Thomas Sheafe’s Vindiciae senectutis, or, A plea for old-age which is senis cujusdam Cygnea cantio (1639) is in some ways a charming work. The very distinguished William Gouge explains in his generous address to the “Courteous Reader, Young or old, Here is presented to thee by an Old-Man past his great climactericall yeare, a Treatise of OLD AGE, indited and penned by one who hath attained to those yeares whereunto hee who attaineth is accounted Wondrous old, and dedicated to him that hath almost attained to those yeares beyond which there is no ordinary reckoning.”
Gouge has entered into the foot-notey spirit of the whole work, and his notes on the passage just cited explain that he is himself past 63 (he was 64), that Sheafe the author was prebendary of Windsor and rector of Welford, and 80 years old, while his dedicatee, Dr Laurence Chaderton was a centenarian (his dates in his ODNB entry are given as 1536?–1640).
Gouge commends Sheafe’s choice of dedicatee as highly appropriate: “most wisely hath he made choice of a very fit Patron, who notwithstanding his exceeding great Old-Age, and the small characters in which this Treatise was written, read it without spectacles, and with no lesse perspicacie of judgement then of sight, gave his approbation thereof.” And he adds a graceful note of his own: “I heartily thanke the Author (my Ancient good Tutor, to whom for all the good I received in Kings College Cambridge, under God, I owe all the praise) this Author I heartily thanke for vouchsafing to communicate to his unworthy Pupill these his labours.”
Gouge is aware that his old tutor had a particularly hard act to follow: “There is a Treatise of OLD-AGE of old time written by the purest Latinist that ever spake, or wrote: for the elegancy of stile, for the solid matter of that Treatise, and for many other ornaments wherewith it is decked, it hath ever beene highly accounted of, and learned in most Grammar schooles.” He refers to Cicero’s de senectute, but he makes the point that Sheafe has at least the advantage of being a Christian minister: “yet as farre as divine learning excells humane, as farre as a judicious Divine may goe before a learned Philosopher, so farre is this Treatise here tendred to thee, to be preferred before that”.
Gouge treats Sheafe gently: it was apparently his former tutor’s only publication. But it’s not a very remarkable book, in truth. There’s the odd striking citation: “Socrates was wont to say, that to Old-men death stands before them continually in their sight; but to young- men hee lurks behind, that unawares he may come upon them, as an enemy that lies in ambush.”
Sheafe deals with the main downside to old age, proximity to death, by referring that proximity to prior intemperance:
“The third part of my answer remaines: which retorts the fault (if it be one) of Old-ages being so neere to death, upon the true cause of it: viz. mens intemperance, and disorder in the former part of their life.”
Here’s presbyopia moralised:
“An Old-man sees better a farre off then a younger. So by the inward eyes of his minde, he reaches further then the other, both backward through experience, and forward by providence and forecast.”
Largely, it’s written in a vein of unexceptionable piety:
“Againe, touching our apprehension of Gods promises, which concerne our salvation, is it not most eager and ardent, most hungring and thirsting in elder yeares, when the good fight is fought, and the race neere runne? yes certainely. Wee may have an eye before to the promised inheritance, and to the recompence of reward with Moses: but then, in Old-age, obuijs ulvis, with reached forth armes we embrace it. Then, Come Lord Jesu: then our hand is on it, as it were: then we say with aged St. Paul, Now hence forth is layed up for mee, &c. Then we earnestly endeavour to that which is before us, and more neere us, pressing hard towards the marke: then with old Simeon, we resigne our selves to God, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart, &c.”
But the thing which I just knew was going to happen in this little work duly did: here’s an extract from the index:
- Great things done by Old-men, p 13.
- Old-men must thinke of their former failings, p. 208.
- Old-mens abilities in the graces of the mind, p. 19.
- Old men of best use in peace, p. 29.
- Old-men best Generalls in warre, page 31.
- Old-men best counsellors for warre, p. 32.
- Old men not so fit for the Pulpit as young, page 37.
- Old men worthy Governors of families, p 45
- Old-men best furnished for writing, p 41.
