Common errors

JoblueHi, Jo here, talking about the things people get wrong about history.

I enjoy the BBC radio programme In Our Time, which gathers experts to discuss a range of subjects. I can remember visiting England a few years ago and tuning the radio to Radio 4, my favorite station. A few minutes later I wandered over to my husband in a blissful haze, saying, "There's a program on the Library of Alexandria!"

You can find In Our Time here, and I believe it can be listened to from anywhere in the world. They have also put all previous programs on line to either listen to or download as podcasts. The history archive is here.

Can I interest you in Alfred and the Battle of Edington or The Opium Wars?

If, like me,  you enjoy listening to intelligent discussions while you do handiwork, then this is a treasure chest.

The host, Melvyn Bragg is calm, intelligent and well informed, so I was startled when in the most recent episode on William Caxton, he voiced the common error that people in the past had a life expectancy in the early forties. The context was that Caxton was brave to be venturing into a new business, printing, at that age. In other places I've heard people claim it to be in the thirties.

This notion comes about from taking all births and deaths. It doesn't take into account the very high childhood mortality. Life expectancy in all times, including the present, depends on peace and war, feast and famine, poverty and riches, etc but one estimate is that once a person lived past childhood, let's say into the late teens or early twenties, their chance of living to sixty was the same as in a developed nation today. Certainly people did live into the eighties and even made it to 100 now and then.

Just to check, I went to Wikipedia and pulled up people born in the same year as Caxton, 1417. Obviously these were famous people, and thus on the more fortunate end of life, but then, so was Caxton.  I found an age range from 29 to 78, and the 29 year old was killed in a hunting accident.

When I averaged them, I came to an age of 57.

Life expectancy was lower then than now, but a man in his early forties wasn't facing the grave.

There's another excellent BBC Radio 4 programme called The Things We Forgot to Remember. "Michael Portillo presents a series revisiting the great moments of
history to discover that they often conceal other events of equal but
forgotten importance.
"

I found the episode on The Georgian Facade particularly interesting, but Americans might be particularly interested in the one on The Boston Tea Party.

History is so often not as we think. Isn't that wonderful!

There are so many things that are "common knowledge" but wrong. Do you know any?

LsnAs we're close to Halloween, I'll mention that my Halloween story, Lord Samhain's Night, is available as an e-book. This is a short novella that appeared in a hardcover called All Hallows' Eve, in a very low print run, so it's been very hard to find. You can find out more here.

Jo

 

55 thoughts on “Common errors”

  1. Thank you, Jo! This is one of the many issues I often end up trying to explain to people (along with, no, people aren’t really taller today and no, women of twenty weren’t really “on the shelf”).

    Reply
  2. Thank you, Jo! This is one of the many issues I often end up trying to explain to people (along with, no, people aren’t really taller today and no, women of twenty weren’t really “on the shelf”).

    Reply
  3. Thank you, Jo! This is one of the many issues I often end up trying to explain to people (along with, no, people aren’t really taller today and no, women of twenty weren’t really “on the shelf”).

    Reply
  4. Thank you, Jo! This is one of the many issues I often end up trying to explain to people (along with, no, people aren’t really taller today and no, women of twenty weren’t really “on the shelf”).

    Reply
  5. Thank you, Jo! This is one of the many issues I often end up trying to explain to people (along with, no, people aren’t really taller today and no, women of twenty weren’t really “on the shelf”).

    Reply
  6. This is always something that annoys me when it comes up, too. Yes, more people may have died younger , but that didn’t mean that a person couldn’t expect to live to a good age. Infant and child mortality were also far higher than today, which brings averages down a lot.

    Reply
  7. This is always something that annoys me when it comes up, too. Yes, more people may have died younger , but that didn’t mean that a person couldn’t expect to live to a good age. Infant and child mortality were also far higher than today, which brings averages down a lot.

    Reply
  8. This is always something that annoys me when it comes up, too. Yes, more people may have died younger , but that didn’t mean that a person couldn’t expect to live to a good age. Infant and child mortality were also far higher than today, which brings averages down a lot.

    Reply
  9. This is always something that annoys me when it comes up, too. Yes, more people may have died younger , but that didn’t mean that a person couldn’t expect to live to a good age. Infant and child mortality were also far higher than today, which brings averages down a lot.

    Reply
  10. This is always something that annoys me when it comes up, too. Yes, more people may have died younger , but that didn’t mean that a person couldn’t expect to live to a good age. Infant and child mortality were also far higher than today, which brings averages down a lot.

    Reply
  11. Hi Jo, have just read Lord Samhain’s Night and enjoyed it very much. Ref life expectancy, I have been researching my family and I have been amazed to discover how many of my direct ancestors lived to be in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, even in the 1500s and 1600s. In fact if they survived infancy, then there was no stopping them. An interesting historical figure is Sir John Fastolf, mid 1400s, who fought in the 100 years war, and still managed to live to be 81. I will now try to delve into the History Archive.

