Average height

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Were people shorter in the 17th Century?

By Ken Clayton

Among the many myths relating to our history is the claim that people were much shorter in the past. Visitors to historic sites look at the heights of doorways and the lengths of some beds and assume that their dimensions prove that modern adults are much taller than their 17th century counterparts.

The evidence does not support this idea.

Professor Richard Steckel of Ohio State University has been studying average heights and their correlation to life expectancy and quality of life for many years. He has analysed data from thousands of adult skeletons excavated from burial sites in northern Europe and used the length of the femur or thigh bone to calculate the height of the individual. He has combined the results with data from other sources to produce figures showing average heights across the centuries. All of this work has led him to conclude that the average height for European males reached a peak of around 173 centimetres (5 feet 7 inches) from the 9th to the 11th centuries. It then fell to a low point of about 166 centimetres (5 feet 5 and a half inches) in the middle of the 18th Century. Unfortunately the tables he has published have a gap covering the period between the 15th and 18th centuries in England but the data he has provided appears to suggest that the average adult male in Britain was probably around 172 centimetres (5 feet 7 inches) tall during the Civil War period.

Today the average height for an adult male in Britain is 175 centimetres (5 feet 9 inches) so there appears to be a difference in the average of around two inches. This is by no means enough to explain the low doorways and short beds.

So if people were only a couple of inches shorter on average, why the marked difference in building and furniture dimensions?

One explanation could come from an unexpected source. Chris Stewart has written several books about his life restoring and operating a farm in southern Spain. He explains that the widths of rooms in traditional houses in the area were dictated by the height of the trees used to provide the roof beams. His contention is that if you don’t have a ready source of beams of more than four metres in length, you are unlikely to try to build rooms wider than four metres. He also claims that the relatively low heights of doorways can be explained in a similarly prosaic way: they were dictated by the maximum height that a lintel could be lifted without specialist equipment.

What, then, of beds? Staff in historic buildings furnished with short beds will usually tell visitors that the length of the bed has nothing to do with the height of the people. It was all to do with the fact that people of the time slept in a sitting position. They often explain that superstition caused the habit. This may explain why beds of the Stuart and earlier periods are by no means universally short. In fact by the 17th century, beds were often at least as long as they are today. In many cases they were a good deal longer. The Great Bed of Ware, for example, was 10 feet by 11 feet. So there seems to be no clear evidence to support the idea that that short beds indicate people of short stature.

The conclusion then is that height is another subject about which people are mistaken because the facts prove that there was very little difference between the seventeenth and twenty first centuries.