Other Free Encyclopedias » Medicine Encyclopedia » Aging Healthy - Part 4 » Status of Older People: Preindustrial West - How Was ‘‘old Age’’ Defined?, How Did Older People Support Themselves In The Preindustrial West?, Charity And Poor Relief

Status of Older People: Preindustrial West - Declining Status Of Older People

age aging social age press university history

It is sometimes argued that the dependence and marginalization of older people has increased, that they are less valued in industrial than in preindustrial societies. The belief that the status of older people is always declining has a very long history. It is discussed, and dismissed, even in the opening pages of Plato’s Republic and in a long succession of texts through the centuries. The longevity of this narrative trope suggests that it expresses persistent cultural fears of aging and neglect, and real divergence in experience in most times and places, rather than representing transparent reality.

Early historical inquiry into old age tended to echo this narrative of decline. George Minois’s history of old age in western culture from antiquity to the Renaissance acknowledged variations and complexities in experiences and perceptions of old age over this long time span, but he still concluded that ‘‘the general tendency however is towards degradation’’ (pp. 6–7). Studies of old age in the United States since the eighteenth century find the status of old people to be in decline over a variety of time scales: from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth, in the mid-nineteenth, and between the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These were mostly studies of white males in specific situations. The fact that some older men exerted power at a particular time does not necessarily suggest that all older people at that time and place were highly regarded. In all times in western culture, older people (female and male) who retained economic or any other form of power, along with their faculties, could command, or enforce, respect. In contrast, at all times powerless older people have been marginalized and denigrated, though not universally.

Attitudes toward and experiences of older age in all times and over time were varied and complex, following no simple trajectories, and historical texts must be read with care. It may be tempting, for example, to conclude that Shakespeare’s famous climax to the ‘‘seven ages of man’’ described by Jaques in As You Like It—‘‘second childishness and mere oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’’—is representative of sixteenth century English perceptions of old age. If, that is, you fail to note that Jaques is a relatively young man, but is given the conventional literary attributes of an old man, such as melancholy; and that the dismal description of the ‘‘seventh age’’ is subverted by the immediate entrance on stage of an octogenarian, Adam, who has earlier been represented as ‘‘strong and lusty.’’ The pervasiveness in English popular drama and literature (for example, in the work of Chaucer) of such dialogue between conflicting representations of old age, negative and positive, and its evident familiarity to preindustrial audiences, suggests its deep roots in English culture and probably in that of other western societies.



ACHENBAUM, W. A. Old Age in the New Land. The American Experience since 1978. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978.

BOTELHO, L., and THANE, P. Women and Ageing in Britain Since 1500. London: Routledge, 1999.

BURROW, J. A. The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1986.

COLE, T. R. The Journey of Life. A Cultural History of Aging in America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

DICKEY, B. No Charity There: A Short History of Social Welfare in Australia. Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1980.

FISCHER, D. H. Growing Old in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

HABER, C. Beyond Sixty-Five: The Dilemma of Old Age in America’s Past. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

HABER, C., and GRATTON, B. Old Age and the Search for Security. An American Social History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

JOHNSON, P., and THANE, P., eds. Old Age from Antiquity to Post-Modernity. London: Routledge, 1998.

JUTTE, R. Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

MINOIS, G. History of Old Age. From Antiquity to the Renaissance. Translated by S. Hanbury-Tenison. Oxford, U.K.: Polity, 1989.

MONTIGNY, E.-A. Foisted upon the Government. State Responsibilities, Family Obligations, and the Care of the Dependent Aged in Late Nineteenth Century Ontario. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1997.

PELLING, M., and SMITH R. M., eds. Life, Death, and the Elderly: Historical Perspectives on Ageing. London: Routledge, 1991.

ROSENMAYR, L., and KOCKEIS, E. ‘‘Proposition for a Sociological Theory of Aging and the Family.’’ International Social Science Journal 3, (1963): 418–419.

ROSENTHAL, J. T. Old Age in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

SCHOFIELD, R. S. ‘‘Did the Mothers Really Die? Three Centuries of Maternal Mortality in ‘The World We Have Lost’.’’ In The World We Have Gained. Edited by L. Bonfield et al. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1986. Pages 231–260.

SEARS, E. The Ages of Man: Medieval Interpretations of the Life Cycle. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

SHAHAR, S. Growing Old in the Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 1997.

THANE, P. Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues. London: Oxford University Press, 2000.

TROYANSKY, D. G. Old Age in the Old Regime: Image and Experience in Eighteenth Century France. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

WRIGLEY, E. A., and SCHOFIELD R. S The Population History of England, 1541–1871:A Reconstruction. London: Edward Arnold, 1981.

[back] Status of Older People: Preindustrial West - Charity And Poor Relief

User Comments

The following comments are not guaranteed to be that of a trained medical professional. Please consult your physician for advice.

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or