Wellness Guides for Seniors in the Middle Ages

By Adamson, Melitta Weiss | Fifteenth Century Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Wellness Guides for Seniors in the Middle Ages


Adamson, Melitta Weiss, Fifteenth Century Studies


Mentioning to non-medievalists that one's research interest is investigating regimens for old people in the Middle Ages invariably draws the following baffled reaction, "but I thought there were no old people in the Middle Ages. Wasn't the life expectancy much lower then, and weren't these folks all dead before the age of forty?" While it is true that the medieval life expectancy was lower than the life-span is in today's industrialized world, some seniors may have profited from wellness guides. Once certain groups are taken out of the calculation - namely children, with infant mortality registering as substantially higher than it is today, women of childbearing age, men of fighting age, peasants whose bodies had aged prematurely from decades of hard manual labor and inadequate nutrition, and the poor ("people without history") - the potential average age of seniors rises dramatically. Among the individuals whose age was the highest were the religious and members of the medical profession; moreover, both of the latter groups belonged to the knowledgeable elite of die time and could therefore record their experiences and ideas about old age.2

That this discourse is predominantly a male one should not be surprising since women were excluded from medical schools, and since there were many more male than female members of religious orders. There were exceptions, of course, notably the nun Hildegard of Bingen, who included some information on aging women in her medical works, especially in connection with sexuality, menstruation, and bloodletting.3 A handful of recipes of interest to older women is also contained in the medical collection ascribed to Trotula of Salerno, which is otherwise concerned primarily with the health and beauty of young women (several gynecological treatises are attributed to Trotula). Her recommendations include instructions to remove wrinkles, a remedy for deafness of the ears, an assortment of hair dyes, and an antiaphrodisiac designed to dull the lust in women who should not or could not have sexual intercourse, such as widows. But by and large the literature that has survived deals primarily with old men, the focal point of this article.

Beyond the factors already mentioned that favored the survival of old men, one must include the Plague, which, when it hit Europe during the mid-fourteenth century, took the biggest toll on children and women of childbearing age. As a consequence, more old men than ever competed with young males for the pool of nubile women; since many of these oldsters belonged to the nouveau-riche urban bourgeoisie, they frequently won out over younger rivals. Hence old males in post-plague Europe were far from marginalized; they were a force to be reckoned with.5 Yet the active sex life implied in unequal unions between older men and younger women was frowned upon by physicians, moralists, and society at large. The proliferation in the fifteenth century of aphrodisiacs and potency drugs, heralding what modern science has since achieved with Viagra and Cialis, may have been a sign of the demand for such remedies in the 1400s.6 Given an improved diet in late-medieval Europe, food that contained more meat than ever before, and hence more iron, women who survived the perils of childbirth and the Plague began to live longer, too, albeit with less of the economic might and conjugal bliss than their male counterparts enjoyed.7 Since popes were historically long-lived, as were university-trained physicians or book doctors who specialized more in prevention than cure, a natural affinity existed between these two groups. As a matter of fact, the most comprehensive regimen for old people ever composed before 1500, Gabriele Zerbis's Geroniocomia, is dedicated to a pontiff, Pope Innocent VIII.8 Before analyzing the contents of the texts on hygiene that have come down to us and their underlying theories, we must investigate how old age was both defined and portrayed in the Middle Ages. …

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