Old Age in Preindustrial Society

Old Age in Preindustrial Society

Old Age in Preindustrial Society

Old Age in Preindustrial Society

Excerpt

PETER N. STEARNS

Old age, as a field of history, remains shockingly untended. It is doubtless symptomatic of the shaky esteem the elderly command in contemporary society that, of all the major "inarticulate" groups, the aged have been taken up last and least by historians. Anthropologists have done better, and a flourishing network of gerontological specialists exists in this discipline. Historians, comparatively alert to the need for historical perspective on women and several ethnic minorities, have approached the elderly much more gingerly.

Nevertheless, a small band of old age historians does now exist. They have already uncovered some interesting data and unleashed some still more interesting hypotheses. Their focus, understandably, has been primarily on the elderly during the past two centuries, and in Western society.The impact of industrialization on old people, and the nature and impact of more recent social legislation in their regard have, along with trends of residence and family affiliation, begun to produce something of a perspective on the position of the elderly today.

Research on the position of old people in preindustrial society, aside from the sweeping effort of Simone de Beauvoir, has lagged. Work on family history or on the history of the poor has provided some soundings, largely indirectly.It is, clearly, possible to offer more. Even de Beauvoir's survey, largely an exercise in intellectual history with a few confusing concrete indicators (see the contradictions as to whether or not the elderly were rare in France before 1780), has not been followed up, though it offers the beginnings of a corrective against some common misimpressions of the elderly before modernity's onset.

Preindustrial old age is thus, from the historian's standpoint, almost virgin territory, a gap to be filled. One can envision, with only a slight shudder, a goodly number of theses on various aspects of the subject, if imaginative doctoral dissertations survive the present crisis of the discipline. The subject has some intrinsic fascination, besides virginity: of all the inarticulate groups social historians have turned . . .

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