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Would you have survived in the middle ages?

By Shamus
on Tuesday Jul 17, 2007
Filed under:


Last weekend one of my gaming buddies and I were talking about surgery. I have surgery coming up this weekend and we were comparing notes. One thing we both realized was that both of us would have died before we were six if not for modern medicine. He had his appendix out at five. My life more or less depends on medication to keep my asthma under control. I’ve had several life-saving trips to the hospital due to severe attacks in my lifetime.

I’ve mused on this sort of thing before, but since we were about to play D&D in a fantasy setting my mind was on it again. In the medieval times people got married at ages that would scandalize us today. They began having sex at a young age, and continued to do so without birth control for their entire lives. Women cranked out babies at an alarming pace, yet the population remained flat. Run those numbers in your head and it becomes clear that people who lived to adulthood where a small minority of the total number of people born. Their lives were bleak, harsh, and filled with death. They died of things that are trivial to fix today.

I wouldn’t have made it. Asthma would have killed me. If that didn’t get me, the infection I had at 20 would have done the job.

My dad would have died six months before I was born.

My mother would have died a few years after I was born.

My friend wouldn’t have made it. He would have died of a burst appendix at five.

I think my brothers and my sister would have made it. (Ignoring the fact that two of them were born after my mother would have died.)

How about you? How long would you have lived in the middle ages? Ignore all the general risks – like typhoid or the plague or cholera – that everyone would have faced in general. Let’s assume you were lucky and missed those. (Unless by some chance you actually DID face one of them in your life.) Also ignore the fact that your deadly injury might have been caused by modern technology, like an auto accident. Just pretend you were trampled by a horse or something. So, given the injuries and illness you’ve faced in your life so far: Did you make it? Would you have survived to your current age?

I don’t want to go on the cart!
I don’t want to go on the cart!

I’m curious to see the responses on this one. If you like, post your results to your blog (I’ll link back) and pose the same question to your readers. If you don’t have a blog you could always use the comment gizmo below. I hear it works pretty good.

(ADDITIONAL: To answer goblinpaladin’s question below, yes. Let’s assume we didn’t die in a flood, or a famine, or get worked to death, or die in a war, or anything else like that. Let’s just go with what’s happened to us in our modern lives. For a lot of us, even that is enough to kill us.)

The tally so far:

On The Cart Pulling The Cart
Shamus Young
Steven Den Beste
Winged Ignorance
Sir Sefirot
Jag Dell
Delta Force Leader
Michael L
Tom Gunn
Doug Brown
Anonymous Botch
Tarous Zars
Space Bumby
Mr. Blue
David H.
Shadow Wolf
Doug Sundseth
Al Billings
Ken Talton
Joe M
Corsair (Don’t be such a baby!)
Mrs T
J Greely
M Hamann
Attorney At Chaos
Raved Thrad
Justin Alexander
Mark Caliber
Clint Memo
Mrs. Who
Matt J
Robin Z
Melfina the Blue
Rev.Dr.Blacky Thanatos Roach
Jennifer Snow
Anh Minh
gomi no sensei (Pulling with gusto!)
Nathan M.
Michael McHenry
Matt P
Segev Stormlord
Dan Morrison
Skeeve the Impossible
Dev Null
Nanja Kang
Osvaldo Mandias
Jack of Spades
Jeremy Bowers
Dave Klecha
Pixy Misa
Purple Library Guy
Paul Arthur

A further thought: I should have made three columns for our list above: On the cart, Pulling the cart, and Beggars. A lot of so-called cart-pullers up there are missing limbs, very ill, blind, or otherwise not up to performing their cart-pulling duties.

Comments (451)

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  1. Sugar Fix says:

    I recorded a song based on a similar thread over on marginalrevolution.com. The question was, how would you survive if transported back to the middle ages with nothing but the clothes on your back.


  2. max says:

    To be fair though you likely would not have had asthma, its wide presence is a modern phenomena (for unknown reasons).

  3. huffer says:

    I would have (and dare to say did) made it :)

    I was (and hopefully be from now on as long as possible) healthy as a bull (worst case of illness I remember was common infuenza, and I passed by it with no medication — anyway, it was not the type to die from). No accidents or anything else that needed special modern day intervention.

