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9-08-2015, 14:59

The life cycle: widowhood and old age

The loss of a spouse was another common feature of married life throughout Europe; people became widowed at all ages, and might easily be widowed several times during their lives. The death of a spouse brought a more dramatic change in status for women than it did for men. A woman’s link to the world of work often depended on her husband’s professional identity, so that a man’s death affected his widow’s opportunities for making a living, while the death of a wife did not. We can see this distinction in the fact that the word for “widower” in most European languages derives from the word for “widow,” whereas the more common pattern is for the female designation to derive from the male – princess from prince, actress from actor. The word “widower,” in fact, does not enter common usage until the eighteenth century, when people began to think about the loss of a spouse more as an emotional than as an economic issue; sources from before that time indicate clearly when women are widows, but only rarely that men have lost their wives. Images of widows in this period are generally negative, with widows portrayed as ugly old crones or as greedy and sexually rapacious women looking for their next husbands (or sometimes as both). The reality was more complex. The death of a husband often brought fi nancial hardship, and widows were more likely to be dependent on public or religious charity than were married women. The poorest households in towns and villages were those headed by elderly widows; because the death of his wife did not mean a man had to change occupation, widowers did not become signifi cantly poorer. On the other hand, widowhood provided social and fi nancial opportunities for some women. Widows who had inherited money or property from their husbands or who had received their dowry back at his death were often relatively free to invest it or dispose of it as they wished. Aristocratic widows were often very active in managing their families’ business affairs, and identifi ed the rights and privileges attached to their position as theirs , and not simply belonging to them in trust for their sons. Widowhood could also place a woman in a position of great power over her children, deciding the amount of dowry for her daughters and assisting her sons in gaining positions of political infl uence. This social and economic independence was disturbing to many commentators, who thought the best solution might be remarriage. Remarriage was also troubling, however, for this lessened a woman’s allegiance to the family of her fi rst husband, could have serious economic consequences for the children of her fi rst marriage, and, if she was wealthy, might also give her what was seen as an inappropriate amount of power over her spouse. Thus both advice books and laws regarding widows refl ect an ambivalence, though in actual practice whether a widow remarried or not was determined more by her economic and personal situation than by laws or theoretical concerns. Younger widows remarried much more readily than older ones, and widows with fewer children more readily than those with many. The opposite is true in the case of widowers; those with many children were most likely to remarry, and to remarry quickly. In general, widowers were far more likely to remarry than widows; French statistics indicate that 50 percent of widowers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries remarried, while only 20 percent of widows did so. In general somewhere around one-fi fth of all marriages were remarriages for at least one of the partners. Widowhood was a clear legal status, but “old age” in the early modern period is harder to defi ne. For women, the best marker might be menopause, which usually occurred somewhere in a woman’s forties; the mean age at which women in northwestern Europe bore their last child was forty. For men there was no clear biological marker. Because life expectancy was less than it is today, however, even if people stopped having children before forty they still had children in their households for most of their later years of life. In eastern and southern Europe, older people often lived in threegeneration multiple family households, or moved from the household of one married child to another. In northern and western Europe, older men and women whose children had all left home generally continued to live on their own as long as possible. Evidence from England indicates that middle-class children were more likely to assist their elderly parents by providing them with servants so that they could stay in their own households rather than taking them in; the elderly lived with their married children only among the poor. Though we often romanticize earlier periods as a time when the elderly were cherished for their wisdom and experience, this was not necessarily so. In many parts of Europe, parents made formal contracts with their children to assure themselves of a certain level of material support – e.g. “twelve bushels of rye and a place by the fi re” – and public welfare rolls included many elderly whose children were still in the area but were not supporting them. In her advice book for women written in 1407, the French author Christine de Pizan reminds young women that “you owe honor to the elderly, so it follows that at all costs you must avoid mocking them and doing or saying injurious, derisive, or outrageous things, or bad things of whatever kind. Do not displease or fi nd fault with them, as some wicked young people do who are very much to be reproached for it, who call them ‘old boys’ or ‘old biddies.’ ” 5 Older women were generally more in need of public support than were older men, in part because their spouses were less likely or able to care for them than the wives of older men, who were generally younger or had no way to leave an ailing spouse. Younger relatives were also more willing to take in elderly men than women; older women often formed joint households with other older female relatives or simply acquaintances to pool their resources and expenses, a practice almost unknown among men. The higher percentage of elderly female welfare recipients may also have been partly due to the fact that there were simply more older women than men around. Despite the dangers of childbirth, female life expectancy seems to have been gradually growing longer than male throughout this period; by the eighteenth century in France, female life expectancy at birth was about thirty-four and male about thirty-one. Aging brought physical as well as economic changes, and there is evidence that already in the fi fteenth century these were viewed as more of a problem for women than men. Post-menopausal women were widely believed to experience increased sex drive, which might even lead them to seek demonic lovers in order to satisfy themselves. They were held to emit vapors from their mouths that could cause nursing women’s milk to dry up or animals and children to sicken. They were thought to be especially concerned with the lessening of their physical attractiveness, for a Spanish physician’s remedies to combat wrinkles were all directed at women. At the end of life, both men and women were viewed as physically and mentally infi rm. Many illustrations of the ages of man show the people in the last stages as bent over and supported by a cane, and in As You Like It Jacques describes this stage as “second childishness and mere oblivion.”