Old Age as a Useful Category of Historical Analysis

Devoney Looser

University of Missouri–Columbia


In his book, The History of Old Age: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, Georges Minois predicted “there will soon be a whole library on old age.”1 If he was talking about the flowering of the field of gerontology, he was certainly right. But if he was implying that work like his own—work attempting to chart the history of old age—would soon fill a library, his prophecy has not (yet?) been fulfilled. Between 1970 and 2001, thirty-four books on the subject of the history of old age in Europe appeared, and just twenty-two of these were in English.2 Works considering Great Britain specifically make up a smaller portion of that number. Pat Rogers has put it succinctly: “For a long time our image of the eighteenth century was dominated by males of advancing years . . . yet hardly anybody studied old age as it was lived and recorded in the period” (55).3 The category of “age,” and more specifically “old age,” remained unmarked—and sometimes even unremarked—in our scholarship, not unlike the category “gender” did until second-wave feminist literary critics insisted that it be attended to in its own right.

In eighteenth-century studies, we have made some headway—enough to begin to fill a shelf or two. David Troyansky’s work on aging and representations of the aged in eighteenth-century France, as well as books and edited books dealing with the early-modern period by the likes of Andrew Achenbaum, Peter Laslett, Terri Premo, and Peter Stearns, broke new ground. They were followed by wide-ranging, suggestive studies, such as Lois Banner’s In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality (1992), which considers the social and sexual status of older women in Western myth, history, literature, and popular culture from the medieval period to the present. Pat Thane’s Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues (2000) was the first book-length study on the subject, considering ancient Greece and Rome to the present; it features a short chapter on old age in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thane and Lynn Botelho edited Women and Ageing in British Society Since 1500 (2001), a collection of essays that demonstrates the “rich and varied reality of 500 years of female old age.”4 Essays by Jeanine Casler, Brian Connery, Jill Campbell, Katherine Kittredge, George Rousseau, and others have opened up avenues for further study. But a book-length work specifically on the topic during the period proved elusive—that is, until the publication of Susannah Ottaway’s The Decline of Life: Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 2004).

Ottaway asserts that her book “fills a particularly yawning gap in the current historiography of old age,” which does not seem an exaggerated claim (5). Published as part of a Cambridge series on studies of population, economy, and society in past periods, The Decline of Life is an outstanding contribution to scholarship in what ought to become a burgeoning field of inquiry. The massive amounts of quantitative data and qualitative examples it provides will offer scholars in the humanities and social sciences much to sort through in the coming years. Ottaway has combed through censuses, parish registers, family reconstitutions, wills, and poor law account books, as well as diaries, medical texts, and tracts on aging (5). Divided into seven chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion, the book treats subjects such as the definition of “old” in the eighteenth century; the old at work and at home; the extent of family ties and independence; and the levels and kinds of community assistance under the Old Poor Law. The book’s introduction, first chapter, and conclusion should be required reading for anyone interested in the topic of eighteenth-century old age.

The Decline of Life begins with what has become an old saw in studies of the history of aging in the early modern period—debunking the idea of a “golden age” for the aged in the past. There was no period in which “families loved and cherished their old relatives[,] adult children nurtured their aging parents in their homes, and communities treated the venerable elderly with deep and abiding respect” (1). Ottaway argues forcefully against the urge to construct a single meta-narrative of cultural attitudes regarding old age, such as finding the origins of modern ageism in the eighteenth century (14). At the same time, she is not afraid to generalize. The book substantiates the claim that “over the entire eighteenth century, there was a common association of the age of sixty with the beginning of old age,” although, of course, health and appearance were also important factors in determining whether one might call someone else or indeed oneself “old” (7; 54).

If the definition of sixty as old offers us an element of continuity in eighteenth-century cultural attitudes, she shows, too, that there were important changes over the period, notably an increased reliance on old age pensions as the century progressed. In the first decades of the century, fewer than ten percent of the aged used parish relief under the Old Poor Law, but by the 1790s, this number grew to between one-quarter and one-third of those over sixty years old (10). The old were also increasingly defined as a recognizable subset of the population. Both of these factors, Ottaway theorizes, led to the surge in age-based pension schemes in the late eighteenth century (13).

For the individual, the “decline of life” was experienced in wildly different ways, with aged, elite men and many of the middling classes finding “an especially congenial context” in their later years (14). Because retirement was optional, and because there was no uniform stigmatization of the aged, rich old men might expect and be granted respect and authority. Aged men of moderate means would have had to struggle against downward mobility. But for women of the elite and middling classes, Ottaway argues, old age was more likely to be experienced as a period of loss—both in terms of property and law and in terms of the perceptions of physical decay. The culture’s fixation on a youthful physical ideal was especially directed toward women. For the aged poor, however, Ottaway demonstrates vividly throughout her study that “it is impossible to exaggerate the desperate misery” of their conditions (14).

