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.

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