History for Fantasy Writers: How Old Was Old?

People died at such a young age, you were old at forty. So many infants and children died, adults did not bond with them. Even then, the children were treated like adults; “childhood” is a modern invention.

I have heard this, and variations on this, all my life (and I really am old). It’s wrong and I’ll prove it, but I’ll also talk about why the myth persists.

It’s also something important to get right. For a great many aspects of history, we can change things around to our heart’s content. We can use historical currencies or invent our own. We can introduce or remove flora and fauna, change historical events, and generally treat the past as our personal Tinker Toy set, taking it apart and putting it together in new ways.

With age, though, we’re dealing with human constants. If forty really is old, that changes how we write characters. It means, for example, that childhood and adolescence represents half a person’s life. It means nobody gets to be king for very long.

If you already agree that the age of man has always been three score and ten, skip to the bottom of this post to read a bit of historical philosophy. But if you are unconvinced, you can read the evidence, herewith.

Ancient World

The Bible talks about how long people live. Let’s leave aside Moses and Noah and the like; here’s a passage from Psalms 90:10 (King James version). “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”

Huh. Weird. I mean, if people in the Middle Ages were old by forty, then in 1000BC (or so; Psalms is a collection of writings spanning several centuries), people must have been old by like twenty, right? Plainly we’re getting into Ridiculous Land here.

But the Bible’s a peculiar book, tricky to interpret. Is there other evidence from the ancient world? Sure there is.

We can make quite a list of individuals who lived a long life: Seneca (~90), Caesar Augustus (76), his wife Livia (86). Galba, though he reigned only briefly, was in his seventies when he became emperor. Fabius Maximus, the famous dictator who saved Rome, was 72 when he fought Hannibal. Vibius Crispus was advisor to Emperor Domitian at age eighty. Sextus Turannius was still prefect of the corn supply at 90. And so on.

Varro gives us a list of the stages of life (a popular theme right through the Middle Ages). By it we have puerita (0-15), adulscentia (15-30), iuventus (30-45), seniores (45-60), senectus (60 to death). Those divisions are more mathematical than biological, but obviously forty was not considered old.

To be a consul in the Republic the minimum age was forty. One could be exempted from jury duty at age sixty. Certain other civic duties were exempted at age seventy. Again, no one makes laws like this if age forty is considered old.

Here is Horace (Ars Poetica) on the old man:

He lacks fire and courage, is dilatory and slow to form hopes, is sluggish and greedy of a longer life, peevish, surly, given to praising the days he spent as a boy, and to reproving and condemning the young. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Middle Ages

Similar evidence is even more plentiful from the Middle Ages. Charlemagne died at seventy-two. His biographers are not astonished by his great age. Frederick Barbarossa took the crusading vow at age sixty-six and no one thought this worth more than a passing remark about his age.

Moreover, the ancient taxonomy of aging persisted right through the Middle Ages without revision. So where does the statement come from? Are people just stupid?

Not at all.

Lies We Tell Ourselves

The statement comes from a misunderstanding of a statistical statement: the average lifespan of people in the Middle Ages (or whenever) was forty (or thirty-five, or even 37.5 or other overly-precise figures). That statement is technically incorrect and should be stated like this: the average age at death was… whatever.  It’s an important distinction. Average age at death means demographers have tallied up how old people were when they died. Since infant mortality—and adolescent mortality—was much higher in pre-modern societies, there’s a very large number of people who were dead at six months or two years or twelve years. There were far fewer people dead at sixty-four. That makes the average figure very low.

It does not, however, say anything all about lifespan, which is a term that means the age to which people might reasonably expect to live if they are not felled by disease or accident. Lifespan and average age at death are two quite different things.

One would think, wouldn’t one, that a few articles making the distinction could clear things up. One would think that statements by professional historians, pointing out what I’ve just pointed out, could set the world straight on this whole “thirty-five was old” business. As a matter of fact, historians have been pointing this out for generations, yet the myth persists. Why is that? Why do people believe this even though it is so obviously wrong and so readily disproved?

Now we get to the interesting part.

First, no one listens to historians. That’s easy. Historians are dull, they write boring books, and nobody’s going to wade through their dusty lists of names and dates to find out about old age. But that’s not an explanation. Popular history magazines (History Today, e.g.) and television shows (History Channel) actually do read historians, and they know how to ignore the dull bits and package up the interesting bits for mass consumption. The myth should have been exploded long ago (History Channel loves to explode myths).

More explanation is obviously needed. It can be stated simply, but analysis will take longer. The problem isn’t that people are ignorant on this topic. The problem is that people already know things about the Middle Ages. It’s easy to educate someone, but it’s much more difficult to re-educate them. People already know about short lifespans in Past Times. They grow up knowing it, and attempts to re-educate them are largely futile because that one piece of information is part of a larger “understanding” about the Middle Ages that simply isn’t going to go away.

That understanding is this: Modern Times are better than the Middle Ages. We are wealthier, live better, have more freedoms, so on and so on … and, we live longer. In other words, the myth about life expectancy is part of a broader myth that we tell ourselves, and tell each successive generation, about Progress. That myth is crucial to our social fabric and isn’t going to go away at the behest of a handful of academics. It’s part of how we understand our own world.

For the Writer

What is the implication of this for the writer? Curiously, almost none at all, for most of us. Much historical fantasy is about young people anyway, but where old people appear, they are “normally” old. Despite the widespread misunderstanding about aging in pre-modern society, when it comes to writing fiction, we instinctively follow Varro’s stages of life. The place where we often get things a bit wrong is that peculiar stage called adolescence. I’ll write about that in another post.

When it comes to portraying the elderly, though, just keep doing what you’re doing. Gray hair, physically infirm, all of Horace’s amusing characterizations. Old starts around sixty, but can slide a bit. You can make your elderly spry or weak as the story demands. And you can now be confident that in so doing you’re being historically accurate.

The place where it gets interesting to me is when considering non-human peoples. What would the implications be for a very short lifespan or a very long one? How long would infancy last? Childhood? Adolescence? What does that imply about schooling or learning a trade? Marriage? Elder care?

Just for examples, if your elves live two hundred years, an elf would be in school longer than her human friend. A human boy would get married far sooner than his elf friend. Would the dynamics of friendship even survive such an arrangement? If your dwarves die in their forties, maybe elves and dwarves are never friends simply out of pure demography. If someone left an elf infant on your doorstep are you looking at a thirty-year commitment?

Further Reading

One book in particular keeps alive incorrect stereotypes about aging–Centuries of Childhood, by Philippe Ariès. Originally published in 1960, the book was soon translated into English and was widely influential. It was a pioneering work, but it relied too heavily on certain types of sources and ignored others. Aries gets all credit for starting a conversation, but the discussion has long since moved away from his conclusions. Unfortunately, popular perception has not, and Aries continues to influence because his book keeps getting re-printed.

A second classic is Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, by Lawrence Stone. Another pioneering work that is worth reading but which needs to be supplemented by others.

By what others? Here are a couple.

  • Aging in World History, David G. Troyansky, 2015.
  • A History of Old Age, Pat Thane (ed.), 2005.

That should be enough to get going. It’s a very large topic.

What Do You Think?

Have you played with aging in any of your stories? How did that work out for you?

I’d love to hear how you handled the matter of non-standard aging.

E.L. Skip Knox is the creator of the fantasy world called Altearth, a place where magic is real, monsters roam the land, and the Roman Empire never fell.

E.L. Skip Knox