Have you ever wondered about the age of people in movies or TV shows? Notice that Mr and Mrs Bennet appear to be in their 50’s or 60’s? What was the life expectancy during Jane Austen’s time?”
I watch a lot of shows, and it is strange to see what age people are in shows compared to their real age. The show Reign, which is based on Mary, Queen of Scots, the main characters (Mary and Francis) are depicted as late teens to twenties. In reality, in the mid 1500’s, Francis was 14 years old when he and Mary were wed, 15 years old when his father died and Francis was made king. He was only 16 years old when he died, from an ear infection that caused abscess in his brain. After him, his much younger brothers took their turns on the throne (Charles IX who was 10 years old when he became king, died at the age of 23, leaving the crown to his brother Henry III, who was took the crown at the age 23. He lived to the ripe old age of 37). Mary was ancient at 44 when she died, after being married 3 times and imprisoned for years. She was only 16 when she married Francis.
Look at the movie Becoming Jane. At the end, when Jane and her brother are at the performance, they make you think Jane was old, looking like she was at least in her 60’s, when she was only 41 years old.
Check out family trees from this time frame. Back to King Henry II of France and his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, had 9 children together. Out of the 9 children, only 6 survived infancy. Catherine was only 14 when she married Henry II, but she lived a very unusual long time, dying when she was 69. Catherine outlived all but 2 of her children.
Record keeping wasn’t as easily kept before the 1900’s, making it difficult to come up with exact numbers, but it was estimated that if a babe survived birth, their life expectancy was between 30 and 35 years. By 1900, the life expectancy had nearly doubled.
What could cause such a huge change? Many factors contribute to the people living longer. Medical care was one of the reasons. Once medicine moved past the bloodletting and leeches, and those who practice medicine had education, people didn’t die as young. Apothecaries, physicians, surgeons, these terms in the 1800’s meant far different things than they do in 2016. We hear the world surgeon, and we picture someone who specializes in surgical procedures. A heart surgeon specializes in surgery of the heart. In 1800, the term was used for someone who had had some actual schooling. An apothecary was someone who had a basic knowledge of medical procedures and could handle minor situations, as well as have good understanding of medicinal herbs and concoctions. Today, these would be our pharmacists. The know side effects, how medicines work and interactions. Their schooling is nearly the same as a doctors.
Another reason for longer lives is sanitation. Learning something as simple as germ theory saved so many lives. Washing your hands, cleaning wounds properly, things that are common place today, made a dramatic change in people surviving. Cities having sewers, trash removal, safer water, pest control. These were simple, yet monumental changes which made huge differences.
Simple procedures such as these made a huge difference in one of the most common cause of death in young ladies, child birth. Cleansing reduces the fevers many women suffered from after they gave birth.
So next time you watch a movie or TV show that is a period piece, you might want to keep in mind. I know I am grateful for medical breakthroughs that have enhanced lives, especially when it comes to our children.