1500s & 1600s
During 16th century England, gerontophobia or age bias was very strong. A book written by Christopher Martin, In Constituting Old Age in Early Modern English Literature from Queen Elizabeth to King Lear, provides evidence to support his suggestion that the last 20 years of Elizabeth I's reign were particularly challenging politically with her greatest liability being her “aging female body.”
Elizabeth I was born in 1533, and ruled as Queen for 44 years – longer than any previous English monarch – and died in 1603 at 69. Martin believes that many of Elizabeth’s behaviors were based on a a strategy designed to defy the cultural apprehensions of aging common during her reign by constructing an image of a “virtuous, noble, strong, brave, competent,” and youthful leader.
Given the poor hygiene and medical care available in the 16th century, this was a formidable task.
A list of the behaviors Elizabeth developed in the last decade of her reign to counter these aspects of aging included: the aggressive management of her portraiture (only young images were sanctioned); the translation of complicated poems from Latin to English to showcase her cognitive skills, and her use of the “rhetoric of dancing” to enhance an image of youthfulness (the historical record suggests Elizabeth danced in state receptions up to the last year of her life).
Separately, the English Poor Laws were a system of relief which existed in England and Wales that developed out of late-medieval (1301-1500) and Tudor-era (1485-1603) laws that were passed to deal with problems caused by vagrants, beggars and the impotent poor, a financial situation which many of the elderly fell into.
The history of the Poor Law is usually divided between two statutes, the Old Poor Law passed during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and the New Poor Law, passed in 1834. During the 1500s, the old system was administered haphazardly at a local parish level. The New Poor Law encouraged the large-scale development of workhouses.
In England and Wales, a workhouse, colloquially known as a spike, was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment. The earliest known use of the term dates from 1631. However, the origins of the workhouse can be traced to the Poor Law Act of 1388, which attempted to address the labor shortages following the Black Death in England by restricting the movement of laborers.
This led to the state becoming responsible for the support of the poor. Life in a workhouse was intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and ensure that only the truly destitute would apply. The English Poor Laws were not formally abolished until the National Assistance Act of 1948, with parts of the law remaining on the books until 1967.
Another institution that was prevalent in the 1500s was the almhouse. Mostly Christian in origin, they provided a place of residence for poor, old and distressed people. The first recorded almshouse in Britain was founded in York by King Athelstan in the 10th century. During the Middle Ages, the majority of European hospitals functioned as almshouses. Many of the medieval almshouses in England were established with the aim of benefiting the soul of the founder or their family, and they usually incorporated a chapel. As a result, most were regarded as charities and were dissolved during the Reformation in 1547.
Also...in 1583, Luigi Cornaro, a Venetian nobleman who lived until 102 years of age, published one of the first books advocating that restricting caloric intake and eating certain foods would lead to a longer, more healthful life. Cornaro's method was contrary to the common view at the time which emphasized the negative aspects of old age.
Seventeenth century Europe was a visually centric society. Entry into old age was organized on similar principles: one was considered old when one looked old. The Dowager’s Hump was the stereotypical hallmark of the elderly woman as were the broken hips and arms of the aged man. Women were considered ‘old’ at a younger age than men. Menopause and its physical manifestations produced telltale signs. English records often document the use of titles such as ‘Mother’ or ‘Old’ for poorer women beginning around their 50th year. For poorer men, similar titles were centered in their sixth decade.*
For the wealthy, entry into old age was held at bay for at least an extra decade because of a protein rich diet, comfortable housing and a less physically demanding lifestyle that kept the most obvious markings of old age off their faces. Ironically, the well-recognized toothless smile did not signify old age, but rather of wealth since the wealthy were able to afford the luxury of sugar which caused rapid tooth decay.
The type of work one did was also a critical determinant for old age. The physicality of employment accelerated the aging process for both men and women. Poor woman aged the quickest of any group due to a calcium-deficient diet, calcium-draining pregnancies and inadequate food and shelter.
