The Ages of Man

A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought

Nicholas Orme | Published in
  • The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought
    by J.A. Burrow - Clarendon Press, 1986 – 211pp - £19.50.
Ask anyone to name the parts of the year, and he will tell you about the four seasons. Ask him to name the stages of human life, and he will probably find it hard. A few of us dimly remember the 'seven ages of man' from As You Like It or from seeing them mimed by Marcel Marceau. But though we have plenty of terms for people of different ages, from babies to OAPs, we do not have a neat arrangement of them which we all remember, as we do with the seasons.

Classical and medieval writers were different. They saw man's life as a series of stages, varying from three to twelve depending on your view. Biologists believed in three: youth, maturity and old age. Physiologists added another – childhood, making a scheme of four to harmonise with the seasons and the humours of the body. Theologians, speculating on the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, argued for six ages, and astrologers for seven, ruled by the seven stars. Yet others saw man's life as ten 'great weeks' of seven years, or twelve 'great months'. All agreed that every age had special features. Children were frivolous, adolescents amorous, mature people proud and the elderly avaricious and loveless. The ideas got into literature, as they did into Shakespeare, and into art. Pictures of the Magi often portrayed them as men of different ages, and the six ages of men can still be seen in a window of Canterbury Cathedral.

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