Samuel Johnson wrote that the life of the common man living in Europe during the 18th century was little to be enjoyed and much to be endured. (1) The masses of the 18th century lived short demanding lives. The life expectancy of the average person living in Europe during the 18th century was roughly 30 years. A combination of disease, scientific ignorance, and malnutrition was responsible for the surpisengly short lives of 18th century Europeans. (2)
During the Old Regime, Europeans were almost constantly bombarded with disease. Diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid fever and Smallpox were the great killers of the 18th century. (3) A study of the city of Edinburgh s death records for 1740 revealed that tuberculosis or smallpox that year caused almost half of the recorded deaths. (4) This study illustrates that disease was the most common killer of 18th century Europeans. Roughly 30 percent of infants died from disease before their first birthday. Mothers also ran a high chance of contracting disease during childbirth, thus many mothers died giving birth. Childbirth was such a risk to the women during of the 18th century that Madame de Sevigne told her daughter that if she wants to survive, Don t get pregnant and don t catch smallpox. (5) Disease was so rampant during the 18th century that even the rich and powerful could not avoid infection.
One might think that the royalty of the 18th century would rarely catch such deadly diseases, but they did. Disease was a major influence on the aristocracy. During the eighty years between 1695 and 1775 disease killed a tsar of Russia, a king of France, a king of Austria, a queen of England, and a queen of Sweden. Disease many times ended dynasties by killing heirs. In 1700 the Duke of Gloucester died of disease and thus ended England s Stuart dynasty. (6) One reason that disease was rampant among all classes was the lack of sanitary housing and surroundings.
The spread of disease during the18th in Europe was amplified by scientific ignorance. The scientific community did not embrace the germ theory , therefore they did not perceive unsanitary surroundings as dangerous. Cities were littered with human excrement and refuse. Even the royal palaces were littered with filth. Duke de Saint-Simon commented on the magnificent palace in Versailles with this comment, over the privies and other dark and evil smelling places. (7) This quotation gives testament that even the most grandeur palaces of Europe were unsanitary and conducive to the spread of disease. The squalor that 18th century Europeans lived around not only directly contributed to the contraction of disease, but also attracted infected rodents and insects that spread plagues across Europe. The high fatality rate of those that became ill with a disease was heightened by inadequate medical care.
Most people living during the Old Regime never received medical treatment from trained professionals. Instead they sought treatment from bogus healers whose remedies did little or no good. Even treatment from a medical professional during the 18th century was not promising. The medical doctors of the 18th century were powerless to combat disease, because they did not know what caused them. A famous German scientist, Baron von Leibnitz, observed that, A great doctor kills more people than a great general. (8) This satirical statement by Leibnitz shows how inefficient and useless medical treatment was during the 18th century. Although disease was the major killer during the 18th century, malnutrition was also a contributing factor.
Malnutrition was widespread in the Old Regime. The common European living during the 18th century suffered from severe malnutrition. Most of the ordinary man s calories came from bread. This meant that if grain famine was to occur that there would me widespread starvation and death. (9) Malnutrition also led to weaker immune systems, which made people more susceptible to disease. This lack of food was not found among the European aristocracy during the 18th century.
Unlike the common man, the European aristocracy generally did not suffer from malnutrition. The people with bountiful economic resources were able to supply themselves with adequate and sometimes even excessive meals. A German princess once commented on the eating habits of Louis XIV by saying (10),
I have often seen the king eating four plates of soup,
a partridge, a big dish of salad, two big slices of ham,
and then fruit with some hard-boiled eggs.
This description of excessive eating is an example of how plentiful food was for the aristocracy. The economically elite were able to supply themselves with plenty of food; thus they generally did not suffer from the malnutrition. This made them less likely to contract diseases. The 19th century brought scientific advances that helped to raise life expectancy.
The widespread acceptance of germ theory led to marvelous increases is medical treatment. When people realized that disease was transmitted by invisible (to the naked eye) organisms it caused them to become more conscious of keeping their surroundings sanitary. Doctors began washing their hands before handling patients. Germ theory also led to vaccinations that made people impervious to certain diseases. This scientific advance also facilitated the invention of antiseptics that significantly lowered the chance of infection during surgery. The discovery of anesthetics provided a treatment for pain inside and outside of the surgery room. Because of basic advances in science during the 19th century people could be treated for illnesses that they would usually die from, thus lowering the mortality rate.
18th Century Europe was a ruff and difficult place to survive. People were under constant threat of disease and famine. The threat of disease was heightened by a lack of scientific knowledge that led to unsanitary conditions and practices. The upper class was usually not a victim of malnutrition, thus was generally healthier. It was not until the advances in science during the 19th century that the mortality rate was lowered, by vaccinations, and more advanced medical procedures. Will science and technology increase to the extent that 20th century heath care is viewed as primitive as that of the 18th century?