By Josephine M. Cummins
PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2000
Abstract: The thesis begins by exploring the threshold of old age in the Middle Ages. The subjectivity of ageing is rehearsed and the difficulties of identifying the elderly by physical or mental traits. A discussion on fixing the starting point of old age using the aetates hominis and relevant medical and legislative sources follows.
The thesis continues with an examination of attitudes towards biological ageing. Chapter Two adopts the physiology of Galen (129-199) in relation to ageing as a starting point and follows its development in the Middle Ages. Ancient and medieval attitudes to the fundamental question of whether ageing is natural or pathological are also considered. The pathologies which were associated with old age in the medieval period are identified and the various lines of treatment which were prescribed for them are assessed.
The theological view on ageing in relation to sin is determined next. The attitude of spiritual physicians to elderly penitents is explored by examining the libri poenitentiales. Theological and physiological attitudes are then compared. The theme of wholeness and disintegration which is highlighted by that comparison is carried into the following chapter which considers images of old age in medieval literature. In particular, the old person’s proximity to physical corruption is explored against the background of medieval society’s fascination with death and the cadaver.
Chapter Five attempts to mitigate the harsh view of life in old age in the literary sources by analysing notions of the debt which children owed to aged parents and considering the means of social security which were available to the elderly when the family failed to support them. The ultimate purpose of this thesis is to contribute to the knowledge of medieval society’s understanding of how and why humans aged and the attitude of that society to its liminal members.
Introduction: The author of Dives and Pauper tells the story of an old man who transfers all of his wealth to his son and moves into his son’ s house. His son and daughter-in-law soon resent the aged father’s presence in their home. They banish the old man to the porch where he falls ill. Suffering from cold and neglect the aged parent sends his grandson to beg for a blanket. The son responds by giving the boy a sack for his grandfather. The child, having learned from his father’s attitude to his own father, tells his parent that he had better cut the sack in half and keep one part for himself when he is old.
This brief morality tale, written between 1405 and 1410, is a concentrated essay in the anxieties which afflict the aged regardless of the historical period to which they belong. The fear of financial loss, of social liminality, of lack of affection, of being sick and defenceless at the end of one’s life are timeless fears.