Measuring Content of the Elderly and Old Age in College Level History Textbooks

From William A. Percy
Jump to: navigation, search

by Anthony Smith

History textbook authors have not devoted adequate attention to the elderly and old age. Although they have not been negatively portrayed, the elderly have been excluded from chapters on social history and old age ignored as a beneficial trait among appropriate figures in political-military chapters. Given the fact that the number of people over the age of sixty-five will double in America by the year 2030, old age will, if it has not already, become an important social, political, and economical issue. [1] Students of History look to the past to find solutions to contemporary obstacles. History textbook authors have given them little to find on the elderly as a historical social group and the beneficial aspects of old age in historical figures.

Reasons for the absence of elderly people and the lacking portrayal of the positive qualities of old age in historical figures may vary for many reasons between authors and publishers. At a higher level, society as a whole suffers from ageism, in contrast to racism and sexism, as an acceptable form of discrimination. [2] For the purpose of this paper, old age is defined as sixty-five years and older. The term “elderly” and “elderly people” is not based on any prejudicial or stereotypical prototype or exemplar, as defined by Cuddy in Doddering but Dear: Process, Content, and Function in Stereotyping of Older Persons. [3] “Elderly” and “elderly people” is defined as a social group within American History and the History of Western Civilization. A hot topic, research on ageism is being conducted by psychologists, gerontologists, sociologists, and sexologists.

This paper does not seek to unravel the myriad causes and effects of ageism in modern America. Rather, it will focus specifically on the measurable content of the elderly as a social group and the benefits of old age in historical figures in one American and two Western Civilization college level History textbooks. For a more accurate analysis of the textbook industry as whole, this study would have to be greatly expanded. Suggestions will be given where appropriate to improve the lack of content in the above mentioned textbooks. Some chapters are omitted pending subject matter.


Part 1 – U.S. History

Norton, Chapter 1: The Meeting of Old World and New, 1492-1600

Norton introduces three primary civilizations; American societies, African societies, and European societies. The struggle for the “New World” was wrought with conflict and dissension as a result of, “combining foods, religions, economies, styles of life, and political systems that had developed separately for millennia.” [4] Styles of life, religions, and political systems seem to be the best topics in which the author could elaborate on American, African, and European outlooks on elders in their respective societies. However, there is very little attention paid to the subject. While each society has a subchapter devoted to the sexual division of labor, there is no mention of the division of labor, political systems, or religion by age. The textbook reader is not given any indication of the societies’ age makeup.

There is only one reference to “elderly” people in the chapter. Norton examine the exchange of diseases between Spanish explorers and native Mesoamericans. “A Spanish priest recorded the words of an old Aztec man…” [5] A brief description of the spread of smallpox and the resulting devastation is attributed to the memories of the “elderly Aztec.” [6]

Norton, Chapter 2: Europeans Colonize North America, 1600-1640

This chapter includes much information about the age of the early American settlers. An overall picture is formed of the demographics of the English settlements at Jamestown, Chesapeake, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay. “’Plantations ar for yonge men, that can enduer all paynes and hunger(sp.),’ he advised Winthrop, who was then 41...’” Norton quotes Robert Ryce, warning John Winthrop against emigration to America. [7] The obvious connotation is that America is a place for the young, not the old; an idea that this paper will attempt to show has perpetuated up to modern the United States.

Among the settlement patterns of the English, Spanish, and Dutch, the English settlements provide the most interesting information about age demography and ageism. The population in England doubled between 1530 and 1680. English cities, especially London, swelled as tenant farmers were forced off the land into the city. Norton offers an economic, social, as well as religious context from which the settlers were motivated to leave England and make an attempt at a new life in America. [8]Demographic information, including births, deaths, age, and gender are used throughout the text. The Chesapeake colony attracted young men who could work the fields. Indentured servitude was common. “Roughly three-quarters of the servant migrants were males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four…” [9] Demographic information and analysis in the textbook yields a different picture of life in the New England colonies. “Though adult male migrants to the Chesapeake lost about ten years from their English life expectancy of fifty to fifty-five years, their Massachusetts counterparts gained five or more years.” [10] The first mention on grandparents appears in this chapter. A mutual relationship existed between parents and children in New England. Sons and daughters needed land and the dowry, respectively, from their parents. Parents needed the labor of their children. “These needs at times led to considerable conflict between the generations.” [11] Does the conflict generate from middle- and old-aged people imposing their will over the younger generation? Are the children to eager to gain control of the parent’s and grandparent’s resources? Norton does not answer either question.

Norton, Chapter 3: American Society Takes Shape, 1640-1720

Norton examines the differing social make-up of each colony and of America as a whole in this chapter. Certainly, it is a chapter of social history, not geopolitical analysis, meant to inform the reader of the social environment of pre-revolutionary America. Demographics are first encountered in an analysis of the English take-over of New York from the Dutch. “Its population grew slowly, barely reaching eighteen thousand by the time of the first English census in 1698. Until the second decade of the eighteenth century, New York City remained a commercial backwater within the orbit of Boston.” [12] A similar analysis follows for each colony. “New Jersey grew quickly; at the time of its first census as a united colony in 1726, it had 32,500 inhabitants, only 8,000 fewer than New York.” [13] In the subchapter for Pennsylvania, its prominent Quaker founder William Penn was identified as being thirty seven years old.

