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Bringing up the bodies with big data

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Newly available genealogical records are helping to provide insights into the lives the European nobility, and may provide important clues about why Western Europe led the Industrial Revolution

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ (LDS) practice of the baptising the dead by proxy has resulted in the church developing the largest genealogical library in the world.

These extensive historical records have been put together by the LDS Church to enable it to baptise all who have died without undergoing the rite. It believes, in doing so, that it gives the deceased the opportunity to enter the Kingdom of God.

Now this huge database is being digitised and made publicly available online, giving economic historians like Dr Neil Cummins of LSE’s Economic History Department access to genealogical ‘big data’ for the first time.

Describing the significance of the newly digitised information, he says: “Individual demographic data before 1538 in England is extremely rare – that’s the time of Henry VIII, Cromwell and the English reformation. Before that we only had scraps.”

Now the digitisation has allowed Dr Cummins to construct the family trees of European nobility – a group that has left behind abundant evidence about itself –  and analyse trends in how long they lived between 800 and 1800.

When he looked at the age of death of 121, 524 nobles during this time period he found that their lifespans began increasing long before the Industrial Revolution, with a marked increase around 1400, when life expectancy went from around 50 to 55. After 1500, life spans seem to decline again until around 1650 when an uninterrupted rise begins.

Until now this pattern has remained hidden since it would only show up through the analysis of a detailed and long sequence of observations over at least a millennia. The LDS church’s digital records have provided the data for Dr Cummins to do this.

Some of the increases in lifespan can be accounted for by a decline of violent deaths in battle for men. Dr Cummins was able to establish how many deaths could be identified as likely to be as a result of battle by calculating the probability of men dying of natural causes on the same day as each other and then identifying dates where the number of deaths is higher than this probability would suggest.

This helps identify as 'violent' the deaths of those who died in the many battles that have been lost from history's memory. However, unsurprisingly, the top ten dates of death for European nobles correspond to well-known major European Battles, with  the Battle of Agincourt proving one of the most deadly.

Francois Second Mary StuartOverall Dr Cummins found that before 1550 about 30 per cent of noble men died in battle, while after 1550 the figure drops steeply to less than five per cent. However, the reasons for this are unclear. The rise of modern warfare and professional armies and perhaps some kind of civilising process, driven by as yet unknown forces, could all be at play.

He also found a striking geographic pattern in lifespans, with nobles in North West Europe –  which later experienced the Industrial Revolution first –  already enjoying longer lives than the rest of Europe by 1000AD. This suggests that the rise of western Europe originates from before the Black Death.

He says: “For economic historians the holy grail is explaining the Industrial Revolution. We have very few tell-tale signs – features that uniquely identify Northwestern Europe from any other part of the world before the early modern era  but this demographic marker is something new and the effect is quite significant, accounting for around four to eight years of life.

“There’s no reason to believe that there’s any kind of genetic difference between the Northwest aristocrats and the Southeastern aristocrats. Of course, they intermarry – meaning the gene pool is pretty much the same .

“Even when I take violence into account the geographic effect is still there. One suggestion has been made that the northwest Europeans were primarily a rural aristocracy, whereas the southern aristocracy were primarily urban – and towns were notorious death traps because of how quickly disease could spread.

“However, while I can present a lot of patterns from the data, it’s still an open book as to what they mean."

In terms of what effect increasing lifespans might have had on people's behaviour, Dr Cummins explains: "Life expectancy in France in 1640 was 24. If you expect to die in your early twenties how likely are you to invest in developing yourself in terms of skills and education, how likely are you to save for the future and how likely are you to avoid getting into a violent fight?"

Dr Cummins recognises that his findings are representative only an extremely elite subsection of the population, saying: “There are going to be points where the lives of the nobility will reflect what is happening in the general population and where it will diverge.

“But I'm taking a data driven approach and working with the information we now have. It’s exciting because we have a level of detail on individuals that we've never had before. It feels like I’m the first man on a whole new planet.”

Posted March 2015

Useful links

Longevity and the Rise of the West: Lifespans of the European Elite, 800-1800|

For more information obout Dr Neil Cummins’ research see: http://neilcummins.com/|