Lifespan of the European Nobility from the Dark Ages to the Industrial Revolution

Neil Cummins summarizes his paper "Longevity and the Rise of the West: Lifespans of the European Elite, 800-1800":
European nobility specialized in the execution of violence. Their genealogies connected them to the Barbarian conquerors of Europe following the decline of the Roman Empire. A large proportion of noble men died in battle. To investigate precisely how many nobles died from violence, I employed a general version of the famous birthday problem. First year statistics students are often introduced to probability via the surprisingly low number of people it takes to have a high probability of a shared birthday. If we take the number of exact-date deaths per year, n, and the number of deaths on a given day, m, we can calculate the probability that a given n-m combination occurs randomly or is likely the result of a battle. I use this ‘clumping’ technique to estimate the proportion of nobles dying from violence. My estimates are presented in figure 1 below. Violence suddenly declines within this warrior caste in the 16th century. [. . .]

Nobles live significantly shorter lives in the South and East relative to the North and West. My analysis indicates that this Mortality pattern has existed since 1000AD.

These results have implications for theories of the rise of Europe. The European Mortality Pattern revealed above correlates with those regions which later experience the Industrial Revolution first. Recent research has suggested that “The Great Divergence” of East and West is preceded by a little divergence of East and West, within Europe, around the time of the Black Death (1347). This research shows that North-West Europe was differentiated from the rest of the continent by its demographics centuries before the Black Death.

A new set of stylised facts has been uncovered that seem to raise more questions than they answer. Why were noble lifespans longer in Northwest Europe in 1000AD? What caused noble lifespan to shoot upwards in 1400? Why did violence decline so suddenly in the 16th century? Future research will tell us more.

From the paper:
ABSTRACT I analyze the age at death of 121,524 European nobles from 800 to 1800. Longevity began increasing long before 1800 and the Industrial Revolution, with marked increases around 1400 and again around 1650. Declines in violence contributed to some of this increase, but the majority must reflect other changes in individual behavior. The areas of North-West Europe which later witnessed the Industrial Revolution achieved greater longevity than the rest of Europe even by 1000 AD. The data suggest that the 'Rise of the West' originates before the Black Death. [. . .]

Further, a list of the 3,133 sources will be provided in a data file on my website, Following publication, replication files and data will be provided there too. [. . .]

This study has characterized noble lifespans from 800 to 1800. The results have many implications. Firstly, the sharp decline in the proportion of male nobles dying from violence, from at least 600 years of a steady 30% to less than 5% in the 16th century, predates the arrival of the Industrial Revolution by two centuries. The long run decline in violence 25 is cited as one of the principal correlates of the emergence of the modern World. Why did violence decline among European nobility? Was it a ‘bottom-up’ behavioral change (perhaps as a result of natural selection, as Clark (2007) suggests for the general population) or was it a response to changing ‘top-down’ institutional incentives (as argued by Acemoglu and Robinson (2012))? [. . .]

Finally, this paper documents a previously unknown European mortality pattern, Sim- ilar to that for marriage first documented by Hajnal (1965), the mortality gradient runs South-North and East-West, and has existed since before the Black Death 30 . The long existence of such a geographic effect has implications for recent work which stresses the ‘little divergence’ between the North-West of Europe and the South-East (Voigtländer and Voth (2013), Broadberry (2013) and de Pleijt and van Zanden (2013)). The Black Death is not the first turning point. There was something about the North-West of Europe long before 1346 that led to nobles living longer lives.

These results suggests that the ‘Rise of the West’ does not solely originate in institutional innovations of the 17th century (Acemoglu and Robinson (2012)) nor in social reactions to the Black Death (Voigtländer and Voth (2013)). Western exceptionalism exists in individual behavior differences that are present since at least the first millennium AD.

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