Status of Older People: Preindustrial West

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It is commonly believed that it was rare to live to old age in the preindustrial west. This misconception arises from confusion between average life expectancy at birth and the actual life spans of those who survived the high mortality years of early life. For example, in England life expectancy at birth averaged around thirty-five years between the 1540s and 1800. But those who survived the hazardous first years of life had a good chance of living into their fifties and beyond. The proportion of the English population aged over sixty fluctuated between 6 and 8 percent through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It fell to 6 percent in the nineteenth century, when high birth rates raised the percentage of the very young. Proportions of older people in all European countries varied from community to community, generally high in depressed rural areas, which younger people left in search of work, lower in expanding towns. France, by contrast, experienced falling birth rates in the nineteenth century. In the mid-eighteenth century, 7 to 8 percent of the population were aged sixty or above; by 1860 the proportion was 10 percent.

It is also sometimes asserted that it was rare for women to live to old age. But in England women were a clear majority among those age sixty and above from the time that vital statistics began to be officially and comprehensively recorded in 1837; in fact, women appear to have had a longer life expectancy, on average, for long before. Medieval commentators noted that women seemed to have the longer life expectancy, and they wondered how that could be when it seemed natural that men were stronger and should live longer. Physicians in eighteenth-century France were still puzzled by the consistency with which females went against nature and outlived men. It is sometimes thought that before the nineteenth century, female life expectancy must have been sharply reduced by death in childbirth. But though such deaths undoubtedly, and tragically, occurred more frequently than in the twentieth century, childbirth was not a mass killer of women. It was no more lethal than the ravages of work, war, and everyday violence on the lives of men of comparable age.

How was old age defined?

Was the boundary between middle and old age the same in all time periods? Generally historical demographers choose the ages sixty or sixty-five, the conventional age boundary of the later twentieth century, as the lower limit of old age. It is essential to choose a fixed age threshold if statistical comparisons of age structure are to be made over time. But did people perhaps become old at earlier ages in previous centuries, when living standards were lower? Strikingly, the ages of sixty and seventy have been used to signify the onset of old age in formal institutions in Europe at least since medieval times. Sixty was long the age at which law or custom permitted withdrawal from public activities on grounds of old age. In medieval England men and women ceased at age sixty to be liable for compulsory service under the labor laws, to be prosecuted for vagrancy, or (in the case of men only) to perform military service. From the thirteenth century, seventy was set as the upper limit for jury service. Similar regulations held elsewhere in Europe. It can be argued that governments had an incentive to set such ages as high as possible, especially when they might exact taxation in lieu of service, but it is unlikely that they could have been set at levels far removed from popular perceptions of the threshold of old age. Furthermore, appointments were made to elite positions at advanced ages. In England the average age at death of the nine seventeenth-century archbishops of Canterbury (the leader of the Church of England) was seventy-three, and the average age of appointment was sixty.

On the other hand, it was long assumed that most manual workers could not remain fully active at their trades much past age fifty, especially when performance depended upon such physical attributes as eyesight. Literary evidence from the sixteenth century suggests that the fifties were regarded as the declining side of working maturity, the beginning of old age. This is still popularly assumed at the end of the twentieth century and again suggests that cultural definitions of old age have not changed greatly over time. For women old age was often thought to start earlier, in the late forties or around fifty, as menopause became visible, though the evidence on this is ambiguous and there are many signs of women in their fifties and beyond leading active and respected lives in their communities. For men the defining, and more visible, characteristic was capacity for full-time work.

For both men and women in preindustrial Europe old age was defined by appearance and capacities rather than by age-defined rules about pensions and retirement, hence people could be defined as old at variable ages. English poor relief records in the eighteenth century first describe some people as old in their fifties, others not until their seventies. Supplicants for public service pensions in eighteenth-century France ranged in age from fifty-four to eighty years.

