Life Spans

Denton Fox

  • The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought by J.A. Burrow
    Oxford, 211 pp, £19.50, May 1986, ISBN 0 19 811188 6

It is very fitting that a book dealing largely with the various ways in which the human life-span has been neatly divided into ‘ages’ should itself have an elegant and symmetrical structure. The book is divided into two halves, each with two chapters and 94 pages. The first half analyses the various schemes that existed for dividing man’s life into periods: in the first chapter, the ‘scientific’ schemes made by biologists, physiologists, astrologers; in the second chapter, schemes made by those who ‘seek to relate the ages of man to temporal patterns observable elsewhere – in the cycles of year, month and day, and in the linear time of history’. In the second half, Burrow turns from theory to practice, and examines how, in Medieval narratives, people are praised or blamed for conforming, or for not conforming, to the natural pattern of a man’s life. Chapter Three, on the ‘transcendence’ ideal, shows how men were praised for rising above the natural order: the most obvious example is the young saint who, though a child in years, already has the wisdom natural to an old man. (This chapter is symmetrical with Chapter Two: both have just 40 pages, and both are concerned especially with ‘preachers, exegetes and historians’.) Chapter Four, on the ‘nature’ ideal, shows how men were praised for following the natural order, or, more often, blamed for not following it: the most obvious example is the senex amans, the old man who makes himself ridiculous by posing as a lover. (This chapter is symmetrical with the first chapter, which is titled ‘Nature’, and which also has 54 pages.)

Since the ‘ages of man’ is a subject both very messy and very large, one is grateful for Burrow’s clarity and economy. But his concision does not come from any superficial treatment of the evidence. In the introduction he notes that he has not tried to be inclusive in his treatment of Latin, French or Italian writings, but adds: ‘So far as writings in English are concerned, I can claim that I have probably missed no major evidence in Anglo-Saxon and possibly missed no more than a few in the much larger field of Middle English.’ This is a challenge to a reviewer, but one soon finds that what Burrow means is not, as one might think, that he has looked through most of the relevant published documents, but that while he has examined many Middle English manuscripts, there are possibly relevant ones (many manuscripts are not properly catalogued) that he has missed. All I can proffer is a reference to a sermon for a boy bishop by Bishop Alcock (In die innocencium sermo pro episcopo puerorum, published by Wynkyn de Worde, and so perhaps too late for Burrow) in which there is an interesting scheme for the ages of man based partly on the Calends, Nones and Ides of the Roman month, and not paralleled in Burrow’s book. There is also a bit from Luther’s Tabletalk that Burrow probably excluded as being outside his range – though it is more perceptive than most of the descriptions of the ages of man that he quotes.

The first is Infancie, then childehood, in which they are to bee accustomed to studie and Arts. In the fourteenth year they begin to look into the world. Then they must bee instructed in greater matters. In the twentieth year they look after greater things, and marriage. In the eight and twentieth year they are hous-keepers and fathers of families. In the 35 year they are emploied either in the Common-wealth or Church. In the 42 year they are Governors, and afterward their senses fail.

Armed with Burrow’s book, one can classify this as a happily truncated version of the ten-age (‘year-week’) scheme, which, as he remarks, does not work well for the later part of life.

But, as our masters are prone to ask these days, what is the utility and social significance of this project? As Burrow says, the various schemes give no good answers to someone who wants to know, for instance, at what age one became an adult. The schemes are traditional and are often based as much on arithmetical proportions as on experience; the terminology is confused; different schemes become muddled together. If, for instance, one consults Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s encyclopedia (which Burrow quotes), one will find that one becomes a young adult (juventus, translated by Trevisa as ‘youth’) at the age of 21, or 28, or 30, or 35, and leaves this age at 45, or at 50.

Nor are the various schemes very satisfying in themselves: Burrow himself suggests this in his epigraph from Petrarch: ‘what is the use of such divisions [of man’s life]? Invent as many little parts as you please, they vanish every one almost at once, in the twinkling of an eye.’ Aristotle’s division of man’s life into periods of growth, stasis and decline is sensible enough, but hardly startling. The common division into four periods, with its foundation on the four basic qualities of hot and cold, dry and moist, relates the microcosm to the macrocosm in a pleasing way: childhood, for instance, is moist and hot, and so is linked to the season of spring and the element of air. The trouble is that neither of the two alternate schemes that existed really works, for reasons that Burrow explains. A more basic trouble, perhaps, is that no analogy between a natural cycle and man’s life is very satisfactory, since man, in his self-consciousness, is all too aware that, for him, the cycle will not start again. All of the great commonplaces on this subject, from ‘As the generations of leaves, so are the generations of men’ to ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’, depend for their power on the implicit irony that, in Catullus’s words:

Sunnes, that set, may rise againe:
But if once we loose this light,
’Tis, with us, perpetuall night.

