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Health and Nutrition in the Preindustrial Era: Insights from a Millennium of Average Heights in Northern Europe

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  • Richard H. Steckel

Abstract

This essay places the debate over human welfare during industrialization in the context of very long-term economic developments by examining an important aspect of living standards--health and nutrition--since the Middle Ages. I use average stature determined from military records along with a neglected source, skeletal data. Average heights fell from an average of 173.4 centimeters in the early Middle Ages to a low of 165.8 centimeters during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This decline of 7.6 centimeters exceeds by a factor of two any downturns found during industrialization in several countries that have been studied. Moreover, recovery to levels achieved in the early Middle Ages was not attained until the early twentieth century. The paper links the decline in average height to climate deterioration; growing inequality; urbanization and the expansion of trade and commerce, which facilitated the spread of diseases; the global spread of diseases associated with European expansion and colonization; and conflicts or wars over state building or religion. Because it is reasonable to believe that greater exposure to pathogens accompanied urbanization and industrialization, and there is evidence of climate moderation, increasing efficiency in agriculture and greater inter-regional and international trade in foodstuffs, it is plausible to link height gains that began in the eighteenth century with dietary improvements.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 8542.

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Date of creation: Oct 2001
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8542

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  1. Robert W. Fogel, 1986. "Nutrition and the Decline in Mortality since 1700: Some Preliminary Findings," NBER Chapters, in: Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth, pages 439-556 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Kevin H. O'Rourke & Jeffrey G. Williamson, 2001. "Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262650592, December.
  3. J. W. Drukker & Vincent Tassenaar, 1997. "Paradoxes of Modernization and Material Well-Being in the Netherlands during the Nineteenth Century," NBER Chapters, in: Health and Welfare during Industrialization, pages 331-378 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Razzell, Peter, 1993. "The Growth of Population in Eighteenth-Century England: A Critical Reappraisal," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 53(04), pages 743-771, December.
  5. Richard H. Steckel, 1999. "Industrialization and Health in Historical Perspective," NBER Historical Working Papers 0118, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Richard H. Steckel, 1982. "Height and Per Capita Income," NBER Working Papers 0880, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Steckel, Richard H. & Floud, Roderick (ed.), 1997. "Health and Welfare during Industrialization," National Bureau of Economic Research Books, University of Chicago Press, edition 1, number 9780226771564, February.
  8. Steckel, Richard H., 1998. "Strategic Ideas in the Rise of the New Anthropometric History and their Implications for Interdisciplinary Research," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 58(03), pages 803-821, September.
  9. Richard H. Steckel & Roderick Floud, 1997. "Health and Welfare during Industrialization," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number stec97-1, October.
  10. Hoffman, Philip T. & Jacks, David S. & Levin, Patricia A. & Lindert, Peter H., 2002. "Real Inequality In Europe Since 1500," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 62(02), pages 322-355, June.
  11. Stanley L. Engerman, 1997. "The Standard of Living Debate in International Perspective: Measures and Indicators," NBER Chapters, in: Health and Welfare during Industrialization, pages 17-46 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. John Komlos, 1989. "Nutrition and Economic Development in the Eighteenth-Century Habsburg Monarchy: An Anthropometric History," Books by John Komlos, Department of Economics, University of Munich, number 2.
  13. Lars Sandberg & Richard H. Steckel, 1997. "Was Industrialization Hazardous to Your Health? Not in Sweden!," NBER Chapters, in: Health and Welfare during Industrialization, pages 127-160 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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Cited by:
  1. Marco Breschi & Matteo Manfredini & Stanislao Mazzoni, 2010. "Health and socio-demographic conditions as determinants of marriage and social mobility," Demographic Research, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany, vol. 22(33), pages 1037-1056, June.
  2. Adolfo Meisel R. & Margarita Vega A., 2006. "Los orígenes de la antropometría histórica y su estado actual," CUADERNOS DE HISTORIA ECONÓMICA Y EMPRESARIAL 003175, BANCO DE LA REPÚBLICA - ECONOMÍA REGIONAL.
  3. Carl-Johan Dalgaard & Holger Strulik, 2006. "Subsistence – A Bio-economic Foundation of the Malthusian Equilibrium," Discussion Papers 06-17, University of Copenhagen. Department of Economics.
  4. Richard H. Steckel, 2008. "Heights and Human Welfare: Recent Developments and New Directions," NBER Working Papers 14536, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Cormac Ó Gráda, 2005. "You Take the High Road and I’ll Take the Low Road - Economic Success and Wellbeing in the Longer Run," Working Papers 200510, School Of Economics, University College Dublin.
  6. Charles Kenny, 2009. "There's more to life than money: Exploring the levels|growth paradox in income and health," Journal of International Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 21(1), pages 24-41.

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