The Little Ice Age and Health: Europe from the Early Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century
By Richard H. Steckel
Published Online (2010)
Abstract: In recent years economic historians have analyzed data from skeletal remains for insights into long term trends in health. A large project underway in Europe has collected information on stature (from femur length), infections, degenerative joint disease, dental disease, iron/vitamin deficiencies, trauma, and specific diseases such as TB, rickets, and leprosy.
Earlier literature reveals a long-term U-shaped pattern in stature from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Northern Europeans were remarkably tall during the early Middle Ages, at the height of the Medieval warm period, and did not regain this stature until the turn of the twentieth century, after the little ice age subsided. The minimum occurred near the middle of the seventeenth century, during the coldest period.
This paper analyzes the consequences of climate change on seven measures of health gathered from the remains of 17,250 individuals who lived in Europe at 100 localities from 200 to 1900 A.D, finding that cool temperatures and temperature variability were bad for health. Impacts on the production and distribution of food and lags in making adaptive investments are plausible mechanisms.