Despite being one of the most exciting and rich periods in history, The Middle Ages were a tough time to live in. Among other horrible things, that time period experienced a plague that wiped out 75 million folks across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, high infant mortality, famine, and battles.
Add to that a medical infrastructure that was frankly shocking, and zero social welfare. But just how dangerous was it to live in the middle ages and what would your chances be of actually surviving the period? That’s what we’ll find out today, in this episode of the Infographics Show – Most Common Ways People Died in the Middle Ages.
The middle ages (or medieval period) lasted from the 5th to the 15th Century. It began with the fall of the Roman Empire and led into the Renaissance and Age of Discovery. This period predates the discovery of penicillin and germ theory, meaning that death by disease was a common occurrence among medieval people. Poor health conditions and malnutrition added to the problem. Diseases and conditions common to the period were dysentery, gonorrhea, influenza, leprosy, malaria, measles, smallpox, typhoid, and puerperal fever.
In the Prussian town of Elbing in August 1349, the Black Death was first recorded and this terrible illness has long been associated with death in the Middle Ages. Studies have shown that people around this period had a life expectancy somewhere in the 30-40s. That piece of data is (according to some sources) misleading, as the life expectancy rate was dragged down significantly by the high infant mortality rate caused by death at childbirth and disease in infancy. Many people did in fact live to 60 or 70 years of age or older during the middle ages. Enrico Dandolo became the Doge of Venice at the age of 85 and died old and blind at 98 in the year 1205.
However, death by childbirth was a serious problem as hygiene was yet to be fully understood. Both the rich and poor died in childbirth, queens often died while giving birth to future princes and princesses, thus greatly affecting lines of inheritance and courses of history. Richer families could usually afford to hire a wet nurse if the mother died during childbirth, but peasant families were forced to be more inventive by soaking bread in milk for the infant to ingest or even soaking a rag in milk and letting the child suckle from the rag.
Death arrived to children in the shape of germs and viruses that people in the middle ages had no idea led to disease, having had no knowledge of germ theory. There were no antibiotics or vaccines to protect the most vulnerable members of society – the very old and the very young. The death rate for children was horrendously high, and to survive birth and infancy put one in good stead for the pursuant obstacles this tough period in history brought.
Poor medical care, weak immune systems, infectious diseases, and hunger killed countless of people during the middle ages, but perhaps no one event was as undeniably devastating as the Black Death. One third of the population of Europe between 1347 and 1352 were wiped out by bubonic and pneumonic plagues that ravaged the region.
This outbreak was probably the most deadly force, the most tragic pandemic event, to have swept through a populated region, killing at least 75 million people throughout Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. If we factor in that the population of Europe was thought to be around 70 million in 1350, then, yes, the plague was responsible for a huge number of deaths, and if we were living at that time in Europe, many of us would have become part of the estimated 50% of Europe’s population who fell victim to it.
And then there were those who died on the battlefield. Hacked and cut with weapons, and with no means to properly clean infected wounds, soldiers often led short, brutal lives. However, casualties in medieval battles were often surprisingly light. Once one side had lost 5-10% of their number, nobleman and officers were often held to ransom. Many army casualties were slayed by disease, food-borne poisoning, and septicemia instead.
Amputations were not to be taken lightly, and many died from contamination and dirty surgical instruments. Anesthetic was unheard of, and if drinking enough alcohol wouldn’t stop the screams, you may have been knocked with a blow to the head instead. Those higher ranking officers who were able to access the cutting edge medical science at the time enjoyed leeches applied to wounds, or perhaps a course of blood-letting.
Traveling was no picnic either. Finding a safe place to stop while traveling was troublesome and folks often had to resort to sleeping out in the open, running a risk of freezing to death in the winter or being robbed or killed on the road. Food was also hard to come by on the road, and the traveler was often forced to forage, steal, or go without. Lack of foreign languages could be problematic, and travelers may find themselves caught up in local disputes or battles.
And things weren’t much better at sea. While it was faster to travel by sea, boarding a vessel put the traveler at risk of sudden storms or shoddy navigation. The ships themselves weren’t particularly safe until later in the middle ages. But on land or at sea, life certainly wasn’t a breeze during this fascinating period of history.
So what do you think? What would your chances of living to a wise old age in the middle ages be? What were some of the other brutal periods of history to live through? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. Also, be sure to watch our other video called What Would Happen If You Ate Only Meat and Nothing Else? Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!