    But you must remember the vaccines you receive when you’re young: that will certainly spoil the statistics.

    As of my parents, I think they would have made it as well, be it the XIInd century or the XXth – at least until they would have given birth to me and raised me to a certain age.

    So, as an animal, I would have survived… As a human however, in today’s society, my doubts are stronger and stronger :)

  4. Scott says:

    Would have died when I was born. Born breach, Butt first, not legs… Lungs collapsed right when I was born. If it wasn’t for the ONLY hospital in Florida with a prenatal center, I would have died.

    Thank you modern medicine…

  5. Dead at 18 with Testicular Cancer.

  6. I actually would have done pretty well until the age of 26, when I would have suddenly died from the mysterious affliction known as Diabetes (even back then, they knew what it was by tasting the urine as part of the autopsy process).

    Is that a rife old age in medieval times? I suspect they might have considered me to have had a full life…

  7. cm says:

    I was born with a heart defect that has a 90% mortality rate in the first year if uncorrected.

  8. herval says:

    Interesting question indeed… :-)

    Besides one deaf ear (got a surgery when I was 6 months old), guess I’d be ok (and a lot thinner without any Burger King or Pizza Hut around!)

    But man, I’d kill myself without Internet… :-P

  9. Phreaky Phil says:

    I am 5’10 inches and 210 i would be dead by now not for any medical reason. But i am pretty sure i would have died with valor in combat by now. age 22

  10. Falco Rusticula says:

    Stepped on a broken teapot in a muddy stream at the age of seven or eight. The cut required stitches. Even if I hadn’t picked up something nasty (like, say…tetanus) I likely would have been weak on that foot for the rest of my life.

    I also had mild asthma when very young, though I don’t know if that would’ve klled me.

  11. Low-Level DM says:

    I was born C-section, so that there might have done it for me, but assuming I got through that I’d be okay, except for the fact that I’m pretty badly nearsighted. Still, if I’d taken up a job as a scribe or cleric, I might have made it (I can read fine, but can’t make out much that’s more than a room or two away.)

  12. Sean says:

    Probably alive – I’ve managed to avoid any major injuries or illnesses. A lot of it depends on the social class I was born into – I’d never survive if I had to hunt without glasses, for instance, and many peasants needed to be able to hunt to support themselves. If I were a noble, my family would have shuffled me off into the clergy and done their best to forget I ever existed. In terms of lifespan, that’s probably the best opportunity anyway.

  13. Icewind says:

    Hm… would be alive as far as I remember.. Not having had any major infections/broken bones/diseases… I would be a little bit short sighted, but thats prolly due to reading/computers… currently 23, so I would have my own children by now, of which a couple died… hm…

  14. Autumn says:

    No, probably not. I had a mild case of walking pneumonia, had a bad tooth (with a pus pocket), and had a bad colon problem when I was younger, and if I had any kids I wouldn’t have survived childbirth. And let’s not forget my sorry excuse for an immune system. Yup, I wouldn’t have made it.

  15. General Karthos says:

    Well, seeing as the last post was only about two months back, I guess I should add myself. I had no life-threatening illnesses as a kid. I got through Strep Throat (not sure how life-threatening that is) and H1N1 as a college student. Didn’t even know that I’d HAD H1N1 until AFTER it had happened. I recovered naturally. (Of course, my health would have been more fragile in the early times, so who knows for sure, but I’ve been lucky.)

    In terms of injuries, I have never broken a bone (even a finger or toe), never had a REALLY bad injury (got pretty well scraped up falling off my bike, but I think I would have survived even in the middle ages, since it wasn’t major injuries.

    Ah, but my wisdom teeth grew in impacted. That would have killed me in medieval times through a horrible, festering infection in my jaw. So yeah… I’d actually be on the cart.

  16. Supah_Ewok says:

    In the interests of moving this post toward 400 comments, I’m not sure where I’d end up. I had a long string of ear infections as a child, which, if they didn’t kill me, (not sure of the lethality of ear infections) would have left me with impaired hearing/deaf. And in between those I’d get strep throat, which I got through with penicillin.

