Three or four hundred years ago age was a less significant category than I rank and ability. Precedence, which dictated the order of processions at funerals and, at table, both the quality and quantity of food you were allotted, was accorded to rank: the youngest earl took precedence over the oldest baron. Regardless of age, the servant deferred to his master and the single woman to her married sister.
Age was much less clearly defined. Although parishes had been obliged to keep records of baptisms since 1538, a proportion of infants went unbaptised, through their parents' negligence or, increasingly, their principled objection to a ceremony not described in the New Testament. In any case, certificates were not issued. In consequence, while those who believed that the stars and planets influenced human affairs kept a careful note of the precise time at which a birth occurred, many other people, especially those without a formal education, had rather a hazy idea of their own age and those of their friends and relations-the coincidence of a public event, a coronation, a visitation of the plague, a great fire was a helpful benchmark.
There was no concept of a standard age of retirement or of pension rights. Not until the twentieth century was there a national scheme to make regular and predictable deductions from the earnings of those in work to provide for those in need. And, as the habit of bracketing the frail old with younger disabled people and small children suggests, mental and physical fitness were important factors in determining an individual's role in her or his community.
The course of human life was unpredictable. A sickly baby could survive to robust old age: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was born prematurely in 1588, the year of the Armada. According to his acquaintance John Aubrey,
his mother fell in labour with him upon the fright of the invasion of the Spaniards…. In his youth he was unhealthy: he took colds, being wet in his feet From forty or fifty he grew healthier. In his old age he was very bald …yet within door he used to study and sit bareheaded, and said he never took cold in his head, but that his greatest trouble was to keep off the flies from pitching on the baldness. Besides his daily walking he did twice or thrice a year play tennis (at about 75 he did it) In the country for want of a tennis court, he would walk uphill and downhill in the park.