EAUH Conference 2018


Session M15. Facing the Wrinkles of Time! Urban Agency of the Elderly in Europe and Beyond (16th-19th century)

Coordinators: Lynn Botelho (, Gerrit Verhoeven (

Thanks to recent demographic studies and statistical analyses, current scholarship pays increasing attention to a long neglected topic in historiography on early modern urban environments: the daily lives of the elderly. Up until now, research on poor relief, hospitals, old men’s homes and petitions for assistance has rendered a rather grim picture of older men and women, who – almost inevitably – fell prey to physical and mental decline, chronic diseases, grinding poverty and social isolation. Yet, there is a growing awareness among historians that such classic chestnuts must be questioned - and to a large extent can be debunked - by zooming in on the agency of older people. Pioneering research on last wills, ego documents, court records and other sources, in which the elderly can more explicitly ‘speak for themselves,’ has produced a far more positive portrait of older people, as well as of the individual and social implications of growing old in the preindustrial period. It appears that older people were - depending on their social status, marital status and gender - quite capable of independently drawing up a wide range of old-age provisions and strategies. Older men and women actively fought the passing years by pursuing all sorts of private care arrangements for later; by seeking medical treatment for their ailments; by looking for side-line or moonlight jobs or simply by soliciting family, neighbours and friends for support.
This session does not only aim to bring this - often overlooked - agency of the elderly in early modern Europe and beyond into the limelight. It also enters into discussions on the impact of the rising dominance of the nuclear family in this period, as well as the resilience of social (and family) relations, on the development of the labour markets and secondary jobs, on the medical revolution and home care. Topics that could be addressed are:
• By whom were older men and women taken care of when they experienced hardship?
• How important was intergenerational support?
• How did growing old affect peoples’ household composition and position?
• Which alternative income-generating strategies could the elderly apply when they (for)saw a decrease of their salaries and/or of the revenues of their work?
• When did people ‘retire’ in the absence of a general retirement policy or pension schemes?
• The built environment and the nature of old age
• The role money and credit played in financing old age
• Merchants and growing old
Keywords: aging; independence; social relations