    Edit: And 400! Is this the longest running comment string on this blog? When is Shamus going to run out of different kinds of dice for these posts :P

  17. Bryan says:

    So this got linked again, from http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=9189 — and I have to comment. I’d have been in the cart at age 2.

    Hooray for insulin!

  18. Klay F. says:

    I would have totally been 6 feet underground by the time I turned 19. I got Ulcerative Colitis about right after my 19th birthday and I had to have my entire large intestine removed. No way in hell would I have survived that surgery.

  19. Lina says:

    Probably would have lived. I was a tad underweight when I was born, otherwise there have been no particular complications to this point (thank god). So yep, pulling the cart :P.

  20. Rachael says:

    I have a heart defect that almost killed me as it is, so curtains for me. My dad would have died at fifteen of kidney disease. My mother probably would have died of anemia fairly young. One of my sisters would have died of an infection probably, but the other would have survived.

  21. Kristi says:

    That’s not actually true. It is true, that nobles and people with wealth did marry young, but they didn’t have sex regularly as they pent most times seperated from their spouses. They married early to secure alligences between families and countries and to begin to take advantages of those allegiances. They waited until a more acceptable age to actually conssumate the marriages. In England the age of consent was 18, and in Scotland 16. That’s where the custom of running off to Gretna Green to marry came from.

    Most pesants in the middle ages didn’t marry and reproduce until their mid to late 20’s to ensure that they wouldn’t have many children (and more mouths to feed) and cut their females survival rate down to something more acceptable.

    While the main reason for marriage was reproduction, that was, once again, mostly concerning the wealthy as they needed an heir.

    This is one of those common misconceptions, right up there with the fact that medieval bastard swords must have weighed 30 pounds. When it comes down to it, people back then weren’t any stupider than we are today, and they would know how to avoid certian things. Many forms of birth control have been around for thousands of years.

    They have found an ancient Mesopotamian scroll, dated 1850 BC, that includes oral and other forms of protection against birth control.
    For as long as women have been having sex with men, there have been contraceptives of some form or another.

  22. I would probably have lived, since I’ve never had any medicine of the “YOU NEED THIS TO LIVE” variety. However, I did once have a major debilitating spinal condition which was corrected by surgery. I’d have made it to my 20’s, at least, but probably would be stuck in some tower ringing bells and talking to gargoyles, which was apparently what hunchbacks did in those days.

  23. xXDarkWolfXx says:

    I wouldnt have made it because i dont think they have a method for extracting newborns with slightly oversized heads from the womb without killing the mother

  24. Ardis Meade says:

    I am like MacDuff, who was “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d”, but if I survived birth I would be fine. Maybe a bit hard of hearing from the occasional ear infection but healthy. It’s quite possible that without as much food to pig out on and all the manual labor to counteract my slow metabolism, I might be in better shape than I am now.

  25. Soupie says:

    I am a twin amd was born 2.5 months early. I would be dead. Also around the age of four, I got many ear infections, im clumsy….gotten many open wounds and infections from tripping over stuff. Severe migrains…..I’d be so dead.

  26. Chloe says:

    Okay, I’m a bit slow but I would have made it :) YAY!

  27. Vickie in TX says:

    I probably would not have survived. My mother had complications when I was born. We both almost died. I was in a car accident at 4 and had I not been in front of a medical building I would have bled to death. At twenty-five found out that I was lucky to be alive when they removed a ten pound ovarian cyst and later three more large cysts. I would have never had my children either, because they wouldn’t have been able to do the microsurgery necessary to correct my inability to have children. So I must say I feel blessed today. This is a cool post. Thanks for creating the site. :)

  28. SInistermanualist says:

    I would not have made it. I would have been burned at the stake for my left-handed witch-craft.

  29. La Fifille says:

    I’m pretty sure I would have made it. I got a tiny bit sick with jaundice after birth, but apart from that I’ve been almost completely healthy. I also have extremely mild acid reflux, but that’s only a small annoyance and doesn’t cause any problems, so I’d take my chances ;) The only thing I’d be worried about is that I’m a small, pretty, weak girl and a little clumsy, so work would’ve been hard to find and the chance of being raped/kidnapped would’ve been…too high for comfort.

  30. URL says:

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  31. stefano marone says:

    on the cart… I was born by forceps.

