Old age was generally precarious and on the margins in the Middle Ages. However, the status and practical circumstances of old people varied by country, century, class, identity and so on, and the results are a fascinating study in options.
It’s much harder to figure out, given all these options, what may have been common (as no historian wants to make calls about that!), but I still appreciated seeing the variety and details come to life.
Who is old?
Maimonides proposed a purely subjective yardstick for old age in a woman: ‘Who is an old woman? One who is called old and does not protest.’
Of course, medieval philosophers loved to come up with lists of stages and categories: Augustine divides life into six phases, with old age beginning at 60 (and today’s geriatric specialists mostly agree and put it at 60-70). Four and seven stages were also popular – with much variety, including “old age (45-70), very old age (70–death)” (Dante), “old age (50-70), decreptitude (70-death)”, 58, 60, 72, enfeeblement starting at 60, even 40 (Erasmus) etc
Official status is maybe a better way to determine who is old: a person’s weregeld sinks by age in the laws of the Visigoths (500 solidi aged 20–50, 200 aged 50–65, 100 solidi afterwards; with women going from 250 to also 200, then 100), which looks pretty similar to what happens in the bible. Other relevant laws are the ones excluding old people from required taxes or labour duties, in the field or the city watch, for example. Common age barriers were 60 (like in the Roman Republic and Empire) and 70. Retirement depended strongly on personal circumstances and demographics, much less on age.
For women, the matter was somewhat easier, as people could and would just point at menopause, making women count as old in their late 40sor early 50s. But it seems that sometimes, women were only considered old at around the same age as men, say 60, and before then had a special status after they couldn’t get pregnant anymore till the onset of old age.
Notably some people take letters from Michelangelo and Petrarch in their 40s complaining about their old age as a sign that people counted as “old” much earlier back then; but this book shows beautifully that they were just whining/joking, just like people do today, by comparing it with their much later letters and career.
At the same time, people around 40 could easily also be described as too young, eg when it came to rank and titles, e.g. becoming a prior or a bishop. Florence, being less of a gerontocracy than Venice, still only allowed people over 45 to be elected to their hightest posts. The lowest upper limit to be found was in Lucca, where men over 55 were barred from office. (Similar limits existed for 60 and 70 year old men in other cities.)
Lots of negative characteristics were attributed to old people: Stinginess due to anxiety over their property dwindling and fear of being destitute. Old people were low status – by law often seen as somewhat feeble-minded, reverting to (the bad aspects of) childhood. The old are regularly listed as the recipients of alms just like the ill and the poorest of the poor, and are regularly grouped in with other low status groups like women and slaves (Aquinas). Albertus Magnus says that the old man is not bitter, but that he feels nothing anymore, like a lamp to go out, yikes.
Life expectancy got a lot better in the twelfth and thirteenth century, then first gradually and then drastically declined in the fourteenth century with the Black Death. In Florence, in 1300, life expectancy (which includes all child deaths) at birth was 40; in 1375 it was 18, in 1400 it was 20, in 1425 it was 28. But those who survived childhood had a fair chance to live to be 50, 60 or 70 years old. As a rough average across regions and times, a medieval person aged 20-25 had a life expectancy of 30 years.
However, with the Black Death, the percentage of old people actually increased to something like 15%, whereas before it was at 8%. (In 1984, it was 14% in the “developed world”, and stands to reach 20% now.) So for about a hundred years during the Black Death, demographics looked as “modern” as they wouldn’t again until now.
Women had a lower life expectancy in the Early Middle Ages due to child birth, but it then rose (comparatively) during the High Middle Ages, when at least in the cities, women often had physically lighter work and did not fight in the wars many men were embroiled in. If you took into account only natural death, women and men in ducal families in England (1300-1500) had roughly the same life expectancy at age 20 (31 years), but if you took into account violent death, the life expectancy of the men aged 20 dropped to 21 years.
The old body
Biologically, aging looked much like it does today, only with less support, and has been observed well: Wrinkly skin, white hair or loss of hair, more mucus, tremors, loss of teeth, hearing difficulties, inflammation especially of the eyes, blindness, low energy, increased difficulty moving and breathing. And, mentally: insomnia, restlessness, irritability, forgetfulness, gullibility, inability to recognise others or even themselves.