A little more than halfway through the chapter, Norton contrasts the social and political make-up of the Iroquois Confederacy with that of that of the other Native American tribes and of the New England colonies. “The Iroquois were unique among Native Americans, not only because of the persistence of their alliance but also because of the role played by their tribal matrons. The older women of each village chose its chief and could either start wars (by calling for the capture of prisoners to replace dead relatives) or stop them (by refusing to supply warriors with the necessary food-stuffs).” [14] It is an interesting fact to include in the analysis of the Iroquois, but one that gained entry most likely because it involved older women, not simply elderly people.

Norton’s analysis of the population explosion between 1640 and 1700 in New England is quite good. She stresses that a natural population growth occurred, not one of migration after the 1640’s. “The original settlers’ many children also produced many children, and subsequent generations followed suit. By 1700, New England’s population had quadrupled to reach approximately 100,000.” [15] An additional brief breakdown of the age demographics would be an improvement. The Salem Witch Trials occurred amidst this population explosion. There is clear evidence of ageism in America at even this early date, “…when a group of adolescent girls accused some older women of having bewitched them.” [16] According to Norton, the brief hysteria only ended, “When they began to accuse some of the colony’s most distinguished and respected residents of being in league with the Devil…” [17] Overall, the chapter provides valuable information on the population of the colonies and how they developed. However, it lacks a specific analysis on the elderly as a social group in the early colonies.

U.S. History: Chapter 4 Growth and Diversity, 1720-1770

Norton spends a complete chapter describing the many facets of life in the colonies as they evolved from 1720 to 1770. There is a wealth of demographic information from which the reader can draw conclusions about the ages of the colonists. A period of rapid population growth, much of it by natural means instead of immigration, had raised the population in North America to 2.5 million people by 1775. [18] She compares the rate of growth to the modern United States. “As a result, about half the American population, white and black, was under sixteen years old in 1775 (by contrast, only about one-third of the American population was under sixteen in 1990.)” [19] Again, Norton stresses the youthful makeup of the American population in the Colonies. In fact, if one is looking for representation of a population over sixty-five, as we have deemed this to be the demarcation for old age, it could scarcely be located. According to a chart 56.8% of the population was under the age of twenty-one. Only 13.1% of the free American population was over the age of 45.

According to Norton’s total population estimate of 2.5 million people, actual numbers would place 327,500 people over the age of 45. If one assumed that one quarter(need to check demographic sources) of those people had reached old age, then 81,875 people were considered elderly. The number crunching raises questions about the elderly as social group. Were they in positions of power? How many became too old to work, and did they retire on an income or were they cared for by their family? What became of the elderly that had no pension or family support? Norton hints at these social problems in a subchapter entitled “Urban Poverty”. “By the 1760’s public urban poor-relief systems were overwhelmed with applicants for assistance, and some cities began to build workhouses or almshouses to shelter the growing number of poor people. Among them were recent immigrants, the elderly and infirm, and widows, especially those with small children.” [20] The wealthy elderly must have had some form of estate planning, in the absence of modern day social security benefits and investing strategies.

A gap exists in the treatment of the elderly during this period. Under the subchapter “The Daily Lives of European Americans”, Norton states, “Most of those large families were nuclear – that is, they did not include extended kin like aunts, uncles, or grandparents.” Therefore, her descriptions of family life do not include elderly people. There is no accounting for a population of approximately 81,875 people. Brief facts regarding age of militia service (ages 16 to 60), college enrollment (ages 14 to 15), and Benjamin Franklin’s age of retirement from the printing business (age 42) summarize the remainder of Norton’s attention towards age demographics.

Chapter 5: Severing the Bonds of Empire, 1754 to 1774

This chapter mainly focuses on the political and economic forces at work as the colonies gradually drifted from loyalty to England to rebellion. However, some comments are worthy of attention. While examining the representation of the elderly as a social group in the textbook is a useful device for chapters based on that and similar topics, a different approach is necessary for chapters that focus on politics and military endeavors. For these chapters, the text is examined for the inclusion or exclusion of the beneficial aspects of old age in relevant historical figures. Traits such as wisdom, experience, patience, and leadership are important qualities in historical figures. Experience and wisdom can only be gained with age.

Many historical figures suffered the hindrances of old age such as physical and mental fatigue, senility, and illness. A textbook author must remain impartial with regards to the use of these attributes in describing elderly historical figures. If an analysis of a particular historical figure yields evidence that their actions were governed by such limitations that may occur in the natural aging process, then it must be so noted in the text. An author must not be fearful of accusations of ageism as long as the analysis is accurate and based on fact, not speculation. Disregarding a person’s age as a positive attribute can however be just as damaging as an unjustified negative connation.

