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Department of History

The deep roots of old-age welfare

Historian Ludwig Pelzl challenges us to think about welfare from the bottom up.

17 December 2021 | Research

Picturing the world 300 years ago, without the welfare state and with very limited social programs at all, challenges us to think welfare from the bottom up. How did individuals save for old age? How did they enter into care arrangements, and what resources could be tapped into?  

Ludwig Pelzl, a fourth-year researcher in the Department of History and Civilisation, investigates life-cyclic social mobility and old age welfare in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. His analysis of early modern ‘retirement homes’ leads us to realise that some arrangements which we perceive as specific to the twentieth or twenty-first century have much deeper roots.

His research demonstrates how early modern hospitals specialised in accommodating the elderly, morphing into retirement homes close to the modern sense of the word. Many of these elderly bought their spot in order to spend the last years of their life in material security provided by the institution. “The homes’ existence and success speak to a social problem not much different in contemporary society: it was disturbing to see individuals who had enjoyed a respectable social status in middle age falling into poverty in old age.”

Role of the family and the end of work

When we think of welfare for the old in premodern societies, we tend to think of family as the supreme welfare provider. This is partially right, as family cohesion and dependence were strong. At the same time, the risks that family members faced, in terms of disease, mortality and abandonment, were much higher. Fractured and dysfunctional families abounded in premodern societies, too. Families were less an impermeable safety net than a conditional pool of resources. 

Furthermore, the idea retirement as an employer- or government-mandated age boundary was completely unknown. The seventeenth-century author Charles de Saint-Évremond alluded to the problem that many could not afford to cease labour altogether: “Nothing is more usual than the sight of old people who yearn for retirement: and nothing is so rare as those who have retired and do not regret it.”

Working lives often had a rather fuzzy endings, with elderly individuals changing their tasks and work time according to their health. For some, this meant a slow downward trajectory towards less skilled and lower-paid jobs such as handicrafts or watchman services. As desirable as stopping work might have been, this option was available only to the few who had savings or received the grace of free admission to a care home. 

Finding the data

It is very difficult to trace life-cyclic mobility using premodern sources, as these normally do not allow a researcher to follow single individuals in time. Personal accounts of (ordinary) individuals rarely survive, as contemporaries had little interest in keeping them. Finding the same individuals at different points in their lives through official sources is equally daunting, Pelzl notes. Formalised life-cyclic events were rare, and the imprecise (by modern standards) identification of individuals further complicates matters. “Any kind of data that modern sociology would use for life-course analyses is simply unavailable for my period of study. Looking back in individuals’ life courses requires taking detours and reading other sources against the grain.” 

Pelzl uses a patchwork of sources to understand the trajectory of the retirees. Customarily, applicants for the retirement homes would write letters to the directors arguing for admission. These contain biographical information which sometimes allow us to identify significant life events of the applicant. Equally important, the way in which people paid for their retirement spots says a lot about how they saved. For example, if individuals sold their houses to pay for retirement, we can understand them to belong to the social collective of homeowners. 

The most spectacular sources he has found, recounts Pelzl, are certainly the portraits of elderly retirees. In the early modern period, it was extremely rare for non-elite individuals to sit for portraits. But two retirement homes, in a unique historical coincidence, produced and kept portraits of all their inhabitants over centuries. The way in which painters depicted the elderly subjects references their past social status as well as their aspiration to a dignified old age.

The reward of studying the distant past is that we are able to put our own experience and time in a bigger picture. When retirement schemes were introduced on a large scale in nascent European welfare states in the late 1800s, many of the ideas underpinning them came from centuries of institutions providing for those elderly who could afford it. Indeed, the demand for retirement itself was not new, it was just that the material scarcity of early modern societies had prevented people from leaving working life before their energies were fully exhausted. In current debates around pension systems, we should not forget that this challenge has been around for centuries. 


See also Pelzl's historical perspective on running a retirement home through an epidemic, at the EUI's Covid-19 related blog and podcast series, "Experiencing Epidemics".

Last update: 26 January 2022

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