If we must have utility, some is to be found as a by-product of the main achievement of the first half of the book, the disentangling and tracing of the various schemes of the ages of man – an achievement which of course needs no justification. Anyone who wants to edit – or even to understand – a passage in which this topos occurs, now has the tool that he needs. The best known example in English is Jaques’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech in As You Like It. Burrow shows that beyond any doubt this speech is based on the astrological division of man’s life into seven parts corresponding to the seven planets, from the Moon (infancy) to Saturn (old age). But Jaques, in accordance with his temperament, omits the age of the Sun, ‘the strong, flourishing and beautiful age of man’s life’, and instead has both a Saturnian age and an additional age for senility. In this particular case, Burrow was anticipated by other scholars, but not by Shakespearian editors. He remarks that the inadequacy of the note to this passage in the New Arden edition is ‘extraordinary’, but the other recent editions I have looked at (Cambridge, London, New Penguin, Pelican) are little better, though of course some of them are lightly annotated throughout. This would seem to be more evidence, if more is needed, that a lot of Shakespeare has been inadequately annotated – whether because editors are more interested, on the one hand, in establishing a text, and, on the other hand, in writing long introductions explaining what the play is about, than they are in explaining what passages mean, or because economic pressures drive publishers and editors into producing a multitude of similar editions, succinctly and inadequately annotated.

But the tool Burrow has provided us with is a specialised tool, one that is invaluable for certain purposes but should not be used indiscriminately – though it probably will be. One looks forward without enthusiasm to a series of articles that purport to unlock the secrets of Medieval works by applying a four-age or a six-age grid to them. Burrow himself is notably restrained: he points out that many people would have known little about the ages of man, and that even the more learned might have been made uncertain by the existence of so many conflicting schemes. The second half of his book is filled with excellent literary criticism, but he makes only sparse use of the formal systems. In his earlier article, ‘Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and the Three Ages of Man’, he disagrees with those who have attempted to apply four-age and seven-age schemes to the poem, and instead looks principally at what is actually there: youth (Palamon, Arcite, Emily), middle age (Theseus) and old age (Egeus).

To many, the most interesting aspect of the book will be that Burrow, drilling down through the past in pursuit of his topos, has brought back a long solid core in which one can see, in an unusually vivid and concrete way, parts of the intellectual life of the Middle Ages. One can see, for instance, Greek science being preserved in various ways: by Bede, using some late Hippocratic epitome; by Macrobius and Censorinus; by Constantinus Africanus and the other 11th and 12th-century translators of Graeco-Arabic medical treatises – and of Ptolemaeus’s Tetrabiblos; by William of Moerbeke’s 13th-century translations of Aristotle. This list is neither novel nor complete, but what is interesting is that Burrow shows, very tangibly, what gets into Latin and how it is transmitted further – how, for instance, a bit of Aristotle is summarised by Giles of Rome in his De Regimine Principum, and so becomes familiar to a very wide audience. Or one can see the long shadows cast by the powerful minds of the Fathers: Augustine’s musings on the first half of a cryptic Biblical verse (Isaiah 65: 20) reappear in Aelfric, John Mirk, perhaps Pearl; Gregory’s interpretation of the second half of the verse influences not only Bede and Aelfric but Petrarch and various Middle English works, including such an unlikely one as Dunbar’s ‘Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo’. As Burrow claims, his first two chapters illustrate ‘how the ideas of ancient auctores – Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Augustine, and the rest – flowed through the Middle Ages in many different channels: sermons and Bible commentaries, moral and political treatises, encyclopedias and lexicons, medical and astrological handbooks, didactic and courtly poetry, tapestries and wall-paintings, table decorations and stained-glass windows.’

In the last two chapters, where Burrow discusses especially Old and Middle English literature, he drives a similar path through this material. His basic argument is simple enough, though powerful. In the Old English period, men are praised for transcending the limits of their age – the saint who in childhood has the wisdom and decorum of an old man, or Beowulf, wise when young but the most powerful of men when he is old. Youth is thought of as a handicap, and wisdom and old age are valued and linked – frod can mean either wise or old. But in the later period, starting first in France in the 12th century, there is a cult of youth, a cult at times so extreme that one wonders if the young French of the period, like those of the Fifties, had their own schemes of the ages of man, in which those over twenty were given, according to the decade of their age, various opprobrious titles – les son-et-lumière and the like. Those who seek to transcend their age are treated with contempt, like the senex amans, or at best with suspicion, like the preternaturally wise and decorous child. Though this argument is doubtless correct, it needs to be qualified and adjusted, which Burrow does with great skill. The pleasures of these chapters again come largely from the specific problems taken up – for instance, the interesting difficulty caused by the double nature of Christ, since he must both be perfectly wise from infancy and also, as an exemplary human, increase in wisdom – or from the concrete examples: for example, the difference between ‘old’ in ‘the Beowulf-poet’s description of the dragon’s barrow as “eald enta geweorc”, the ancient work of giants’, and in the contemptuous description in Gawain of the Green Chapel as ‘nobot an olde cave’.

This book is likely to be about as permanent as scholarly books ever are: other people may add footnotes to it, but I cannot believe that it will ever be superseded. What one is especially grateful for, though, is its grace and size: it is the very strong but perfectly clear distillate of a great amount of labour and thought.