A twenty-two year old George Washington is described as “foolhardy and inexperienced,” and had “blundered grievously” while fighting the French at Fort Necessity. [21] Norton is quick to point out the shortcomings of young and inexperienced leaders, as Washington was at that time. However, a nice balance is struck when she describes young Patrick Henry’s arguments against the Stamp Act. Norton takes the time to include Samuel Adam’s age of 51 in 1772 and stresses the seniority he exhibited over his fellow rebels. [22]

Norton, Chapter 6: A Revolution Indeed, 1775-1783

In a style similar to the previous chapter, Norton analyzes the political, diplomatic, and military aspects of the American Revolution. In this framework, the chapter is critiqued based on the absence or existence of beneficial traits of elderly people in the description of the historical figures. Benjamin Franklin, “the most experienced American diplomat,” [23] is credited by Norton with single handedly negotiating the vital French support during the revolution. Experience is touted as a positive trait in Benjamin Franklin. Samuel Adams, middle-aged though approaching early old age, is described as “the experienced organizer of the Boston resistance.” [24] Again, experience is highlighted as a positive trait. Among the traditionally studied American and British historical figures of the revolution, Franklin is by far the oldest at sixty-nine when the war began. General John Burgoyne is the only figure closest to sixty-five. He was fifty-three when the war began in 1775 and sixty-one when the war officially ended in 1783. Norton cannot be faulted for ignoring any beneficial traits of elderly historical figures, given that most had not yet passed middle-age.

Norton, Chapter 7: Forging a National Republic, 1776-1789

As in earlier chapters, Norton devotes subchapters specifically to women and African-Americans. The elderly as a social group are ignored. She then diverges from social history to civics in an explanation of the impetus for designing a new constitution. Finally, Norton covers the Constitutional Convention and its major players. “The youngest delegate was twenty-six, the oldest – Benjamin Franklin- eighty-one. Like George Washington, whom they elected chairman, most were in their vigorous middle years.” [25] At eighty-one, Franklin was no longer vigorous. Franklin played a minor role in the Constitutional Convention. In this instance, the effects of old age hampered Franklin’s involvement in the debate, and Norton is justified in her treatment of Franklin.

Antifederalists, those who opposed a larger central government, are characterized by Norton as consisting mainly of old people and lists among them Samuel Adams and Richard Henry Lee. Samuel Adams is characterized in a similar fashion in earlier chapters and Norton is consistent in her treatment of him. Norton describes some of the Antifederalist members as being, “heavily peopled by such older Americans, whose political opinions had been shaped prior to the centralizing, nationalistic Revolution.” [26] Portraying older Americans as crystalline in their political views is a classic stereotype of the elderly. The social and political ramifications of the reinforcement of these stereotypes will intensify in the modern U.S. as the percentage of Americans over the age of sixty-five grows. “Attitudes and stereotypes are particularly important when considering intergenerational politics because ‘it is the social image of the ageing as much as any other social attribute that has fortified the elderly’s political status’ (Rosenbaum and Button 1993, p. 481).’” [27] Though the statement appears insignificant in Norton’s textbook, the ageist implications reinforce a History student’s view of the political views and voting habits of the elderly in their community. “As a result, it was suggested that intergenerational political conflict may grow as the population ages, and ‘the most important source of this conflict may be the community level and the ‘image’ of the ageing that is developing among younger community residents.’ (p. 481).” [28] If one extends public and private schooling as part of a community, then a fair and balanced curriculum must be put forth to cultivate understanding between generations.

Norton, Chapter 9: The Empire of Liberty, 1801-1824

This chapter contains information that continues to reveal the underlying intergenerational political conflict that exists in America. Again, the Federalists are described as aloof and composed of older Americans. “They believed in government by the ‘best’ people – those whose education, wealth, and experience qualified them to be leaders.” [29] The theme of intergenerational political conflict continues as Norton describes a younger generation of Federalists rescuing the party from collapse. The breakdown into “Younger Federalists” and “Older Federalists” further discredits elderly party members as they are blamed for the party’s failure. “Divisions between Older and Younger Federalists often hindered the party, and the extremism of some Older Federalists tended to discredit the organization.” [30] The author cites Timothy Pickering as an example of an old man who urged secession for New England at the Hartford Convention which became a debacle for the party and ensured its ruin.

Norton, Chapter 12: Among Strangers and Friends: People and Communities, 1800-1860

This is a social history chapter. The author describes many different aspects of rural and urban life in the 19th century. For example, subchapters are used to divide “Country Life”, “City Life”, and “Extremes of Wealth”. Some of the topics within the subchapters are “Farm Communities”, “Shakers”, “Brook Farm” (an experimental co-op in West Roxbury, MA), “New York City”, “Urban Poverty”, and “The Middle Class”. These topics vary from the very specific to wide ranging. In particular, women and African Americans have extensive subchapters. The aged appear sporadically throughout the chapter as seen in the following examples: Farm Communities, “After cleaning up, ‘the old folks went home to send their young ones for their share of work and fun’”; Urban Poverty, “They dreaded the insecurities and indignities of poverty, chronic illness, disability, old age, widowhood, and desertion.” The elderly are merely touched upon in passing as part of other subchapters and topics that are analyzed in great depth.

