Old Age in Late Medieval England

Old Age in Late Medieval England

Old Age in Late Medieval England

Old Age in Late Medieval England


In Old Age in Late Medieval England, Joel T. Rosenthal explores the life spans, sustained activities, behaviors, and mentalites of the individuals who approached and who passed the biblically stipulated span of three score and ten in late medieval England. Drawing on a wide variety of documentary and court records (which were, however, more likely to specify with precision an individual's age on reaching majority or inheriting property than on the occasion of his or her death) as well as literary and didactic texts, he examines "old age" as a social construct and web of behavioral patterns woven around a biological phenomenon.

Focusing on "lived experience" in late medieval England, Rosenthal uses demographic and quantitative records, family histories, and biographical information to demonstrate that many people lived into their sixth, seventh, and occasionally eighth decades. Those who survived might well live to know their grandchildren. This view of a society composed of the aged as well as of the young and the middle aged is reinforced by an examination of peers, bishops, and members of parliament and urban office holders, for whom demographic and career-length information exists. Many individuals had active careers until near the end of their lives; the aged were neither rarities nor outcasts within their world. Late medieval society recognized the concept of retirement, of old age pensions, and of the welcome release from duty for those who had served over the decades.


This is a book that would not have been written a few years ago. It is not about anything and nothing happens. There is no change over time, except that, in the long run, everyone dies.

But from a different perspective, what is more natural than a series of essays and discussions about the life span, the range of sustained activity over time, the mentalité, and the behavior of those who did survive, in late medieval England, and who so managed to reach something in the neighborhood of their biblically legitimated span? Survival, old age, longevity, and multi-generational families are facts of life, less common then than now, of course, but memorable as a source of pride and accomplishment as well as a focal point for the inescapable social problems and the joints between the weakest seams in the fabric of "traditional" society.

I offer, in the chapters or essays that follow, a series of analyses of and discourses on various aspects of the social phenomenon that we are wont to sum up as "old age." Though old age seems such a natural part of the human condition, it is important to keep in mind that, to the social historian, it can also be treated as a social and behavioral syndrome, a collection and connection of physical, mental, and interactive responses that are to be expected as a concomitant attribute of life at 60 or 70. Like gender and race and color, it seems a part of the "natural world" around which society has been constructed as a gloss, a reading. And, as we are now apt to say, old age is in some part a social construct, a web of behavioral patterns woven around a biological phenomenon.

While there surely is an iron law of wages, the iron law of aging is better presented by the historian with some relativity; a sliding scale, if we will, on which all who survive are gauged, though at different times and along different scales of evaluation. Because age is both absolute in some biological contexts, and relative in most social ones, we ask different ques-

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