What Happened to Aged Priests in the Late Middle Ages?


While it might seem that disease and war made it unlikely that someone would survive to old age in ancient and medieval times, many men and women did live on into their 60s, 70s and even older. A recently published book, On Old Age: Approaching Death in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, explores some aspects of being elderly hundreds of years ago.

Among the sixteen essays in this volume is “What Happened to Aged Priests in the Late Middle Ages?” by Kirsi Salonen. Salonen, a Research Fellow at the University of Tampere, uses Canon Law and ecclesiastical records to examine what happened with bishops, priests and clerics as they got older. She notes that while Canon Law made it in theory difficult for religious officials to retire, there were hundreds of cases appearing in Papal records where various solutions were worked out.

Salonen notes there are “numerous entries in the papal register series concerning old priests who resigned their benefices in favour of someone who agreed to pay them a yearly pension.” For example, in 1477 Johannes de Meynringha, the priest in a parish church near Metz, France, resigned from his position because “he was over eighty years old and had health problems, and thus was no longer capable to carrying out his priestly functions.” In a papal letter signed off by Pope Sixtus IV, Johannes was assigned a yearly pension of 8 tournois, which would be paid by the new parish priest, Theodericus Raynoldi.

In the case of a bishop, it was even harder to retire, but the Papacy and College of Cardinals did hear cases where they did permit a bishop to retire. However, in some cases, they would appoint a Co-Bishop whose job would be to handle all the day-to-day duties of the bishopric.

Salonen also found a case where a parish priest named Ncholas Pennyger was petitioning the Pope not to be removed from office, although the local parishioners wanted him to retire, claiming he was too old and senile. In this case, we do not know what happened, as the Papacy merely referred the case to the local bishop, asking him to examine the parish priest and make a final decision. Salonen notes, “this example is clear testimony to the fact that in some cases the parishioners did not tolerate their aging priests very well – which is understandable if the priest was no longer fully capable of carrying out his duties.”

Other essays in On Old Age include the arrangements made for the elderly in Hungarian towns, how the burghers of the Slovakian city Bratislava (then called Pressburg) organized their own burials, and what was the medieval medical theories related to aging and death. Medieval writers believed that while aging was natural and could not be prevented, one could delay getting old by proper eating, drinking, sleep and exercise, among other advice. According to a book by a 13th century physician, one should avoid, “bathing immediately after eating and drinking wine in the bath, lack of sleep, excessive eating and drinking, lifting heavy things, difficult skills, and all intolerable effort and anything which saddens the soul, because the heart is the begininning of life and the boundary of death.”

 On Old Age: Approaching Death in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, is edited by Christian Krotzl and Katariina Mustakallio, and is published by Brepols. Click here to visit the Publisher’s website for more information.

Sharan Newman