New perspectives on mortality in medieval England: a comparison of Winchester and New Colleges (c.1390-1540) with Benedictine monasteries at Canterbury, Westminster and Durham
By Rebecca Oakes
Paper given at Death, disease, environment and social status: new approaches to mortality in England 1380-1860, held at the University of Cambridge (2009)
Introduction: The late medieval period is one of the most fascinating periods in the history of population change. This period includes the arrival of the Black Death in 1348, perhaps one of the more momentous and well known events in English history. The subsequent and significant drop in population is widely acknowledged. However, the sustained period of population stagnation in the two centuries following the arrival of the plague is less well understood. The lack of systematic records of births, marriages and deaths for this period make it hard to establish why the population failed to recover for such a long time after the arrival of the Black Death. Without such records it is near impossible to analyse the roles of fertility and mortality in shaping the population history of this period. Instead we are often forced to rely upon case study samples of population in which individuals within a group or community are well recorded. The Benedictine monasteries of Christ Church, Canterbury, Westminster Abbey and Durham Priory are three such communities, and have yielded exceptional data on mortality and life expectancy across the late medieval period. Yet even these studies acknowledge that questions remain as to the degree to which these samples might be considered as representative of the wider medieval population. The monastic case studies have yielded data which suggests all three communities had similar experiences of mortality and life expectancy across the period. However, different types of case study are needed to compare the impact of lifestyle and the nature of the community under observation upon the data that have been obtained.
This paper presents the findings of one such study. It compares the data from the monastic case studies to that derived from my own study of Winchester College and New College, Oxford. This research was undertaken for my recently completed doctoral thesis, and utilised the records of these two sister institutions to examine mortality and life expectancy from 1393 – 1540. Its focus on an educational establishment rather than a monastic community has proved fruitful, and the findings suggest a somewhat different picture to that provided by the monastic case studies.