Students reading the textbook would benefit from subchapters devoted exclusively to the elderly. Subtopics could consist of the poor elderly, middle class elderly, and wealthy elderly as Paula Scott does in, “Growing Old in the Early Republic, Spiritual, Social, and Economic Issues, 1790-1830”. Scott studied tax records and Revolutionary War pension applications for residents in Hartford, CT from 1790 to 1830. Her work accurately reveals the economic struggles, community support, family relations, and health of the elderly. Intergenerational political conflict may be another subtopic that could help students understand the elderly as a historical social group and relate the issue to modern American politics. The debate over whether old people declined in status in America is in fact still open. [31] Whether Fischer is correct that, “the early national period…is a watershed in age relations in which an established system of veneration of the elderly was replaced by a new system which devalued them,” [32] or Scott’s assertion that, “…the aged are remarkable more for their constancy than for any abrupt change,” [33] research reveals that the topic is quite complex and worthy of attention in history textbooks.

Part 2 – History of Western Civilization

Kagan, Chapter 1: The Birth of Civilization & Kishlansky, Chapter 1: The First Civilizations

Western Civilization textbooks as a whole do not provide a large amount of demographic information when covering early human life. This can be attributed to the lack of scientific information that is available to historians. If, for example, a historian chooses to include age demographics of the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations, they are confronted with a scarcity of data from which they can form their conclusions. Paleodemography is limited by small advances in bioarchaeology. The necessary scientific data is lacking, forcing historians to rely on secondary sources such as written texts and graves. [34] Despite the scarcity of scientific data, demographers have been able to make some reliable estimates which the author could utilize in a valuable analysis of the elderly in early human history.

Kagan does not attempt to draw any conclusions regarding age demography from the Paleolithic era through the age of Near Eastern Empires. Much attention is given to the sexual division of labor and social stratification. Allusions to “social change” give no indication of age demography or ageism. [35] Kagan ignores scientific evidence, although scarce, of the age makeup of Mesopotamian society. There are sufficient sources from which Kagan is comfortable making statements about social strata in Mesopotamia. One example is the Code of Hammurabi. [36]

In contrast, Kishlanksy makes more observations regarding the age demography of prehistoric Europe. He begins with a recreation of the last twenty-four hours of a prehistoric man named Otzi. Many assumptions about the behavior of this man are directly related to the forensic data yielded from his discovery in the Italian Alps ten years ago. Like a detective, Kishlansky uses the evidence gathered from the perfectly preserved corpse to make assumptions about Otzi’s life and death. One of those assumptions is based on his age and where he would have fit into the social hierarchy of his time. “Around 40 years old, he was probably a senior and respected member of his community. Already he was suffering from arthritis, and tattoos on his left wrist, right knee, calves, ankles and the lumbar region of his spine suggest that, just as in some nomadic societies today, he and his companions used tattooing as a kind of therapy.” [37] Kishlansky invokes more scientific evidence based on the discovery of “Lucy”, a skeleton dating back to as far as six and a half million years ago, from a person that is believed to have lived to the age of 20. Finally, Kishlansky makes an overall conclusion as to the age demographics of Paleolithic people. “Most people died by age 20, but even among those who survived into adulthood, most women were dead by 30 and most men by 40.” [38] A brief synopsis of an Egyptian literary character is the only other example of an old age person in this period. Neither of the textbooks of Western Civilization provides any detailed analysis of age demography and its possible influences over the societies from the Paleolithic to the age of Near Eastern Empires.

Kagan, Chapter 2: The Rise of Greek Civilization & Kishlansky, Chapter 2: Early Greece, 2500-500 B.C.E

Spartan society is discussed in detail in Kagan’s chapter covering the Greek civilizations. While the chapter focuses mainly on the military life of the youths, Kagan does expand coverage to middle and old age. “Military service was required until the age of sixty; only then could the Spartan retire to his home and family.” [39] Kagan describes the Spartan government as a mixture of democracy, monarchy, and oligarchy. “The oligarchic element was represented by a council of elders consisting of twenty-eight men over the age of sixty, elected for life, and the kings.” [40] Kagan stresses that, “…they must have had considerable influence,” but does not directly correlate the elder’s wisdom, experience, and guidance with the, “unmatched stability” of the Spartan system. [41]

Kishlansky differs from Kagan in both style and content. He is more attuned to the social complexities of Greek society. He does not shy away from topics such as a homosexuality or pedophilia. A subchapter, “Gender and Power” offers some information on the sexual preferences of Greek males and makes a vague reference towards older adults. “Mature men took young boys as their lovers, helped educate them, and inspired them by word and deed to grow into ideal warriors and citizens.” [42] The specific ages of “mature” men and “young” boys would help clarify the role that elders played in this social setting.

