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New Light on the “Dark Ages”

The Remarkably Tall Stature of Northern European Men during the Medieval Era

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 January 2016

Abstract

Based on a modest sample of skeletons from northern Europe, average heights fell from 173.4 centimeters in the early Middle Ages to a low of roughly 167 centimeters during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taking the data at face value, this decline of approximately 6.4 centimeters substantially exceeds any prolonged downturns found during industrialization in several countries that have been studied. Significantly, recovery to levels achieved in the early Middle Ages was not attained until the early twentieth century. It is plausible to link the decline in average height to climate deterioration; growing inequality; urbanization and the expansion of trade and commerce, which facilitated the spread of diseases; fluctuations in population size that impinged on nutritional status; the global spread of diseases associated with European expansion and colonization; and conflicts or wars over state building or religion. Because it is reasonable to believe that greater exposure to pathogens accompanied urbanization and industrialization, and there is evidence of climate moderation, increasing efficiency in agriculture, and greater interregional and international trade in foodstuffs, it is plausible to link the reversal of the long-term height decline with dietary improvements.

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Copyright © Social Science History Association 2004

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