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Walking Over Grandma

Growing Old in America

by David Hackett Fischer
Oxford University Press, 242 pp., $10.95

Age and Authority in Early Modern England”

by Keith Thomas
Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol.LXII, 46 pp.

It is a truism that historians tend to ask questions about the past that are of direct concern to the societies in which they live. In the nineteenth century, the central issues were nation-building and constitutional law; in the early twentieth century, they were economic development and class relationships; today it is mentalité, that untranslatable French word meaning the way people regard the cosmos, themselves, and one another, and the values according to which they model their behavior toward each other.

The subject of the attitudes adopted toward old age in the past has hitherto been wholly neglected. The reason for this neglect lies in the current association of old age with death, although in fact the connection is a very recent one since in the past most people died young rather than old. This association has blocked research, since for nearly half a century we have been living in a society which thinks and speaks and writes more and more explicitly about sex, but thinks and speaks and writes less and less explicitly about death. We have lived through a period of “the pornography of death,” when it has been a taboo subject for polite conversation.1 In the last decade this taboo has collapsed, and historians, like the rest of us, have rushed in to fill the vacuum. There is now a special branch of learning called “Thanatology,” and historians of death, like Philippe Ariès or Michel Vovelle, have suddenly appeared on the scene.2

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that this revival of interest in death has, in its turn, brought about a growing interest in old age. Previously preoccupied, because of Freudian stress on the significance of this period for later development, with infancy and childhood (where Philippe Ariès was once again the pioneer3 ), historians have now suddenly turned their attention to the aged. It was time to do so, for the vacuum earlier historians left was filled by false images of a Golden Age. An English sociologist, Bryan Wilson, recently assured his readers that in preindustrial, traditional societies “an individual might anticipate old age with pleasure, as a time when declining physical energy would be compensated by social esteem for experience.” He had obviously never heard of King Lear. The chairman of the American branch of the International Association of Gerontology had earlier taken the same line, asserting that “before the Industrial Revolution, almost without exception the aging enjoyed a favorable position. Their economic security and their social status were assured by their role and place in the extended family….”4

What are the facts, as recently examined by Professor Fischer, Mr. Thomas, and others? In the first place, as anthropologists have known all along, traditional societies are very ambivalent in their attitudes toward the old. So long as an elderly person retains his faculties, he serves as the Nestor of the community, the venerated fount of ancient wisdom and folklore, the living substitute for history books in a preliterate society. But once those faculties fail, he tends to be despised and ridiculed, and is often either deliberately killed or allowed to die of neglect and malnutrition. Early modern, preindustrial Western societies had much the same ambivalence, if less crudely and harshly expressed. Of the traditional seven ages of man, the last two, from fifty onward, were hardly described in terms of respect and veneration. As Shakespeare put it in As You Like It, the sixth age “shifts into the lean and slippered pantaloon,” while the seventh “is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Along with the physical decay, which set in early in those days, went psychological deterioration. The old were thought of as characteristically “peevish, forgetful, covetous, garrulous and dirty,” and not infrequently impotently lustful as well, as illustrated by the popular legend of the venerable Aristotle being ridden naked around his garden on all fours by the youthful Phyllis, armed with a whip. Nor were the old accorded the respect they thought to be their due, and Shakespeare’s shepherd in The Winter’s Tale merely echoed centuries of complaints when he asserted that between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three, young men think of nothing but “getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.”

If the ideal of a pre-modern society did not include respect for old age, it showed equally little respect for youth. “Until a man grow unto the age of twenty-four years, he is wild, without judgment and not of sufficient experience to govern himself!” It was regarded as “a slippery age, full of passion, rashness, wilfulness.” The prevailing attitude, as I read the literature, was hostile to both youth and age, and strongly supportive of the mature, “grave and sad men who are above the levities of youth and beneath the dotages of old age.” Such a society cannot reasonably be described as gerontophilic, since it distrusted the old as much as it distrusted the young. On the other hand, high fertility and high mortality meant that it was demographically a youthful society. As a result, despite the stress on maturity, the membership of the House of Commons, to give but one example, consistently comprised about 45 percent of men under forty in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, the use of patronage gave immense opportunities to a privileged few. Not only did some very young men often inherit vast fortunes and power through the early death of their fathers; others were catapulted into high office by the patronage of an influential friend, who was often their father. Thus it came about that in 1667 a debate in the House of Commons was opened by a son of George Monck, the architect of the Restoration of Charles II: he was fourteen years old.