This suggests that over many centuries old age has been defined in different ways, different contexts, and for different social groups. Three of the most common ways of framing old age are chronological, functional, and cultural. A fixed threshold of chronological old age has long been a bureaucratic convenience, suitable for establishing age limits to rights and duties, such as access to pensions or eligibility for public service. It has become more pervasive since industrialization. Functional old age is reached when an individual cannot perform the tasks expected of him or her, such as paid work. Cultural old age occurs when an individual looks old according to the norms of the community and behaves and is treated as old. Despite impressive continuities over long time periods in both official and popular definitions of the onset of old age, undoubtedly a high proportion of survivors in medieval and preindustrial societies felt and looked old at earlier ages than has become the norm since industrialization. In consequence, the numbers of people who appeared to be old in past communities might have been greater, and they would have been a more visible cultural presence, than is revealed simply by calculating the numbers past age sixty.

Also, it has long been recognized that there is immense variety in the experience of human aging, that people do not age at the same pace or in the same ways, and they continue to change even after the formal threshold of old age is passed. Since antiquity commentators have divided old age into stages. Some of these were elaborate, such as the medieval ages of man schema, which divided life into three, four, seven, or twelve ages. These stylized age divisions often had didactic or metaphorical rather than strictly descriptive purposes. More commonly, in everyday discourse, old age was divided into what in preindustrial England was called green old age, a time of fitness and activity, with perhaps some failing powers, and the later phase of decrepitude. The sad decline with which some, but not all, older lives end was never represented positively.

How did older people support themselves in the preindustrial west?

Some older people possessed property, often in substantial amounts, on which they could live until death, employing others to care for them, if necessary, either in institutions or in their own households. From the earliest times in most western countries aging individuals could legally assign property to relatives or nonrelatives in return for guaranteed support until death, and they could invoke the protection of the law if the agreement was not honored. Older people determinedly sought to control their own lives and to retain their independence throughout much of western culture through time. For the propertyless and impoverished there was, in most times, little choice but to work for pay for as long as possible, whereas the propertied could in all times retire from work when they chose. In Norwich, England, in 1570, three widows, ages seventy-four, seventy-nine, and eighty-two, were described only as almost past work and they were still earning small sums at spinning. Poor relief systems encouraged older men and women to work, supplementing but not replacing meager incomes. Most communities provided specified tasks for poor older people. Roadmending, caring for the churchyard, fetching, and tending horses on market days were tasks for old men. It was often easier for women to support themselves at later ages, by caring for children, providing casual domestic labor, such as cleaning or washing, taking in lodgers, or running small shops or alehouses.

Another important resource was family support. As far back in time as can be traced, it has not been the norm in all western societies for older people to share households with their married children. To do so was conventional in Mediterranean societies and in some north European peasant cultures, such as Ireland and parts of France, where land was the familys only asset and the heir shared land and household with the elders until their death. In much of northwestern Europe, however, elders retained control of their own households for as long as they were able, rarely sharing them with adult married children, though they might move to the home of a relative when they were no longer capable of independence, perhaps for a short time before death. North European folklore, even in medieval times, expressed few illusions about intergenerational support, but long conveyed warnings of the danger to older people of placing themselves and their possessions under the control of their children. Such stories achieved their most sublime expression in William Shakespeares King Lear.

Most countries incorporated into law some obligation upon adult children and sometimes other close relatives to support their elders. How frequently such practices were implemented was variable, not least because the kin of the aged poor were often very poor themselves and could not realistically be expected to give support. The customs and practice of the Old World were transported to the New. Settler societies gave even greater salience to the independence and self-help that was necessary for survival, and such societies took time to build the communal, often religious-based, institutions which supplemented self- and family support in much of Europe.

But the fact that older people did not conventionally share a home with close relatives, and determinedly retained their independence for as long as they were able, does not mean that there were not close emotional ties and exchanges of support between the generations. Parents and adult offspring might not share a household, but they often lived in close proximity, even in the highly mobile society that England was for centuries before industrialization. Generally in western societies kinship did not stop at the front door (Jutte, p. 90). Sociologists Rosenmayr and Kockeis have described the north European family as characterized by intimacy at a distance, the intimacy being as important as the distance. Old people could in general expect help from their children based on the sustenance and protection provided by parents during the childhood period. Family members at all social levels exchanged support and services from a mixture of material, calculative, and emotional motives. That it was often an exchange relationship should be emphasized. Older people in the past, as now, were rarely simply dependent upon others, unless they were in severe physical decline. They cared for grandchildren, for sick people, supported younger people financially when they could afford it, and performed myriad other services for others. Intergenerational exchange often took the form of services (a daughter performing housework or providing meals, a grandparent caring for grandchildren) or gifts in kind rather than of cash.

