Age and law
Source: Westfälisches Landesmuseum
für Kunst und Kunstgeschichte, Münster
The Independent Max Planck Research Group "Age and Law” is engaged in reconstructing, from a historical perspective, the segmentation of the human lifespan into stages under the influence of age-specific norms in large areas of the law. This research is taking place against the backdrop of the sometimes heated public debate prompted by the process of demographic change in European countries. Academic studies in the field of demographic and social history have made some important contributions, whereby interest has been focused on the directive effect of normative decisions. However, it is evident that society regularly redefines its interpretation of who is deemed "old” and who is deemed "young”. We postulate that the law is an important contributor to this definition. The concept of the stages of life, often depicted as a staircase, which emerged in the 16th century, offers a descriptive segmentation of life, decade by decade, without attributing any normative significance. Only with the introduction of a plethora of age limits and age-specific regulations in the 19th and 20th centuries was the human lifespan divided in normative terms into different, occasionally overlapping, segments.
Age-specific norms are not a 19th century innovation. Well before our working lives were delineated by age limits, the law specified a minimum age for accession to important offices. However, the process of definition is restricted to written statutes. In case law as well, and in the actions of administrative authorities, the age of the subjects involved plays an important role. How does one punish the young? Or the old? What is the significance of age, for example when measuring the proportionality of punishment? Answering these questions has posed new challenges for legislation, the judiciary and jurisprudence since the 19th century.
In addressing these and other questions, the Independent Max Planck Research Group studies legislative materials, police ordinances and administrative practice. The Group’s legal history research takes place in close coordination with a consideration of social and cultural history, as well as the history of thought. A regular exchange of ideas takes place with related projects at other Max Planck Institutes.