A Surprising New Study Suggests The Black Death Created Shorter Medieval Women

A new study suggests that one of the many ways in which medieval women were affected by the Black Death is that the population of females grew shorter as the result of the plague. The research was led by Sharon DeWitte from the University of South Carolina, and scientists had 800 skeletons at their disposal so that they could conduct their study on “stress, sex and plague.”

From the 14th century onward, the Black Death decimated Europe, killing hundreds of millions of people and nearly halving the population. One descriptive account of the plague at the time was composed by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio in his book The Decameron, in which a small group of men and women head to a secluded villa in Florence in the hope of escaping death by telling each other stories and living as virtuously and simply as possible.

“In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg, some more, some less, which the common folk called gavoccioli. From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. And as the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they shewed themselves.”

Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a detailed description of the Black Death in his book 'The Decameron.'
Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a detailed description of the Black Death in his book 'The Decameron.' [Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

In the University of South Carolina’s new study on the Black Death, Sharon DeWitte looked at skeletons from the 11th and 12th centuries, the beginning of the 13th century and from around the middle of the 14th century to the 16th century. Researchers were able to look at the bones to determine the age these victims would have been at the time they died and also examined the shin bones and canine teeth of these skeletons as a method of determining how healthy those who succumbed to the plague once were.

After the 800 skeletons were thoroughly examined, a mathematical survival analysis was created whereby DeWitte saw clearly that both males and females were much healthier in general and that survival rates increased markedly in those who came after the Black Death, according to Forbes.

“The post-Black Death demographic changes might represent a ‘harvesting’ effect; that is, an increase in mortality among people with compromised health.”

While successive generations of humans were decidedly healthier after the Black Death struck, the new study aimed to try and discover whether there was a difference in the health of men and women. The main way it was found that women differed from men after the plague was that medieval women appeared to be considerably shorter after the Black Death than their predecessors.

A person’s height is determined by both genes and environment, meaning that even if you are genetically marked to be tall, the environment you grow up in may somewhat destroy this potential. The new study showed that males all grew in stature in the post-plague years, yet for women the opposite was true. What could have caused this?

“If nutritional status or disease burden improved substantially following the Black Death in London, this might have resulted in earlier average age at menarche in the post-epidemic population and thus earlier cessation of growth in females.”

The Angel of Death hovers over London during the Great Plague of 1664-1666.
The Angel of Death hovers over London during the Great Plague of 1664-1666. [Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

In other words, girls would have eaten much better and been healthier overall than those who had come before them. This led to them reaching puberty earlier than females in the past and meant that they would have stopped growing sooner as a consequence, making them shorter than those medieval women before the Black Death.

Despite the robust health that post-plague humans had, Sharon DeWitte made clear that the University of South Carolina’s new study shouldn’t necessarily be read as “evidence that the epidemic was ultimately good for affected populations.”

“Any positive outcomes from the epidemic came at an unimaginably high cost in terms of the number of lives lost and the psychosocial stress experienced by the survivors.”

While the Black Death eventually ended, having ravaged all of Europe, this new study shows that its effects appear to have left a lasting mark on women by creating shorter medieval post-plague females.

[Featured Image by Jack Taylor/Getty Images]