Ripe Old Age of 35

Ripe Old Age of 35

Have you ever wondered about the age of people in movies or TV shows? Notice that Mr and Mrs Bennet appear to be in their 50’s or 60’s? What was the life expectancy during Jane Austen’s time?”

I watch a lot of shows, and it is strange to see what age people are in shows compared to their real age. The show Reign, which is based on Mary, Queen of Scots, the main characters  (Mary and Francis) are depicted as late teens to twenties.  In reality,  in the mid 1500’s, Francis was 14 years old when he and Mary were wed, 15 years old when his father died and Francis was made king. He was only 16 years old when he died, from an ear infection that caused abscess in his brain. After him, his much younger brothers took their turns on the throne (Charles IX  who was 10 years old when he became king, died at the age of 23, leaving the crown to his brother Henry III, who was took the crown at the age 23. He lived to the ripe old age of 37).  Mary was ancient at 44 when she died, after being married 3 times and imprisoned for   years.  She was only 16 when she married Francis.

Look at the movie Becoming Jane. At the end, when Jane and her brother are at the performance, they make you think Jane was old, looking like she was at least in her 60’s, when she was only 41 years old.

Check out family trees from this time frame. Back to King Henry II of France and his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, had 9 children together.  Out of the 9 children, only 6 survived infancy. Catherine was only 14 when she married Henry II, but she lived a very unusual long time, dying when she was 69. Catherine outlived all but 2 of her children.

Record keeping wasn’t as easily kept before the 1900’s, making it difficult to come up with exact numbers, but it was estimated that if a babe survived birth, their life expectancy was between 30 and 35 years. By 1900, the life expectancy had nearly doubled.

What could cause such a huge change? Many factors contribute to the people living longer. Medical care was one of the reasons. Once medicine moved past the bloodletting and leeches, and those who practice medicine had education, people didn’t die as young. Apothecaries, physicians, surgeons, these terms in the 1800’s meant far different things than they do in 2016. We hear the world surgeon, and we picture someone who specializes in surgical procedures.  A heart surgeon specializes in surgery of the heart. In 1800, the term was used for someone who had had some actual schooling. An apothecary was someone who had a basic knowledge of medical procedures and could handle minor situations,  as well as have good understanding of medicinal herbs and concoctions.  Today, these would be our pharmacists. The know side effects,  how medicines work and interactions. Their schooling is nearly the same as a doctors.

Another reason for longer lives is sanitation.  Learning something as simple as germ theory saved so many lives.  Washing your hands, cleaning wounds properly, things that are common place today, made a dramatic change in people surviving. Cities having sewers, trash removal, safer water, pest control.  These were simple, yet monumental changes which made huge differences.

Simple procedures such as these made a huge difference in one of the most common cause of death in young ladies, child birth. Cleansing reduces the fevers many women suffered from after they gave birth.

So next time you watch a movie or TV show that is a period piece, you might want to keep in mind.  I know I am grateful for medical breakthroughs that have enhanced lives, especially when it comes to our children.


14 Responses to Ripe Old Age of 35

  1. I was reading today that one should work for maximum bone development before one is 40, and that no matter what you try to do with exercise after that when it comes to bone strength, it just won’t cut it. I don’t think that can be quite true, but, still,…alas!

  2. As you pointed out, something as simple as wash your hands and medical instruments and cloths made a huge difference in the survival rate by themselves. In the middle ages you weren’t considered healthy unless you hosts bugs upon your person.

  3. I have the same beef about casting in the adaptations, especially of the older characters. Catherine de Bourgh is made out to be ancient, but she would likely have been in her forties. That’s one of the things I loved about the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies casting of Mrs. Bennet – she was fairly young and still very pretty – you could easily see her as the one-time flirtatious teen.

  4. This is probably just my perception, but when I look at photos of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, they appear “older” than the people of my generation at that same age, while my niece and nephew seem even “younger” than we did. When they say “50 is the new 40” or “60 is the new 50” I get it. I think my grandparents and great-grandparents excuse is, they didn’t smile in pictures, so they looked serious. But, while they probably had a much harder life than the more recent generations, they knew how to survive; which is more than I can say for some of this new generation of 18 year olds.

  5. I’ve often thought of this. I would be an old woman in Austen’s eyes, but I am still younger than the parents they cast in the movies. So funny. It seems like all the movies are this way to one degree or another. I once listened to an interesting discussion on bloodletting. It did help to lower a person’s temperature, and when it wasn’t taken to the extreme, could be a little bit helpful. Still, I’m glad we have moved on to more modern techniques.