Kagan, Chapter 3: Classical and Hellenistic Greece & Kishlansky, Chapter 3: Classical and Hellenistic Greece

Kagan and Kishlansky structure the chapter identically. All aspects of Greek culture, politics, war, and art are covered. However, while subchapters are devoted to women and slaves, there is no specific analysis of the elderly in Greece. It is worth noting that many of the key figures that receive individual attention in the chapters lived to old age. Socrates lived to the age of seventy. Sophocles died when he was ninety years old. Beyond listing the birth and death dates of the major historical figures, no attention is given to their age.

Kishlansky, Chapter 4: Early Rome and Roman Republic & Kishlansky, Chapter 4: ‘’Early Rome and Roman Republic’’

The history of Rome from Republic to Empire has more detailed information on the aged. Early in the chapter, when describing the development of the patrician and plebeian system, the Senate is parenthesized as “assembly of elders” [43]. Again, Kishlansky’s description of political power in early Rome sheds light on the role of the elderly in society. “Small centuries of wealthy, well-armed cavalrymen … dominated the more modestly equipped but numerically greater centuries. Likewise, men over the age of 47, though in a minority, controlled more than half of the centuries in each class. Since votes were counted not by individuals but by centuries, this ensured … the domination of the rich over the poor, the elder over the younger.” [44] To reiterate the point, “The centuriate …continued to be dominated by the oldest and wealthiest members of society.” [45] Late in the chapter, a well constructed analysis of Cato the Elder yields important information about the ways in which Rome changed from city to republic. Kishlansky describes Cato as the “preserver of old traditions.” Cato rose through the ranks of political power in Rome, portraying himself as the guardian of traditional values. However, behind the scenes Cato was taking advantage of the changes in commerce and political thought that were occurring. Kishlansky is not too harsh on Cato as he states he was, “neither duplicitous nor hypocritical,” but rather Cato and others like him were simply, “unable to resist exploiting the changed circumstances for their own benefit.” [46]

Contrasting Kagan’s treatment of the patricians and plebeians with that of Kishlansky’s is a perfect example of the variations that one finds in history textbooks. “The wealthy patrician upper class held a monopoly of power and influence.” [47] Kagan also describes the uneven distribution of power, “…twenty-six families provided 80 percent of the consuls, and only ten families accounted for almost 50 percent.” [48] As in Kishlansky’s analysis, the wealthy certainly dominated the poor, but Kagan does not include age as a factor in this relationship.

The remainder of the chapter involves Rome from Republic to Empire through the civil wars. The content becomes less focused on Roman life and customs as leaders of the civil wars become the main historical story. The major players were mainly young men, with the exception of Marius, who at the age of seventy was still vying for power in Rome when he died.

But for a few brief words, Kagan and Kishlansky move through the Pax Romana, Late Empire, and the fall of Rome without any significant mention of old age. Only one comparison is worth noting from the texts. The rise of Christianity is described in detail in both texts. Within the subchapter, each author describes the organization of the church in its early stages. Both authors use the word “presbyters”. Kishlansky clarifies the word, “or ‘elders’,” and Kagan parenthesizes it as “priests”. It is a seemingly minor difference in words but nonetheless “elders” signifies an age based authority that “priest” does not encompass.

Kagan, Chapter 8: Medieval Society (1000-1300) & Kishlansky, Chapter 8: The West in the Early Middle Ages

Kagan devotes and entire chapter to the social, economic, and ecclesiastical life of people in the Middle Ages. The broad scope covers nobles, clergy, and peasants. Economic developments such as feudalism and merchants are discussed. Subchapters are devoted to women and children in medieval society. However, the elderly as a social group are not mentioned throughout the entire chapter. These chapters of social history provide the best opportunity to include valuable information about the demographics of the era, treatment of old people, and the economic and social challenges that the elderly faced. Kagan does not address any of these issues.

Kishlansky, thus far more attuned than Kagan to the social aspects of history, is also disappointing for the lack of content on the elderly. In all of the chapters associated with the Middle Ages, there is one brief description of the elderly in Medieval society. In a sub chapter entitled, “Addressing Poverty and Crime,” the religious and secular charities and systems of public assistance are associated with elderly people. “Hospitals were all-purpose religious institutions providing lodging for pilgrims, the elderly, and the ill …New, specialized institutions appeared for the care of different categories of the poor, including the ill, women in childbirth, the aged, orphans, and travelers.” [49]