But not all older people had families to support them. High death rates meant that parents might outlive children. Up to one-third of women living to age sixty-five in England between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries had no surviving children. Geographical mobility was limited at a time when transport was slow, and many people who were illiterate might break contacts even between survivors.

Those who had no families could create them. Older men married younger women able to look after them; older women married younger men if the men were wealthier, or could care for children after a wifes death. Orphan children were adopted by older people, gaining a home in return for giving service. Unrelated poor people shared households for mutual support.

Charity and poor relief

When families were not able, willing, or available to help, many older people needed the support of charity or public welfare. Not all older people were poor, but in most preindustrial societies they were more likely than younger people to be very poor, especially if they were female. All European societies had some collectively funded system of provision for the aged and other poor people, and charitable funds, often religious in motivation and institutionalization. This system could provide payments in cash or kind (food, clothing, medical care) or shelter in a hospital or workhouse. Provision was of variable quality, within each country as well as over time, and it was guided by varied principles: supportive, rehabilitative, or punitive. Everywhere old people were numerous among recipients of relief, along with widows and children, but nowhere did reaching a defined age automatically qualify anyone for relief. The essential qualification was destitution.

Countries of the new world tended to reject publicly funded welfare systems because initially they lacked both an established, substantial wealthy class capable of funding them and the mass of miserable poor that required them. Also, nineteenth-century migrants were often fleeing from punitive relief systems in Europe and had no desire to replicate them. Ideologically, too, they placed a premium upon independence and self-help. Australia and New Zealand never introduced publicly funded poor relief systems, relying instead upon voluntary charity, sometimes (and increasingly over time) subsidized from public funds. The picture was similar in nineteenth-century Canada. In parts of the United States the extent of unmet need necessitated the introduction of poor relief, but welfare early acquired and retained more stigmatizing associations than elsewhere in the west. Most nation-states, at least by the eighteenth century and commonly in the nineteenth, provided publicly funded pensions for public servants and for the disabled veterans of war and sometimes for their families.

Declining status of older people

It is sometimes argued that the dependence and marginalization of older people has increased, that they are less valued in industrial than in preindustrial societies. The belief that the status of older people is always declining has a very long history. It is discussed, and dismissed, even in the opening pages of Platos Republic and in a long succession of texts through the centuries. The longevity of this narrative trope suggests that it expresses persistent cultural fears of aging and neglect, and real divergence in experience in most times and places, rather than representing transparent reality.

Early historical inquiry into old age tended to echo this narrative of decline. George Minoiss history of old age in western culture from antiquity to the Renaissance acknowledged variations and complexities in experiences and perceptions of old age over this long time span, but he still concluded that the general tendency however is towards degradation (pp. 67). Studies of old age in the United States since the eighteenth century find the status of old people to be in decline over a variety of time scales: from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth, in the mid-nineteenth, and between the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These were mostly studies of white males in specific situations. The fact that some older men exerted power at a particular time does not necessarily suggest that all older people at that time and place were highly regarded. In all times in western culture, older people (female and male) who retained economic or any other form of power, along with their faculties, could command, or enforce, respect. In contrast, at all times powerless older people have been marginalized and denigrated, though not universally.

Attitudes toward and experiences of older age in all times and over time were varied and complex, following no simple trajectories, and historical texts must be read with care. It may be tempting, for example, to conclude that Shakespeares famous climax to the seven ages of man described by Jaques in As You Like It second childishness and mere oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everythingis representative of sixteenth century English perceptions of old age. If, that is, you fail to note that Jaques is a relatively young man, but is given the conventional literary attributes of an old man, such as melancholy; and that the dismal description of the seventh age is subverted by the immediate entrance on stage of an octogenarian, Adam, who has earlier been represented as strong and lusty. The pervasiveness in English popular drama and literature (for example, in the work of Chaucer) of such dialogue between conflicting representations of old age, negative and positive, and its evident familiarity to preindustrial audiences, suggests its deep roots in English culture and probably in that of other western societies.

Patricia M. Thane

See also Age; Age Norms; Gerontocracy; Literature and Aging; Status of Older People: The Ancient and Biblical Worlds; Status of Older People: Modernization.


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