The Historical Demography of Aging
Historical demography proper began its career fairly recently, in the 1960s. Statistics for age and aging have always been among its results, but it is only during the last year or two that much attention has been paid to them, and the information so far available is rather restricted. Scarcity of data imposes stringent limits on what can be accomplished by historical demography in any field. Fertility and mortality, both essential to the reconstruction of the history, of aging, can only be worked out for societies that have recorded births, marriages, and deaths (or in Christian areas, baptisms, marriages, and burials), societies whose records of this kind are still extant and available for study. Migration, often critical in the study of age composition, generally requires information additional to the registration of vital events. The fact that these are preconditions of satisfactory analysis means that we shall never have anything like precise numerical knowledge of aging in wholly illiterate societies, past or present, or in literate communities that have failed to carry out the necessary recordings and to leave them to us for study.
Hence accurate estimates of life expectation and age composition even in highly civilized earlier populations like those of Greece or Rome, or in any European population before the end of the Middle Ages, will always elude us. Along with them go the peoples of the whole of the rest of the world in the premodern past, though here and there a tiny pool of uncer-
tain light glimmers in the darkness, nearly always fitfully illuminating groups of elite individuals.
It has to be said that this enforced ignorance makes it difficult for us to observe at all closely any population that could be supposed to have the aging characteristics of a wholly traditional society of the preindustrial kind existing on the lower aging plateau in a wholly traditional world. It might be thought that the developing societies, especially the "primitive" ones, surviving in our own day would provide just what we would like to have, instances of something like "natural" aging. This is scarcely the case, however, because these contemporary societies, if they carry out the required registrations at all, do so at the behest of literate minorities whose very presence may alter their aging characteristics to some degree. Moreover, such "backward" communities exist in a world so dominated by the highly industrialized countries that their longevity and age structure are hardly likely to be at the traditional level. We are in the same position as those who study birthrates, and our best chance of estimating a "natural" standard for aging lies in reconstructing the demographic history of the one or two countries that did maintain usable recordings for the whole of their populations during at least some stretches of time before the demographic transition and the secular shift. Since they have now become industrialized themselves, however, and since their material standards were probably already higher than those of the rest of humanity at the periods in the Before for which their situations with regard to aging can be recovered, the evidence of these countries is even less suited to show a "natural" aging condition than is the case with "natural" fertility.
Archaeodemography, the establishment of a general notion of vital rates through the examination of exhumed skeletal remains, has sometimes been used to prompt the record of the historical demography of aging (e.g., Laslett  1985: table 2a). Through this technique, indications of ages at death, of the life span, and of gender differentiation over the life course have been recovered; life tables have even been constructed. This evidence is all that is open to biologists of aging who have to interest themselves in the very distant past, distant enough to allow for natural selection. Historians concerned with much later periods have contrasted its outcomes with those derived from other sources with rather discouraging consequences. Although archaeodemography may serve for approximate aging estimates, the reckoning of limiting values for the most part, the sketchiness of its re-suits, and questions as to their accuracy and representativeness prevent it from being a source of much importance for the historical demography of aging as it will be expounded in this volume.
Studies of what could be termed the history of aging as distinct from the historical demography of aging are subject to somewhat the same judgment. Where particular written records have survived from the prestatistical era
which can be manipulated for the purposes of demography, though not created to that end, they can yield some estimates of age. Conspicuous examples are Ulpian's life table (3d century A.D. ) or the inquisitiones post-mortem in medieval England (inquiries at a landholder's death about his properties and claimants to them). The first appears in many works on mortality and life expectancy not concerned with history and the second, along with the evidence of poll taxes, in a comprehensive historical study such as J. C. Russell's British medieval population (1948) and in many more limited analyses.
When proper allowance is made for their limitations, biases, and inaccuracies, materials of this kind are of considerable use to the historical demography of aging. They could not be said, however, themselves to constitute that study over tracts of time in which nothing more systematic, interconnected, and informative is, or can be, forthcoming. Every detail pertaining to aging in past time is important to this book. But if nothing of greater value to our purposes could be recovered for former generations, our present project could never have been undertaken.