Part 3 – History of Old Age

One may turn to Georges Minois’ “History of Old Age” both to seek answers to the scarcity of elders in the texts and to find valuable information to supplement the texts. Beginning as far back as the ancient Middle East and going through the Renaissance, Minois details the role that old age played in each civilization in literature, poetry, theater, society, politics, psychology, and philosophy. Certainly, the great detail of the writing is not suitable to survey textbooks, but the information can be condensed and integrated into future editions.<p> <p>According to Minois, there was no evolution of old people or old age from antiquity to the Renaissance. Of course, each civilization grew out of the previous one but, each civilization was radically different in its treatment of old age. One cannot trace a smooth curve in the evolution of thought and practice towards the elderly. Overall, those thoughts and practices were negative. Civilizations that beheld beauty and strength as ideals such as Hellenistic Greece and the Renaissance were disgusted by the physical transformation of old age and weakness that accompanied it. Rome and Medieval Europe showed more empathy for the elderly; the former because Roman law protected them and the latter as substitutes for wisdom in the absence of written documents. However, the stability of Roman civilization during the republic and early empire that allowed elderly patriarchs to acquire wealth and live longer simply fueled generational conflict, for the young who waited to inherit the fortune. To summarize, Minois in his own words, “The condition of the old was determined by several components which did not necessarily evolve in the same way, and an improvement in one sector might well be accompanied by the deterioration in another. At no time did all the favourable conditions combine.” [50]

What this paper proposes is a subheading or subchapter devoted specifically to the elderly within the existing chapters on each civilization in the history text. The sub chapter should consist of the general attitudes towards old age, how the old fared in politics and social hierarchy, and specific examples of historical figures that exemplify the attitudes or contrast from the norm for a specific reason. The additions should be brief, but insightful. This paper recognizes that textbook space is limited. However, the elderly are just as important as other social groups such as women and children.

Minois’ analysis of old age in each civilization is extensive. A summary of the author’s analysis and some examples of the type of information that could be included in textbooks are as follows:

Old Age in Classical and Hellenistic Greece

The importance of ancient Greece in the history of Western civilization cannot be overstated. “Did old age have a place in such a civilization? Yes; in the same way as evil, pain and suffering did, that is to say, on the level of the great mysteries, the questions with no answers, in the gallery of insoluble problems.” [51] Old age in Greek mythology is a curse. Often referred to as “Sorrowful Old Age”, it represented the loss of physical strength; a prelude to death. The Homeric epics reflect the same attitudes. Odysseus, Achilles, Ajax, and Hector, were all strong, young heroes. Too infrequently were old men sources of wisdom, more often as mere honorary advisors. Greek poets and playwrights created characters that mocked old age for its accompanying loss of beauty, strength, sexual performance, and wit.

Many of the great Greek philosophers lived to old age. Socrates lived to his seventies before his execution. Plato reached eighty-one years. Aristotle died slightly younger at sixty-three. Being they old, it is not surprising that the philosophers hold a more favorable view of old age than the poets and playwrights. For Plato, old age represents freedom from sexual appetite that allows the old to more fully appreciate intellectual pleasures. The older he got, the more important old age became to Plato. His Utopia and Laws (which he finished when he was eighty) naturally reflect the growing idea that old men are the best rulers. Aristotle, the opposite of Plato, believes that physical and mental health is joined and one cannot evolve intellectually as the body withers.

Demographic studies suggest that old age was not uncommon, but also did not constitute a large enough portion of the population to be considered a social problem. The population of old people was large enough that encountering one was not an exceptional event, but they also did not burden the economy or society. Such a summary by Minois ought to be included in the textbooks: “…ancient Greece was not a land of welcome for the old, that she preferred youth and maturity to old age, which she rejected as a divine curse, that she gladly poked fun at the old, that she rarely trusted in aged rulers; that she limited herself to asking advice of her elders, without always following it, that it was only in Plato’s Utopias that she took care of the old, that she experienced conflict between the generations, in the course of which aged fathers and mothers were ill-treated, that though she respected some old men, it was because they were great philosophers or writers of tragedies.” [52] The Hellenistic period, infused with foreign influences of Alexander’s empire, was more open-minded. Yet, improvement for the elderly was minimal. [53]

Old Age in the Roman Republic and Empire

Old age in Rome is unique to that of Greek civilization. Demographics indicate the elderly population was significant. With that, the Roman pater familias role was held by older men. By Roman law, the pater familias was a man that held complete power over his family. His children were subject to his orders in all aspects of life; they could even be traded as slaves. His authority lasted until death. Generational conflict was a serious problem in Roman society, as the old patriarchs refused to yield to pressures by their mature sons to release their fortunes. Later, under the Roman Empire, the legal authority of the pater familias was curtailed. The generational conflict subsided, but left the old patriarch as a figurehead with no legal power. Without the power, the elderly were no longer despised by their children, but they were also now completely insignificant in society. [54]

Politics and old age followed a similar path. The Roman republic was ruled by elder patricians in the senate. The most famous among many was Cato the Elder, who was active in politics until he died at the age of eight-five. Even at the beginning of the Civil Wars, it was older men fighting for power. Marius died at the age of seventy-one after regaining the title of consul. The violence and assassinations that followed lowered the life expectancy of the politicians. Men such as Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony only lived to be fifty-six and fifty-three respectively. The end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire signified and end of the institutional rule of the old, as seen in the senate. Although the emperors continued to be elderly men, the political system that invested the old with power, like the legal system that granted power to the pater familias, vanished under the Roman Empire. However, old men were respected for their wisdom and held many high ranking political offices. [55]

