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Mortality and life expectancy: King's College, Cambridge c.1441 – c.1540

Mortality and life expectancy: King's College, Cambridge c.1441 – c.1540

Dr Rebecca Oakes

Project undertaken whilst in receipt of the Institute of Historical Research Economic History Society Eileen Power Fellowship 2009-10 and whilst a Visiting Scholar at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

This research examines mortality and life expectancy for the late medieval period, using the scholars of King's College as a case study sample. The dramatic drop in population following the Black Death is a defining feature of the late medieval period, however, the subsequent stagnation and delayed process of population recovery is poorly understood. The absence of parish data for this period makes it difficult to obtain accurate information relating to births, marriages and deaths which could be used to analyse the demographic history of late medieval England. Historians are forced to rely upon data for closed community samples, and previous studies have taken the Benedictine monks at Christ Church Canterbury, Westminster Abbey and Durham Priory as the basis for such work. The findings of these three monastic studies indicate that life expectancy at age twenty-five dropped dramatically from c. 1430 at each institution before beginning to show signs of improvement towards the end of the fifteenth century. However, the degree to which monastic communities were representative of the wider medieval population remains uncertain and more work is needed to provide comparative data from different types of population sample. This project provides one such comparison, using the scholars of King's College as a basis for the research.

The project uses admission records and college accounts to chart the progress of medieval scholars through this institution. Their later careers are also followed using Emden's Biographical register of the University of Cambridge, and Venn and Venn's Alumni Cantebrigiensis. The data will be used to calculate mortality rates and life expectancy for the sample group. The resulting database will also be used to analyse career patterns of medieval scholars and the administrative functioning of King's College in the late medieval period.

This methodology has been successfully employed for the scholars of Winchester College and New College, Oxford for Dr Oakes' doctoral research. This thesis demonstrated that the experiences of the medieval scholars at Winchester and New College did not follow the same pattern as that for the monks across the three Benedictine monasteries. A drop in life expectancy at age twenty-five was observed among the Winchester sample group, and the timing of this drop coincides with that witnessed at the three monasteries. However, the scale of the drop was much less severe and the data is more consistent with the range of life expectancy estimates for the early modern period.

The current project seeks to add new comparative data from King's College, which might indicate whether the mortality experiences observed at Winchester College and New College, Oxford were common to other medieval educational institutions. This will contribute to our better understanding of medieval mortality and life expectancy. The degree to which different types of closed community sample might be considered as representative of the wider medieval population will also be explored through analysis of the different life experiences of the scholars and the monastic communities of previous studies.

Project update

Initial work was undertaken on the scholars of King's College over the course of the academic year 2009-10. A successful application for British Academy postdoctoral funding has led to the extension of this project into the early modern period (to c.1660) to enable comparison with parish record analyses. The new project also includes data for Winchester College and New College Oxford for the same period. Details of this project can be found on the 'Bridging the Gap' project page.

Articles based on this research are currently in preparation for submission to journals.