There are yet other studies of particular subjects in the history of aging that are of relevance to our purposes, and they will be touched on when we come to the aging of particular groups and restricted areas and aging at particular times. But we must glance here at the general, outline histories of the topic that its salience at the present moment has given rise to. They seem to be of much more limited value than the writings we have gone over. Composed, like some of the special studies, with the use of traditional historical sources, mainly literary evidence, and sometimes with scant respect for demographic analysis or even demographic reality, they seem to be preoccupied with past ideas about the division of the life course. They are to be classed as histories of aging attitudes and attitudes to the old rather than as histories of aging and will perhaps impede the progress of the study rather than forward it.
Nevertheless, no great stress will be laid on the contrast between the historical demography of aging and the history of aging. As we approach demographic analysis proper, however, it has to be pronounced that by and large the historical demography of aging is confined to the now developed countries and, with salient exceptions in the history of those developed countries themselves, to the period that is called the statistical era. The statistical era is the time during which states have carried out exact recording of vital events, analyzed and preserved those records, and made them accessible. For most of the developed countries, the statistical era begins some one hundred fifty years ago, in the middle of the nineteenth century, though a century earlier in Scandinavia, notably Sweden. For these Western nations a great deal of what the historical demographer wishes to know about age and aging can now be recovered. Census and local census-type materials, where and for what years they are open to examination, make it
possible also to investigate such things as the position in the household of persons of various ages, their kin relationships, and, by reference to their vital statistics, what has come to be called their life course transitions. Data of this kind have been extensively used in the chapters in this volume.
There are even some developed countries, notably those of Scandinavia, along with the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy, where population registers were regularly maintained by local authorities in past periods and are now accessible. These are lists of all the inhabitants of a particular place distributed into households, giving ages and updated for every birth, marriage, death, entrance, or departure. In these very special cases, if the registers have survived, in principle virtually everything that the historical demographer wishes to know about aging is available.
Since the 1950s and because of the activities of international statistical bodies such as the demographic division of the United Nations, data are plentiful for populations at all stages of development and multiply rapidly. Here the task of the historical demographer is to disentangle the figures that can be used to produce an intelligible account within that excessively narrow time period. As he or she works backward toward the beginnings of the statistical era, the evidence thins out rapidly, but in comparative terms the temporal depth remains woefully shallow. For by far the largest part of history in its conventional definition—past time during which written records were maintained and can be consulted—all there is to go on is demographic theory and analogy. This makes the historical demography of aging a very different pursuit from previously established forms of historical study. Not only is nearly all the available material confined to the last two or two and a half centuries, compressed so to speak in a dense layer on the surface of time, but almost all the notable action is in fact confined to that time space. The temptation that has to be resisted is to follow the unfortunate example of social scientists generally and to read history backward from the present moment. Our enterprise as to aging in the past is undeniably demanding and difficult, replete with somewhat hazardous inferential argument.
This comes out in the fact that the statements already made about necessary knowledge apply to all the world's populations over the whole of their history, while the relevant evidence is so recent and so concentrated. We have to do everything we can to make use of the records of a handful of national populations, as opposed to individual communities, for which reliable numerical knowledge of aging can be pushed back for a hundred years earlier than the statistical era, to the middle of the eighteenth century. France and the Scandinavian countries and parts of Italy are in this position. In one country, England, using the same means but in what might be called heroic form, the time horizon has been stretched backward another two hundred years to the mid-sixteenth century for the entire national population. All these statistics from the time before the official statistical era
have been derived from registrations made by the Christian church. We shall see, however, that even the four and a half centuries of the English historical record on aging, from the 1540s to the 1990s, are rather short for our purposes.
We now turn to the actual process of aging in populations of some size, nearly always national populations, and begin with the demographic transition itself.