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The early Middle Ages a ‘golden age for the elderly’? Not quite!

According to a number of British historians, the elderly had a particularly high status in the early Middle Ages. A new book by Leiden cultural historian Thijs Porck sheds a different light on the matter: elderly people had to earn that respect first, and old age was often described in negative terms in texts from early medieval England.

A rich array of sources

British historians have so far been remarkably positive about the position of elderly people in early medieval England. The English at that time saw old age as the most desirable stage of life, some argued. Another historian even called this period ‘a golden age for the elderly’: they were highly respected and venerated for their wisdom. Porck, assistant professor of medieval English in Leiden, found out that these historians had based their conclusion on fairly limited selections of source materials. By examining a wide range of Old English and Latin sources from the 700-1100 period (including homilies, heroic poems, medical texts, wisdom literature and saints’ lives), Porck came to different conclusions. Although some medieval authors associated growing old with the potential for wisdom and pious living, they also anticipated various social, psychological and physical repercussions of ageing. A number of elderly people did enjoy respect, but they had to earn it first and igh demands were placed on them.


Old age as a foretaste of hell

There are indeed medieval authors who represent the elderly as wise and spiritually superior, according to Porck. But he also found sources that describe old age as a foretaste of hell. Many texts are steeped in revulsion of the physical and mental decline that old age brings with it. In a number of poems and sermons the old man symbolizes the transience of earthly pleasures. Old people are by no means always represented as wise: those elderly people who behaved in a dubious or ungodly manner were referred to as 'children of a hundred years'.

Possible to live to ripe old age

What counted as 'elderly' in the Middle Ages? 'Around fifty,' Porck explained. 'It's also a misunderstanding that people didn't live to a ripe old age at that time. It is true that many people died early as a result of sickness or violence; nonetheless people did live to their eighties or nineties.'

High demands

In contrast to British historians, Porck made a distinction between different societal groups, such as holy people, warriors and kings. He found that all these groups placed high demands on the elderly. In spite of their physical shortcomings, elderly saints were expected to persevere with their ascetic lifestyle, older warriors to fight in the front ranks and kings to be active rulers. 

Women

There is scant mention of older women in hagiographic and heroic literature about early medieval England. Porck identified little more than 30 women in more socio-historical sources, such as chronicles, letters and wills. Most of these women played a useful role in their community, for example as abbesses (heads of convents), grandmothers or interpreters of dreams.

Not pushed to the margins of society

Porck concluded, 'As long as they could prove their worth, old men and women need not be concerned about being pushed to the margins of society. The Early Middle Ages were certainly not a golden age for the elderly, but they were not a dark age either.'  

Old Age in Early Medieval England. A Cultural HistoryThijs Porck (Boydell & Brewer 2019)

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