Life in the Early Medieval Period was difficult. As has been seen in previous posts, there was a very limited and often misinformed view of the human body and disease. As cities had grown under the regime of Rome, its citizens had considered it their civic duty to maintain cleanliness. But when society began to fall apart there were no wealthy to do so. As a result, waste was often left in the streets, allowing for disease to build and feeding the rats that would spread it. Medieval people commonly died of infections, a problem that would persist, even after sanitation developed, till the discovery of penicillin. Childbirth was another factor. In today’s atmosphere of disinfectant, inducing agents, caesarian births, and general medical knowledge the process is still a potentially uncertain undertaking, but it was likely to be fatal in Arthur’s time, for both child and mother.
If a child did survive, he had a life without the concept of clean to look forward to. It was common thinking that a body’s natural oils were as close to godliness as a person could be, and bathing, especially with soap, took those oils away. For that reason, washing was something to be generally avoided, and a host of health issues were the result. Half of all children born were likely to die in their first five years. It should come as no surprise that the average life expectancy for men was 32, and for women 27, with a maximum of 55 years.
Religious people were the exception. In previous posts Gildas, Patrick, and Samson have all been the subject of discussion. It is very likely that each of them lived into their late sixties, and possibly to as old as eighty or more. That kind of life-span was common among ecclesiastics for several reasons. First the monasteries, though free to the poor, offered the best medical care in all of medieval Europe. Second, a religious person’s diet was superior to that of peasants (who often suffered from malnutrition or starvation) and nobles (whose food was mainly meats and rich foods). Perhaps just as important, the daily life of a religious person was not likely to be dangerous due to battles, tournaments, or hard labor, and therefore they were unlikely to suffer from infection and the gangrene that could come from it. In the later Middle Ages childbirth would be another significant factor as well. However, during Arthur’s time it was still common for a holy individual to marry and have children. Gildas is said to have had four children.