- Old-men fittest to cast up their accounts, p 48
- Old-men best apprehend Gods promises, p. 49
- Old mens motion to heaven the strongest, p. 50
- Old-mens care for others good, p. 106.
- Old-men best use wealth, p. 108.
- Old-men not covetous, p. 110.
- The ground of Old-mens parsimony, p. 111.
- Old-men warre, p. 112.
- Old-men long for better times, p. 112.
- Old-men why hard to please. p. 113.
- Old-men praisers of former times, p. 113.
- Old-men just reprovers, p. 113.
- Old-men most think of their former failings, page 208.
- Old men see how former yeares might have beene better imployed, p. 203.
- Old-men must looke backe to their former passages, p. 206.
And entries for ‘old women’? None, of course none. This game, well-meaning, and devout little book completely ignores their existence. Completely: old age can be commended in men, it seems, but not in women.
Younger women do feature, and again, to predictable effect in our old moralist:
“The most delightfull object of the eye, to a voluptuous man, is the favour and beauty of a woeman, a peece of well fashioned and coloured clay. Yet is favour deceitfull and beauty vanity. which caused Job to make a covenant with his eyes, to bind him not to thinke of a maide. And David prayes, Psal. 119. 37. That his eyes may be turned away from beholding vanity. The eye to many is a very Pandor.”
Though he so resoundingly ignores women, Sheafe does at one point digress onto the topic of breast-feeding:
“I cannot but blame the indiscreet peremptorinesse of some, who doubt not to make this a generall rule or Maxim, that God never makes the wombe fruitfull, and the brest barren: and thereupon stick not to conclude, that no woman may put forth her childe to nurse …
… Yet it cannot be denied, that there are many cases in which the mother not onely may refuse this office (which in it selfe is most naturall, I confesse, and lies neerely upon her) but is a cruell mother to her child (to say nothing of her selfe) if shee doe otherwise: for what weaknesse, and how many deseases may bee derived from a mother (in some cases, I say, and of some constitutions) to the child, to its utter overthrow, and undoing? and besides, it is not true that the mothers breasts are never dry: nor that there can be no other thing, that may justly excuse her refusing to be a nurse. But I leave the digression, having but occasionally and by the way fallen upon it.”
But actually, the old dear is taking a pop at the writer of that letter of commendation in his own work, William Gouge, and his Of domestical duties (1622-27-34). Gouge weighed up the evidence, and was quite firm in his decision:
“God hath giuen to women two breasts fit to containe and hold milke: and nipples unto them fit to haue milke drawne from them. Why are these thus giuen? to lay them forrth for ostentation?”
But this was not a matter two senior Presbyterians could fall out about (for I assume that Sheafe would have shared a view of the church with Chaderton and Gouge).
Gouge was a far, far superior writer and moral thinker about human life. In his introduction here, Gouge does rather adroitly note that God, after all, is old, and white-haired:
“For God himselfe is stiled (Dan. 7. 9.) the Ancient of daies, and the haire of his head is said to be like pure wooll, that is white, not spotted, not stained, not soiled: such as the haire of Old-men useth to be. In allusion hereunto, S. Hierom saith, that the haire of the Ancient of daies is described to bee white, that length of daies may be declared thereby.”
Gouge is known these days to the social historians. Here’s his prime argument in relation to whether husbands may beat their wives:
“ Quest. May not then an husband beat his wife?
Answ. With submission to better judgements, I thinke he may not: my reasons are these.
1. There is no warrant thorowout the whole Scripture.”
And here’s Gouge on abusive parenting, speaking first to the prejudices of his own age, but then bravely saying the unsayable:
“When parents bring vp their children in vnwarrantable and vnlawfull callings, as to be of popish and idolatrous orders; to attend vpon papists; to be stage-plaiers, keepers of dice-houses, &c. Some (which is horrible to thinke of) traine vp their daughters to be common strumpets: and some (which is yet more horrible) traine vp their children to be sorcerers and witches …
… But what may be said of those that are so hellishly enamoured with their children as to commit incest or buggery with them?”