Human Stature in Anglo-Saxon England

In Alex Werner’s “London Bodies: The Changing Shape of Londoners from Prehistoric Times to the Present Day” he details measurements of skeletons taken from Saxon graveyards.

Page 108 includes a table showing the average male height during a set of course-grained historical periods:

Height Period
5’ 8” Saxon
5’ 5 1/2” Victorian
5’ 9” Present

The point he is making is that, perhaps contrary to popular belief, the population was actually relatively well nourished during the Anglo-Saxon era.

Harvest Time

In an interesting paper, “The Secular Trend in the Biological Standard of Living in the United Kingdom, 1730-1860”, The Economic History Review, Feb. 1993, John Komlos explores the phenomenon of the decline in stature around the time of the Industrial Revolution. He concludes that a population increase across Europe put pressure on the amount of calories individuals could obtain, but unlike Malthusian episodes in the past, the rapid economic changes actually allowed a rich enough diet to maintain the mortality rate. Increased agricultural productivity over time allowed the larger population more calories, resulting the in the recovery of stature that has continued to the present time.

… the ultimate culprit was clearly the demographic expansion; the industrial revolution did at least allow the population to survive.

The gains in median height observed over the last 100 years are more a return to “normalcy.”

» Posted: Tuesday, August 28, 2007 | Permanent Link