PhD project: Growing Old among the Anglo-Saxons: The Cultural Conceptualisation of Old Age in Early Medieval England (2011-2016)
My PhD project at Leiden University started on 2 February, 2011 and I have defended my thesis on 26 April, 2016 (supervisors: prof. dr. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr and prof. dr. W. van Anrooij). I hope to publish my thesis in the near future.
This PhD dissertation comprises a detailed study of the Anglo-Saxon cultural conceptualisation of old age as manifested and reflected by words, texts and artwork of the inhabitants of early medieval England. While prior studies identified the Middle Ages as a ‘golden age for the elderly’, this dissertation offers a more complete and nuanced picture of how people considered old age over a thousand years ago.
The project stands out for its multidisciplinary approach, which highlights that a study of how people thought about growing old should take into account as much of the cultural record as possible, ranging from visual arts to texts and even individual words. Individual chapters deal with early medieval definitions of the life cycle; a lexicographical study of the semantic field of old age in Old English; the merits and downsides of old age as represented in homiletic and literary texts; and the cultural roles attributed to specific social groups, such as saints, warriors, kings and women.
On the whole, the Anglo-Saxons were aware of the opportunities provided by senescence (e.g., wisdom and authority), but, at the same time, they were afraid of the consequences (e.g., physical decay and sadness); they looked up to those elderly that managed to remain active despite their age, but denounced those that could not. As such, the early medieval ideas about old age may not be so different from our own.