Although our knowledge of the mechanisms of the functioning and development of urban communities before the industrial era has been systematically broadening, there are still issues in this area which await more extensive research. One of such topics is the situation of elderly people. It can be supposed that in Old-Polish urban communities old age usually implied the end of one's economic activity, the lowering of one's social status, dependence on one's family or moving to a local poorhouse, or even degradation to the class of paupers vegetating in destitution. The present article aims to show the place of old people in the urban communities at the end of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by establishing the proportion of old people who run their own households and by defining their position in the family. Elderly people certainly did not contribute to the potential of the family viewed as an economic unit, on the contrary - they were usually treated as a serious burden for the strictly calculated family budget. The article is an attempt to explore the mechanisms of the functioning of urban communities at the very basic level of its smallest unit, i.e. the family household and its immediate economic surroundings, with special stress on the demographic factor. A detailed analysis was undertaken on the basis of data from smaller towns: Bedzin, Klobuck, Krzepice, Mrzyglód, Mstów, Nowa Góra, Ogrodzieniec, Olkusz, Olsztyn, Pilica, Proszowice, Wolbrom, Zarnowiec (Little Poland), Ostrzeszów, Praszka, Wielun (Great Poland), Radziejów (Kuyavia), as well as the more populated Cracow (10 000 inhabitants within the city walls) and the city of Warsaw (over 100 000 inhabitants). The source basis consisted of handwritten records from the parishes of the aforementioned small towns and of the central parishes of Warsaw (the Holy Cross parish) and Cracow (the Virgin Mary parish). All the records came from the years 1791-1792; they were compiled by local priests for the new organs of local administration established by the Four-Year Sejm. The analysis implemented the widely accepted typology of family households proposed by P. Laslett of Cambridge Group. It should be remembered that Old-Polish towns, like many other European towns, were to a considerable extent feminized, which was best visible in larger communities. The prevalence of females was also traceable in the oldest group. Of the elderly inhabitants about 75% of men and only 20-50% of women were married. This indicates that widowhood concerned a relatively small proportion of old men, while it was a common situation for the majority of old women. Old-Polish towns did not provide particularly favourable conditions to spend one's late years there. Women came to run their own households in different circumstances than men; it was more dependent on age. Independent households run by old men and women (people at the age of 60 or more) were by no means marginal in social life, since they constituted 14-18% of all the households headed by men (11% in Warsaw). The proportion was even higher in female households, ranging from 20% in Warsaw to 40% in smaller towns. Although social class did not have a significant impact on the time of taking over the leading position in the household, it did influence its size. The households headed by elderly men were usually nuclear families or extended families, while over 50% of women who had their own households were single. Moreover, a household headed by an elderly woman was usually 50% smaller than a male household. The shrinking of old people's households in social stratification was caused primarily by the decreasing number of children and home servants. Finally, it should be mentioned that demographic research of the past can be based on various measures of population ageing. One of the measures is the ratio of grandchildren to grandparents, which the author intends to apply in further analyses.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
SYNAT - “Interdisciplinary System for Interactive Scientific and Scientific-Technical Information”.