By Sue Jones
Getting old is a curious business. Bette Davies’ view was that ‘old age ain’t no place for sissies.’ And Terry Pratchett’s that ‘inside every old person is a young one wondering what happened.’ As someone who is definitely no longer young, I can sympathise with both these remarks. But what doesn’t surprise me is that I am still alive. When I was born my parents would have presumed I would outlive them and that I’d live well into my seventies, probably my eighties, and perhaps into my nineties.
If I had been born in the sixteenth or seventeenth century it would have been different. They would have been uncertain that I’d reach sixty. And while it was possible I’d have lived until I was eighty, the biblical three score years and ten was pretty much the most I could have reasonably hoped for. Queen Elizabeth was sixty nine when she died in 1603. Pepys seventy when he died in 1703.
Someone born in the sixteenth or seventeenth century had a life expectancy in the range 30 to 40 years, usually around 35. Among other things, there were many infectious diseases that could kill you, diseases that we don’t worry so much about in the West today, such as plague, dysentery, typhus, typhoid, influenza, smallpox, and malaria. But averages, while useful can also be misleading – you only have to recall that the ‘average’ person has slightly less than two legs.
A life expectancy of 35 didn’t mean there was no-one over the age of forty. It was an average. In particular it points to the reality that many people died when they were very young.
You can see the toll this took in this London Bill of Mortality which lists all the deaths in London in one week in 1635. There’s 2 ‘abortive’, 15 ‘chrisomes’, 26 ‘infants’, 10 ‘stillbourne’ . As well, there are two categories which most likely refer to young children but the descriptions are not so clear – 8 ‘teeth’ and 9 ‘convulsions’. Death by ‘teeth’ was probably the deaths of toddlers who were of the age they were teething, and ‘convulsions’ are thought mostly to refer to infantile diarrhoea. That’s 70 in all, a third of the 209 deaths recorded, a fairly typical proportion.
If one made it to 25 then one’s life expectancy wasn’t so bad, one could expect to live another 30 years. Much as someone today who’s 55 can expect to live another 30 years to around 85.
So as I say, 55 is the new 25.
What’s particularly interesting is the effect the risk of dying must have had on people’s attitudes. At one time historians thought it resulted in parents not loving their children. As they were likely to die there was no point in becoming emotionally attached to them until they were older. That’s now been debunked and there’s plenty of evidence that many seventeenth century parents were as besotted with their children as parents today are. But it must have made a big difference to people’s outlook on all parts of their life, their loves, their family, their friends, their neighbours, their work, their views on the after-life.
In Charlwood in Surrey in August 1610, the parish register includes the comment “The Infection began” and a few months’ later, in November “Here ended the infection.” It was almost certainly an outbreak of plague and many more people died in those few months than usual in Charlwood. Among those who died, were Elinor Burstone, her sister Elizabeth, their brother Felix and finally their mother Marie. They all died within about three weeks of each other in September and October. Marie’s husband, John, father of the three children, seems to have survived. It can’t have been easy to pick yourself up and carry on after so many sudden deaths.
All in all, there’s a lot to be said for living now and not in the seventeenth century. While I admire both Terry Pratchett and Bette Davies, I’m going with an earlier thinker, Confucius, who said ‘Old age, believe me, is a good and pleasant thing.’
Sue Jones lives in Surrey. She is a graduate of the MSc in English Local History, and is currently completing a doctorate on early-modern population history.