent those six months happy, not knowing anything was wrong. I think I agree with her. It was a very Medieval way to go.