Current Projects

The Aging Body: Old Age, Money, and Medicine is approximately 46,000 words drafted. I have received support for this work from an US-UK Fublright; a Landes Fellowship; a Pain Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust; and a year-long Indiana University of Pennsylvania sabbatical.

While firmly grounded in and based on traditional archival scholarship and historical method, “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.

Divided into 2 parts, and approximately 8 chapters, this study argues that the elderly came into particular focus as distinct medical and cultural constituencies by the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth.

Two cultural currents were at work at this time that reacted potently with English medicine in general, and the medical care of the elderly in particular. The first was the cultural awareness of old age generated by Queen Elizabeth’s own old age, which was as much of a political concern as her gender. The second was England’s increasingly quantitative mind-set that led to her early engagement with proto-capitalism. English medicine reflected both of these currents. It increasingly became market-driven, and the elderly were increasingly viewed as a market. In turn, the elderly grew empowered by their increased cultural attention and role in the economic exchanges of daily life. Consequently, they actively sought good health in old age, not only for its own intrinsic value, but also in order to stay healthy, vibrant, and to remain economically engaged in ways meaningful in eighteenth-century society.

Several important conclusions come from the conjunction of old age, English medicine, and money.

First, seventeenth-century England was obsessed with longevity as witnessed by an increasing concern with chronological age, measurement of life spans, and extending the boundaries of human life. In short, anti-aging therapies are not a product of the modern world: in fact, the quest for eternal youth has a long tradition, one that predates the Greeks. In the environment of a medical marketplace, older people became active patients, pursuing treatment and cure, and decidedly not piously accepting ill-health as part of God’s plan (although some undoubtedly did so). The result was the establishment of the elderly as a distinct medical constituency. Therefore, if one looks at the intent of early modern medicine (as opposed to discrediting it because it lacks a modern understanding of the human body), we can chart the early beginning of geriatric medicine and gerontology at least 150 years earlier than previous thought.

Second, the medical understanding of old age raises paradoxical issues about the nature of gender. In old age women and men’s bodies converged and were considered to share the same humoral construction. Either they became medically male (as in Thomas Lacqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, 1990 or were gender neutral as was the case with children (Hannah Newton’s The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580-1720, 2012.). While I have not yet worked out to my own satisfaction which one of these two options it was, the “disappearance” of the elderly female will change significantly what we understood about old age in the past.

Third, the role that money and measurement increasingly played in English life had profound effects on the lives of the old, from an increased concern with chronological age, to precise measurement of drugs and doses based on a patient’s distinctive humoral body, to good health in old age as a commodity, to a new definition of male old age based on the accumulation and distribution of wealth. Consequently, by focusing on the elderly in English medicine, we can chart the interplay of England’s changing cultural and economic currents and see how they played out upon the lives of everyday English women and men.

Part 1, “Old Age and Eternal Youth”, introduces the reader to the sweep of the book, as well as to the increasingly measurement-driven nature of early modern England, that includes the various measurements of age, from cultural old age to the modern chronological age. Further, it explores England’s fascination with the very old that predominated much of seventeenth-century philosophy and science.

The heart of the book is Part 2, “The Physical Body”. It focuses on popular medicine’s understanding of the human body. Most medical treatments during this period were household-based, practiced and dispensed by housewives and some men. Their bound volumes of “remedies” contained the instructions to cure a wide range of ailments, including the problems of old age. Furthermore, commonplace books of both doctors and apothecaries were also analyzed. Careful reading of these manuscripts has identified the nature of age-related physical decline, exactly those things that the elderly complained of and what household medics thought they could cure. One chapter explores the many printed tracts directed at the preservation of youth, called prolongevity by contemporaries. By the careful structuring of diet and activity, this literature offered the elderly one potential way to navigate the paradox of the aging body: a chronologically old body with all its health, vitality, and privileges intact and preserved. The expectation of cure and the desire for a long life suggests that old age was medicalized by the end of the seventeenth-century, 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 section begins to readdress 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. The final chapter demonstrates how old women became medically “male” as a function of Galenic medicine and the workings of the 4 humors.