In northern Europe, a popular description of the decades of life was depicted in 10 stages:
10 years—a child
30 years—a man
40 years—standing still
50 years—settled and prosperous
70 years—protect your soul
80 years—the world’s fool
90 years—the scorn of children
100 years—God have mercy
In William Shakespeare's play As You Like It, first published in 1623, a monologue (Act II Scene VII) compares the world to a stage and life to a play, and catalogs the seven stages of a man's life, sometimes referred to as the seven ages of man: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, Pantalone and old age.
By the 17th century the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile/choler, and black bile/melancholy) had become linked to Aristotle’s four elements (earth, water, air and fire). Both humors and elements were formed from the four qualities or building blocks of the world—hot, dry, cold and wet. In turn, these were paired with the four seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter) and the four ages of man (childhood, youth, adulthood and old age).
Each person was considered a unique mixture of temperaments, humors, constitutions and complexions, and it was the interplay among all of these that produced individual dominant psychological characteristics. Phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric/melancholic were the distinctive features of the aged. There was also a sense that everything had its season.
As people aged, the body’s vital heat was slowly burned away and consumed. The older one got, the colder and drier they became. By and large, medical response to the diseases of old age remained fundamentally unchanged from the medieval period: it was preventative, not corrective. In other words medical practitioners did not seek to cure, but rather to comfort their patients.
The keys to postponing old age were diet and regiment--habits of eating and living that needed to be established firmly in youth. Food and drink were the basis upon which successful aging was built. Red wine and milk were to be consumed regularly. In Italy, an old person who ceased to drink wine was viewed as approaching death.
More women than men lived into old age and tended to live longer. Part of the reason for women’s greater ability to survive, if not thrive, was the steady and uninterrupted nature of their employments. Unlike men, they did not have to change the nature of their work with age. They did not find themselves without gender-appropriate occupations, nor have to establish themselves in new occupational networks. Also, it seems that men could not manage well on their own or cope with a loss of independence and tended to remarry more so than women.
When infirmity struck, the very wealthy could be tended by their adult offspring, hired nurses or by distant relatives who exchanged their own upkeep for care-giving. In Roman Catholic areas, such as in the Italian and Iberian peninsulas, the very wealthy also drew upon a long tradition of paying a convent or monastery to act as their old age home.
The indigent elderly tended to live out their final years in much the same way as they had always done—by hard and constant work, and depending on the kindness of others. However, even families with the best intentions could dissolve under economic strain, casting the aged out to depend on their own resources. At such times, the elderly could apply for a place in a hospital.
These structures, which evolved from medieval times, were originally designed to offer Christian charity to short-term occupants, such as pilgrims, traveling clerics, itinerant works, travelers and migrants, in addition to a few long-term sojourners, the chronically ill, the aged, abandoned or orphaned ill.
The gap between those in poverty and those in plenty was gaping. Despite the differences, each group shared the goal of transferring wealth and independence to the next generation. Bed and board contracts were often made in which the farm or estate would be turned over to an adult child in exchange of specific provisions. Such arrangements normally took place around age 60.
In the 17th century, a 33 year old individual would have a 64.5 percent chance of having at least one parent still living, and 73 percent of them would also have young children of their own. Three-generation households were not uncommon. Toward the end of the century, the social, spoil-the-child, modern looking grandparent took shape.
Elderly women, in particular, were actively engaged in childcare and education. With more people living longer, the idea of the sentimental grandparent emerged as part of a search by active and leisured elderly people to find positive, active and integrated roles for themselves in a stage of life that had previously been viewed as socially marginalized.
As in previous centuries, the elderly worried about losing their health, and with it their financial and household independence. They worried about becoming a burden to their friends and family. The rich worried about becoming poor, while the poor worried about survival. Death and their spiritual state preoccupied many aged individuals, as did the preservation of their self-respect in the face of physical and mental decline.
* The 1600s section was derived from the chapter written by Lynn A. Btoelho and other sources.