In chapter one, “Who was ‘old’ in eighteenth-century England?” Ottaway calls the endeavor to define old age “an endlessly fascinating task,” and reading her work on the subject is absorbing as well (18). Ottaway covers such issues as eighteenth-century life expectancy, longevity, and physical decline; cultural signals of men’s old age; and women’s old age and menopause, among others. In addition to pulling together compelling primary sources, the chapter also provides an impressively thorough literature review on the history of old age in the period. Ottaway spends time on subjects such as “age heaping” (the tendency to use round figures—ending in zero or five—when asked how old one was), as well as the tendency to exaggerate advanced age during the period (45). She speculates on the reasons why the eighteenth century showed an increasing interest in numerical age, describing it as “wholly consistent with Enlightenment ideals of recording knowledge and rationally presenting it” (53). The chapter concludes with brief sections on literary sources, administrative records, and diaries and parish records. These matters serve as an important springboard for the chapters that follow, which draw more heavily on quantitative data.

Chapter two, “The activities of the ‘helmsman’: self-reliance, work, and community expectations of the elderly,” offers a great deal of evidence to support Ottaway’s contention that in the eighteenth century, “old people were supposed to be self-sufficient for as long as possible” and that even among the most disadvantaged, independence was prized (114). She documents a “rise in retirement” by century’s end and establishes that those who attained authority in middle age were able to retain it into later life (73). In chapter three, “‘The comforts of a private fire-side,’” we see more clearly the ways in which eighteenth-century ideals of individualism and independence contributed to housing arrangements in later life. Old people preferred to maintain their own households, she reveals, based on the evidence of wills and household listings. The aged poor and old women from all levels of society, however, were in greatest danger of falling into positions of dependence in homes or workhouses. Chapter four, “Independent but not alone: family ties for the elderly,” offers information about the importance of families (which Ottaway defines as children, siblings, and more distant kin) in the lives of the old. Chapters five, six, and seven deal with the aged poor and community assistance to the aged under the Old Poor Law, continuity and change in community assistance, and, finally, relief for the elderly in workhouses.

Though Ottaway consults an impressive array of documents and sources in her study, much of the quantitative data she draws on comes from three parishes: Terling, Essex; Puddletown, Dorset; and Ovenden, Halifax, West Yorkshire. She uses them to draw conclusions about the conditions faced by the old from different regions of the country and to make generalizations that may hold across regions. The downside of an emphasis on the three parishes is that conditions faced by the old in urban areas are relatively under- or even unexplored in many sections of the book. In addition, the reliance on the three parishes may become trying to the reader. The book has a preponderance of sentences that resemble the following: “Grandchildren received legacies in 24, 31, and 24 percent of the wills from, respectively, Puddletown, Terling, and Ovenden” (164). Or “While 55 percent of Terling’s and 58 percent of Puddletown’s dependent poor were female, Ovenden’s poor-relief recipients were mostly men: only 47 percent of those in receipt of relief were female” (199). Since the book provides a generous numbers of charts and tables that present this information for the curious, I found such precise narrative explanations too frequent and would have rather seen more of them relegated to footnotes or graphics.

This is quibbling, however, and the reader who gives painstaking attention to this book is amply rewarded. The book’s conclusion, “Old age as a useful category of historical analysis,” offers an argument in favor of the detailed, local study. As Ottaway writes, “in the hurry to understand the evolution of our current cultural understanding of aging, there has been a worrying tendency for the field to progress not through detailed monographs, but through sweeping narratives or through collections of essays that bring together the history of old age in very disparate times and places” (278). The Decline of Life provides a long overdue and welcome opportunity to see through the era’s documents and most reliable data that England in “the eighteenth century looks very different when viewed through the eyes of the aged” (279).


1. Georges Minois, The History of Old Age: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, trans. Sarah Hanbury Tenison (Chicago, 1987), 4.

2. Susannah R. Ottaway, The Decline of Life: Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 2004), 277.

3. Rogers’s comment introduces a special issue on “Aging and Identity: An Eighteenth-Century Perspective.” See “Introductory Note.” Journal of Aging and Identity 4, no. 2 (1999): 55.

4. Lynn Botelho and Pat Thane, eds., Women and Ageing in British Society Since 1500 (Harlow, England: Longman, 2001), 1.