Friday, July 6, 2012

Age Ain't Nothing but a Number

by Samuel Thomas

In an earlier post (here) I noted that, despite the popular perception that most people in the pre-modern world died young, in the seventeenth century nearly 10% of the population was over the age of sixty, which – by most accounts – is when one became “old.” But, as the saying goes, age ain’t nothing but a number. What was old age like in the past? To answer that question, we need to get behind the numbers.

The most interesting thing about old age in the early modern period is that one could “grow old” several times. The first phase of old age was known to contemporaries as “green old age.” This was a time, usually when a person was in his fifties or sixties. While the body might have begun to decay, it was a time of generally good health and continuing activity.

In his sixty-first year, Presbyterian minister Oliver Heywood traveled over 1,000 miles on horseback over extremely difficult terrain, delivered 135 weekday sermons, and attended forty religious fasts. When he was sixty-eight, he logged 700 miles, eighty-two sermons, and another forty fasts. Other men and women had a similarly pleasant experience of old age, as their children married and started lives of their own, or they found spiritual peace that had eluded them in their youth.

It is here worth noting that an individual’s experience of old age is closely tied to wealth and gender. A man who spent his entire life working in the fields would grow old much sooner (and more painfully) than a gentleman or aristocrat. Part of what allowed Heywood to enjoy his green old age was that (by lucky accident) he’d inherited an estate in Lancashire, so he did not have to worry about money.

Thanks to their role bearing children, many women also aged earlier than men, regardless of their social status. In contrast to the popular image of labor being fraught with peril, a woman had only a 6-7% chance of dying in childbirth (over her lifetime, not per birth). But the fact is that in the pre-modern era, a woman might become pregnant a half-dozen times, and this could take a terrible toll on her body. 
The lot of the poor, aged and female was a hard one.

Whatever a person’s social status, green old green old age faded to brown and the elderly grew weaker, sicker and less likely to recover from illness.  In extreme old age, physical decay became a central fact in a person’s life, as it became more difficult to see, hear, breathe, and walk.  Along with these physical challenges, many elderly people suffered from memory loss and melancholy. In 1699, at age sixty-nine, Heywood described his condition in touching detail:

My wind grows exceeding short, any little motion puts me out of order – my chapel is near me, but when I walk to it (as yesterday) my wind so fails me that I am forced to stand and get new breath, before I go into my pulpit. When I go up to my chamber, my breath cuts, that I am forced to sit a season in my chair to breath me. When I lay down in my bed I pant a considerable time and cough and oftimes my waters comes from me with motion.

An individual’s ability to cope with the challenges of extreme old age varied with social status. The wealthy obviously lived in greater comfort than the poor. A few years after this, Heywood found himself unable to walk the few steps to his chapel, so he paid two men to carry him in a specially-built chair. Obviously this was a luxury which most of his neighbors could not have afforded.

But old age was not just a physical event. For some in early modern England (particularly the puritans), it could be seen as an event of cosmic significance.

Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale coming soon from Minotaur/St.Martin's. You can learn more at his website, like him on Facebook (or in a coffee shop if you run into him there), and follow him on Twitter.


  1. Fascinating information, Sam. I love the concepts of green old age and brown old age. Not ones I have ever come across but they seem apt.

    As for wealth and old age, I am reminded of the song:

    'It's the same the whole world over,
    It's the poor what gets the pain.
    It's the rich get all the pleasure,
    Ain't it all a blooming shame.'

  2. Very interesting! I have read several novels set in pre-modern eras where the authors characterize females as terrified to have children because of the high likelihood of death in childbirth. The figure you give of women who actually did die in childbirth is new to me, and I am very interested to see it. May I ask what source you are using for it?


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