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Bridging the gap: new evidence for mortality and life expectancy spanning late medieval and early modern England

Bridging the gap: new evidence for mortality and life expectancy spanning late medieval and early modern England

Dr Rebecca Oakes, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

Despite extensive study our understanding of England's earlier population history is limited. [1] Detailed examination of parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials has enabled analysis of demographic change 1541-1871. [2] However, methods of back projection and family reconstitution coupled with periods of defective registration make interpretations less certain prior to 1580. The late medieval period presents a greater challenge as the complete absence of systematic registration of vital events prior to 1538 makes equivalent analyses near impossible. The absence of data has forced medieval historians to seek alternative sources such as manorial court rolls and poll taxes, but such studies omit or extrapolate large groups of individuals who were not recorded in these sources. [3] More secure sources of mortality and life expectancy data have been found for this period through examination of small closed community samples such as monasteries, whose inmates can be tracked from their admission to their deaths. [4] Studies of three separate monasteries have all identified high levels of mortality and a precipitous and prolonged fall in life expectancy at age twenty-five from c.1425. Monks, however, led institutional lives: to what degree might these experiences reflect those of the wider medieval population? Such data stops at the Reformation and thus precludes comparison with parish data.

This British Academy funded postdoctoral project seeks to bridge some of the gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the population history of the late medieval and early modern periods. Previous work has been forced to concentrate on one or other of these periods in isolation due to an apparent lack of source data spanning the two. However, the current project uses previously unexamined collegiate sample groups to analyse mortality and life expectancy across both periods for the first time. The ability to combine college records and biographical sources to chart the life experiences of scholars for such analysis was demonstrated in Dr Oakes' doctoral thesis, which examined mortality and life expectancy among the scholars enrolled at Winchester College and New College Oxford 1393-1540. Crucially, this collegiate sample can be extended into the early modern period for comparison with parish data, and extending the data to c.1660 forms the basis of the current postdoctoral project. The survival of similar records for the scholars at Eton College and King's College Cambridge enables the collation of a comparable dataset for these institutions spanning both the late medieval and early modern periods.

The scholars enrolled at the four colleges will be identified and tracked using archival records and biographical information to span the period c.1393-c.1660. College admission registers will provide the name, place of origin, age of scholars and date of their entry to the sample. Individuals will then be tracked through the education system using college accounts and hall books listing those in residence each term on a weekly basis. Deaths of scholars while resident in the colleges will be ascertained through notes in the admission registers and hall books, or funerary expenses and obits listed in college accounts. After departure from the colleges the majority of scholars will be tracked into their subsequent careers using biographical registers, such as those compiled by Emden, Foster, and Venn and Venn. [5] Career information will also be drawn from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the Clergy of the Church of England database, the volumes of the History of Parliament and similar resources. Biographical information will yield dates of death or last observation for those in the sample.

The information collated will be added to the relational database created for Dr Oakes' doctoral research and to that collated for the pilot project on King's mortality. This data will be used to calculate mortality rates at the colleges, to create life tables for the samples and to enable analysis of personal details such as place of origin and employment.

This project will be the largest of its kind for this period, and the dataset is likely to encompass over 8,000 individuals, providing the first directly observed serial data across both the late medieval and early modern periods. The project will enable assessment of long-term movements and trends in mortality and life expectancy among a collegiate sample population and will allow comparison with observed data for both the medieval and early modern periods. Comparison with data for both monastic communities and the broader population will highlight to what extent such sample data is representative of wider experiences and trends. This has important implications for our understanding of population history, and will allow better interpretation of medieval data derived from population sub-samples. Comparison of findings to data derived from parish records will also provide some means of checking the assumptions, statistical compensation for incomplete data, and methodology of The Population History of England.


  1. A. Hinde, England's Population: a history since the Domesday survey (London, 2003).
  2. E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield (eds.), The Population History of England 1541-1871: a reconstruction (London, 1981); E.A. Wrigley, R.S. Davies, J.E. Oeppen and R.S. Schofield, English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580-1837 (Cambridge, 1997).
  3. L.R. Poos, A rural society after the Black Death: Essex 1350-1525 (Cambridge, 1991); Z. Razi, Life, marriage and death in a medieval parish: economy, society and demography in Halesowen 1270-1400 (Cambridge, 1980).
  4. B. Harvey, Living and dying in England 1100-1540: the monastic experience (Oxford, 1993); J. Hatcher, 'Mortality in the fifteenth century: some new evidence', Economic History Review 2nd series 39 (1986), 19-38; J. Hatcher, A.J. Piper and D. Stone, 'Monastic mortality: Durham Priory 1395-1529', Economic History Review, 2nd series 59 (2006), 667-87.
  5. A.B. Emden, A biographical register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1957-9); idem., A biographical register of the University of Cambridge to A.D. 1500 (Oxford, 1963); idem., A biographical register of the University of Oxford A.D. 1501 – 1540 (Oxford, 1974); J. Foster, Alumni Oxonienses: the members of the university of Oxford, 1500-1714. 4 vols. (Oxford, 1891-2); J. Venn and J.A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses: From the earliest times to 1751. 4 vols. (Cambridge, 1922-7).