  32. Violetta says:

    Fascinating discussion! (Sorry I’m five years late!)

    I don’t think I’d have died of an illness; I’ve never had one that required urgent medical treatment. The one time I thought I was going to die from an as-yet-unidentified respiratory malfunction, it went away in two weeks on its own after the nurse prescribed stomach pills and I refused to take them because I was convinced that I don’t breathe with my stomach.
    There was the time I had to leave my college class early to get a shot due to a sudden reaction to spoiled fish, but the symptoms didn’t even get to movement-inhibiting levels. That was the time I called up my family to tell them what happened, only to hear that they’d had a nightmare about my dying from it and held a prayer vigil days earlier. o_o
    That’s kind of how we address all our problems, even in the era of modern medicine. Even the remission of my mother’s cancer didn’t correspond to the pattern of what drugs she was or wasn’t given at any particular time, it followed the pattern of our spiritual activities and the herbs we smuggled into the hospital for her. Starting from my parents’ adulthood when they got to make their own health decisions, as long as Mom managed to survive the C-section of my younger sister, the whole family most likely could have handled whatever a medieval lifestyle threw at us.
    And then we’d have been burned as witches–especially me, thanks to my pathological inability to keep things to myself. I freak out MODERN people by asking them about OBEs and shadow people. I’d be toast in a society that took me seriously.

    Now I’m imagining my medieval self going into hiding from the lynch mobs and then starving to death with a cavern full of fresh berries just because I’m too absent-minded to eat regularly without prompting. Or trying to pet a cute fuzzy bear and bleeding to death on the forest floor while it ate my limbs. Or forgetting to sleep until I hallucinated and fell off a cliff. Or forgetting why I was in hiding in the first place and trying to ask the Inquisition if I could borrow a copy of the Apocrypha. My hypothetical ancient life is complicated. ^_^;

  33. BookWorm848 says:

    I’d never have been born. My grandmother on my mother’s side had 3 cesarians (and this was back when they only did those when necessary) and my mother was the third. I’m the oldest of 3 and was a cesarian (again, necessary, not planned). Given I’d survived that I’d be just fine. No bad illnesses(chicken pox, a couple colds), no flu or infections. I would have horrid teeth and be short sighted (but probably not so much it would affect my health).

  34. Galad says:

    Necro time! :P

    I might not have survived. I’m “only” 26, and have had no major or chronic illnesses that would require me to take medicine regularly, but I did have some sort of nether region surgery when I was a little kid, which would’ve been impossible in the middle ages. something about declogging the tubes of the weenie, iirc Whether not fixing this would let me live to 26 in the middle ages, I don’t know, but I’d guess the odds are against.

  35. Mr. Son says:

    Oh good, I’m not the first 2013er popping in here.

    I was a cesarean birth, and took about almost 2 minutes to start breathing, so I think I might have been out of the running from the start.

    And that’s not even digging back into my family’s medical history. Which is… varied.

  36. Aldowyn says:

    Alive, I think. I had a few infections as a kid, but nothing fatal, and seasonal allergies don’t generally kill a person. Pretty blind, though.

  37. Tvtim says:

    I think I’d have been fine really. The only real problem I had was getting a tooth pulled, and one time when I broke a finger in gym class (which being in the middle ages, no gym class, no broken finger).

    HOWEVER; i’m too lazy to pull a cart, I’d just jump on for a ride and jump off some time later when the puller wasn’t looking.

  38. reedsgran says:

    On the cart! Breast cancer , angioplasty, gall bladder. And that’s just for starters.

  39. Caitlyn says:

    I would be alive and kicking. In fact, I’d probably live even longer back then, since I wouldn’t have unlimited junk food and a TV or computer to keep me lazy.

  40. Vorthulus says:

    I would probably be in the cart as I suffer from asthma and epilepsy and if that didn’t get me the spinal meningitis or salmonella I’ve had probably would’ve finished the job.

  41. hamilton says:

    have you ever wondered why our for-fathers were more healthy and lived longer than us, as for injuries there were people who specialize on massaging broken and shifted joints back to its original position. and i have seen a situation where a woman in labor was unable to born because the baby was not in the right position, but one old man was able to position the baby without the help of anybody the woman gave birth safely.