“Gender, Money and The Changing Nature of a Good Old Age” is a separate work that  explores how concepts of masculinity and femininity found expression in the lives and bodies of the elderly. Consequently, what it meant to have a successful old age changed dramatically from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the early eighteenth century. Initially, old age was to be a time of personal piety and religious authority and wisdom. By the early eighteenth century, a successful old age was one of increased lifespans, economic vitality, engagement, and contribution to either the wealth of the kingdom or the well-being of the family. Significantly, this changed cultural profile held true for old men, but for women the change was altogether different. A successfully aged female not only carried on in traditional economic patterns; she feminized a formerly genderless image of religious contemplation. Indeed, the image of an old woman, with spectacles and a book, became the iconic image of a godly life. The place of the elderly in English medicine was the critical component driving these changes.

This project draws upon letters and diaries written by and about the elderly, as well as older people’s clothing, makeup, leisure activities, economic practices, religious devotions. Their deportment in both public and private are explored 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.” Furthermore, one chapter explains 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, that is. Old women fared differently because they were less fully identified with England’s new economy. Aging women seemed to have taken up the medieval, cultural mantle of a religious old age. But, even here, in this new cultural understanding of old age, lurk other paradoxes centered on the physical body and its ability to follow this new ideal of public usefulness and economic engagement.

2 Responses to Current Projects

  1. David Harley says:

    I’m looking forward to your work on this, as there are many important areas that have been left untouched or taken for granted.

    If women’s bodies are characterized by “leakiness”, what about men’s bodies? [The wounded, the incontinent elderly, the sick?] How are older women’s bodies changed? If the leakiness of younger women’s bodies is a problem, why should the decline of leakiness be seen as problematic? [Hard bodies and witchcraft?]

    Why were some social roles for older women, in relation to the bodies of others, more acceptable than if undertaken by younger women? [Midwives past childbearing years, young women usually excluded from birthing chamber?]

    Are older women more usually caricatured in visual representations and literary texts than older men? Is the mind of an old man seen as wise but that of an old woman as rambling and gossipy?

    Are old women seen as lascivious only in literary [and medical?] texts or also in life? It is the lasciviousness of older men that is depicted in visual representations and ballads, surely.

    I expect you have considered all the above, and many more could be listed, and seen within the circumstances of changing demographics, especially differential survival rates. We hear a lot about women dying in or after childbirth, but little about the life expectancy of men or the implcations of the relationship between the survival rates at different ages.


    I haven’t scanned the recent literature to see, but my sense is that your own work has yet to be fully integrated into social and cultural history. Lyndal R and Laura G have cited your essay on menopause, as I recall, A few others. Maybe one or two on death. I hope this project will help to make the whole body (ha!) of your work more visible. A few other historians seem to be noticing the importance of old age, so there’s hope that you will become a focus rather than buried under later work. I wish you luck.

    I always reckon that a decade is needed, for most work to make much of an appearance, unless it is an intervention calculated to make waves within a major debate, as it usually has to be grad students who have come across it in literature searches who change the shape of a subject. If you feel neglected, do not despair! If you don’t, you’re too modest by half!

  2. Dear David,
    Thanks for your kind words. Much appreciated. You raise a number of good and important points about the nature of older women’s bodies, some of which I’ve written about and others I’m still trying to figure out. Given your questions about the representation of older women in images, you might be interested in ‘Images of Old Age in English Cheap Print’ in OLD AGE IN PRE-INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY, eds. S.Ottaway, L. Botelho, and K. Kittredge (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, October, 2002), pp. 225-46.

    One of the things I’ve been thinking about allot lately is how old age changes what it meant to be a man or a woman in early modern society. I’ve got a book chapter coming out in the ASHGATE RESEARCH COMPANION TO WOMEN AND GENDER IN EARLY MODERN EUROPE (Ashgate Press, 2012/2013) called ‘Old Women in Early Modern Europe: Age as an Analytical Category’ that tries to make that point.

    Thanks for the conversation!

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