How old was old?

Allegory of Old Age

Old Age depicted c. 1340 in a copy of the Roman de la Rose, Morgan Library MS M.503, fol. 3v (detail)

In 1350 Petrarch wrote a letter to Philippe de Vitry, a composer about whom I’m currently writing a book, complaining about something Vitry had said in a letter to another dude, which letter Petrarch had seen. The details don’t matter for present purposes, though I’ll get into them in the book. Anyway, in the course of berating Viry for this crazy and self-indulgent thing he’d written, Petrarch complained that Vitry was getting old—not physically, mind, but mentally: “videris… michi, vir egregie, non tam corpore quam animo senuisse” (you seem to me… to have aged not so much in body as in mind). Now Vitry was born in 1291, and was already 58 years old when Petrarch lashed out. If you are like me, you’ve often heard it asserted that medieval people were considered old by age 40, or 50, or some other age that makes us feel healthy and superior compared to our feeble distant ancestors. I’ve always been suspicious of such claims for reasons that are probably obvious from my tone here, and from the more concrete data from my realm of music history: We know that Vitry died at 70 and we think that Machaut lived into his late 70s; Ockeghem and Du Fay lived a long time too. Is composition the elixir of life? If not, what’s going on?

I decided to look into it recently while working on a question of chronology. The theorist Jacobus, who wrote the Speculum musice, tells us repeatedly that he is old. So how old is old? I found a few really interesting things.

The first was an essay by Shulamith Shahar with the unforgettable title “Who were Old in the Middle Ages?” Dr. Shahar, who has also written a book on the subject, argued persuasively that the oft-cited notion that medieval people were considered old after the age of forty is a myth, noting that medieval legislative texts often define the onset of old age as 60–70. She surveys a huge range of different kinds of evidence to support her point. (I learned while writing this post that Dr. Shahar, professor emerita at Tel Aviv University, was born in Latvia in 1928, emigrating to Mandatory Palesitne in 1933; read more about her here.)

I also came across a 2014 osteoarcheological evaluation of 41 individuals buried in an Ango-Saxon cemetery during the 5th–7th centuries. The authors conclude that eight of these people were probably in the age range of 65–75 years at death, and seven were 75 or older. This recent article by Christine Cave, one of the authors of the study, explains the methodology and findings.

Food for thought, no?

3 thoughts on “How old was old?

  1. Probably not so much the composing as belonging to the most privileged cleric class of society, who never worried about starving and could shut themselves off at the first sign of disease. Drawing general conclusions from them is a bit like assessing weath distribution on the basis of the first ten on the Forbes rich list. Things like this – https://www.jstor.org/stable/2857158?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents – back up the 40-year thing. The research may be a bit dated, but when does an article grow old?

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