Conference Agenda

3C: Old Age in Early Modern England
Wednesday, 08/Sept/2021:
1:30pm - 2:45pm

Session Chair: Prof. Javier Moscoso, CSIC


Old Age Care in the Time of Crisis: Institutional Elderly Care During the Reformations of the Sixteenth-Century with a Case Study of Henry VII's Almshouse.

Fox, Christine Merie

University of London and Utrecht University, Netherlands, The

During his formative reign, Henry VII, built, in conjunction with his Lady Chapel, an almshouse to help support his chantry at Westminster Abbey. The almshouse provided care to thirteen elderly ex-crown officials along with three elderly women who looked after the almsmen. At this time, care for the elderly was embedded within the foundations of pre-Reformation religious practice. Parish churches, hospitals, and monasteries distributed alms in the form of money, food and shelter to the poor, sick, and elderly, often in return for intercessory prayers for the benefactors. The Reformations of the sixteenth century altered and disrupted this cycle and care for the elderly was then placed in the hands of the state and civic community which resulted in stricter distinctions between those who deserved relief and those who did not. Age was no longer a gauge for charitable relief. If you were elderly and able bodied you were expected to preform your duty to society and to work. Henry’s almshouse provides a good example of the impact of these changes. It managed to survive these challenging times, although not unscathed. Ultimately, it was transformed from an institution grounded in medieval Catholic charity to one based on Protestant philanthropy, providing a new model of elderly care.

God’s Punishing ‘Rod’ or Supporting ‘Staff’? Spiritual Interpretations of Old Age Infirmity in Early Modern English Diaries and Letters*

Bolissian, Amie

University of Reading, United Kingdom

In 1723, the 65-year-old Protestant antiquarian Ralph Thoresby worried in his diary that his ‘lameness and indisposition’ might not be ‘ascribed wholly to the infirmities that naturally accompany old age’, but instead could be punishment for his ‘sins’. The implication of these words is that some ‘natural’ elderly diseases and disabilities were not perceived as divine punishments for personal failings. Historians have explored the prevalence of providential interpretations of sickness in early modern England, showing that believers were inclined to regard sickness as divine correction for sin, a doctrine that gave rise to self-examination, feelings of guilt, and repentance practices - but rarely has age been considered a factor. Through the analysis of seventeenth and early eighteenth-century diaries and letters of women and men who identified as ‘old’, ‘aged’, or ‘ancient’, this paper re-examines such assumptions and shows that as women and men aged, their spiritual interpretations of illness and infirmity changed. They became less likely to see suffering as a direct consequence of sin, but rather emphasised the positive religious opportunities brought by sickness. This change can be seen in the very words and imagery used - the 'rod' of affliction was transformed into a supportive 'staff', a ubiquitous symbol of old age in contemporary images and texts. Through these discussions, this paper sheds light on the emotional repercussions of faith, infirmity, and old age, and in doing so, reveals a more favourable picture of ageing and illness in early modern lives than has previously been recognised.