The Medieval Review 13.02.21

Krötzl, Christian and Katariina Mustakallio. On Old Age: Approaching Death in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Studies in the History of Daily Life (800-1600), 2. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. Pp. xix, 345. 80.00 EUR. ISBN: 9782503532165. . .

Reviewed by:

Kleijwegt, Marc
University of Wisconsin - Madison
mkleijwegt@wisc.edu

The volume under review consists of sixteen chapters on old age and death based on papers delivered at a conference organized at the University of Tampere, Finland, in 2005. The conference is part of a series entitled Passages from Antiquity to the Middle Ages which brings experts on the Greco-Roman world and the Middle Ages together. [1] This makes excellent sense. For Antiquity the overwhelming majority of the evidence is of a literary nature that can only be used to answer a limited set of questions. These are mainly concerned with the description of the aging process, observations about the value of old age, and attitudes towards the elderly (from abuse to the appreciation of wisdom and experience). The state of the evidence on old age and death in the Middle Ages is comparable to that for the ancient world, with a small number of exceptions towards the end of the period when the documentary evidence that allows a more sociological approach flows more abundantly. In contrast, research on old age and the aged in early modern Europe focuses on work and retirement, family and community strategies in taking care of the elderly, and the role of the elderly in society (burden or benefit). [2]

Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence present a persuasive blend of demographic data and a cultural and social approach to demonstrate that the Romans had an acute awareness of the period of old age and made clear distinctions within this long stage of adulthood. Tim Parkin shows that the overall connotation of the proverb that the elderly have returned to a second childhood is a negative one, contradicting claims made by modern sociologists and thus laying to rest, once more, the idea that old age was universally viewed with respect before the Industrial Revolution. Katariina Mustakallio moves the spotlight to the role of elderly women in Roman society and makes a plausible case that they could earn respect equally well as men. If Mustakallio is right, Roman society would be quite unique in history for awarding respect to elderly women. How this respect is earned and how much of it is "historical reality" are matters which merit further discussion, ideally within a comparative perspective. [3] Ennio Bauer on the gerousia ("council of elders"; consisting of men over 50) in the Greek cities under Roman rule argues that its members were actively engaged in the political life of their cities and that this earned them respect. The essential question is whether the involvement in public life was the result of the high regard in which the elderly were held or whether their activities demonstrate that they still were playing a significant role in urban life. Bauer chooses the second option, but I am not convinced that this is correct. Engaging in benefactions suggests involvement in the politics of honor and prestige, not in the arena of actual decision- making. In my view, the existence of the gerousia demonstrates that ancient society was quite capable of institutionalizing a respect for the elderly. Aleksander Koptev explains the famous episode of the self-sacrifice of the old men during the conquest of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BCE as a way to reclaim their value for society. The discussion of the episode in the historian Livy is illuminating, but it never extends to the broader parameters of research on old age in ancient, pre-industrial society, or in conjunction with a study of medieval society. The contributions by Ildikó Csepregi on the parallels between miracle cures in paganism and Christianity and Jussi Rantala on Augustus' ludi saeculares of 17 BC and the role of the dead in the month of May competently discuss issues in the study of death and religion.

The contributions on the aged in the Middle Ages focus on the lives and the experiences of the elderly and when the focus is on death and dying the source-material consists of wills (in more than one chapter), papal documents, archives of monasteries, and canonization records. No less than three chapters study the social significance of the place of burial (Majorossy; Jamroziak; Ben-Aryeh Debby). Majorossy uses evidence on instructions on burials in wills from Pressburg (modern Bratislava in Slovakia) to engage in the debate on the individualization of burial. Jamroziak studies the relations between individuals and religious institutions in Pomerania and Scotland. Ben-Aryeh Debby shows that the elite in Florence continued to engage in status competition in terms of place of burial despite popular preachers' activities against these practices. The excellent chapter by McCleery on medical perspectives on death in late medieval and early modern Europe has the highest level of familiarity with the general scholarship on the history of ageing. The chapter by Katalin Szende on coping with old age in medieval Hungary discusses family and community strategies in support of the elderly, a topic that has been frequently discussed for more recent historical periods, scholarship with which Szende is eminently familiar. The chapter by Kirsi Salonen on the retirement of elderly priests in late medieval society does not draw on any of the existing scholarship. [4] Jill Bradley studies illustrations in Psalter books from a number of different European cities and argues that the representation of death changes between the early Middle Ages and the ninth century from a generic image to a more personal image. There is no discussion as to how this change is related to changes in society and what can be inferred from it. Finally, Tamminen discusses Jacques de Vitry's representation of the reward of the martyr's crown in the context of the Crusades, while Katajala-Peltoma studies the role of gender and family in the canonization of immature deaths.

