Judith Bennett

title.none: Rosenthal, Old Age in Late Medieval England (Bennett)

identifier.other: baj9928.9702.006 97.02.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Judith Bennett, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Rosenthal, Joel T. Old Age in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Pp. xv, 260. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-812-23355-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.02.06

Rosenthal, Joel T. Old Age in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Pp. xv, 260. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-812-23355-7.

Reviewed by:

Judith Bennett
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Demographers and historians of family life have lavished much attention on courtship, marriage, childhood, and parental affection, all topics which implicitly focus on young or middle-aged adults. As a result, it sometimes seems as if we have frozen medieval families in time, with husbands and wives always aged about 40 and their children ranging from infants to adolescents. In the last few years, however, older adults have begun to get the attention they so richly deserve. Widows have enjoyed a renaissance of late, with collections of essays edited by Louise Mirrer, Caroline Barron and Anne Sutton, and Sue Sheridan Walker.1 So too have old people of both sexes, not only in two collections of essays (one edited by Michael Sheehan, the other by Margaret Pelling and Richard Smith) but also in a new monograph by Shulamith Shahar. 2 Joel Rosenthal's book adds in many useful ways to this growing collection of studies. Focused on men from the most privileged sectors of late medieval English society, it is a valuable research guide. Rosenthal does not fully mine any of the many sources he has uncovered in this book, but in thinking creatively about possible materials and assessing them carefully, he has set a sort of research agenda for the future.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first "Some Data and Data Sets" examines three documentary sources. Inquisitions Post Mortem, held whenever a tenant-in-chief died, provide Rosenthal with information about the ages of their heirs. As Rosenthal is of the opinion that most elite men married in their mid-to-late 20s, he adds about 25 years to the ages of inheriting sons and daughters in order to estimate the ages of their fathers (or rarely, mothers). Using a sample of inquisitions available in printed editions, he concludes that about 1 in every 6 men of the landowning classes lived at least into his mid-50s. Proofs of Age enable Rosenthal to move down the social scale a bit. These inquisitions, held to establish whether a minor heir had finally reached legal majority, required jurors to state their ages. As jurors needed to be old enough to remember -- in detailed, vivid, yet often formulaic prose -- the birth of the heir, most were aged 40 years or more. Most jurors were gentry or freeholders, and in Rosenthal's sample, about one- fourth of them were aged 60 or more. The final data derive from a dispute about heraldic arms that brought the Scrope and Grosvenor families into conflict between 1386 and 1390. Witnesses were asked to state their present ages as well as when they first bore arms. In these proceedings, as in inquisitions to establish Proof of Age, advanced age was at a premium, for one critical issue was how long the Scropes had carried the arms in dispute. One witness (Sir John Sully) claimed to be 105, another (Sir John Chydioke) 100; about one-fifth of all witnesses were over 60.

With the exception of the ages of heirs at or near legal majority, persons in all these proceedings tended to give rounded ages -- "40 years or more" and the like. Rosenthal solves this potential problem by creating broad categories and estimates. Moreover, he seeks not just to show that a significant minority of elite men lived into their mid-50s and beyond (his benchmark for "old age") but also that they had important social roles. To his mind, Proofs of Age, in which men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s gathered to remember an event some two decades ago, "offer a testimonial, and a powerful one, to the ubiquity and active presence of the elderly." (p. 43) They provided a "place on the stage of public life" (p. 43), a theater where the elderly had socially valued roles to play.

The second section tackles the issue of "Three-Generation Families," seeking both to establish their demographic frequency and to evaluate their social meaning. Rosenthal turns again to Inquisitions Post Mortem, showing that about one-third of the families found in his sample extended, however briefly, into three generations. Sometimes the extension was not so brief, and when this happened, grandchildren grew up with the tutelage and perhaps love of grandfathers, or more commonly, grandmothers. Rosenthal then uses last wills and testaments to examine both the incidence of three-generational families (he concludes that the quantitative evidence is too patchy) and the quality of affective relations between grandparents and grandchildren (he finds more patchy evidence and no strong pattern). Finally, Rosenthal analyzes aristocratic genealogies from the Complete Peerage to show that three-generational extensions were common in the lineages of most peers and that grandmothers might have been particularly important bridges across the generations.

