My new project on the history of old age is moving forward slowly. Mostly, right now, I’m researching sources, deciding how deep or scholarly I want this to be and gathering materials.
It would be good for me to be more orderly than I am but as I search out books and papers and reports, I get distracted by fascinating material. I thought you might be interested in some notes I’ve made from the early pages of The Long History of Old Age, edited by Pat Thane.
We are all familiar with the role of wise old men in the literature of ancient Rome and Greece and, often, in their art. Images and the position of women, on the other hand, were mostly negative.
“…a great deal of ink was spent on stereotypical aged females, not uncommonly portrayed in the most virulent and obscene terms as sex-crazed witches or alcoholics.”
So the accusation of witchcraft against old women is thousands of years old.
“Old women were dangerous – a curious belief founded partly on mistaken medieval idea, partly on the guilty knowledge that they generally had a just grievance against society.”
A physician who lived in south Germany writing in the 17th century explained why old women were so often accused of witchcraft:
“’They are so unfairly despised and rejected by everyone, enjoy no one’s protection, much less their affection and loyalty…so that it is no wonder that, on account of poverty and need, misery and faint-heartedness, they often…give themselves to the devil and practise witchcraft.’
“A 70-year-old woman said at her trial: ‘The children call all old people witches.’
“Special knowledge possessed by older women, for example about the cure of sickness, might be valued by the community as the characteristic wisdom of the old, or vilified as further proof of witchcraft.”
It wasn’t bad for women at all times in all places. Chaucer, writing in the 14th century, portrayed the post-menopausal Wife of Bath as a strong older woman who, after four failed marriages with men her own age, found happiness with a man 20 years younger than she.
The condition of women varied widely not only over time but among cultures. It is interesting to note the differences but we should be careful not to judge prior behavior by today’s standards.
Recall, too, that until the 19th and 20th century, Europe was divided into many small political units and custom could be very different from nation to kingdom to city state, etc. Plus, there were not a lot of social scientists in history to report the conditions of elders so we are stuck in many cases with gleaning what we can from surviving materials.
Thane tells us that
”In medieval and early modern Europe and, perhaps, in ancient Greece and Rome, women might gain more independence after menopause, sometimes more public responsibilities, as midwives, chaperones or adjudicators in community conflicts about sexual or other delicate matters.
“Rich widows had control over their wealth which married women lacked in all societies before the 20th century and some of them wielded it formidably.”
So there you are. A taste of what I’ve found so far about how old women lived and were treated through the past 2500 years. This is nowhere near complete nor is it meant to be. There will be more as the project moves along.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Barbara Sloan: When is War Real?