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Ancient, Celtic Lifespans and Their Enemies

Ancient, Celtic Lifespans in Early Ireland

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at ancient, Celtic lifespans in early Ireland and their enemies. What were the top seven enemies of a long life in the world of the ancient Celts?


An Iron Age, Celtic Funeral

Enemy #1: Warfare

For those of fighting age—both man and woman alike—it was a violent time to be alive. There were constant raids by other tuatha (clans). Mostly they came for your cattle. But you had to protect your livestock, for that was your wealth and your food. And that meant you engaged  in frequent small battles. People were injured. And injury often led to infection and death.

Enemy #2: Disease

Imagine living in a time without emergency rooms, doctors, and 911. You had your local druid healer, of course. He had his clay jars full of herbs, roots, and flowers that could help for certain diseases. He could even set bones. But his record of healing was spotty, and he tended to blame a lot of things on the spirits. And there was just no pleasing the angry pantheon of Celtic gods. Especially when sickness swept through your roundhouse where everyone slept in one big room in the middle of winter. Disease has to rank at the top of the list. (See my posts on ancient Celtic medicine.)

Enemy #3: Childhood

On infant mortality: “Infancy was particularly dangerous during the Middle Ages—mortality was terribly high. Based on surviving written records alone, scholars have estimated that 20–30 per cent of children under seven died, but the actual figure is almost certainly higher.” (This per http://www.historyextra.com/feature/medieval/10-dangers-medieval-)

Enemy #4: Starvation and Famine

Having enough to eat was always a concern, especially in winter when your tuath depended on what you stored in the fall. A hailstorm or wet weather could ruin the barley or wheat crops. Your fishing boats could fail to bring in enough fish to salt and store up for the winter months. A neighboring tribe could raid and steal your cattle, pigs, or sheep. Or disease could strike your livestock and sicken them. Then your clan might be in danger of starving. And people without enough to eat become susceptible to disease.

Enemy #5: Childbirth

Bearing a child was a risky business. A breech presentation could kill both mother and child. Even when the birth was successful, the mother could die from post-natal complications.

Enemy #6: Accidents and Hunting

Hunting was necessary to augment the food supply, but fraught with peril. Your hunting partners could shoot you with their arrows. You could fall off your horse and break a neck. Or you could be gored by a boar or stag. Even royalty were not immune. In 886, a stag hooked the belt of the Byzantine emperor Basil I and proceeded to drag him fifteen miles before he was freed.

Enemy #7: Travel

No doubt about it, travel was dangerous. You were separated from the protection of your clan. If you got sick, there was no druid healer to attend you. If you were caught in a snowstorm without shelter, you could freeze to death. When you came to a river, you could drown in the crossing. And once you left your home turf, you were fair game for capture, enslavement, or death.

So How Long Did People Live?

Given all that, what was the average life expectancy of a male child born in the Iron Age, the closest era providing us with statistics for the AD 400s? The best guess, per Wikipedia, is 26 years. Childhood was an especially dangerous time. What were the odds you’d live to the age of fifteen? About 60%. But if you made it to fifteen, you might live another 37 years to the ripe old age of 55. There were a few who lived longer, of course. But the odds were against you.

Next week, we’ll look at a tale from ancient, Celtic Ireland—a novel by this author, due to be released just over a week from now: The Bonfires of Beltane.