The percentage of the elderly population that held political office was low. Without the senate and traditional pater familias structure, many men grew old without power and had to get by on whatever wealth they had accumulated in their lifetime. This is the first time that the concept of retirement is encountered in history. There was an ideal for old men that none but the very wealthy men could achieve. Retiring to a country estate, living a simple, but not very difficult life in which there was an abundance of time to reflect on intellectual matters, entertain friends, and exercise the mind and body. However, this idea of retirement in no way represents the modern system of retirement, as this option was available to very few, wealthy people. A majority was left to fend for themselves and a significant portion ended their lives in Christian hospices. [56]

Stoicism among the wealthy class had an interesting effect on old age. In the first and second century AD, suicide was an accepted and often condoned alternative to old age. Letters from such figures as Pliny the Younger demonstrate that several old aristocrats suffering from debilitating afflictions of old age committed suicide and were admired for doing so. [57] The extent of the suicides appears to be limited to the wealthy Stoics, but studying the history on this subject lends some interesting information for the modern debate on doctor-assisted suicide.

Overall, Roman civilization was much more tolerant of old age than Greek civilization. If it did not embrace old age, as no Western Civilization has (or probably ever will) it at least judged individuals on their merits rather than their age. Roman art and literature, in comparison to Greece, reflects a more complex understanding of old age. [58]

Old Age in the Middle Ages

As Europe plunged into the chaos of the Dark Ages, survival of the fittest was the rule. Old age did not put one at an advantage in that context, however old age in the middle ages is more complex than one might imagine. The concept of retirement for the wealthy is revisited during the middle ages, but in a form much different than that mentioned in Rome. Rather than retiring to a country villa, the wealthy old man retired to a monastery. “This practice . . . marked a turning point in the history of old age. Firstly because it introduced the idea of a fundamental break in human life and thus induced awareness of the specific nature of old age. Secondly, because old age became synonymous with ceased activity and breaking with the professional world.” [59] The monastery provided the retirees with clothes, bread, and housing while they prepared their souls for eternity.

Old peasants had very few options, and retirement was certainly out of the question. Most had to work until they were physically unable to carry on. After which, they were cared for by their family or left to become beggars. When an old peasant becomes a poor beggar, history loses sight of him. The beggar is no longer distinguished as old, sick, or crippled; he is simply poor. “The poor were to remain ageless for a very long time… In this sense, no history of old age in the peasant world of the Middle Ages is possible.” [60]

Demographics are difficult to study in Medieval Europe for the scarcity of sources. And the sources that do exist can show great contrasts. If one were to compare the ages of the rulers between the Merovingian and the Carolingians, two very different demographic pictures are portrayed. Of the twenty-eight Merovingian kings, only two lived over the age of sixty. However, the Carolingian line yields several kings over the age of sixty, with some living into their eighties and nineties. One explanation is that many of the Merovingian rulers were assassinated, killed in battle, or “worn out by debauchery.” [61] One figure that stands out in the early Middle Ages is Charlemagne. He lived to be seventy-two years old and was active up until a few years before his death. Sources on the peasantry indicate that as many as 11 percent of adults were over the age of sixty. [62]

The clergy of the Early Middle Ages represented a significant percentage of elderly people. Monks and abbots enjoyed longevity in isolation. Famous monks such as St. Anthony and St. Simeon lived to be 105 and 75 respectively. The trend continued to bishops and popes such as Anathasius, Bishop of Alexandria (75) and Pope Sixtus III (80).

Demographic information for the High Middle Ages confirms that old age was also common among those individuals who lived past the age of 20. Looking past the high infant mortality rates that drive down the average life expectancy of medieval man, if one made it past the age of twenty they stood a very good chance of living over the age of sixty. The clergy life expectancy remained higher than other groups in the High Middle Ages as well. Peasant family structure changed from patriarchal to conjugal. The older parents were cared for by the son and daughter-in-law, and the old patriarch no longer held any power within the household.


Old age and the elderly in history deserve attention in History textbooks. Three of the major textbooks being used in colleges today yield very little information about old age. Norton and Kishlansky mention old age and the elderly, as well as demographics in general, on a more frequent basis than Kagan. But, none of the authors dedicate enough pages to the specific role of the elderly in different historical periods or to the political, social, and economic aspects of old age the respective societies.

The amount of space necessary to bring to the readers attention the complex and differing nature of old age throughout U.S. and Western Civilization History is not great, as evidenced by the examples given in this paper. Sources exist from which a concise, meaningful summary of the unique position of old people in history can be written and integrated into existing History textbooks. Publishers are constantly editing and releasing new editions of their textbooks. Therefore, the cost of including such material is negligible, as a new edition will probably be released within the next year regardless. This paper cannot speak for the entire textbook industry. The scope of study would have to be greatly expanded to every major publisher and numerous volumes would have to be critiqued to arrive at conclusion as to the treatment of old age in American history textbooks as a whole. It is my hope, that the brief sample of the American textbook industry included in this paper will illuminate a subject that has hitherto been ignored. I remain hopeful that it will inspire others to examine in greater detail the subject matter being included in American and Western Civilization college level textbooks for the benefit of students and professors.