  42. lucky7 says:

    Caesarian Birth. If I made it, my mom and my little brother wouldn’t have (he was Caesarian as well)

  43. Thomas Adamson says:

    Barring some sort of septicemia resulting from many cuts and abrasions I am totally pulling the cart.

  44. YeahNo says:

    I have a very cancerous gene….super cancerous. My chances at cancer are 50/50. I have asthma, but if I were a knight and trained to be one since I could train, I’d be healthy and most likely woundnt need an inhaler. Pollution today is a major cause. But once I hit my twenties, I would most likely have cancer, leukemia…prostate…or throat. The commons in my family. My sis might have made it but I think she was born with pneumonia, which wasn’t even treatable until the 1950s, even then it was harsh.

  45. Raven_Sloth says:

    I don’t have much hope in this case. Though I have had no life threatening injures, I almost got pneumonia once, it was awful, and when I was around 5 the eye doctor told my dad that if he didn’t get me glasses I would go blind. I’m not so sure about this, but when I take off my glasses I can see fine and get a headache or I can straighten my eyes, see nothing, and still be able to think. But hey I don’t have allergies and I’m not sure most other people would have them since some parasites that would be common place during this time will actually stop you from having allergic reactions to pets and pollen.

  46. moonlup says:

    Since Shamus linked this post today, I don’t feel bad replying to it.

    I’m not sure if I would’ve survived. I never had any major illnesses as a kid, though I was legally blind until my LASIK procedure. And I was hit by a car when I was 4 or so, but all it did was knock me out. The hospital released me the same day.

    Given my current career of working with animals, I might have lost a finger or hand, though, due to cat and dog bites. I’ve taken more antibiotics in the past three years than I have in my entire life.

    Mom had major depression and apparently heart issues, so she’s gone. Dad probably died when I was five and he was out with the flu. If I remember correctly, he nearly did anyway. We were kinda poor and couldn’t afford hospital visits except for the most serious of things.

    Besides missing a finger, my brother is fine.

  47. Wide And Nerdy says:

    Got an interesting one. The one time I was at any real risk of dying as a kid was when the ocean nearly pulled me out. Some guy (not a lifeguard) swam out and saved me. Now, people didn’t generally know how to swim back then so on the one hand there might not have been a guy there to save me, on the other hand, I don’t think I’d have been in the ocean if I didn’t know how to swim.

  48. Tomcat says:

    Born C-Sec, I would have survived normal birth, my mother probably not.
    had no Major health problems until 15, then came some pretty bad “growing pains” arthritis that had me unable to walk for more than 500m or so which finally went away at around 21, and last year at 24 I developed crohn’s, so I would be horrifically malnourished and probably would have shat out ALL my blood by now.

    so just Chuck me in a ditch plant some flowers and have done with.

    I’d figure I would have had some sprogs by age 24 since I was going at it from my early teens anyway and they had no such thing as contraceptive back then so at-least my genes would have a slight chance of surviving

  49. Scampi says:

    Interesting-I never came across this post before. I guess I’d have made it to the age of 32 but with some little annoying problems (I needed my labial frenulum cut and such small operations) and probably some serious pain while doing physical work due to a broken hand I suffered last year. Elseways I seem to be rather resistent to most inconvenience: I don’t use medication, don’t get injured much and even enjoy the luck of genetically healthy teeth.
    So…bring out your dead?

  50. capnhook says:

    Well, I’m only 20 but at this point I’d still be aces. No surgery, no illnesses beyond minor colds or fevers, and I’ve never suffered worse injury than a rolled ankle. Heck, I’d even still have a mouthful of teeth! This young dutch lad would be hauling that cart with the best of them.

  51. Abnaxis says:

    Wow, how did I never see this post before now?

    I’ve been type I diabetic (the insulin-dependent kind, that they used to call juvenile-onset) since I was eight. I would have died painfully and horribly before puberty.

    So yeah, definitely on the cart. In fact, if I ever got stranded in time in the middle ages, I would wind up on the cart within a matter of weeks.

  52. archon1212 says:

    i would have died at birth – there was a slit in my diaphram which made it improsible to breath and i would have suffocated as soon as i had to breath on my own.

