I may have already written about the subject of average lifespans here at this blog. But if I have, forgive me and allow me to give this tutorial yet again. I read history frequently. I read general history, social history, primary texts, and biographies. I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve read enough to know that the oft-repeated notion that everybody before the 20th C dropped dead by age 40 (or sometimes age 35 if the epoch of history is particularly murky) isn’t true. Average lifespans don’t work that way. People didn’t live to an average age of forty, at which point they were lucky if they eeked out a few more years.
To take the simplistic route first, imagine that there’s a high infant mortality rate. Let’s pretend that if a babe made it to his first birthday, then he would live until age 80. With a lot of babies dying before age one, that puts the average lifespan at about 40. But it wasn’t as simple as that, either. It makes for neat and tidy math, but life was always a little more complicated than that.
Life before modern medicine was lived as a serious of tests that had to be passed. If a babe could make it past the age of one, he had a good percentage chance at living to adulthood. After age eight–the odds were even higher that he would make it to adulthood. Once a young adult, if the babe was an actual he and not a gender neutral one through the convention of language, he would then have to survive his years of warfare. If the babe was a she, she would have to survive her childbearing years, which often meant the ability to fight off infection passed from filthy doctors or midwives who didn’t know what bacteria was. The ability to fight off infection was, of course, helpful for injured soldiers, as well.
The prior paragraph was the complex look at average lifespans, and it was still too simplistic. Famine and other life hazards have always been risks for foolhardy humans who dare to enter this life. However, since modern medicine now understands the importance of hygiene and what causes many life-threatening diseases (i.e. viruses and bacteria), we have really good odds these days of passing life’s tests and living to the age of 80 or beyond. Women have been highly blessed due to modern medicine, as we now have a very low rate of mothers dying in childbirth. Men, always seeming to get the raw deal, still go to war and die. I have no idea exactly why women desire to be in the military, understanding what a raw deal it is, but that’s not really on topic.
Before the world-changing understanding of microbes, life’s tests were a little more chancy; there was a higher failure rate. That didn’t mean that people couldn’t or didn’t live until they were 80 and even beyond. One of my favorite historical characters to study, Isaac Newton, lived until he was 84–and that with mercury poisoning from his habit of playing with metals. Not to mention his misanthropic ways. A female contemporary of his, Mary Astell, died “young” at age 65, a couple months after having had a mastectomy to remove cancer from her right breast. Without anesthesia, mind you. I would have died from the shock, but she lived through the surgery and died two months later–possibly due to a latent infection she could no longer fight off.
There are no guarantees, you see. Astell chose not to marry or have children, and then died of complications from breast cancer. Newton didn’t go to war, as he was a scholar. Thus, he managed to eek out a very long life, thereby astounding those who believe he should have dropped dead at age 40 like everybody else in those days who were addled with mercury toxicity.
From our perspective, life is a lottery. Always has been, always will be. Just remember: ‘Twasn’t the cough that carried him off, but the coffin they carried him off in.