Health advice often focused on making old age more bearable, recognising that there was no stopping the decline, only possibly ways of prolonging it. (Of course, blah blah humours, old men are cold and dry etc, old women cold and wet because they hold in their period.). Light activity was advised (“use it or lose it” even then), warm food (focus on young animals), small meals three times a day, diluted wine, fresh milk, a sunny well-heated room, and little excitement or work or strain. As little as possible stressful medical interventions like bleeding. (We have four very interesting essays on “The Sober Life” by Alvise Cornaro, written when he was 83, 86, 91, and 95, before his death aged 98).
Before the twelfth century, old people were often shown as nearly evil. With the general rehabilitation of the body in Christianity in the twelfth cetury, the general attitude started to sometimes include the virtues of old age, such as growth of wisdom and diminuation of desires.
There are generally both positive and negative attributes and behaviours attributed to old age, and writers used the ones that were more convenient to their current writing. To a certain degree, there was understanding, especially for the often attributed stinginess due to their economic precariousness. It was also noted how personality and general life affected old age immediately.
But generally, in the Middle Ages there was less positive connotation to old age than eg in Rome before (though, of course, mockery of old age occurs in all time periods). Loss of memory was verging on a moral failure, even. Old men were mocked if they were stingy, sexually active, grumpy, frail, forgetful etc. Marriages between very old men and young women were seen an unseemly. (Which means they happened, of course, just to general gossip.)
A person’s age was also mostly not precisely known. The clergy often kept track of their own fairly well, but we can see from official investigation records that getting somebody’s precise age was often impossible (and frequently rounded up). Investigations into age was also common in places with a retirement age – we have lots of records like that from England. Old people were often requested for all sorts of land disputes, too, as the transition to written records took centuries and continued to be patchy for a long time. (The rehabilitation of Joan of Arc talked to her contemporaries, who were by then 70-80 years old.) In this context, old women were also often used as interface to interact with and inspect the bodies of younger women (eg. for rape accusations, pregnancy, lactation etc). Old women were also (sometimes by law!) preferred as housekeepers for clergy.
Families and aging parents were handled differently across time and space. Generally, Southern Europe tended more to have a patriarch. There was a lot of literature (biblical, Roman, Icelandic sagas, everywhere really) admonishing about reciprocal giving and taking care of aging parents – it was so clear and understood that it mostly didn’t even make its way into law, though neglect of aging parents sometimes was defined as a crime.
There was also – always and everywhere – the anxiety of being disadvantaged when turning over the family business to the younger generation (cf King Lear). Lots was written about this: children were admonished, but so were parents: to consider their future old age when rearing their children. Sometimes the advice was also to not turn over ownership to children, just to be safe.
Minimum ages in the church weren’t terribly high; you could become a bishop aged 30, a priest by 25, a deacon by 20. Retirement happened in advanced age or never – especially people in power, like abbots or bishops frequently died old while still maintaining their position. Not to mention popes: mostly elected in their 50s or 60s, and of course sticking around forever. Priests generally could draw some income from their post, so-called benefices, but those who couldn’t, ended up impoverished and hoping to find space in special almshouses for clergy, something that when combined approached, but never reached, a pension scheme for priests. (This relaxed after the Black Death, when there were the same number of benefices, but fewer priests.)
Minimum ages for monks basically didn’t exist, though nuns were often also older women joining a convent late in life. But generally, old men and women retiring to a monastery did not actually join the order, they just made a donation (a lump sum or ongoing) and got room, board, and support in their final years.
Drawing from this, Roger Bacon seems like the only one thinking constructively about old age. In his utopian writings, he talks about state-sponsored alms for the old, the option of actual assisted suicide and if that was refused, care till death. Old monks were cared for much like that, though without enjoying any special status. Interestingly enough, btw, age expectancy in monasteries declined during the plagues, by nearly as much as in the outside world, even in monasteries that kept fairly aloof.
Rulers and soldiers
Kings, as opposed to popes, were often young. Some crowned as minors, and most coming into power between their late teens and early thirties, because kings reach the throne following the death of their father, and kings also didn’t tend to live very long. Between 1000 and 1400, there was one European King to die in his 70s, and very few in their 60s. Interestingly enough, when ~Germany (I know, I know) switched to an electoral monarchy, age of the candidate seems to have been relatively unimportant. In contrast, Italian leaders tended to be at least middle-aged, often old or very very old (hi, Venice).
Bavarian laws actually defined incompetence in age in order to determine when a duke might oust his father: a leader had to be neither blind nor deaf, could bear arms and mount his horse, go to war, participate in legal debate, judge his people, obey the king.
Life expectancy in the nobility was rather low, lots of violent death. Old men usually performed some military function of their estate until death. (And sometimes still rode to battle – the English regent in 1216, William Marshall, still took part in battles when he was 72.) But that was the exception – old knights were not generally respected.
