Medieval Societies

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In the Middle Ages, Christian writers took up these explanations and added a supernatural cause—the Fall of Man. According to Saint Augustine, sickness, aging, and death were unknown in the Garden of Eden; they entered the world after the sin ofAdam (Post). While Christian theology considered aging a punishment for original sin, medieval writers also envisioned the journey of life as a sacred pilgrimage to God and eternal judgment. Thus Christian writers fashioned a vision encompassing both physical decline and the possibility of spiritual ascent (Cole).

For the period after the decline of the Roman Empire and the emergence of a decentralized feudal society in Europe, generalizations about the material conditions of older people become even more perilous. The practical experiences of growing old in the chaotic and often violent Middle Ages are difficult to isolate. Early wills reveal the practice of notarizing contracts by which middle-aged peasants agreed to maintain their parents. This was a sign that loss of property or physical vitality rendered older people vulnerable. Such negotiated retirement practices were apparently most common among urban artisans and merchants (Troyansky). To date, there is little evidence on the socioeconomic status of older women in the Middle Ages. While old women and widows were cruelly attacked in both high and popular culture, older widows of substance may have often maintained the authority of their late husbands, while poor, single women and widows became even more vulnerable.

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