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The aged patient in Early Modern England: perceptions and experiences of health and medicine in old age, c.1570-1730

Bolissian, A. (2022) The aged patient in Early Modern England: perceptions and experiences of health and medicine in old age, c.1570-1730. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00114729


This thesis investigates medical understandings of old age, and the impact of illness and infirmity on the lives of older people, and their caregivers in England, c.1570-1730. During this period, approximately twenty percent of adults were aged over sixty, and yet the health of this demographic has attracted little attention; perhaps due to assumptions that older people and their families were resigned to their ‘decays’. Through an analysis of a wide variety of sources, this study challenges this idea, and in-sodoing sheds fresh light on early modern ageing. It shows that old age was intimately tied to illness: people considered themselves ‘old’ as ailments and weaknesses accrued. There existed a deeply pessimistic understanding of the archetypal ‘aged patient’ in medical literature: ‘old’ bodies were depicted as cold, dry, and clogged, debilitated by diseases and sensory impairments, and unable to withstand strong curative remedies. However, evidence from life-writings and casebooks reveals that older people themselves frequently contested this bleak paradigm. They felt part of an aged health cohort, but this could provide comfort through companionship, and favourable comparisons of their own health against other ‘old folk’. While they undeniably felt burdened by accumulating infirmities, they also sought cures, and hoped for recovery. The experiences of older patients and their caregivers were thus multi-layered and often paradoxical: infirmity brought grief and pain, but also spiritual hopes, thankfulness, and social intimacy. This research highlights the importance of under-explored characteristics of ageing, including humoral wetness, depleted spirits, and poor ‘concoction’, and examines older people’s relationships with their chronic diseases. It also demonstrates, for the first time, the role of age in conceptions of cure and recovery, and challenges the historiographical notion that women became ‘manly’ after menopause. This study thereby contributes to a variety of historiographical fields, including emotions, religion, bodies, disability, and gender.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Newton, H. and Parish, H.
Thesis/Report Department:School of Humanities
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > History
ID Code:114729

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