In the final section on "Full Lives and Careers," Rosenthal turns to lived experiences. He shows how retirement was impossible for some, but possible for others. Most peers remained active until their deaths (with only the occasional exemption from a parliamentary summons), as did most bishops and abbots. But London men aged 70 or more were excused from civic duties, and at least some parish priests were able to settle down with small pensions. There seems to have been little pressure to retire, little sense of "golden years" that could offer new amusements and pastimes, and little inclination to give special attention to religion late in life. Rosenthal also asks whether longevity was a critical part of success in life -- that is, whether those who lived longest had the most brilliant careers. For peers, bishops, and abbots, a long life frequently correlated with great success, since honors and powers often came to such men late in life; the same was true for writers, who often did not begin literary production until age 40 or later. The link might have been less strong among urban elites; Rosenthal suggests that in towns the achievement of middle age might have sufficed for most honors and positions.

Rosenthal concludes with a chapter that looks hard at literary representations of the aged. Both optimistic and pessimistic assessments of aging were available to people in late medieval England. Cicero's De Senectute articulated the happier view; Innocent III's On the Misery of the Human Condition was considerably less sanguine. Most Middle English writers inclined toward the darker view, but Rosenthal suggests there was a strong dissonance between aging "as a cultural construct" and "what was going on all around" (p. 187). (Comfortable with this dissonance, Rosenthal seizes the opportunity to warn against mimetic use of literature as well as over reliance on it.) He concludes that the aged were much pitied in some literatures, much ignored in others, and never the object of social policy, but that aged individuals -- both those who were pensioned off and those who remained active until death -- were a significant and powerful presence in late medieval English society.

In some respects, this is a limited book. It focuses just on a privileged minority (especially peers and bishops); it says very little about women among that privileged minority; it uses only printed sources (and in some cases, only a few representative volumes for any one type of source); it offers very limited assessments of change over time (despite some intriguing evidence that the elderly might have been more prominent in the late fifteenth century than before [see Tables 1.1-1.4, 8.3, and 9.3]); and it too easily answers some difficult questions (such as the average age of marriage for men featured in the Inquisitions Post Mortem). In many cases, readers might find themselves wanting to push for a look at more sources, for a reconsideration of the data, and just generally for a somewhat deeper analysis of problems and assumptions.

Yet, perhaps these are the frustrations that accompany the first fruits of research on a relatively unexplored topic, and there can be no doubt that Rosenthal offers us a great deal to think about in this study of old age. Almost as an aside, he points out that his data offer no support for the notion that increased mortality might lie behind the population stagnation of the later Middle Ages (p. 124), and perhaps his findings will be developed into yet another salvo in the ongoing debate about population trends that is central to so much research on late medieval England. 3 Rosenthal's study will also be much consulted for the many primary sources that he has investigated for evidence of old age. Some (such as the Inquisitions Post Mortem) have been long used by demographers and historians, but others (such as the Scrope-Grosvenor depositions, records of excused absences from parliaments, and information about the forced retirement of coroners) have been used by Rosenthal in new and innovative ways. All students of old age will be well advised to pay close attention to the many sources found in this book, as well as Rosenthal's discussions about their relative problems and merits.

Most important of all, Rosenthal has placed aged men of the privileged classes back where they belong: right at the center of life in medieval England. Most people might have died by their 50th birthdays, but a significant minority lived much longer. Some elderly men weakened, fell ill, or retired, but others -- such as Lord Wenlock who fell in the battle of Tewkesbury at age 71, or the first Duke of Norfolk who fell at Bosworth, aged 75 years -- were vigorous, active, and powerful until their end. In sheer numbers, late medieval England was dominated by the young and middle-aged, but in terms of cultural, social, and political power, the elderly were not overwhelmed by the young.

1 Louise Mirrer, ed., Upon My Husband's Death: Widows in the Literature and Histories of Medieval Europe (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1992); Caroline Barron and Anne F. Sutton, eds., Medieval London Widows 1300-1500 (London: Hambledon Press, 1994). Sue Sheridan Walker, ed., Wife and Widow in Medieval England (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1993).
2 Michael Sheehan, ed., Aging and the Aged in Medieval Europe (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990); Margaret Pelling and Richard Smith, eds., Life Death and the Elderly: Historical Perspectives (London: Routledge, 1991); Shulamith Shahar has recently published Growing Old in the Middle Ages (London, Routledge, 1996).
3 For a recent critical summary of this debate, see Mark Bailey, "Demographic decline in late medieval England: some thoughts on recent research," Economic History Review, 49 (1996), pp. 1-19.