Old Age in Viking-Age Britain
By Shannon Lewis-Simpson
Youth and Age in the Medieval North, ed. by Shannon Lewis-Simpson (Brill, 2008)
Introduction: Perhaps the most evocative image of ageing commonly associated with the Viking Age is that of the blind and nearly deaf Egill Skalla-Grímsson attempting to hobble outdoors despite his fótstirðr (‘stiff-leggedness’), suffering the indignity of falling over in his þungfær (‘infirmity’), and then being mocked for it. Here, the infirmity of Egill’s body is despicable, his weakness is ridiculed by women. No appreciation is made of his strong mind, and his continued poetic genius, nor of the many contributions he had made throughout his long life. Attitudes towards the old body are absolutely negative in this medieval Icelandic account. Did the same negative attitudes towards the old exist in Viking-Age England? What was considered ‘old’ in Viking-Age colonial society? And, what sort of life could the old individual expect?
To understand how old was old in Viking-Age Britain, and how the elderly were perceived and treated, one must first understand when, where and what is meant by the culture under consideration. Viking-Age Britain is a term of convenience used to describe the heterogeneous culture of ninth- to eleventh-century Britain, exhibiting an admixture of influences from Scandinavia and the indigenous Scottish and AngloSaxon cultures. Generally, any cultural product found in those areas of Britain thought to have been most heavily settled by Scandinavians (eastern and northern England, Scotland, Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides) which exhibits a certain Scandinavian influence, style, linguistic similarity or ‘character’ is attributed to the ‘Viking-Age’, and this is the position taken here.