How tall were people in the Middle Ages? A new study from the University of Oslo has examined the height of 227 people who lived in medieval Norway, revealing that elite members of that society tended to be taller and had stronger bones.
In the study, published in PLOS ONE, the authors examined the remains of 125 males and 102 females from five burial sites spanning the 11th through 16th centuries AD. Two of the sites, a royal church and a Dominican monastery, yielded the remains of high-status individuals, while the other three sites represented parish populations. For each individual, the researchers measured patterns of bone mineral density.
The team discovered that the average height for the high-status group was 175.4 cm for males and 164.2 cm for females, while the averages in the parish group were 174.6 cm for males and 160.7 cm for females. By contrast, modern-day Norwegian men are 179.74 cm tall, while Norwegian women are, on average, 165.56 cm.
In general, high-status individuals were taller and had higher bone mineral density compared with the parish populations. This pattern likely reflects differences in nutrition, activity level, and susceptibility to disease brought on by differing lifestyles between high-class and low-class individuals. These results were also influenced by other factors.
For example, the authors note the importance of physical activities for children and young people in determining their long-term health. They write:
Child labor was widespread in the medieval peasant community, which entailed an active daily lifestyle denoted by walking and weight-bearing exercise. Children of the nobility learnt the art of combat from an early age, which involved daily training and hours of horseback riding. However, their lifestyle was generally more sedentary and characterized by prolonged sitting. This socioeconomic status (SES)-related difference in physical activity may have positively impacted peak bone mineral density (BMD) in our parish population group compared to our high-status group.
The study found that women showed more marked differences in skeletal traits between the socioeconomic groups as compared to men, possibly indicating that women in medieval Norway experienced a particularly high degree of lifestyle differences influenced by social class. The article adds:
The increased BMD in elderly females in the high-status group may reflect nutritional and lifestyle factors influencing BMD from an early age. High-status females had such favorable living conditions enabling them to, e.g., recover from years of multiple pregnancies and depletion of bodily resources to a much larger degree than the parish population females. They could pay for upkeep and care in old age and would probably have enjoyed a varied and nutritious diet. When comparing mean BMD between SES groups for a specific sex and age group, we could only detect a significant difference between old adult females: the high status females had a significantly higher mean BMD than the parish females.
Overall, this data offers a valuable understanding of the complex ways in which socioeconomic status has influenced health over the centuries.
The article, “Social stratification reflected in bone mineral density and stature: Spectral imaging and osteoarchaeological findings from medieval Norway,” by Elin T. Brødholt, Kaare M. Gautvik, Clara-Cecilie Günther, Torstein Sjøvold and Per Holck, is published in PLOS ONE. Click here to read it.
Top Image: Wooden head of a monk from Urnes Stave Church, Western Norway, dated to circa 1200. Exhibited at Bergen Museum. Photo by Arild Finne Nybø / Flickr