    Reply
  12. Hi Jo, have just read Lord Samhain’s Night and enjoyed it very much. Ref life expectancy, I have been researching my family and I have been amazed to discover how many of my direct ancestors lived to be in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, even in the 1500s and 1600s. In fact if they survived infancy, then there was no stopping them. An interesting historical figure is Sir John Fastolf, mid 1400s, who fought in the 100 years war, and still managed to live to be 81. I will now try to delve into the History Archive.

    Reply
  13. Hi Jo, have just read Lord Samhain’s Night and enjoyed it very much. Ref life expectancy, I have been researching my family and I have been amazed to discover how many of my direct ancestors lived to be in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, even in the 1500s and 1600s. In fact if they survived infancy, then there was no stopping them. An interesting historical figure is Sir John Fastolf, mid 1400s, who fought in the 100 years war, and still managed to live to be 81. I will now try to delve into the History Archive.

    Reply
  14. Hi Jo, have just read Lord Samhain’s Night and enjoyed it very much. Ref life expectancy, I have been researching my family and I have been amazed to discover how many of my direct ancestors lived to be in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, even in the 1500s and 1600s. In fact if they survived infancy, then there was no stopping them. An interesting historical figure is Sir John Fastolf, mid 1400s, who fought in the 100 years war, and still managed to live to be 81. I will now try to delve into the History Archive.

    Reply
  15. Hi Jo, have just read Lord Samhain’s Night and enjoyed it very much. Ref life expectancy, I have been researching my family and I have been amazed to discover how many of my direct ancestors lived to be in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, even in the 1500s and 1600s. In fact if they survived infancy, then there was no stopping them. An interesting historical figure is Sir John Fastolf, mid 1400s, who fought in the 100 years war, and still managed to live to be 81. I will now try to delve into the History Archive.

    Reply
  16. J Prince and Jenny, thanks for buying Lord Samhain’s Night.
    Jenny, you have good genes.
    Today’s In Our Time was about Fermat’s Equation. I’m afraid I had to give up on it as I couldn’t follow the mathematical complexities at all!
    Jo

    Reply
  17. J Prince and Jenny, thanks for buying Lord Samhain’s Night.
    Jenny, you have good genes.
    Today’s In Our Time was about Fermat’s Equation. I’m afraid I had to give up on it as I couldn’t follow the mathematical complexities at all!
    Jo

    Reply
  18. J Prince and Jenny, thanks for buying Lord Samhain’s Night.
    Jenny, you have good genes.
    Today’s In Our Time was about Fermat’s Equation. I’m afraid I had to give up on it as I couldn’t follow the mathematical complexities at all!
    Jo

    Reply
  19. J Prince and Jenny, thanks for buying Lord Samhain’s Night.
    Jenny, you have good genes.
    Today’s In Our Time was about Fermat’s Equation. I’m afraid I had to give up on it as I couldn’t follow the mathematical complexities at all!
    Jo

    Reply
  20. J Prince and Jenny, thanks for buying Lord Samhain’s Night.
    Jenny, you have good genes.
    Today’s In Our Time was about Fermat’s Equation. I’m afraid I had to give up on it as I couldn’t follow the mathematical complexities at all!
    Jo

    Reply
  21. Jo, the life expectancy thing always bugs me, too. When my older sister and I looked into our family history, we found a number of infant mortalities and early childhood deaths, a few women who’d died in childbirth, a few men who’d died young — mostly due to wars and the occasional accident, but most of them lived into their 70’s and 80’s. These were ordinary working people who lived on the land, mostly non-smokers and not big drinkers, either.
    And if you’d told my grandad he was old at 45, he’d have snorted. I remember when we went to visit him one time, it was more than 90 degrees outside and he was digging post holes, putting in a new fence. He was in his 80s and I can remember my mum being so cross with him. He, of course, laughed and kept on digging.

    Reply
  22. Jo, the life expectancy thing always bugs me, too. When my older sister and I looked into our family history, we found a number of infant mortalities and early childhood deaths, a few women who’d died in childbirth, a few men who’d died young — mostly due to wars and the occasional accident, but most of them lived into their 70’s and 80’s. These were ordinary working people who lived on the land, mostly non-smokers and not big drinkers, either.
    And if you’d told my grandad he was old at 45, he’d have snorted. I remember when we went to visit him one time, it was more than 90 degrees outside and he was digging post holes, putting in a new fence. He was in his 80s and I can remember my mum being so cross with him. He, of course, laughed and kept on digging.

    Reply
  23. Jo, the life expectancy thing always bugs me, too. When my older sister and I looked into our family history, we found a number of infant mortalities and early childhood deaths, a few women who’d died in childbirth, a few men who’d died young — mostly due to wars and the occasional accident, but most of them lived into their 70’s and 80’s. These were ordinary working people who lived on the land, mostly non-smokers and not big drinkers, either.
    And if you’d told my grandad he was old at 45, he’d have snorted. I remember when we went to visit him one time, it was more than 90 degrees outside and he was digging post holes, putting in a new fence. He was in his 80s and I can remember my mum being so cross with him. He, of course, laughed and kept on digging.

