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  • Old Age in England
  • Pat Thane
The History of Old Age in England, 1600–1800, general editors: Lynn Botelho and Susannah R. Ottaway, volume editors: Anne Kugler and Ingrid Tague (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008, 2009). Part 1: vols. 1–4, pp. 1232; part 2: vols. 5–8, pp. 1584. $625.00.

The history of the latter stage of life, old age, has been relatively neglected compared with that of childhood, youth, and maturity because of an assumption that survival to “old age” was rare in “the past.” Works such as Tim G. Parkin’s Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and Shulamith Shahar’s Growing Old in the Middle Ages: “Winter Clothes Us in Shadow and Pain” (London: Routledge, 1997) have shown, however, that older people were commonplace even in the distant past and that their history holds interest. The excellent and earlier work of the editors, Lynn Botelho, Old Age and the English Poor Law, 1500–1700 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2004) and Susannah R. Ottaway, The Decline of Life: Old Age in [End Page 511] Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), reinforced the message for early modern England, the period on which the volumes under review focus, when, as they put it in their general introduction to volume 1: “There were enough old people to allow for mockery and satire as well as respect and care” (xi). According to E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, Population History of England 1541–1871: A Reconstruction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), with the best estimates we have and as reliable as we are likely to get, the proportion of the population aged over sixty was as high as 10 percent at the turn of the seventeenth into the eighteenth centuries, remaining above 9 percent from 1656 to 1726, then falling to 7–8 percent by the end of the eighteenth century as the birthrate rose. These are by no means negligible numbers.

Another explanation for historians’ neglect of old age is the belief that, insofar as it had a history, it was a static, unchanging story well enough understood: older people were particularly valued and respected in past societies as repositories of wise counsel to the young, who, in return, cared for and protected them. This static approach has, rightly, come to be treated with skepticism. Cultural and social history offer contrary tales: for example, those of persecuted older women in the histories of witchcraft, or the dependence of older people on public relief in histories of the poor laws.

Another plausible reason for the neglect, put forward by Botelho and Ottaway, is the inaccessibility of direct sources concerning old age in the past. Publications and manuscripts specifically about old age in earlier eras are relatively rare. To explore the experience of, or attitudes to, old age, it is often necessary to use sources that deal primarily with other groups or that do not obviously address germane issues. Sermons, diaries, letters, poor relief records, wills, court records, ballads, proverbs, novels, folk songs, medical texts, legal documents, etc., may unexpectedly yield evidence of the activities or others’ perceptions of ageing people. Ageing and old people lived in town and country, in all social classes, and could lead complex and diverse lives; they could figure in many different sources.

A related difficulty on which the editors reflect in volume 1 is that people who would now be defined as “old” because they have reached a certain age were not necessarily so defined in early modern England. Then, stage of life was more often defined by capacity, fitness, and appearance rather than simply by passing an age-milestone—above all by the capacity to perform the normal tasks of adult life, especially work. “Old age” acquired a more rigidly chronological definition with the growth of state bureaucracies, becoming evident in the eighteenth century, as Ottaway describes, when, for example, the first civil servants received pensions at age sixty and older people “began to be considered as a social constituency in their own right” (II, x). The chronological definition of old age became more firmly fixed and largely unquestioned in...


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pp. 511-515
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