(Social): Session at the European Association for Urban History Conference: Cities in Motion 2020


This session invites scholars to discuss the agency of the elderly in premodern European cities. It takes an actor's perspective, focusing on the elderly’s survival strategies. The session also considers the elder care available: to what extent did social norms prescribing intergenerational care, and the existence of charitable institutions determine peoples’ strategies for old age? Session content: In the historiography it is widely accepted that the elderly (+60) formed an important part of preindustrial European cities. Until recently, historians have often assumed that the elderly placed a heavy burden on family networks that were already weakened due to migration streams from the countryside to cities, and the impact of the European marriage pattern and neo-local residence practices in urban environments. As a result they tended to link old age to failing health, unemployment, poverty and social isolation, and mostly studied it from the perspective of poor relief. However, such approaches entail the risk of turning the elderly into passive recipients of care at the mercy of family, friends or urban society. To avoid this pitfall, this session invites scholars to discuss the agency of ageing men and women by studying old age in the premodern period from an actor's perspective.

The idea central to this session is that the daunting prospect of downward social mobility in old age due to diminished income encouraged especially middle-class men and women to anticipate and craft strategies, drawing on personal, familial, social and financial resources at their disposal. Attention will go to various strategies to actually safeguard support from family and acquaintances, or to become eligible for support from charitable institutions or retirement homes for specific occupational groups, such as soldiers, sailors, and craftsmen. In addition, employment possibilities for the elderly will be addressed. The sessions also welcomes papers asking how various cohabitation constructions, such as several elderly establishing a new household, and saving strategies, might have improved the situation of the elderly.

To further understand the agency of ageing men and women, the session also welcomes papers addressing the interplay between strategies and the specific social and institutional context: social norms prescribing intergenerational care within families, and the elderly's entitlement to poor relief: to what extent did expectations of family support during old age and eligibility for social assistance influence individuals’ decisions to structure their final years?


  • Spokesperson: Kim Overlaet, University of Lund
  • Co-organizer(s): Johannes Ludwig Pelzl, European University Institute
  • Keywords: Eldercare | Family networks | Agency
  • Time period: Early modern period
  • Topic(s): Social
  • Study area: Europe