The study of old age and aging in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England has been the focus of my entire academic career, starting as a graduate student at Cambridge University and continuing through to my current project, which promises to be the culmination of over two decades of reading, research and writing. Simply called The Aging Body, this is a “big book” in terms of its approach and scope. While firmly grounded in and based on traditional archival scholarship and historical method, using both manuscripts and early printed books, The Aging Body engages with a variety of theoretical discourses, including studies of masculinity and femininity, the culturally constructed body, and the history of medicine. In producing a fuller understanding of what it meant to be old in early modern England. This book promises to be the first wide-ranging study on old age in this period of European history.
The Aging Body deliberately focuses on the bodies of the elderly as a means to understand both the physical process of growing old, but also how the aging process was understood and manipulated in the complex and changing world of early modern society.
Divided into five parts, the book begins with “The Physical Body” and the medicalization of old age. Most medical treatments during this period were household-based, practiced and dispensed by gentry housewives and the wives of the prosperous yeoman farmer. These women kept, and bequeathed, medical recipes books. These bound volumes contained the instructions to cure a wide range of ailments, including the problems of old age. Careful reading of their content has identified the nature of age-related physical decline, exactly those things that they elderly complained of and what household medics thought they could cure. In doing so, it suggests that old age was medicalized by the end of the seventeenth-century, and much earlier than scholars have previously thought. In other words, the pains and problems of old age were not something to be suffered in silence, but rather to be fought against with a full and varied range of medicines. This approach also goes some ways towards readdressing one of the problems in the current study of the body that tends to engage solely with the cultural discourses and theoretical readings of texts, but very seldom with the actual physical body.
Parts 2, 3, 4, and 5 take this understanding of the physically aging body and use it to understand the paradoxes inherent in being old in early modern England. Advanced years and greying hair were physical and bodily indicators of the authority and respect that was the bearer’s right by virtue of their age. Yet, other physical markers of aging undermined these very benefits. Shaky hands, watery eyes, and feeble steps repositioned the aged as objects of ridicule and mockery, or, at best, the focus of pity. Therefore, it was the elderly’s’ very own body that granted them power and privilege, while simultaneously eroding that same respect.
“The Gendered Body,” Part 2, explores how concepts of masculinity and femininity found expression in the lives and bodies of the elderly; how the body was treated, covered, and used. Drawing upon letters and diaries written by and about the elderly, as well as older people’s clothing, makeup, leisure activities, economic practices, religious devotions, and their deportment in both public and private are explored in order to understand what was considered a “good old age” in this rapidly modernizing world. The primary paradox here is that old people were disregarded and pitied if they were too old-fashioned, yet they were mocked if they “did not act their age.”
Part 3 explores seventeenth-century England’s fascination with those who reputedly lived far into old age, in what Peter Laslett called the “Century of the Centurion.” Returning to the medicalized body of the opening chapter, this section explores the many printed tracts directed at the preservation of youth, called prolongivity by contemporaries. By the careful structuring of diet and activity, the prolongevity literature offered the elderly one potential way to navigate the paradox of the aging body: a chronologically old body with all its healthy, vitality, and privileges intact and preserved.
Part 4, “The Declining Body,” explores the reactions of the elderly themselves to their own bodies as they age and physically decline. The opinions of others, both younger family members and acquaintances, are woven into the account of how the physical act of aging was understood and managed. The paradox expressed here is one that is still repeated today: for example, the difficulties of reconciling the obviously aging face in the mirror with the internal sense of a much younger self.
The final section, “The Good Old Body,” functions as both a conclusion and an epilogue. It draws together the many paradoxes explored through the text, and it seeks to explain England’s changing understanding of the aging body through an exploration of the country’s early transition to a capitalistic economy and culture. In short, a “good old age” shifted from one of pious religious practice and declining sociability to one which valued economic productivity and steady leadership. At least for old men. Old women seemed to have fared better, if only because they were less fully identified with England’s new economy. But, even here, in this new cultural understanding of old age, lurk other paradoxes centred on the physical body and its ability to follow this new set of ideals.