  53. Peter says:

    I would have been on the cart after about six weeks (meningitis), if I had survived being born “the wrong way around” (not head-first)

  54. Paul Spooner says:

    Building the cart.
    No broken bones or major medical problems. Worst I’ve got is hay-fever, but not life-threatening.

  55. Coffeedog14 says:

    Able to pull the cart, but probably not willing.

    I was born without issue. not particularly sickly as a child. had colds and flus and chickenpox, nothing that was a death sentence (though the odds would have been against me, and of course I had all my shots that helps)

    a few years back I broke my collarbone, BAD. the bone nearly pushed out of my skin, and the sharp bit was laying on a nerve. I had surgery, but would’ve healed. Slow, slow, agonizing healing. and I probably wouldn’t be able to lift my arm up all the way.

    Next year, broke the same bone again, an inch away. it was a far better break, and healed naturally without issue.

    So I’m alive, and can even work! but my right arm likely aches like nobodies business during weather changes and the like, and I probably don’t enjoy doing strenuous, arm-angling tasks like pulling a cart.

  56. Kay says:

    I’d be a healthy cart-puller. Nothing worse happened to me than having a nasty flu for a couple of weeks, which I did nothing about because I’m stubborn and macho and dumb, and think the answer to illness is to tough it out and tell myself I’m fine. And the occasional micro-concussion, which may or may not have contributed to the dumb. Both of which seem plenty medieval.

  57. Dayfly says:

    Collapsed lung at birth, not too mention being a preterm birth by 4 weeks.

    And inguinal hernia at 9 months I think. Untreated it is usually fatal.

    Yup, I’d have been a goner before learning to walk.

  58. Austin says:

    Pullin’ the cart! YEAH! Unless you count that time I broke my little toe.

  59. Orickel says:

    My parents and the elder brother had it quite alright and so did I. There were several times in my life when I got food poisoning or got ill, but nothing that required hospitalisation. Though, among the illnesses I weathered, there was chickenpox, and I’m neither a doctor nor a historian to say how severe it would be to have it in medieval times.

    When I was ~8 y.o., I’ve once hit my head very hard and after that I started to quickly get sick whenever riding anything (like a car). Some pills helped me to get rid of this. In medieval, it would be forever unpleasant for me to ride on a horse or a cart (ha!).

    I’ve never broke any limbs, but once got a crack on a bone near my right hand. Without plastering, it could grow together a bit crooked.

    I’m not mentally well, resulting in extreeme aloofness and apathy. Also, I have psoriasis, and though only my skin is affected (it can also cause joint pains), without regular washing I would probably look like a victim of plague.

    So, I wouldn’t pull the cart. I would be a creepy, wacky hermit, changing my dwelling place with every local witchhunt.

  60. Thomas Steven Slater says:

    My diabetes turned up when I was 20, that would definitely have killed me so so very very dead.

  61. Austin says:

    I wouldn’t even have survived birth, I had an undecended testicle, which by itself isn’t a big deal, but I also had extra blood in my head which caused seizures, and if I managed to survive I probably would have been thrown out, I would have died before 1 week

  62. Ieldra says:

    Nice thought experiment. My mother would’ve died in childbirth when I was born, along with my twin sister who actually did die. I would’ve acquired a movement impairment in my right arm (radius fracture) at ten and an amputated toe (infection) at 16. Then I would’ve survived but lost half of my teeth until I was 40, when I would’ve died from a burst appendix. A successful life by the standards of the day – I would’ve made it beyond the average life expectancy. Assuming I could’ve found a line of work where my extreme shortsightedness was not too much of an impairment, which should’ve been possible.

  63. Apple Tree says:

    Would have made it. The only time I spend in a hospital was for something they could not figure out and that went away on its own. I don’t think I have ever even gotten antibiotics.

    But I would probably be blind in one eye. Because while the problem is easy to treat even by medieval standards, they probably would not have known how or even noticed it before it was too late.

  64. NIX says:

    Well, even though I had my apendix out at around… i think I was 12, I had a severe case of the flu at 8, so I don’t think I’d last that long. Plus my dad would have been dead 15+ years from when he blew his face off using gunpowder. So yeah, on the cart.

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