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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Medieval Height

Seated Bishop by Tilman Riemenschneider, The Cloisters Museum - By Flickr user Asterix611 and used under a creative commons licence

Seated Bishop by Tilman Riemenschneider, The Cloisters Museum - By Flickr user Asterix611 and used under a creative commons licence

The figures never lie. But then again there are “lies, damned lies and statistics“.

So bearing that in mind, take note that the information below may be factually correct (or at least somewhat so). It could also be wrong, if the data has been misinterpreted over time.


Human height yo-yos over time and social strata. Professor Robert Bartlett presents a startling fact about medieval Europe. He contends (based on what survey? – see footnotes) that when medieval European farmers turned to more efficient grain-based food production more people were fed with greater ease. What is interesting in this fact is that this resulted in a shorter population – after the switch to agrarian predominant farming the population’s average height shrank by approximately 5 centimetres.

With the growth of a cereal based diet, protein featured in a lower ratio in people’s everyday calorific intake. Cereals came in, and pushed animal proteins out, to a certain extent. Protein consumption should, however, be relatively high for an individual to realise their optimum genetically programmed height. The social environment and its attendant features ought also be taken into account – for example its hard to eat properly when the countryside is ravaged by war, disease spreads faster in urban areas.

Due to our diets and general health now, the shrinking didn’t last. We are taller, better fed and healthier than ever before.

Here Professor Bartlett is drawing our attention to the findings in Helmut Wurm’s “Korpergrosse und Ernahrung der Deutschen in Mittelalter” in Mensch und Umwelt in Mittelalter (Stuttgart 1986) which was edited by Bern Herrman.

Heights across the ages
Canada’s Macleans on why Canadians are taller than Americans
Interpreting the archaeological record
The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350, Robert Bartlett, Penguin, 2003

This article was posted by on Thursday, March 17th, 2011 at 12:51.
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