Tuesday, 18 December 2012

How high is a nobleman?

Something has been bothering me lately, and its something that I've not really ever seen much discussion of in textbooks and the like: to what extent was nobles' potition at the top of society reinforced by them simply being taller than peasants?

The theory runs something like this: height in adulthood is at least partially (about 10% according to figures I've found on the web) down to diet in childhood. That is, someone with a protein-rich diet will end up about 10% taller than someone without. I think that underestimates the effect, personally - you can see the effect in modern Japan, where the post-war generation are up to 12-18 inches shorter than the current burger and Kobe beef chomping one. We know that people were on average shorter in previous ages (or do we - see below). We also know from their suits of armour and skeletal remains that people like Henry VIII and John of Gaunt were well over six feet tall. So presumably medieval nobles (with a comparatively meat-rich diet) were similarly about a foot taller than medieval peasants, and therefore people literally looked up to them as superior beings, a bit like the elves in Tolkein.

Unfortunately, to quote Blackadder; "there was just one thing wrong with this theory... it was bollocks."

After some research I found that I wasn't the only person to have wondered this, and someone had done a proper study of remains from grave sites, indexing height with nutrition in previous ages, and found that there was no support for my theory, as well as that longevity and average height actually haven't changed as much down the ages as is popularly believed.

It's still a relatively small sample, and it's not quite enough to make me completely change my mind, but it looks like I have to accept that if there was such an effect, it was much smaller than I imagined - maybe one or two inches at most on average, and certainly not the 6-12 I had imagined. So much for that idea, then.

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