Soldiers and mercenaries had it hard in old age. No income, no pension, wounds and so on. Some had lifetime contracts that included retirement in money or lifetime property, salary, or grants.
Here, the book also mentions some super cool women, especially Eleanor of Aquitaine, but also Matilda of Tuscany, Katherine Neville and Margaret, Countess of Flanders and Hainault. Widowed noblewomen were economically secure, though with little power apart from manorial influence. The widow’s rights to a dower were acknowledged througout the feudal world. They might stick around their court, or go elsewhere because they didn’t get on with their children.
Nobody could make a banker, merchant, physician, notary or artisan retire. People of that class got comparatively olds. However, economic distress often happened to merchants their past 50s (where they first reached their height of prosperity), as they had to start emancipating their sons (usually when they were around 16, much younger than emancipation in other similar vocations), including transferral of property; provide dowries for their daughters and granddaughters, offer loans to poorer family members etc. Sometimes, the business was entirely transferred to the son, with legal agreements about pensions paid to the father.
Knowledge workers like physicians (and midwives!) were often preferred at old age, when they had a lot of experience. Artisans never retired, just changed how much they worked, and gave the more strenuous tasks to younger workers. They also received help from their guilds or fraternities, who stood by with legal aid, loans, support for widows and children, and sometimes a sort of pension for those who were unable to work anymore, plus the right to dine at the guild. Larger more prosperous guilds or fraternities would even have rooms in hospitals. Women in this social strata were very secure in their old age, as they would receive their husband’s pension or a dower or dowry after their deaths. Some even could take on their late husband’s role in the workshop and guild.
In the city, old parents sometimes resided with family, but it was not the rule. Households in Florence in 1430 were only 3.8 people on average, and only 3% of households had ten or more inhabitants. (I don’t think either is counting servants fwiw).
Pensions were also around, and could be purchased to receive regular payments later, to be transferred to widows sometimes, and in various forms (money, room and board, etc), sometimes in return for part of their belongings after death. Servants sometimes received bequests like that, but more often one-time payments.
The peasantry has the highest local variance in arrangements, both for inheritance and dealing with aged parents. Sometimes the father would choose the inheriting son, sometimes the property was split, sometimes the oldest son or oldest child inherited by default. Often this was decided only by local custom and the family in question with no oversight, even when there was technically rulership by a feudal lord.
The two fundamental modes of retirement were either holding on to control despite not working any longer, or making a son head of the household and retiring. In southern Europe, the former was more common, with all sons remaining subject to their father’s authority. The only property sons could obtain in their father’s lifetime would be inherited from their mother. He could also marry away, but even then his life and property remained under his father’s authority. This meant that the older a man became, the more property he controlled, especially as families in rural areas were started at younger ages. His sons and sons-in-laws who joined his side of the family were completely dependent and couldn’t even spend more than a few coins without his permission. Peasant widows would stay with their household, which they could head or assist, depending on local trandition (in Tuscany, for example, the sons took over, whereas in France, the widow led the household). Other modes included brothers remaining with the property even when they married, and working it jointly.
In the second model, more common in northern Europe, aging peasants retired and turned the property over to their children, either the oldest or a chosen son. How this went over depended on the family – anything from calm retirement to being suddenly restricted in everything was possible. Retirement agreements sometimes stipulated a minimum of maintenance in food, living space, which secured the old peasant’s quality of life in case their children grew stingy or cruel. Some agreements were more meticulous than others (even enumerating food items and quantities), either mirroring education or trust issues, or both, who knows. Retiring couples also sometimes received a small cottage or hut away from the main property. Complaints about broken agreements and mistreatment abound, with jurors awarding fines etc.
An old peasant’s status was reduced, but their wisdom still made them important to the community. However, landless cottagers or smallholders had it much worse. They often became paupers, gleaning the fields or retreating to poorhouses. Prosperous peasants in Austria and Norway often kept ageing hired labourers around.
Awareness of property was coupled with a duty of charity. Almsgiving was basically mandated by the Church. The medieval concept of charity included poor relief, donations to monasteries, to the construction and maintenance of churches, bridge building and road mending, to hostels for pilgrims. Contributions both during life and in wills were normal. It’s remarkable, though, that in most stories about charity that were common at the time, old people are not mentioned, though in practice, they received assistance just like other groups in need.
Almshouses were never quite sufficient. After the Black Death, there was less willingness to help. Poor people received food from monasteries and almshouses, but also for other duties, like walking in funeral parades.