Selected Bibliography

  • Kagan, Donald, Ozment, Steven, and Turner, Frank M. The Western Heritage, 8th ed., vol. 1:To 1740. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.
  • Kishlansky, Mark. Civilization in the West, 6th ed., vol. 1:To 1715. New York: Pearson Education, 2006.
  • Minois , Georges. History of Old Age From Antiquity to the Renaissance, trans. Sarah Hanbury Tenison. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989
  • Nelson, Todd D. ed., Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice against Older Persons. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.
  • Norton, Mary Beth et al., A People & A Nation: A History of the United States, 4th ed., vol. 1: To 1877. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
  • Scott, Paula. Growing Old in the Early Republic: Spiritual, Social, and Economic Issues, 1790-1830 .
  • Wikipedia contributors, "Paleodemography," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.


  1. Todd D. Nelson, ed., ‘’Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice against Older Persons’’ (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002), x.
  2. Ibid., ix.
  3. Amy J. C. Cuddy and Susan T. Fiske, “Doddering but Dear: Process, Content, and Function in Stereotyping of Older Persons” in Ageism ed. Todd D. Nelson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002), 5.
  4. Mary Beth Norton, et al., ‘’A People & A Nation: A History of the United States, 4th ed.’’, vol. 1: To 1877 (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 32.
  5. Norton, ‘’A People and A Nation’’, 24.
  6. Ibid., 25.
  7. Norton, ‘’A People and A Nation’’, 35.
  8. Ibid., 42-43.
  9. Ibid., 48.
  10. Ibid., 58.
  11. Norton, ‘’A People and A Nation’’, 58.
  12. Ibid, 67.
  13. Ibid, 68
  14. Ibid, 80
  15. Norton, ‘’A People and A Nation’’, 85.
  16. Ibid, 89.
  17. Ibid
  18. Ibid, 95.
  19. Norton, ‘’A People and A Nation’’, 96.
  20. Ibid
  21. Norton, ‘’A People and A Nation’’, 128.
  22. Ibid, 144.
  23. Ibid, 152
  24. Ibid
  25. Norton, ‘’A People and A Nation,’’ 200
  26. Ibid, 204-205
  27. Jody A. Wilkinson and Kenneth F. Ferraro, “Thirty Years of Ageism Research,” in ‘’Ageism’’ ed. Todd D. Nelson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002), 348.
  28. Jody A. Wilkinson, “Thirty Years of Ageism Research,” 348.
  29. Norton, ‘’A People and A Nation’’, 245
  30. Norton, ‘’A People and A Nation’’, 246.
  31. Paula Scott, ‘’Growing Old in the Early Republic: Spiritual, Social, and Economic Issues, 1790-1830’’, 276.
  32. Scott, ‘’Growing Old in the Early Republic’’, 273-274
  33. Scott, ‘’Growing Old in the Early Republic’’, 274.
  34. Wikipedia contributors, "Paleodemography," Wikipedia, ‘’The Free Encyclopedia’’, (accessed July 21, 2007).
  35. Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, ‘’The Western Heritage’’, 8th ed., vol. 1:To 1740 (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004), 9.
  36. Donald Kagan, ‘’The Western Heritage’’, 11.
  37. Mark Kishlansky, ‘’Civilization in the West’’, 6th ed., vol. 1:To 1715 (New York: Pearson Education, 2006), 4
  38. Kishlansky, ‘’Civilization in the West’’, 7.
  39. Kagan, ‘’The Western Heritage’’, 49.
  40. Ibid, 50.
  41. Ibid
  42. Kishlansky, ‘’Civilization in the West,’’ 48-49.
  43. Ibid, 110.
  44. Kishlansky, ‘’Civilization in the West’’, 110.
  45. Ibid, 112.
  46. Ibid, 125-6.
  47. Kagan, ‘’The Western Heritage’’, 115.
  48. Kagan, ‘’The Western Heritage’’, 117.
  49. Kishlansky, Civilization in the West, 307.
  50. Georges Minois, ``History of Old Age From Antiquity to the Renaissance``, trans. Sarah Hanbury Tenison
  51. Minois, ``History of Old Age, 43.``
  52. Minois, ``History of Old Age``, 75-76.
  53. Ibid, 43-76
  54. Minois, ``History of Old Age``, 77-84.
  55. Ibid, 84-88.
  56. Ibid, 88-91.
  57. Ibid, 87-90.
  58. Minois, ‘‘History of Old Age’’, 112.
  59. Ibid, 137.
  60. Minois, ‘‘History of Old Age’’, 139.
  61. Ibid, 146.
  62. Minois, ‘‘History of Old Age’’, 144-149.
Personal tools