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October 23, 2012 2:56 PM   Subscribe

Historically, what were stereotypical views of the elderly?

Given that average life expectancy across all socioeconomic groups has increased considerably over recorded history, how did previous societies and generations expect their elders to appear and to behave? How old was 'old'? Were (say) fortysomethings in the medieval period identifiable by their facial features and hair, as we might identify octogenarians today?

Ideally, I'm after references to primary or secondary sources rather than anecdote; I'm not really thinking of the twentieth century here.
posted by Talkie Toaster to Writing & Language (5 answers total)
 
The massive rise in life expectancy is mainly due to a drop in mortality at the very young and very old ends of the spectrum -- that is, due to modern medicine, much fewer infants die, and fewer octogenarians, but the death rate of 15-70 year olds has only gone down a little. Even now, the life expectancy in some parts of the world (say, Sierra Leone) is only around 40, but that doesn't mean that 45-year-olds are seen as "old men" there, because that low number is due mainly to the very high mortality rates among infants and children.

A lot of stereotypes about medieval peasants dropping dead in their forties are attributable to this misunderstanding about what life expectancy means. Senescence still works pretty much like it always has.
posted by theodolite at 3:05 PM on October 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


To clarify: I'm well aware that the biological processes governing ageing do not generally work like that, but if one looks at, say, l(x) from these life tables at age 20 and 40, far fewer people are dying in their prime nowadays.

What I want to know is how this reality is reflected in historical perceptions of older people, not whether medieval peasants turned grey and went deaf...
posted by Talkie Toaster at 3:20 PM on October 23, 2012


My understanding, based on my fuzzy knowledge of prehistory (I date an ex-archaeologist), is that while medieval peasants didn't drop dead at forty, people from, say, the paleolithic era did. But of course we don't know anything about how they conceived of old age.
posted by toastedcheese at 4:30 PM on October 23, 2012


Well, women often died in childbirth in medieval times, and apparently those that did not were looked down upon once they had gone through menopause (Catherine of Aragon went through menopause in her thirties!). Older women were seen, honestly, as more of a nuisance than anything else, having outlived their main purpose in life.

Whereas young, childbearing women were a valuable commodity even if they had been married before, since obviously they were capable of bearing sons, once they had hit the point of their life when they were no longer able to bear children these women were often encouraged to enter a convent, or retire quietly to the country, so as not to be too much of a burden on anyone else. Even a married woman who had gone through menopause might request her husband allow her to enter a convent, since the purpose of sex within a marriage was, again, having children, and she was now unable to fulfill that purpose.

So, during medieval times, older women were seen, basically, as having outlived their usefulness, which is what happened to Catherine of Aragon once she hit menopause. Since it was obvious the king (King Henry VIII, of course) would not have a legitimate male heir (his illegitimate son died suddenly of an illness), his counselors advised him to name a successor or find a way to put his marriage aside and marry a younger, fertile wife.

Of course, the latter appealed to Henry, who wanted to marry Ann Boleyn, though since Catherine was an extremely devout Catholic and the people loved her, it took years and a lot of nasty manipulation before he was free of her.

The Black Plague took more children and young people than elderly, and that led to the elderly living even longer than usual; older unmarried women often had a hard time getting by financially with no one to support them, and most could only secure loans from other women friends, as they were seen as bad credit risks (even if they did marry, everything would legally belong to their husbands, who might not agree to pay back the debt).

According to Jessica Godfrey, in her book Attitudes Toward Post-Menopausal Women in the High and Late Middle Ages, some male writers of the time viewed older women as incapable of love and even "venomous and dangerous to children"!
posted by misha at 4:53 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


According to Aristotle, men reached their physical prime between the ages of 30 and 35, and their mental prime around the age of 49. His view of old age was highly negative. Old men are cynical, distrustful and cowardly; they are selfish and small-minded; they live in the past and lack any hope for the future. On the other hand, Cicero argued in De Senectute ('On Old Age') that old age could be honourable, dignified and even pleasant. So positive and negative stereotypes of old age have co-existed ever since the classical period.

In pre-industrial Europe, old age began in the sixth decade of life, though slightly earlier for women than for men. Among the poorer classes, women tended to be given the honorific title 'Mother' around the age of 50, while men were given the title 'Father' in their mid-fifties. Women were sometimes said to be old after the menopause, but this does not mean that they had 'outlived their usefulness', as post-menopausal women could still play an active role in raising young children, and widows sometimes enjoyed considerable financial independence. In medical theory, old age was associated with coldness and dryness, which was not necessarily a bad thing, as it meant that old people (women as well as men) were perceived as acting more rationally and less emotionally.

It's been estimated that in 18th century Europe, over 10% of the population was aged over 60. In other words, old people formed a very visible part of society, not just a few toothless old crones muttering to themselves by the fireside. Attitudes to old age were complex, ambiguous, and often surprisingly modern. For an up-to-date, well-illustrated introduction to the subject, see Pat Thane, A History of Old Age (2005), and see also this sensitive review of the book by Joan Bakewell in the Guardian.
posted by verstegan at 3:24 PM on October 24, 2012


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