Detail of “An Old Woman Spinning” (1646-1648) by Michiel Sweerts.

New Study Answers the Question - Did Medieval People Reach Old Age?


An Australian archaeologist has decided to take a different approach to looking at the lives of past society. Instead of focusing on the rich, young, and beautiful (all popular groups by today’s standards), she’s trying to discover the way elderly people were treated in the Middle Ages – and yes, they did exist!

There is a general belief that few people made it past the age of 40 in the Middle Ages, but Christine Cave, a scholar at the Australian National University (ANU), has debunked that myth. ABC News reports that Ms. Cave determined that several of the 300 people buried in three Anglo Saxon cemeteries between 475 and 625 AD were older than 75 when they died. According to Ms. Cave,

“People sometimes think that in those days if you lived to 40 that was about as good as it got. But that's not true. For people living traditional lives, without modern medicine or markets, the most common age of death is about 70.”

This man's leg wound is being treated, while herbs for a soothing ointment or healing drink are being prepared.

This man's leg wound is being treated, while herbs for a soothing ointment or healing drink are being prepared. (The Knight with the Lion)

According to Phys.org, Ms. Cave was able to deduce age at death by looking at the wearing of an individual’s teeth and comparing the patterns to similar living populations. Ms. Cave seems to believe that teeth can provide a wealth of information when examining life in the past. As she told ABC News, “Teeth are wonderful things. They can tell us so much about a person, they are simply marvellous.”

A new method for determining the age-of-death for skeletal remains based on how worn the teeth are.

A new method for determining the age-of-death for skeletal remains based on how worn the teeth are. (ABC News/Stephanie Dalzell)

Ms. Cave suggests that many archaeological studies ignore older individuals due to the difficulties in identifying the age of death on human remains after the age of 50.

“There are difficulties in aging older people, skeletally, because age is based on degeneration and people are very different. You could have two old people who are the same age, and one is crippled with arthritis and can't move, while the other runs a marathon every week — so there's a great variation. A lot of skeletal reports are quite meaningless if you're trying to study the elderly ... Effectively they don't distinguish between a fit and healthy 40-year-old and a frail 95-year-old.”

ANU Biological anthropologist Justyna Miskiewicz applauded Ms. Cave’s methodology, stating, “We normally just lump our age of death estimates into young, middle-aged, and old adult categories. This now means the 'old adult' category is much wider, it's expanded, and so we have more to work from. It's incredibly significant and important.”

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on another point Ms. Cave makes regarding a bias in studying the past. She says, “If we want to understand past societies, we need to understand the whole society, not just the sexy warriors and beautiful princesses.” Perhaps this focus on examining the lives of “sexy warriors and beautiful princesses” is linked to the popular emphasis today on youth and beauty, as well as common fears these days about aging and death.

The current study suggests that while death may have been viewed differently in Medieval times, we aren’t alone in our skewed perspectives on aging.

16th or 17th century painting of the ‘Dance of Death.’ (Public Domain)The living weren’t always as scared of the dead.

16th or 17th century painting of the ‘Dance of Death.’ (Public Domain)The living weren’t always as scared of the dead.

‘Sex and the elderly: Attitudes to long-lived women and men in early Anglo-Saxon England’ as published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, explains:

“women tended to outlive men and while some elderly females were respected in death, others were more likely to receive a non-normative burial than males. Old males tended to receive ‘elaborate’ burial, and were less likely to receive a deviant burial. It appears that ageing in Anglo-Saxon England was a gendered process, with some older women respected like their male counterparts, while others were possibly perceived less auspiciously.”

But that bias should not keep us from exploring all possible facets of past lives and the diversity of individuals who took part in creating our global history.

‘Portrait of an Old Woman’ (1470-1475) by Hans Memling.

‘Portrait of an Old Woman’ (1470-1475) by Hans Memling. (Public Domain)

Top Image: Detail of “An Old Woman Spinning” (1646-1648) by Michiel Sweerts. Source: Public Domain

By Alicia McDermott

Comments

"Ms. Cave was able to deduce age at death by looking at the wearing of an individual’s teeth and comparing the patterns to similar living populations" Surely there is more to this than that. Doing a straight comparison with modern dentition might lead to some erroneous assumptions since the diet back in those times was grossly more coarse than our modern, mushy one and likely led to markedly accelerated wear compared with today. I have seen people with what amounts to rows of little flat-topped oil cans at age 40 due to the coarseness introduced by a tobacco chewing habit. Conversely, one can encounter 80 year olds with a well-maintained dentition looking like they were in their thirties. Further, the effects of diet (certainly less than ideal back then), disease and the regional mineral milieu the individual was immersed in during the odontogenic years can profoundly affect the wear and durability of teeth over a lifetime. Rudimentary or no knowledge of basic oral hygiene would likely have lead to higher rates of chronic periodontitis and bone loss, also mimicking an age-related condition without necessarily being related to old age at all. I suspect this skew towards more wear and the variability is likely part of the reason it is difficult to determine the age at death of ancient remains of people over age 50 and will likely remain so.

That "[t]here is a general belief that few people made it past the age of 40 in the Middle Ages" seems a bit of gratuitous myth porn. That was likely true to some degree back in Paleolithic times but no thinking person believes that no progress at all in health and longevity occurred in the intervening 6-8,000-odd years and that all strides in human longevity happened since the dawn of the 20th Century.

The fact that "Ms. Cave determined that *several* (italics mine) of the 300 people buried in three Anglo Saxon cemeteries between 475 and 625 AD were older than 75 when they died" is hardly evidence that "the most common age of death is about 70.” Several? Five, 25, 50? Out of a relatively small, geographically isolated sample? Using what looks like a questionable yardstick and extrapolating to cover, what I infer from the article, all of Western Europe in the Middle Ages? Having let my skepticism show, I can hope the actual study was more thorough and if the reporting were a bit less breathless, I might be more convinced though I am hard pressed to see a calibrate-able yardstick with which to do the necessary measurements to gain the accuracy claimed in this article. Nonetheless, I'm old but still trainable.

Infant mortality, as well as deaths in (or from) childbirth, were indeed appalling in the Middle ages, but those who survived could indeed reach lifespans comparable to those of modern times.

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