Being Middle Aged in the Middle Ages

As part of my project on neurodegenerative conditions in the medieval period, I have been doing some reading on getting older in the Middle Ages. I’ve been gripped by fifteenth century accounts of what happens to the body as a person shuffles towards, and off, the end of their mortal coil. What occurs before one bites the dust, turns up their toes, conks out, shakes off the clog of dull mortality, or kicks the metaphorical bucket? I’ve been reading about lapses in memory, grey hair, baldness, wrinkled foreheads, dimming eyesight, and dullness of hearing.

What has struck me as even more interesting than elderly age, is the late-medieval idea of how the body makes its progress towards its elderly years. It’s what we might call being ‘middle aged’ but what the late-medieval Italian writer Gabriele Zerbi named  ‘old age’ as opposed to ‘final old age’. In other words, the years in which the body begins to ‘decline imperceptibly and grow old in silent years’ (Ovid, Fasti, 6.771). Zerbi, writing about how to have a longer and more comfortable old age, looked back to his classical and early medieval sources for information about how this gradual decline happened. The ‘middle age’ is a subject that still fascinates us today: why does Tony Blair look so old and frail at 56? How  does one’s behaviour at age 45 or 50 relate to one’s health at 70 or 80? Why has Kristin Scott Thomas been de-eroticised for being 53? In her latest film, she was cast as Ralph Fiennes’ lover’s mother, whereas she was his lover in the nineties flick, The English Patient. As Scott Thomas says, she feels neither here nor there:

“I’m sort of, as the French would say, ‘stuck between two chairs’, because I’m no longer 40 and sort of a seductress, and I’m not yet a granny.” (Kristin Scott Thomas, The Guardian, Jan 2014)

Zerbi’s treatise rarely mentioned women (though he did say that they are good at raising chickens). However, he did have a lot to say about the experience of being middle aged for men. It should be acknowledged that though medieval people did not have the truncated lives that we sometimes imagine, the average life expectancy of late-medieval men who survived infancy was only somewhere between 45 and 53 [1]. Many lived longer, of course, especially if they were supported by their own, or a religious institution’s, deep and full pockets. It’s just that, if we were to observe a line of people queuing for their state pensions (if they had existed), it would have been much shorter and much less diverse than it is today! Though lives were not brutal and short, the idea of a ‘middle age’ would not have applied to those aged between their forties and sixties as it does today. On the contrary, Zerbi said that one begins to be ‘old’ when one passes thirty five.

To look forward into the early modern period, Shakespeare’s As You Like It divides life neatly into seven stages:

(1) infancy,

(2) boyhood,

(3) the youthful lover,

(4) the slightly older, but still lively, soldier,

Then there’s the one stage that represents middle age: (5) the judge, with his round belly, his severe eyes, his sensible speech and his well-trimmed beard. It seems that, for Shakespeare, expanding upon the Horacian idea of a four-stage life in which mature manhood was immediately followed by decrepitude, middle age represented a quiet time at which the body remained composed, but nonetheless showed signs of slowing down. This fifth stage was characterised by a decline in youthful sexual energy and excitement. Unruly beards were tamed, girths were expanded, the mouth began to utter wise sayings, and the eyes relinquished their youthful twinkle.

And what came directly after this period of serious and robust health?

“…second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” (2.7.143-70)

However, for medieval people who were able to stop working, old age may not have been a completely terrifying prospect. High-status household scribes, clergymen, and government clerks might have been offered the opportunity to slow down and relinquish some of their paid duties, whilst still receiving a maintenance allowance: an annuity or ‘corody’. Rather than putting their feet up, they may have taken the opportunity to do things that their hard-working middle age had not enabled them to do. Thus, John Trevisa, John Fortesque, William Worcester, and Geoffrey Chaucer, all clerks, lawyers, or civil servants who slogged hard in their official capacities, produced their proudest personal literary pieces and  ‘hobby work’ in their latest years.

Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, The National Trust. Ms 20, f. 13v

St Mark, checking his quill. Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, The National Trust. Ms 20, f. 13v

The men who spent their elder years writing beautiful manuscript books rarely began their working lives doing so. As Joel Rosenthal pointed out, they were often literate men without a lot of money, who made their names and money doing hard work for the church, in administrative household positions or in civil service [2]. Once they’d earned their bread and butter, put some money by, and had begun to build up a reputation and network of contacts, they’d began to seek patrons who would fund literary masterpieces. Thus, a scribe’s 20s or 30s could be dull compared to his 40s and 50s, when he might begin to dip his quill into more prestigious projects. To give just one example: Geoffrey Spirleng, who penned a copy of The Canterbury Tales in his forties, spent his youth writing notes and running errands for a Norfolk chaplain. One can imagine, then, that middle age could be a time of eager anticipation, looking forward to an old age that would afford some free time. The only problem with this was the risk that, upon retirement, one’s faculties would flee as quickly as one’s official duties.

As the old saying goes: “youth is wasted on the young”

Incidentally, Gabriele Zerbi was assassinated in 1505, by the slaves of a Turkish pasha whose life he could not prolong! C’est la vie.

440px-Domenico_ghirlandaio,_ritratto_di_nonno_con_nipote

An Old Man and his Grandson, ca. 1490, by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Louvre, Paris.

[1] Joel Rosenthal, Old age in Late Medieval England (University of Pennsylvania Press: 1996), 3

[2] Rosenthal, Old age,  166.

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