top of page

Did Pre-Modern People Die At A Young Age?

By Joe Belanger

Death. It comes to us all, sooner or later. Did it come sooner in pre-modern times?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In pop culture, it is common to find the “fact” that premodern people normally died at what we would consider to be a young age. And that it was uncommon for anyone in Ancient Times, or especially the Middle Ages, to live beyond 30 or 40 years of age. For proof of this, one only has to look at the average life expectancy, from birth, for those time periods and see that. Indeed, the normal average is usually somewhere between 30 and 40 years. To pull a specific example: Carrieri and Serraino calculated that the from-birth average lifespan for male in medieval England was only 31.3 years.

Pop culture also likes to give plenty of explanations for these apparent early deaths. These range from rampant diseases, poor medical practices, warfare, poor water quality, etc. Often, these reasons are used to prove how much more advanced we have become compared to our ancestors. But is this the whole story? Do we really live that much longer?


No, no we don’t. The idea that premodern people all died very young is a misconception. If we look at an article posted by the University of Southern Carolina, by Sharon DeWitte, multiple studies have shown that many ancient and medieval people lived until their 50s, and even for some to their 80s. And this is not simply supported by historical written accounts alone. Examination of skeletal and dental remains prove that these were not uncommon ages to reach.

But how can this be so? We need to look more closely at the average life expectancies.

The thing is, when we normally report average life expectancy, we report “life expectancy from birth”. Even if we do not explicitly say that (which is why I made sure to point it out in the previous section). And it was the high infant mortality that brings the average down, something that is also discussed in Sharon DeWitte’s article.

This can be demonstrated with two simple math problems. The average of: 35, 35, and 35 is – unsurprisingly, 35; but the average of: 1, 52, and 52 is also 35.

This is not to say that people did not die earlier in the past, or that life was not more dangerous. But there is a major difference between everyone dying in their 30s and many of those who made it past their early childhood years living beyond 50.


Now, my original idea was to create a short, specific alternate history scenario which took this misconception as historical fact. A world where, up until the advent of modern technology, the vast majority of people only lived between 30 and 40 years of age. But the more I thought about it, the more unrecognisable the world would become.

So, what I will do is just give a short overview of the type of things I would expect to see in this world. And if I do write another article like this, I will choose another misconception more conducive to an alternate history scenario. For this, I am ignoring the high infant mortality, as that is not normally included in the misconception.

Death comes calling, especially for infants in pre-modern times.

The first thing I would expect is that this world would have fewer people. This would be because people have less time to give birth. Sure, people could give birth earlier than we do, but people in the past also tended to have more children than we do. One of my grandfathers was the youngest of ten, and some people had more.

Another is a much lower level of technology, for lack of better phrasing (I would rather avoid the other misconception that technology is a continual march forward). This is, again, simply because people have much less time to invent stuff. It does not mean that inventions would not happen, just that the rate at which new inventions occur will be much slower.

I would expect that once writing is invented, it would keep a more sacred connotation longer than in our timeline, and maybe forever. How else would anyone pass on knowledge? The basics you could still learn from your parents, assuming they had you early enough.

I would expect clan or clan-like family structures to be more popular, and longer lasting. The advantage would be ensuring there would be someone around to take care of the younger children when both their parents die not long after birth. Perhaps this world’s concept of what a country is might be an outgrowth of an extended clan mentality.

I would also expect that anyone who did, somehow, live into their 70s or 80s, to be highly revered. And I do not mean our wise old man stereotype. I mean they would be almost deified, as they would have achieved a feat that could make them seem near immortal.

All in all, a world in which premodern people all died young would be a vastly different place. And it is even possible that it would be a world that is still very premodern in appearance.

Comment on this article Here.

Joe Belanger is the author of the young adult series on the post-Arthurian myth, The Pendragonling.


bottom of page