  6. An interesting post, Melanie. Just doing the math, if Mrs. Bennet was 21 when she had Elizabeth. She was only 42 during the time of Pride and Prejudice. I think the casting directors for some of the films need to improve on their research and their math skills. 🙂

  7. An interesting post. While mortality rates for children and women in childbirth were very high 200 years ago and accidents were certainly much more risky, there are also many people who lived a long time if they escaped those hazards. There are a fair number of documented octogenarians and others even older. Another interesting fact is that among the lower classes, even in Regency times, the average age for first marriage for women was around 25 and men were older. I always found it interesting that post-WWII marriage age was the lowest it had been in centuries. Go figure. I believe the average age for marriage among upper class Regency people was something like 20 for women and 30 for men. I do find the progress in medicine fascinating and exciting, although after suffering through an infection by a “super-bug” it can also be somewhat scary! Thanks for the post and your reflections. I have occasionally wondered how ‘old’ I really would seem if I lived 200 years ago. I suppose I’m actually glad I don’t have to find out!

  8. I was always confused with the 1995 characters of Sir John Middleton [Robert Hardy] and Mrs. Jennings [Elizabeth Spriggs] his mother-in-law. Their ages seemed to conflict with what I felt it should be, especially if Sir John and Colonel Brandon served together in India.

    In many societies, when boys and girls hit puberty they were considered adults. When girls had their cycles, they were women and capable of bearing children. Lord, at that age I was still climbing trees.

    In researching infant mortality, I once read where early era doctors would work on cadavers as part of their training. When they were called on to deliver a baby, they didn’t always wash their hands. Thus the mortality rate was high. Some of the more astute doctors noticed that when they washed their hands…the mortality rate decreased. Who knew? Today we are aghast at that simple concept of the washing of your hands before delivering a baby or any medical procedure.

    During the time of the plagues, Jewish sanitation and cleanliness rites kept many of the Jews alive when others were falling sick and dying. They were following God’s Law set forth in Old Testament scriptures that saved them. Their neighbors [suspicious and superstitious] didn’t always understand and hated them for it…but in reality they were simply following God’s Law that said…if you do this, then you will live.

    Thanks for a look back at medicine or lack thereof. I am grateful for being in this time and place. I needed surgery to remove my tonsils when I was about 5 or 6 years old. About thirty years ago I talked to an elderly lady that lost her young son due to an abscess in his throat from infected tonsils.

    As sanitation and medicine progressed over time, so too have the bugs. Today we are confronted with superbugs that are drug resistant. However, medicine marches on and so too will the progress in fighting them. Thanks for the post.

    • Jeanne, when I was still teaching one of favorite books to consider is one called “The Cure” by Sonia Levitin. It is a young adult fantasy where a boy from the future is considered a deviant because of his love of music. He is sent back to the past to experience an event when music brings him nothing but sadness to cure his deviancy. He is sent back to a time when the Jews are accused of bringing the plague because they do not take ill. There are examples of religious zealots and discrimination, but there some beautiful moments that speak of love and family. Your comments on the Jewish population being “cleaner” in their habits made me recall this story.

  9. Hi Melanie, thanks for such an interesting post. Speaking as a modern-day apothecary, I’m very much in favour of 21st century medicine, sanitation and indoor plumbing. Training for pharmacists here in the UK now takes five years so it’s not an inconsiderable investment of time.

    I am, however, old enough to remember the house my grandmother lived in when I was growing up. No indoor bathroom and the toilet was in an outhouse (whicih meant a chamber pot under the bed for night time use). Bathing was in a tin bath in front of a coal fire and all the water was heated up in a large tank known as ’the copper’ but I can’t remember what powered it, possibly gas. Actually having a bath in front of the fire seemed quite a luxury when we stayed there, as our own house with it’s indoor bathroom, didn’t have any central heating at the time so bath time was always a chilly event! Once that was rectified, it was so much better.

    Presumably 200 years ago, people of the upper classes did have a longer life expectancy than the lower classes? Better living conditions, less overcrowding, and better nutrition would, I expect, contribute to that, even if medical care was little better for them.

    Regarding portrayal of characters in costume drama, especially Austen, I’ve always thought that the older generation characters have been cast far too old. I’m thinking especially of Donald Sutherland in P&P 2005 here, plus the Gardiners and Crofts in any dramatisation of P&P or Persuasion. Sophy Croft is described as being eight and thirty in the book, but I’ve never seen an actress of that or similar age cast. Mind you, casting always seems to be in favour of older actors whatever the character. I seem to remember that Sophie Andrews did a survey on this subject some time ago, on her Laughing With Lizzie blog. The Bennet girls in P&P 2005 probably come nearest to their ‘book age’.

    • Jennifer Ehle was 26 when she played the 20 year old Elizabeth Bennet. Keira Knightley was 20. Colin Firth was 35 when he played the 28-year-old Darcy. Matthew Macfadyen was 31. Susannah Harker was 30 and Rosamund Pike was 26 when they played the 22 year old Jane Bennet. Julia Sawahla was 27 and Jean Malone was 21 when they played the 16-year-old Lydia Bennet. Polly Maberly was 19 when she played Kitty, while Carey Mulligan was 20. Lucy Briers was 28 when she played Mary, while Talula Riley was 20.

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