What was it like to be old in the early medieval period? Good question, and one that Dr Thijs Porck of Leiden University addresses in his chapter ‘Gerontophobia in Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon Reflections on Old Age’ in a new book ‘Sense and Feeling in Daily Living in the Early Medieval English World’ (edited by Maren Clegg Hyer and Gale R Owen-Crocker).
Aside from this new chapter, Dr Porck has literally written the book on this subject with his ‘Old Age in Early Medieval England: a cultural history’ and has also blogged on the subject on his own site. He challenges the idea, which might be news to you anyway, that the later Anglo-Saxon period (i.e.: the run-up to the Norman Conquest) was something of a golden age for old age. The theory goes that during this period, venerability was linked to sagacity and piety. Previous scholars have looked at the available literary references to the elderly and to the vocabulary of aging, and identified a broadly positive attitude.
Heyday for the elderly?
Dr Porck, in his fascinating new contribution to the subject, notes that “this idea of a heyday for the elderly in early medieval England is based on incomplete evidence and ignores concerns raised by poets and homilists over the emotional and physical drawbacks of old age.”
He cites numerous examples to demonstrate that actually, “for many elderly Anglo-Saxons, old age appears to have gone hand-in-hand with a state of physical and mental distress”.
“These repercussions of age also feature widely in the literary record: in poetry, age is generally associated with a loss of health, joy and social stature; various poems feature a lamenting aged speaker; and graphic descriptions of the aged body, often in the form of a list of declining senses, are a common topos in Old English homilies,” he continues.
How old is ‘old’ in the early medieval period?
At what age was someone considered ‘old’ in the early medieval period? “On the whole, those who defined old age in early medieval England imagined a person typically aged over 50, beyond his or her physical prime and made wise by experience,” explains Dr Porck.
That might jar with the general conception of people dying young in this period, and throughout the Middle Ages, but Dr Porck reminds us, following the work of Peter Stearns in the 1980s, that if you survived the perils of early childhood, you had a decent chance of growing old. Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus came to Anglo-Saxon England at the age of around 65 and would occupy the episcopal see of Canterbury until he died in 690 at the ripe age of 88. He was accompanied by the African abbot Hadrian of Canterbury, who died well into his seventies.
Porck details how the various stages of life were defined in biological terms in the early medieval period, with four ages (children, young people, middle-aged, and old). He also notes how other conceptual fours, in terms of the seasons and the humours, were also important in contemporary understanding of the aging process.
Dr Elma Brenner has written about how the humours were important in the medieval approach to medicine: “the body’s four humours [were] so integral to medieval perceptions of wellbeing. Our ancestors believed that keeping the humours – blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm – in a state of equilibrium was the key to good health”.
Sex, humours and aging
An interesting observation on the differing medieval attitudes to aging between genders is provided by the University of Reading’s Professor Roberta Gilchrist in her book ‘Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course’. Her period of study in this book (c1050–1540) follows that of Dr Porck’s research, but this paragraph on the humours, aging, and gender, bears repeating I think:
“The crucial variable in the humoral balance was heat, which was understood to create sexual difference: males were considered to be hot and dry, in contrast to females, who were cold and wet. The complexion changed over the life course, with males becoming colder and wetter in old age, and females gradually becoming drier.
“The essential masculine heat allegedly caused male embryos to grow faster in the womb, and enabled adult males to transfer nutrition into the growth of beards and body hair; conversely, the coolness of women was believed to account for their longer lives,” continues Professor Gilchrist.
“The feminine body type was judged to reflect their absence of heat: females were too cool to produce semen, resulting in soft, weak bodies, and inferior intellects; their watery disposition was translated into a fickle character that contrasted with the morally steadfast male. The cold, wet properties of the female body were believed to predispose it to decay and putrefaction, causing foul odours during life and more rapid decay of the female corpse in the ground.”
So early medieval and medieval people were well aware of the aging process and the changes it brought, and perhaps treated aging differently between sexes. It’s important to note that living to an old age was not necessarily a rarity in the early medieval period. There are several well-known examples of venerable figures, both men and women, not least King Edward the Confessor, who was likely in his sixties when he died in 1066. The famous flying monk of Malmesbury, Eilmer, who likely died not long after 1066, was born in the 980s. His attempt to fly by attaching wings to his arms and feet and launching from a tower ended badly, crippling his legs and rendering him an invalid thereafter, but he lived on for several decades after that. Notwithstanding such self-inflicted aerial injuries, the general experience of aging was not, it seems, an enjoyable one, nor eagerly anticipated.
Failing eyesight and sad times
As Dr Porck outlines, we have letters from early medieval correspondents describing the troubles of aging, citing specific problems with eyesight and an inability to read small text, and particularly the many abbreviations that were a feature of writing at the time. Modern-day manuscript scholars may attest to similar concerns.
Similarly, Dr Porck cites several examples of contemporary poetry that speak lamentably of the aging process, and particularly the emotional impact of physical decline on the elderly, the toll of illness and disease, and the sadness of the loss of friends.
Dr Porck also looks at early medieval homilies (religious sermons) for evidence of the aging experience, and again finds negative views: “Early medieval English preachers rarely if ever spoke soothing words about the drawbacks of old age. Rather, they described the physical and emotional repercussions of growing old in an evocative and gruesome way, so as to underpin the futility of loving life on Earth. Litanies of woes of old age were further used to remind the audience of the inevitability of death and, in more extreme cases, as an illustration of Hell’s torment. On the whole, this representation of old age in Old English homilies is in line with homiletic traditions that also flourished elsewhere in the Christian West.”
So it’s not a rosy picture of old age that he finds in this period. Indeed, as Dr Porck concludes, “these disadvantages of age, often framed as a decline in senses, were highlighted in order to demonstrate the futility of loving life on Earth, warn of impending death or fuel the fear of Hell, while presenting Paradise as a place without age. Rather than a one-sided appreciation for the wisdom and piety of the elderly, the way Anglo-Saxons reflected on old age also demonstrates an anxiety about or even a fear of old age. In this regard, the Anglo-Saxons may have been less distinctive than has hitherto been argued.”
Dr David Musgrove is the content director at HistoryExtra