    Reply
  24. Jo, the life expectancy thing always bugs me, too. When my older sister and I looked into our family history, we found a number of infant mortalities and early childhood deaths, a few women who’d died in childbirth, a few men who’d died young — mostly due to wars and the occasional accident, but most of them lived into their 70’s and 80’s. These were ordinary working people who lived on the land, mostly non-smokers and not big drinkers, either.
    And if you’d told my grandad he was old at 45, he’d have snorted. I remember when we went to visit him one time, it was more than 90 degrees outside and he was digging post holes, putting in a new fence. He was in his 80s and I can remember my mum being so cross with him. He, of course, laughed and kept on digging.

    Reply
  25. Jo, the life expectancy thing always bugs me, too. When my older sister and I looked into our family history, we found a number of infant mortalities and early childhood deaths, a few women who’d died in childbirth, a few men who’d died young — mostly due to wars and the occasional accident, but most of them lived into their 70’s and 80’s. These were ordinary working people who lived on the land, mostly non-smokers and not big drinkers, either.
    And if you’d told my grandad he was old at 45, he’d have snorted. I remember when we went to visit him one time, it was more than 90 degrees outside and he was digging post holes, putting in a new fence. He was in his 80s and I can remember my mum being so cross with him. He, of course, laughed and kept on digging.

    Reply
  26. I’ve had the same experience as others: if the women survived giving birth to 8,9,10,11 children, they lived long and full lives. The men succumbed to the hazards of work in the steel mills – not just accidents, but lung-related illnesses. Oddly, I have not found a lot of dead babies, except one which surprised me because it was relatively recent.

    Reply
  27. I’ve had the same experience as others: if the women survived giving birth to 8,9,10,11 children, they lived long and full lives. The men succumbed to the hazards of work in the steel mills – not just accidents, but lung-related illnesses. Oddly, I have not found a lot of dead babies, except one which surprised me because it was relatively recent.

    Reply
  28. I’ve had the same experience as others: if the women survived giving birth to 8,9,10,11 children, they lived long and full lives. The men succumbed to the hazards of work in the steel mills – not just accidents, but lung-related illnesses. Oddly, I have not found a lot of dead babies, except one which surprised me because it was relatively recent.

    Reply
  29. I’ve had the same experience as others: if the women survived giving birth to 8,9,10,11 children, they lived long and full lives. The men succumbed to the hazards of work in the steel mills – not just accidents, but lung-related illnesses. Oddly, I have not found a lot of dead babies, except one which surprised me because it was relatively recent.

    Reply
  30. I’ve had the same experience as others: if the women survived giving birth to 8,9,10,11 children, they lived long and full lives. The men succumbed to the hazards of work in the steel mills – not just accidents, but lung-related illnesses. Oddly, I have not found a lot of dead babies, except one which surprised me because it was relatively recent.

    Reply
  31. Aren’t they referring to an AVERAGE life expectancy of mid-40s? That would take into account the high child mortality rate. I would imagine economic level factored into it as well – the better off you were, the more likely you were to have sufficient good food, clothing and shelter and to be safer from accidents as well. I suspect the average serf with a back as bad as mine sometimes is would have died of starvation or accident or just given up from having to work through that pain.
    Just a thought.

    Reply
  32. Aren’t they referring to an AVERAGE life expectancy of mid-40s? That would take into account the high child mortality rate. I would imagine economic level factored into it as well – the better off you were, the more likely you were to have sufficient good food, clothing and shelter and to be safer from accidents as well. I suspect the average serf with a back as bad as mine sometimes is would have died of starvation or accident or just given up from having to work through that pain.
    Just a thought.

    Reply
  33. Aren’t they referring to an AVERAGE life expectancy of mid-40s? That would take into account the high child mortality rate. I would imagine economic level factored into it as well – the better off you were, the more likely you were to have sufficient good food, clothing and shelter and to be safer from accidents as well. I suspect the average serf with a back as bad as mine sometimes is would have died of starvation or accident or just given up from having to work through that pain.
    Just a thought.

    Reply
  34. Aren’t they referring to an AVERAGE life expectancy of mid-40s? That would take into account the high child mortality rate. I would imagine economic level factored into it as well – the better off you were, the more likely you were to have sufficient good food, clothing and shelter and to be safer from accidents as well. I suspect the average serf with a back as bad as mine sometimes is would have died of starvation or accident or just given up from having to work through that pain.
    Just a thought.

    Reply
  35. Aren’t they referring to an AVERAGE life expectancy of mid-40s? That would take into account the high child mortality rate. I would imagine economic level factored into it as well – the better off you were, the more likely you were to have sufficient good food, clothing and shelter and to be safer from accidents as well. I suspect the average serf with a back as bad as mine sometimes is would have died of starvation or accident or just given up from having to work through that pain.
    Just a thought.

    Reply

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