If people know one thing about the early modern period, whether it is Tudor England or Puritan New England, it is that people died young. At some point they saw a statistic saying that the average lifespan was forty years and they leave it at that. While technically true, this view of early modern life misses quite a bit about the past, not least because talk of an “average” hides the fact that high infant mortality rates skew things considerably. If a pair of twins is born in 1600, and one dies at birth while the other lives eighty years, their average life-span is forty years – but neither twin came remotely close to that number!
The strange thing is that the people of early modern England knew perfectly well that people – lots of people – grew old. In the late seventeenth century a government commissioner named Gregory King (1648-1712) wrote a report called Natural and Political Observations and Conclusions upon the State and Condition of England, in which he estimated the population of England, and broke down these numbers based on age as well as social and marital status. According to King, 10% of the population was over sixty.
(Remarkably, modern demographers found that King was off by only a single percentage point: at the end of the 17th century, 9% of the population was over the age of sixty.)
|The Seven Ages of Man|
Put another way, if a girl made it past her fifth birthday – by which time childhood diseases had done their worst – it was not unreasonable to expect that she would live to a relatively old age, even by modern standards.
The question that this raises, however, is what being old meant in the past. In the modern world we mark age in ways that are peculiar to our time and place: we get a driver’s license when we turn sixteen, vote at seventeen, drink at twenty-one, you receive full retirement benefits at sixty-seven, etc. But obviously none of these markers would have made sense to people living any time before the 20th century. So what mattered to them?
As King’s estimate indicates, turning sixty was a big deal – in the minds of many people, that was when you became old. A Presbyterian minister named Oliver Heywood (1630-1704) made a habit of writing annual reflections on his birthday. When he turned fifty-nine, he noted,
I bless the Lord, I am as fit for studying and preaching this day as ever I was in all my life.
The next year – despite continuing good-health! – he adopted a rather more dramatic tone:
Oh my dear Lord, I am now arrived at the 60th year of my age, and not one amongst a thousand live to this age, and I have passed many changes and revolutions in the course of my pilgrimage.... how soon are these 60 years of my life past, like a tale that’s told, a dream when one awakes, its but t’ other day that I was an infant, a child, a school boy, and now I am grown of the older sort, and anon I shall not be here my place will know me no more.
(“Why sixty?” you ask. In addition to be a comfortingly round number, it had religious significance, for it was when the great evangelist Paul died. As Heywood wrote of, “having passed to the sixtieth year of my Life, (the date of the life of Paul the aged) within a few days; and my Lord only knows how soon my sun may set.”)
Intriguingly enough, early modern men and women considered sixty-three to be another year-of note. When Thomas Jolly noted the death of a fellow minister, he added the note, “he dyed in the close of his great climactericall year (63), which is accounted most dangerous.”
This is all well and good, and thank God for demographers who crunch the numbers so we don’t have to, but the other half of this question remains unanswered. How did growing old feel in the world before modern medicine, and the social safety net? (Stay tuned!)