Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What was old in the olden days?

by Sam Thomas

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!)

Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery (Minotaur, 2013). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or his very own website! Oh, he also blogs at Bloody Good Read.


  1. Great post!

    "People were considered ancient at 60" is a factoid I stumble across all the time. But commissions of array regularly called up men 'between 16 and 60' and I know that's partly formula, but the upper end would have been much lower if 60 really was 'ancient'. Richard Nevill, Earl of Salisbury, fought his last battle when he was 60, and so far as I've been able to find out, no-one thought that worthy of much comment. His age, that is. The battle, and his subsequent murder, are much commented on! Three of his daughters and a daughter-in-law lived to their late 60s and 70s. So, I guess 60 was then pretty much what 60 is now - fully active for some, dogged by illness for others, it might be considered 'old' but not by any means 'ancient'.
    Looking forward to your next post about this!

  2. Excellent post! I would add just one caveat to your statement "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"... as long as she survived giving birth! The Maternal death rate before the 20thC was around 1 in 100 births.
    Looking forward to part two.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Cripes, Oi'm fascinated. Thank yew Mr Thomas.

  4. Remind me: when did "three score and ten" become used to describe a 'normal' lifespan? Average life expectancy, especially amongst the poor, was low but if you survived to adulthood I suspect 70 was not unusual. What I am sure was different is the number of people who now go on beyond 70, 80 and 90 - modern figures have gone through the roof. Interesting post - thanks

  5. Three score and ten is in the Bible. Few people lived to be old, (about 4 percent of the population in America in 1800, for instance) but that does not mean that people did not mistake old age for middle age. As I explain in my book "In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age," they knew what being old meant. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson lived to their 90s.

  6. This is fascinating. Royalty and arisocracy often had long lives but it is heartening that the rest of the population could also attain long years. I'm interested in the concept of the climeratical year and wonder if this was a common concept.

    Martin Lake

  7. Interesting post, thanks, Sam. Living in the past might have had some advantages. People ate less rubbish, got more exercise and weren't exposed to harmful chemicals.

  8. Sam, thank you so much for this post. I'm weary of people saying that people rarely lived to forty in the Middle Ages. It is of course the high infant mortality that accounts for such "statistics." Those who lived to be old could live to be very old. Simon de Montfort's Aunt Loretta lived to be over 100. She lived a very secluded life in a convent and so was probably not exposed to much that was infectious.

    Regarding infectious diseases,it was increased trade and travel that brought an increase in disease and mortality, beginning with the plagues of the 14th century.
    Thanks for this excellent piece!

  9. The magic 60 might explain why the subject of my WIP put his properties in trust for his children at age 60, though he didn't die until he was 67. (And there was no will to prove.) One source speculated that he was very ill that year, but recovered. In the mid-17th century when he lived, I've noticed that many men made wills on their death beds, rather than far in advance of their demise. Maybe it's because my guy was an attorney general and wisely provided for his heirs at minimal tax loss to them; maybe it was turning 60; or maybe because nonprofit charities and their "planned giving" departments were still 300 years in the future!

  10. Paul the Aged? LOL! Nice post. Infant mortality was huge and made up half the stats. What is more to the point is not how long they lived, but the quality of life. Without painkillers and other things we take for granted, getting old must not have been fun for some people.


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