Numbers Lesson I: Introduction to Historical Statistics

Questions this lesson addresses: How can we use numbers to understand our past? You will read, use websites and a spreadsheet, answer questions, and submit your answers to the dropbox Numbers I.

For the first part of this lesson, please play a game.

Monty Hall Game

Play through the game at least five times before you click “See how it works.”

Once you’ve seen how it works, play the game again.

Learning Outcomes: By the end of this lesson students will be able to-

  1. Identify the difference between the mean, median, and mode of a group of numbers.
  2. Open a spreadsheet file using Excel, Numbers, LibreOffice, or Excel Online.
  3. Adjust and read a wage graph.
  4. Identify why the number of years averaged in a graph matter.
  5. Identify the overall wheat price trend in England between 1264 and 1400.
  6. Read a spreadsheet by using tabs.
  7. Answer questions about the past by interpreting data.

Why do historical statistics matter?

Let’s tackle that one word at a time, backwards. Statistics matter because we use numbers to measure our lives, whether it’s the dollars in our bank account, the number of friends we have on facebook, or how full a glass is (half full?) Increasingly, statistics are used to convince us in the truth of an argument. Yet, without a basic understanding of statistics, people often fall back into the cynicism that all numbers lie. Numbers are just information, and just as we apply the PISA test to sources, so too can we apply certain standards for what is a credible statistic.

Why do statistics matter to history? Numbers show us trends, that is up or down, in parts of our lives that are important. How much food, per person, does one society provide over time? How is income distributed to a people, mostly to the rulers, or does every group have a sizable chunk? As well, numbers let us compare groups that are fare apart from each other in geographic or temporal terms. Did the Han Chinese of 100 CE have greater economic output than the Holy Roman Empire in Europe of 1000 CE? Statistics matter because we can see trends (changes over time) and comparisons.

What is an average? Questions to answer.

To start, let’s deal with a simple concept: an average. There are three types of averages, the mean, median, and model. The mean is the sum of all the numbers, divided by the total number.

For example, if we had the age of death for a single town in a single year we might ask, how old are you likely to live if you are your age right now?

  1. First average the following ages: 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 5, 6, 9, 18, 18, 35, 45, 58, 72, 73, 75, 78, 88, 92, 107, 110. (25 numbers): What is the mean? Does this mean that you are going to die at this age? No, because you have already lived past 1 and likely past the ages 5,6, and 9. So, if we wanted to average the year of death for individuals above the year of 9, we’d start adding at 18.

  2. What is the average age of death for individuals over the age of 9?

  3. The median is the value (number) in the middle of a string of numbers. What is the median age of death for this town?

  4. The mode is the most commonly occurring number in a string of numbers. What is the mode age of death for this town? This tell us that the most popular age of death for this town was one, even if the average (mean) age of death was higher.

As a historian, when you see the word “average” you always need to ask if it’s the mean, median, or mode and is that the most useful average for understanding the past.

If you’d like more help understanding mean, median, and mode, you can see a video here.

A brief pause for technical help.

For the next part of the lesson, you need access to a spreadsheet program. If you have Microsoft Excel or Mac Numbers on your computer you’re all set. If you don’t you’ll need to do one of two things:

  1. Download and install the free office software LibreOffice . This will give you give you a free version of a spreadsheet program.


  1. Use Excel Online, the free software that’s part of your Normandale email account. First, save the document posted on D2L called “Historical Statistics for the World Economy, 1–1500 CE” to your free Microsoft OneDrive that is part of your Normandale email. The next several slides are to help folks get a spreadsheet program. If you have one, skip down to the Wages part of the lesson.


  1. Open the spreadsheet in Google docs if you have a google account. (The way to do this is about the same as using Excel online).

Below is what Excel looks like on a Mac.

If you don’t have Excel or the LibreOffice version of it…

  1. Login to your Normandale email and click on the box of squares, which will show programs like below.

Choose “Excel Online”

Once you’ve opened that up, you’ll want to open a file from OneDrive. Your page will look similar, but not exactly like this one.

Once you’re in OneDrive,

  1. Download the “Historical Statistics for the World Economy, 1–1500 CE”to your computer and

  2. Upload the file into the OneDrive, so you can open it in Excel Online.

Numbers warm up: Reading simple graphs.

  1. Open a browser and go to Real daily wages in pounds, England, 1260–1994 : and Wheat Prices, 1264–1400, in constand 1996 pounds,

  2. Let’s start with the wages graph. Click on the “Display” tab and make the Time period from 1260–1400.

  3. Question: What is the highest daily wage and in what year during the period 1260–1400?