The editors rightfully claim (x) that old age and death have never before been studied from a comparative perspective for any period in history. [5] I am not sure whether the same is true about their claim that historians of the ancient and the medieval world have never worked together systematically on a historical theme "or even compared their results on topics of social, cultural, and everyday life history" (x). [6] A research project which aims to broaden the discussion by including scholars from different disciplines deserves a warm welcome. Having specialists from different fields of history in one room and listen to each other's papers is a necessary first step, but more is needed than the twinning of time periods to make a comparative perspective meaningful and instructive. Comparative history requires a rethinking of research questions and a more inclusive way of presenting arguments and results so that readers from both fields can relate to the discussion. Perhaps such issues were discussed at the conference, but no trace of it can be found in the finished product. The framework that is introduced for the reader's benefit consists of a preface and a division of the individual contributions into three different sections: Coping with old age and death: values and views; Social meaning of old age and death; Coping with death: remembrance and oblivion. The preface is brief (ix-xvi; 8 pages in total) and presents a general discussion of the relevance of comparative research followed by a brief overview of the contents of the individual chapters. The editors should at least have outlined the current state of play in the scholarship on old age and death for both periods and specified how the present volume builds on or moves away from the most recent trends. A more substantive introduction clarifying methodological approaches and traditions in scholarship and outlining strategies for reading individual contributions would have made it a lot easier for the reader to understand how the editors believe their goal of a comparative approach has been achieved.

The distribution of the papers over three separate sections ostensibly serves the purpose of enabling the reader to make connections across Antiquity and the Middle Ages. This is supported by the editors' appeal to the idea of longue durée (ix), suggesting that there were continuities in experience, attitude and treatment between the two time periods. However, the presentation of the research in this volume makes an exploration of continuities virtually impossible. No chapter explores a theme on old age or death across both time periods. Seven chapters deal with the ancient world, nine with the Middle Ages. Seven chapters discuss old age, five of which cover Antiquity and two the Middle Ages. Nine chapters discuss death, two for Antiquity and seven for the Middle Ages. It is therefore justified to conclude that the ancient historians who have contributed to this volume deal mainly with old age, while the medievalists deal overwhelmingly with the issue of death. With most of the ancient historians focusing on old age and most of the medievalists discussing death and burial, there is very little opportunity to draw lines of continuity. Of course, this unevenness is partly the result of circumstances, such as the availability of speakers, but it is an important point of consideration when the volume is evaluated against the general framework in which the editors have placed it. If there is continuity in values, behavior, and experience between Antiquity and the Middle Ages, it is up to the reader to piece this together, because the editors and the contributors do not reveal where it can be found.

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Notes:

1. The first publication that came out of these conferences was Katariina Mustakallio, Jussi Hanska et al, eds., Hoping for Continuity: Childhood, Education and Death in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandia, 2005). In the summer of 2013 the fifth conference will be held; this time the theme is health.

2. Carole Haber and Brian Gratton, Old Age and the Search for Security: An American Social History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); Pat Thane, Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Lynn A. Botelho and Pat Thane, eds., Women and Ageing in British Society since 1500 (London: Longman, 2001); Susannah R. Ottaway, The Decline of Life: Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

3. Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), has no systematic discussion of elderly women. Karen Cokayne, Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2003), has a chapter (pp. 134–153) in which she discusses the positive image of the ideal matron and the abuse to which older women are commonly subjected in literature. For some interesting research on elderly women in other periods of history, cf. Marjorie Chary Feinson, "Where are the Women in the History of Aging?," Social Science History 9 (1985): 429-452; Valerie L. Garver, "Old Age and Women in the Carolingian World," in Old Age in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Interdisciplinary Approaches to a Neglected Topic, ed. Albrecht Classen (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter 2007), 121-143; Gretchen Mieszkowski, "Old Age and Medieval Misogyny: The Old Woman," in Old Age in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. Classen, 299-321.

4. Shulamith Shahar has a chapter on churchmen in old age, cf. Growing Old in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 1997), 98- 114. Shahar uses literary sources, whereas Salonen uses legal texts and papal documents. It would have been interesting to see Salonen respond to Shahar's research. Cf. also Joel T. Rosenthal, Old Age in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 107-112; 135-156 (on bishops).

5. The editors note that such an approach has already been employed for old age in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, cf. Classen (ed.), Old Age in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

6. There are several edited volumes which include studies on old age in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Paul Johnson and Pat Thane. eds., Old Age from Antiquity to Post-Modernity (London: Routledge, 1998); Pat Thane, ed., The Long History of Old Age (London: Thames & Hudso,n, 2005); Pat Thane, ed., A History of Old Age (Oxford and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).