Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Domestic Virtues of Old Age: Gendered Rites in the Fete De la Vieillesse

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Domestic Virtues of Old Age: Gendered Rites in the Fete De la Vieillesse

Article excerpt

On the tenth of Fructidor, or the 27th of August by our reckoning, in the Years IV and V, the young and old of Toulouse gathered together to celebrate the Fete de la Vieillesse, as did many others in the various regions of France. A description of the festivities that was anonymously recorded and deposited with the city records tells us that the people of Toulouse honoured this festival with pomp and respect.(1) The rituals celebrated the moral virtue of old age and the value of inter-generational exchange. Both genders were involved in the ritual and identified with old age in much the same way. The account, however, hints that women responded to the festival with greater alacrity than did men. A study of the rituals and rhetoric involved in the festival shows that the women present would have heard a message that resonated with their own sense of the life course.

The Fete de la Viellesse was one of three age-related festivals proposed by the Convention in the summer of 1794 and brought into effect by the Directory the following year. It was celebrated with varying degrees of enthusiasm all across France from the Years IV to VIII.(2) In Toulouse, there is evidence of its being celebrated only twice but this amounted to more than either the festival to youth or the festival to spouses, both of which were discontinued after one attempt Although it did not pass the test of time, the account shows that the festival was not an utter failure either. As a city, Toulouse avoided excess in either revolutionary or counter revolutionary fervour.(3) A moderate acceptance of the Directory festivals is not surprising in a city of moderate republicans.

The Festival to Old Age was a moralizing, pedagogical festival, intended to edify the population and honour the elderly. Although the moral festivals of the Directory period operated in a time distinct from normal time, they offered no inversion or mockery of the normal age-related traits. Instead, as Mona Ozouf has demonstrated, the Revolution's festivals reified the age group distinctions, accepting age as a natural and honest indicator of differences in human life roles.(4)

Of all the human life stages so reified, old age was the most problematic. There was no clear demarcation by age of its boundaries and the family and professional roles of the elderly were highly variable. Medical literature informed its readership that women entered old age when they entered menopause. All indications suggest that this occurred between the ages of forty-five and fifty-five for eighteenth-century women.(5) By defining old age according to reproductive capabilities, the medical writers introduced gender into the life course equation. A long tradition argued that old age began for men at the age of sixty-three, a number indicating the seventh seven-year of life. Women's lives, defined by child-bearing rather than mathematical abstractions, included an earlier and longer old age than did men's lives.(6)

Outside the medical community, however, few seem to have accepted the notion that women in their mid-forties and fifties were "old." The medical literature itself suggests that physicians expected their menopausal patients to deny that they were entering old age.(7) While many literary sources label individuals as old without defining the precise age, many of the memoir sources did indicate the ages of those labelled as old. Usually, these were referring to men and women over the age of sixty, often over the age of seventy. The label was vague and plastic, however, sometimes referring to one as young as fifty-five and other times reserved for those over seventy years of age.(8)

The Fete de la Vieillesse offered few hints as to the precise definition of old age under the Directory. The instructions from the central government insisted that the town choose four people to serve as exemplars of virtue in old age for the festival, two men and two women. Those honoured in Toulouse, at least in the second year, were all over the age of eighty, with one woman being over ninety years of age. …

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