Mortal Clay, the Perils and Pleasures of Old Age

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Old Age in the Ancient World

‘Man that is borne of a woman, is of few dayes, and full of trouble.
Hee commeth forth like a flower, and is cut downe…’
– King James Bible (1611) Book of Job 14: 1-2,

Enamelled figure presenting a typical  image of old age, c1800
Enamelled figure presenting a typical image of old age, c1800

From earliest times human beings have been mindful of mortality and the transience of life. The words of Job, the Old Testament prophet, are characteristically pessimistic but true. The legendary Riddle of the Sphinx also comments poignantly on old age. The supernatural creature accosted travellers on the road to Thebes in Greece with the question: ‘Which creature in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two, and in the evening upon three, and the more legs it has, the weaker it be?’ Only Oedipus escaped being killed and devoured by providing the correct answer, ‘Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then walks with a stick in old age.’

Socrates, the Athenian philosopher, was perceptive about the shortcomings of old age. If you try to resist the overtures of death, he said,

‘… Nature steps in and grabs her pledge – your sight, your hearing, often both. And if you hold out she paralyses you, mutilates and tears asunder.’
– Axiochus (1st century BC)

‘…Old age will only be respected if it fights for itself, maintains its rights, avoids dependence on anyone and asserts control over its own to the last breath.’
– Cicero On Old Age (published 44 BC)

Cicero, the great Roman politician and orator exhorted old people to stand up for themselves and to remain independent in words that could have been written today.

The Seven Ages of Man

During the Middle Ages old people were regarded as part of the symbolic order of things according to God’s plan, as well as an actual component of society. Human life was divided into stages, usually between three and seven; these were often illustrated as a circle or wheel.

Average life expectancy was low largely because infant mortality was so high. But people who reached adulthood had a good chance of living to be 60 or 70 and the onset of old age was set at anything between 35 and 70.  Shakespeare’s famous speech on the Seven Ages of Man describes the last two stages:

Butter Dish c1840, illustrated with quotations from the Seven Ages of Man speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act 2 Scene 7)
Butter Dish c1840, illustrated with quotations from the Seven Ages of Man speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act 2 Scene 7)

‘…The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunken shank; and his big manly voice,
turning again toward childish treble, pipes
and whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’
– Shakespeare As You Like It

Age and Decay

Two Figures of Winged Time c1775 and c1820
Two Figures of Winged Time c1775 and c1820
Two Figures of Winged Time c1775 and c1820
Two Figures of Winged Time c1775 and c1820

Traditionally old people were revered and respected for their knowledge and experience. They represented continuity with the past and the passing of time was symbolised by the ancient, bearded Father Time. Old women, the repositories of folk memory and wisdom, became the community story tellers. Within families, older women have always performed an essential role in looking after children while younger women worked.

But old people have have also been mocked and bullied. Popular proverbs of the Middle Ages warn them against handing over power and property to the young before they have to, lest they be manipulated and abused like Shakespeare’s King Lear. They need no reminding of their physical infirmities. When the aged Falstaff volunteers to lead a company of soldiers he is questioned by the Lord Chief Justice,

‘…Have you not a moist eye, a dry hand, a yellow cheek a white beard,
a decreasing leg, an increasing belly? Is not your voice broken, your wind
short, your chin double, your wit single and every part of you blasted
with antiquity?…’
– Shakespeare Henry IV Part2

Men lose hair from their heads while women begin to grow it on their faces. Hearing fades and eyesight dims. Noses and ears grow but gums recede from the teeth. Bones become brittle and tend to break. The ‘Dowager’s Hump’ of osteoporosis was a typical hallmark of elderly women in the past, as were the broken arms and hips of the aged male.

In the 17th century the ageing process was seriously misunderstood. It was believed that post-menopausal women retained poisonous blood which left their ‘humours’ out of balance. They could cause fruit to wither on the vine and trees and livestock to die. In an atmosphere fraught with fear and superstition the world of women and witches combined, contributing to a rash of witch hunts. By the 18th century wrinkled faces and gnarled hands were acknowledged as evidence of experience and expertise, particularly in skilled crafts such as weaving, embroidery and lace-making. Artists portrayed and philosophers praised the wisdom of the old.

Retirement and Pensions

599. Mug c1825, a little girl  gives food to an old man who walks with a stick
599. Mug c1825, a little girl gives food to an old man who walks with a stick

There was no retirement age before the 19th century. Elderly people had to work until they were no longer able to. The only deference to age was exemption (around the age of 70) from compulsory public duties such as military service or the town watch. Ageing workers were offered less secure, lower-skilled and lower-paid casual jobs, and were the first to become unemployed during economic downturns. The poorest were forced to beg for food and shelter and might have to enter the parish workhouse. Here conditions were harsh and married couples were separated.

Trade guilds and Friendly Societies provided early forms of insurance and pension schemes. In 1896 the Ancient Order of Foresters had 900,000 members and £5million in capital. In return for regular payments earlier in life, such bodies covered sick pay, burial expenses, unemployment, medical treatment and pensions.

Bismarck, the German Chancellor was among the first to regard adequate provision for old age as a state responsibility. He addressed the Reichstag in 1884:

‘Why should the soldier of work not have a pension like the soldier of civil service? That is state socialism, that is the legitimate operation of practical Christianity.’

In 1889 Germany introduced the first state pensions for male workers over 70, followed in 1892 by Denmark who provided for the poorest (mainly women) over 60. The United Kingdom introduced a state pension for those over 70 only in 1908. In 1925 the age of eligibility was reduced to 65 and from 1940 women could claim it at 60.

Older Achievers

Some remarkable people continue to make major contributions to society and to arts and culture well beyond retirement age. The exceptionally long reigns of King George III (1760-1820), Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and the present Queen Elizabeth II (60 years so far) contributed enormously to the stability of the United Kingdom.

Among our oldest statesmen were the Duke of Wellington, who continued to attend the House of Lords into his 80s and William Gladstone, the original ‘Grand Old Man’. Gladstone was four times Prime Minister, finally resigning at the age of 84. Winston Churchill was already 66 in 1940 when he was appointed Prime Minister. He served throughout World War II and again from 1951-1955.

Cup and Saucer c1960, designed by Susie Cooper
Cup and Saucer c1960, designed by Susie Cooper

Artists such as Titian (c1490-1576), the Venetian painter of the 16th century and Picasso (1881-1973) could still produce challenging masterpieces in their 80s. Michelangelo (1475-1564) was appointed architect of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome at the age of 74 while the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer is now 105 and still designing. Many ceramicists have proved to have similar staying power. Susie Cooper was designing for Wedgwood and Lucie Rie was throwing pots in their 80s. Eva Zeisel, the American ceramic designer and political activist died in December 2011 aged 105.

Stella Beddoe, Senior Keeper and Keeper of Decorative Art

Our Mortal Clay exhibition is presently on display in the Willet Gallery of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until 10 March 2013.