When was the Middle Ages again?


Periodization debates are extremely silly and subjective, and thus of great interest to out-of-touch ivory tower intellectuals likes yours truly.  To steal a joke from an old prof, people in the fifteenth century didn’t encourage their kids by saying things like, “Just hold on, junior, the Renaissance is a comin’.  Don’t give up now, we’re almost there!”  And 1499 was surely a lot more like 1500 than it was like 1400.  Nontheless, lines must be drawn.*

There is broad agreement, particularly among scholars that use the passive voice impersonal constructions to assert broad agreement, that the Middle Ages lasted for about a thousand years–though the thousand years can be stretched as far back as the fall of Rome or as far forward as Luther in a pinch.  Also, the Middle Ages went into overtime in Britain, so that Chaucer and Malory could remain on medieval course syllabuses, while Donatello and Da Vinci down in Italy were already Renaissancing it up.

I bring this up because several of you have sent me a link to one version or another of a story that appeared in the news the other day.**  Citing a report led by Dr. Elizabeth Towner of the University of the West of England that appears in the November issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, newspapers–primarily in the UK–are reporting something like:

Safety measures leave road travel as dangerous today as in medieval times (The Scotsman)

The problem with the headline is that the research it refers to is based instead on “coroners’ records in Sussex between 1485 and 1688.” In other words, it’s a stretch to call that timespan medieval.  But Tudor times, Jacobean times, Early Modern times, and Renaissance times lack the punch of “medieval times,” I suppose.

The Scotsman is, however, the only one I’ve found to go with the word “medieval” in the headline.  “500 years ago” is the norm:

More died on roads 500 years ago (UK’s Metro)
Road travel in Britain ‘as dangerous as it was 500 years ago’ (
UK’s Telegraph)

The Metro botches it in the first line, though, by immediately switching to calling the time covered by the report “medieval times.”  The Telegraph, on the other hand, wisely avoids the problem by instead referring to it by century.*** 

I love playing the game of medieval gotcha as much as the next guy with a blog devoted to playing the game of medieval gotcha, but to me the more disturbing part of the reporting is how mangled the math is.  Regardless of the period, the data cited just doesn’t**** back up the claim that road travel was as dangerous then as now.  

According to the study, “30% of people who died as a result of injury were involved in an accident while traveling on land” while today in the industrialized world it’s around 25%. Though 30 and 25 are only five percentage points apart, 30% is 20% greater than 25%, and if you don’t think that is significant, remember that time when gas briefly went from $4 to $5 a gallon it was also 20% increase, and then it seemed like the end of the world. So saying “travel is as dangerous today as in medieval times” would still be wrong, even if the numbers of people, accidents, and other forms of injury were the same in each case. It was 20% more dangerous.

But more importantly, notice that huge caveat I had to drop there in that last paragraph’s penultimate sentence. The study looked at coroner’s records and determined that of the people whose deaths by injury were recorded, 30% died from travel-related injuries. In order to evaluate whether this is similar to the 25% in the modern era, we need to know something about the percentage of people who died from accidental deaths in each era, the percentage of deaths from other causes, and something about the number of people on the roads.

For example, if 10% of the population died in accidents, and 30% of those accidents were travel-related, then when all was said and done, 3% of people died while traveling. If instead 30% of the population died in accidents and 30% of those accidents where while traveling, then a little under 10% of people died while traveling. So it’s important to know whether the same percentage of people died in accidents now as compared to then. I imagine that now the number of deaths from accidents overall is down from the 1600’s, but I don’t know for certain, and from the reporting, it’s clear that none of the journalists who wrote these stories do either.

Finally, when calculating risk, we need to know how many people were on the road in the first place. The final numbers of death aren’t helpful unless considered against the number of people involved in the activity. In 1600, the English population was something like 5.5 million. If we take 30% of 10%, we find 165,000 people died from accidents caused while traveling. That’s a big number, but to decide if it’s a scary number or not, we need to know if there were one million people traveling around regularly or five million–in other words, whether there was a 1 in 6 chance (16.5%) of a traveler’s dying due to his travels or a 1 in 30 chance (3.3%). 

Of course, I’m a medievalist, not an actuary, so my little scratch calculations probably need to be modified by all sorts of considerations I don’t know about. I’m pretty sure that the original researchers quoted by the story know those considerations. And I’m pretty sure the journalists don’t.

*Lines dividing  Pre-Modern from Early Modern from A Little Bit Later Modern from Still Not Quite Modern from I Can’t Believe It’s Not Modern from Oh, Crap, Post-Modern Already?
**Names withheld to protect the innocent.  And thanks, by the way, as I’d completely missed it.
**Thus, using journalism school math, newspapers are as inaccurate now as they were in medieval times, with 50% of them guilty of improper periodization.
***Before you go nitpicking, grammaricians, data is singular. I’ve never once in my life though about “a datum” and I’ll be damned if I’m going to start now.

[Image above taken from a news story that took it from the Luttrel Psalter; it really shouldn’t be used to illustrate a news story about things that happened three-hundred years later.]

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Liza Blake

    One also wonders what the report means by “accident” — we might think of car wrecks or getting stuck in potholes/bogs, but would a medieval “accident” also include things like highwaymen and Robin Hood?

  • Prasopchok
  • master_kruhzilla

    @liza blake: Highwaymen were invented much later by Adam Ant.

  • pilgrimchick

    Although I appreciate the intellectual argument defining the “Middle Ages”, I think labeling the time period has only served to bulk a thousand years of history together in a nice, neat little package that people who don’t know much about the Middle Ages tend to see as rather static. It has also contributes to the “Dark Ages” bias against the period.

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