A central feature that distinguished a pre-modern society from our own is that there were huge numbers of young people, all eager for power and property, and not many old people, to be either respected or despised, taken care of or neglected. In seventeenth-century England, persons over sixty comprised at most 8 percent of the population, compared with 17 percent or more today. Seniority was certainly the principle around which society organized its institutions—churches, gilds, corporations, or universities—and mandatory retirement was unknown. In practice, however, the paucity of the old meant that, then as now, positions of authority were mainly held by men in their forties and fifties. The few who lived into their sixties often achieved positions of eminence by mere virtue of longevity: thus two thirds of those recorded in Who’s Who in History 1603-1714 had reached the age of sixty or more.5

As the physical powers of these few old men waned, the only way they could assure themselves respect and sustenance was by clinging tenaciously to office, property, and power. Relatively few old persons lived alone, partly because there were not many of them, partly because many contrived to keep an unmarried daughter at home to look after them. Relatively few households, however, were composed of three generations, and these were usually bound together not by affection but by economic necessity and legal obligation. For conventional wisdom, enshrined in the Bible, recommended that “As long as thou livest and hast breath in thee, give not thyself over to any. For better it is that thy children should seek to thee, than that thou shouldst stand to their courtesy.”

If a peasant turned his holding over to his son when his physical powers failed, he usually took great care to ensure, in legal deed, that the obligations of the latter to provide for him were stipulated in minute detail, down to the number of candles to be supplied, and free access to the kitchen fire. Any failure to comply with any single provision caused the automatic revocation of the deed. Seventeenth-century parents had no illusions about how children might treat them if given the chance: “No prison can be more irksome to a parent than a son’s or daughter’s house.”

The conclusion of Keith Thomas is inescapable: in pre-modern England (and America) the old were respected only as long as they retained control of property, and thus the power to make their children obey them. The lot of those without property was grim indeed, for they were reduced to semi-starvation and beggary, at the mercy of institutionalized poor relief in England, or the inadequate and uncertain chances of private charity elsewhere. Those sociologists who still believe in a preindustrial Golden Age for the old should take a look at Olwen Hufton’s horrifying recent description of the conditions of the life of the poor in eighteenth-century France.6 Peering beyond his allotted time span of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries into the nineteenth and twentieth, Mr. Thomas sees, rightly, that the great change is the growing age stratification of society. Youthful precocity is now suppressed by the lock step of the age-cohort as it marches inexorably through an increasingly extended educational system. At the other end of the age spectrum, mandatory retirement and public and private pension schemes have left a growing body of old people in a state of redundancy, extruded from the full citizenship conferred by participation in the work force, but most of them at last in tolerable economic circumstances.

Professor Fischer is the first scholar to embark on a sweeping survey of attitudes toward the aged from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries (even taking a tentative look into the future). His book is elegant in both its prose and its use of concepts, and ingenious in the use of a wide variety of data. It has a surface brilliance that is most attractive, and it is a work of erudition, inventiveness, and passion, an almost irresistible combination.

His thesis is briefly as follows. Up to 1780 Americans were indeed gerontophilic in theory, just as the sociologists claim they were in practice. He points out that the very names for persons in authority, like “senator” or “alderman,” derive from words meaning old. He quotes Cotton Mather to the effect that “the two qualities go together, the ancient and the honorable.” His chief evidence that theory was translated into practice is the seating of the population in Massachusetts meeting houses by age, rather than by wealth or status. He admits, however, that this respect was highest for property-holding healthy males, and was slight to nonexistent for the propertyless poor and for old women.

The great watershed, the shift from a gerontophilic to a gerontophobic society, took place, Professor Fischer believes, in the fifty years between 1770 and 1820, a period of “deep change” in every aspect of American life, including politics, economics, demography, society, religion, and values. If true, this proposition would put a final nail in the coffin of modernization theory, since it would make all these fundamental transformations precede instead of follow industrialization and urbanization. The chain of causation would be stood on its head.

  1. 1

    Geoffrey Gorer, “The Pornography of Death,” in his Death, Grief and Mourning (Doubleday, 1965).

  2. 2

    Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes Towards Death (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974); Michel Vovelle, Mourir Autrefois (Gallimard, Paris, 1974).

  3. 3

    P. Ariès, Centuries of Childhood (Random House, 1965).

  4. 4

    Bryan R. Wilson, The Youth Culture and the Universities (Faber, London, 1970), p. 219; E.W. Burgess in Social Welfare of the Aging, edited by Jerome Kaplan and G.J. Aldridge (Columbia University Press, 1962), p. 350. Both quoted by Keith Thomas.

  5. 5

    S. Smith, “Growing Old in Early Stuart England,” Albion, 8 (2), 1976, p. 126.

  6. 6

    Olwen Hufton, The Poor in Eighteenth Century France, 1750-1789 (Oxford University Press, 1975).

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