The long-term ups and downs of height are a striking index of major shifts in wellbeing, new research shows.

The tall and the short of it: How average English height had changed over 2,000 years

What did the Romans ever do for us? It seems they added an inch to the average height of their British subjects — they came, they saw, we prospered. And after taking a plunge during the Anglo-Saxon era, the height of the average inhabitant rose again in the wake of the Norman Conquest. These are just two of the findings of new research using data from skeletal remains to calculate how the average height of men rose or fell over 2,000 years of history in what is now England. The result is a startling picture of changes in health and wellbeing.

The tall and the short of it: How average English height had changed over 2,000 yearsUsing data of skeletal remains of men aged between 21 and 49 years from a range of archaeological excavations across England, they deduced individuals’ full heights from their femur length. Lead author Dr Gregori Galofré-Vilà (pictured right), from the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘We believe our results shed new light on the development of health in England over the very long run.’

He and his team worked on the basis that height, linked with childhood nutrition, is a good measure of wellbeing and can be estimated accurately from the length of a full grown man’s femur. Biologists and epidemiologists have long recognised that although the main causes of variation in individual height may be genetic, changes in the economic, social and environmental circumstances are reflected in the mean heights of different groups of people at any given time.

The working paper (which can be read in full here) reveals that men in this area of Britain became taller when it was under Roman occupation (200–410AD), with average height rising from 167cm (5ft 6in)  to 170cm (5ft 7in). The researchers suggest this rise in average height coincided with the Romans’ improved water supply and sanitation systems and a more varied diet. Heights did not decline immediately after the Romans left Britain in 410, but fell from 600AD. The paper highlights previous research suggesting that health may have deteriorated when populations moved out of the towns and cities set up by the Romans, abandoning the more hygienic water supplies and waste-disposal systems. Plague and pestilence then became common and infectious diseases were on the increase, with archaeological evidence also suggesting that diets were inadequate, notes the paper.

Average heights of men started to go up again after the Norman Conquest of 1066, says the paper. By the end of the early medieval period, heights had increased to 172cm, increasing to 173cm (5ft 8in) in the 1100s, edging closer to heights achieved at the start of the 20th century. The paper suggests that a warmer climate may have contributed to good general health among the population, noting that records for the 10th to 12th centuries show that England at the time ‘saw the warmest weather of the millennium’. Over this period of 200 years, average heights increased by more than 5cm (2in), says the paper.

After 1200AD, men became shorter in stature, and archaeological evidence shows that at this time rural populations were decreasing, farmland had become degraded and there were shortages of crop seeds. The paper also notes that other research suggests temperatures turned colder over the century, with weather becoming far more changeable until the early 1300s. The Great Famine (1315–1317) may have exaggerated the decline in average heights, but the paper says men’s height had started to decline several decades before.

The tall and the short of it: How average English height had changed over 2,000 yearsIn the wake of the Black Death of 1348–1350, however, average heights increased again; the paper notes that this coincided with a boost in agricultural production. From 1400 to the early 1650, mean height reached 173–174cm (5ft 8½in). ‘Our data shows that average heights in England in the medieval era and between 1400 and 1700 were similar to those of the 20th century,’ said Dr Galofré-Vilà. The early years of the 1600s were ‘unusually healthy’, and the paper notes that the introduction of poor laws may have contributed to better health for poorer sections of society.

Heights fell after 1650, reaching just 169cm (5ft 6½in) in the late 1600s — a decline that continued until the early 1800s. Previous research suggests average life expectancy had declined too: people born between 1650–1750 could expect to live just 35 years — down from 40 years in the late 1500s. The nature of work after 1650 had changed, with manual labour putting more of a toll on the body. During the Industrial Revolution, the demands on workers were much greater than in medieval times. The increasing number of working days, coupled with poorer working conditions, could explain why average height went down even though wages grew after 1650. The decline in heights could also be associated with increasing inequalities in society, the paper suggests.

The study compares the average heights of Englishmen with similar work previously carried out by Richard Steckel of Ohio State University, who created a European health index. Although the European and the English sets of evidence provide a consistent history, the Oxford-led study shows that the English may have escaped the worst of a Little Ice Age, when the medieval warm period was succeeded by a period of cooling with the health effects more marked across continental Europe.

And what about the future? Galofré-Vilà said: ‘Since the early 19th century, average heights for Englishmen have increased substantially, reaching 175cm in 1950 and 177cm [5ft 10in] in 1970 — among the tallest of any population worldwide. If mean heights are a good measure of well-being, it seems we are now in previously uncharted territory. Within the last 100 years, the average heights of Englishmen have risen more than at any time in recorded history.’

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This article is reproduced, slightly edited, from the Oxford University News and Events page, with permission. Roman soldier by Meunierd via Shutterstock. Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence. Portrait courtesy of Dr Gregori Galofré-Vilà. Illustration from W H Swepstone’s
The Two Widows (1853) from the British Library via Flickr under Creative Commons licence.


By Sheila

Interesting topic, although I can't help thinking that this article is crying out for a graphic of some kind, and also some statistics that are more recent than 1970...

By Leo Dobes

most interesting piece of research. was any work done to use something like the heights of ceilings and doorways in residential buildings constructed in each era? They would presumably also reflect major changes in average heights. regards, Leo (St Antony's 1981)

By Geoff Gregory

Very interesting paper. I would have liked to have seen also some discussion of the effect of the health of women, as I believe studies have shown a correlation between birth weight and adult height, and birth weight is influenced by the health of the mother during pregnancy which is not necessarily the same as the health of her husband.

By RH Findlay

It would also be interesting to check heights of adults born in the UK during war-time (WW2) rationing and the early days of the NHS and afterwards, and again of those born during the thatcher years, My father, in Tertiary education all his life, noted a difference relative to his own height between those of us born in the 1940s and early 1950a and those born in the mid-50s after government had ended its war-time control on the quality of food (thus influencing the health of the mother). One could also check the effects of living in different parts of the UK in relation to access to a decent climate with plenty of sun. I noted a difference between my compatriots living in Portmouth (sun, sea and sand) and those born in the "Black Country" of the British Midlands (cloudy skies, gloom and pollution).

Indeed, could height be used as a check on the influence and adequacy of government policy (which is supposed to be to the benefit of the greater good)............?


So measuring height is partly about rulers, then!!

By RHFindlay

Indeed; and is the height of the ruler inversely proportional to the damage they cause.e.g. Napoleon, thus leading to diminution of the height of the ruled?

By chris erwin

I do not have specifics about height in the second world war but do on general health
Actuaries have identified the "golden cohort" for life expectancy as people who were born and lived in the period of food rationing. Much less food than now , and much plainer. In fact, being a member of the cohort myself, the food was horrible, but a scientifically derived diet with no choice, as well as a lot more physical activity- walk when you don't have the petrol coupons.

By Meg Twycross

Arriving in Oxford in 1954. I was immediately aware that the grammar-school boys I came up with were several inches shorter than the public school lads we met for the first time. And then we met the Rhodes Scholars ...