The essay collection On Old Age: Approaching Death in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, will be of great interest to scholars working on topics related to the history of old age and the history of death in both the ancient and medieval worlds. Published by Brepols as the second volume in the series Studies in the History of Daily Life (800-1600), the text is based on papers given at a 2005 conference that examined “issues of ageing, old age, and death in ancient and medieval societies from a comparative perspective” (ix). The aim of the conference was to cross “traditional boundaries of time periods, scholarships as well as themes” (x). As the editors Christian Krötzl and Katariina Mustakallio state in the Preface, the historical, comparative, cross-cultural, and cross-chronological perspective of the text shows how people across the social spectrum coped with ageing and death in their daily lives. Through this organization, the editors hope to show “fundamental continuities and similarities in everyday life organization, culture, and structures of mentality“ (x)
These objectives are reflected in the structure of the book, which is comprised of sixteen chapters divided into three sections in which chapters on ageing and death in Classical Antiquity are combined with chapters on ageing and death in medieval Europe. Throughout the three sections, individual chapters treat a range of evidence, including testaments, Papal Chancery documents, chronicles, inscriptions, visual images, and a variety of contemporary written sources, including medical, literary, and historical texts. In the first section, “Coping with Old Age and Death: Views and Values,” a number of articles examine cultural representations, such as Tim Parkin’s chapter on the perception of old age as a second childhood, Katariina Mustakallio’s analysis of the representation of matrons in Roman historical narratives, and Jill Bradley’s iconographical study of images of death in the Middle Ages. These studies of representation are complemented by chapters that present case studies based on contextually circumscribed studies of historical evidence, including Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence’s examination of perceptions of old age recorded in tomb inscriptions from the ancient site of Thugga, modern Dougga, in Tunisia, and Judit Majorossy’s use of wills to study burial practices and preferences in Pressburg, in medieval Hungary.
In the second section, “Social Meaning of Old Age and Death,” articles include Ennio Bauer’s study of societies of old men in the cities of Hellenistic and Roman Southern Asia Minor, Aleksandr Koptev’s examination of the meaning of accounts in Roman historical narratives of the massacre of elderly citizens by the Gauls in 390 BC, and a study by Emilia Jamroziak of the politics of burial in medieval Scotland and Pomerania through an examination of two Cistercian monasteries. The chapter by Kirsi Salonen draws on canon law and Papal Chancery documents to answer the question: ‘What Happened to Aged Priests in the Late Middle Ages?” Katalin Szende, using testamentary evidence drawn from a series of medieval Hungarian towns, shows that “after reaching majority, age did not have any distinctive role to play in Hungarian urban society” (200). Coping with old age, she argues, “was basically the same as coping with the last inactive period in one’s life” (201).
The final section, “Coping with Death: Remembrance and Oblivion,” is dedicated entirely to the topic of death. Themes include cults and rituals of death, as in Jussi Rantala’s chapter on Roman purificatory cults and Sari Katajala- Peltomaa’s chapter on fourteenth-century funerary rituals, drawn from records of the canonization process of saints in central Italy. The theme of commemoration is discussed in Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby’s study of pulpits in Renaissance Florence. Death and martyrdom are topics analyzed by Mikka Tamminen in her chapter on the deaths of crusaders during the medieval crusades. The phenomenon of healing deities is examined in Ildikó Csepregi’s comparative study of the healing powers of both Greek gods and Christian saints, and Iona McCleery discusses medical perspectives on death in late medieval and early modern Europe.
The strengths of the book are many. Each of the chapters, by combining existing research with new evidence, contributes to a more nuanced historical understanding of old age and death. Many of the chapters examine social groups that are typically less studied, such as Mustakallio’s chapter on Roman matrons, or Salonen’s study of elderly priests. As well, the text includes regions often overlooked in mainstream historical studies, such as the medieval kingdom of Hungary, medieval Scotland, or North Africa. Each chapter ends with a helpful concluding section.
However, despite the considerable strengths of individual chapters, the volume exhibits a lack of cohesion. While this is a common weakness of edited volumes, in the case of this particular book the lack of unity undermines the argument for continuity across cultures, regions, and time periods. Connections and cross-pollination of ideas and evidence that were perhaps the topics of discussion at the conference are missing from this text; The challenge to the editors is how to capture and translate such intellectual exchange into an edited volume. To support the argument for the value of the longue durée approach to writing history, the editors should have explicitly articulated the connections across time and regions, to make a stronger case for comparative study.
Moreover, the lack of unity in the volume also points to the challenges of treating old age and death together as constituting the final stage of life. The chapters that are most successful in demonstrating the value of this approach are those that explicitly treat old age and death together, for example, Koptev’s chapter on the massacre of elderly Roman citizens by the Gauls, or Harlow and Laurence’s chapter that studies inscriptions on grave stones to illuminate perceptions of the elderly. The least satisfying chapters (though not from the point of view of scholarship or intrinsic interest) are those that focus exclusively on death, since death is not only the result of ageing. The uneven integration of the topics of old age and death is evident especially in the decision to devote the entire third section to the topic of death. In sum, while the comparative, cross-cultural, and generally boundary-crossing approach advanced by On Old Age has tremendous potential to provide new conceptual frameworks for the historical study of both old age and death, the text cries out for a more developed apparatus to create cohesion. Such an apparatus would include a fully developed introduction, internal cross-references, section introductions, an index, a bibliography, and notes on contributors. Chapter numbers would also contribute to the impression of a unified purpose.
In conclusion, the editors and contributing authors are to be commended on a bold and ambitious comparative study that seeks to bring together into a new conceptual framework two topics and two epochs typically treated separately. There is no question that researchers will find much of value in the individual chapters. Indeed, we must continue to develop and support such boundary-crossing studies.