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Don’t trust anyone who thinks 30 was ever old

March 7, 2013

This is a rant/public service announcement.

I’ve recently been reading a lot of literary criticism about Medieval, Renaissance, and 19th century literature, and it seems like every third or fourth critic (every two or three among those talking about the Middle Ages) makes a statement along these lines: “Character X is {30, 35, 40} years old. But we must remember that life expectancy in this era was only 30-something years. X would have been seen as an old man.”

If you ever come across a claim like this, it is almost invariably false. Why? Well, Wikipedia offers a good explanation: “life expectancy generally quoted is the at birth number which is an average that includes all the babies that die before their first year of life as well as people that die from disease and war.” Life expectancy for those who reach, say, age 21 (i.e. those who don’t die in childbirth or of a childhood disease) is almost almost a great deal longer than life expectancy from birth–the two numbers differ sometimes by as much as thirty years. A baby in medieval Britain would live on average to be 30, but a twenty-one-year-old would live on average to be 64.

Once reaching adulthood, people have generally lived to be around sixty. When that number has been lower than sixty, it’s usually because of something apocalyptic, e.g. the Black Death in 14th-century Europe or the AIDS pandemic in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa. The number has gone up gradually over the last several centuries, and it’s about eighty in the civilized world today. That’s an increase to be sure, but not anywhere near as dramatic as most people imagine. The real increase has been in life expectancy from birth, but that’s mostly because of huge reductions in the infant mortality rate and the invention of vaccines for dangerous childhood illnesses.

Why do I care? I don’t particularly care about literary scholars getting the facts exactly right (though they maybe should, since they often think of themselves as historians), but it’s one thing to be imprecise, and another to echo grade-school level caricatures. Especially caricatures intended to perpetuate a false view of historical and scientific progress. And especially caricatures applied most frequently to Medieval Europe in an implied invocation of the supposed connection between religiosity and backwardness.

Really, how do articles making this claim even get published? English professors often see themselves as opposed to the secular-liberal-humanist triumphalist picture of history, but they still can’t seem to stop thinking from inside of it. Maybe because the picture they want to put in its place doesn’t actually think the past has something to offer us, it just doesn’t think the present has anything to offer either, except perhaps the new-found possibility of critiquing it.

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