When is Old Age?

In 1555* Charles V abdicated. He was the greatest European ruler of his day, Emperor of Germany, Duke of Burgundy, King of Aragon (including chunks of southern Italy and Sicily) and Castile (including new conquests in the Americas), and various territories along the Danube and in North Africa.

He was born in 1500 – and when I taught European history to first year students, I used to say that he retired at 55 because at that age he could access his superannuation. As I got closer to the same milestone, I think my lecture became increasingly heartfelt, though sadly only the mature aged students ever really got the joke.

Not many rulers willingly abdicate. It usually takes a revolution of some sort, or a particularly sexy American divorcée, before they can be dragged off kicking and screaming. It was a particularly unusual act in the early modern era, when the sacral nature of a crowned king, ordained by God, was taken very seriously – and Charles was a serious and religious man.

Charles V by Titian (1548)

Charles V looks considerably older than 48 in this portrait by Titian from 1548

But he was also an exhausted man, and by the standards of his day already an old man. In his later portraits he looks worn out. At a time when rulers were expected to lead their troops in battle, a bad attack of gout interfered with his battle plans in a war against the French, and he lost Metz as a result in 1552. He retired to a small house (with between 50 and 60 attendants, so not that small) near the monastery of Yuste in Estremadura where he died 3 years later.

Charles V sedan chair

Charles V’s sedan chair, used to carry him around when crippled with gout at Yuste

Currently there’s a debate going on in Australia about old age: whether the old age pension should be raised from 65 to 70; whether people on superannuation are paying enough tax; how the disproportionate wave of baby boomers will be paid for by later generations. Above all, it’s a debate about what is old age?

We are living longer today, and for most of the time, we live in much less pain. In 2006 a group of Spanish doctors from the University of Barcelona examined Charles V’s fingertip, and found deposits of uric acid. He must have suffered horribly, and from an unusually early age. He first mentions an attack of gout in a letter to his sister when he was only 28. Gout is still a nasty condition, but it can at least be treated.

Charles died of malaria. That useful fingertip also shows evidence of Plasmodium falciparum, the malaria parasite. Malaria is still a terrible killer, but it is not longer much of a problem in the developed world, if only because its cause is known, and we can avoid mosquitoes using screens and repellent. Sadly, the wetlands of Estremadura are shrinking too.

Charles V was old at 55, but he had already been in harness for about 40 years. Nowadays not only do we live longer, but we enter the workforce much later as well. Charles became Regent of Castile at 16 and was elected Emperor at 19. He was just 21 when he had to deal with Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, the same age as many of my undergraduate students, who also struggled to deal with Luther and the Diet of Worms – in 2500 words. Those students may one day have to work until they are 70, but they will live longer and less painful lives, and perhaps spend about the same time in the workforce as Charles V. I’m not sure that will be much of a comfort to them.

*For simplicity, most historians use the date 1555 for his abdication, though he divested himself of various bits of his empire over a couple of years, and it took several years for his subjects to confirm the changes, at least in Germany. His speech to the notables of the Netherlands in October 1555 gives the flavour of his handover.

References: Jaume Ordi et al, The Severe Gout of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, New England Journal of Medicine (August 3, 2006)
J de Zulueta, The cause of death of Emperor Charles V, in Parassitologia, June 2007

3 responses to “When is Old Age?

  1. residentjudge

    All this talk of pensions rings bells with my research. As you know, I’m looking at 19th century colonial judges. As with many other colonial civil servants, much of their correspondence with the Colonial Office was devoted to pension matters- in fact, it seems to have been a driving concern! However, the whole career structure for colonial judges was quite different from their English counterparts. Very, very few English judges ascended to the bench before the age of sixty, and they had to work for 15 years before they were eligible for a pension. Colonial judges,on the other hand, might be quite young when appointed to the colonies (my judge was 33 when he was appointed) and so were very likely to notch up their 15 years. Their problem was not so much becoming eligible, but more a problem of which colony was going to pay for it. Often judges served in more than one colony, and none of them wanted to be stuck with the bill! It was like a perverse game of musical chairs, except that no colony wanted the judge sitting on THEIR chair when the music stopped!

    • Hi Janine – that’s interesting. I agree – the amount of public service time dealing with pensions and annuities for old retainers is quite amazing. On colonial judges (and other expats from the colonies) I think there was always an expectation, back Home, that colonial service prematurely aged them, so that they were probably pensionable earlier (especially if someone else could be persuaded to pay). Just think of Sir Walter Eliot in Persuation and how scathing he is about weather beaten naval officers. Tanned skin meant old skin, and they might come back suffering from recurrent illnesses like malaria, so it possibly did shorten their lives.

  2. “Those students may one day have to work until they are 70,…” Yep, it is looking very likely for me. I’m 53 this year, and if 40 years is the going rate, I have at least another two decades to put in. Hopefully, I will live longer and less painfully.

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