14.04.07, Cochelin and Smyth, eds., Medieval Life Cycles

Main Article Content

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski

The Medieval Review 14.04.07

Cochelin, Isabelle and Karen Smyth. Medieval Life Cycles: Continuity and Change. International Medieval Research 18. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. xx, 357. ISBN: 978-2-503-54069-6.

Reviewed by:
Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski
University of Pittsburgh

Age is relative. The perception of how old you are is conditioned by your gender, your health, your status in life, and of course by the age you are when you are asked a question as to how old you feel. Nonetheless, throughout the centuries there has been a desire to classify and fix people's age. In a recent survey of 1,800 Americans aged 40 to 90, both men and women agreed that a man is old at age 70, while for women the outcome was slightly different: men said women are old at 68, while women judged women to be old at age 75. And while people in their forties said they consider 63-year olds old, people in their seventies pinpointed old age at 75. [1] Furthermore, almost half the people surveyed believed that they looked younger than their age. This preoccupation with classifying old age--and concomitantly youth, maturity, and other points of the human life cycle--is an age- old phenomenon. From Tertullian in the third century CE to Sicard in the twelfth over eighty authors tried to pin down the ages of man, but not generally of woman. These two authors represent the bookends of the extremely useful list with which Isabelle Cochelin opens this interesting and challenging volume.

The ten papers assembled here originated at the 2005 Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds whose theme was Age and Youth. The methodology and sources used span a wide range, from archeology to close readings of literary texts, to iconography and the scrutiny of monastic documents and merchants' letters. Unfortunately no information on the contributors appears in this volume. The time frame extends from Anglo-Saxon times to the sixteenth century; geographically the focus is principally on England but several articles venture onto the continent, mostly France and Germany. Given the heterogeneity of the source materials and approaches to them, no unified conclusion emerges from the book.

The Introduction by Isabelle Cochelin provides us with a glimpse of eighty-three sources (including a few non-Western ones, for whom "decrepitude" starts considerably earlier than in Western sources, usually around sixty!) that divided the human life span into four, five, six, or seven stages and assigned ages to each of them. What is striking is that monastic and secular definitions of the different life stages differ, the latter drawing more clearly on scientific and medical perspectives. Cochelin observes that before the eleventh century the concept of adulthood or middle age was largely absent from her sources, perhaps due to a reluctance, especially by monastic writers, to assign a "summit" to human life. Cochelin gives a brief summary of each of the sources represented in the tables and points out that Hildegard of Bingen was one of the very few authors to discuss both women and men in the context of the life cycle.

After the Introduction, the essays are arranged according to the life cycle, beginning with infancy and ending with old age and decrepitude.

Sally Crawford's sources are not textual but material: the bones of dead infants. She seeks archeological evidence of rites of passage, such as baptism, that would be reflected in burial practices in order to determine at what point a baby became a child. Before the tenth century infants were missing from the "mortuary population" in England (65); it was the growing Christianization that led to more burials of infants within church cemeteries. Unbaptized or stillborn infants were supposed to be buried outside of consecrated ground but the presence of their bones in Anglo-Saxon churchyards proves "that those responsible for burying babies felt unable to comply with the cruel burial regulations for unbaptized children" (71), such as putting a stake through their hearts. This kind of link between archeological evidence and people's emotions is very intriguing.

Mary Dzon, in by far the longest (and nicely illustrated) article in the volume, scrutinizes the concept of the "wanton boy" in accounts of Christ's childhood, especially a version found in University of Minneapolis manuscript Z822N81. An overview of the semantic field of the word "wanton" indicates that it meant "unrestrained, uneducated, playful sporting" (86), sometimes even sinful, but that it did not have the sexual connotations it acquired later. Dzon also investigates questions of gender when she compares budding male and female saints: saintly boys can be recognized by their lack of rambunctiousness, while saintly girls distinguish themselves by avoiding the vanity and spitefulness evident in their playmates. So was Christ a "wanton boy?" Yes, if we are to believe the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew preserved in the fifteenth-century Minnesota manuscript. The Christ boy kills his playmates and a schoolmaster (only to resurrect them later), never does his chores, he is a know-it-all, does not pray enough, and is rude and unteachable. Dzon places this unflattering and surprising portrait of the wanton Christ child into the context of anti-Judaism and incarnational theology. This text, coming from a devotional manuscript that may very well have been a preacher's handbook, as Dzon argues, proves that Christ was a true human, a troublesome and "wanton" boy on the path to immortality.

Isabelle Cochelin moves us from childhood to adolescence by focusing on the changing images of adolescents emerging from four Cluniac customaries (tenth to twelfth centuries). According to Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny from 1122 to 1156, men could not "profess" before age twenty, but they could enter the monastery. Once there, the teenagers acquired a guardian who had to keep them separate at meals and prayers, for example, and who helped them control their libido. For Peter, adolescents were still children. But Cochelin traces a new conceptualization of adolescence (ages fifteen to nineteen) in that time period, one centered on rebellion. In hagiographic sources after ca. 1120 we find the rebellious teenager who questions secular authority and turns toward monasticism. The "passive" tenth-century Odo of Cluny, for example, is now eclipsed by the active and rebellious type of saint, like the early twelfth-century Hugh of Semur.

Jessie Sherwood also focuses on teenage rebellion, but here in the context of Jewish converts to Christianity. She reminds her readers of the unreliability of conversion narratives centered on teenagers (the Jewish ones often simply reproducing the model of the adolescent Christian saints who find their true faith as adolescents) as well as of the flexibility of the term adolescent, which could include married men in their late twenties. While there is only one extant documentary reference to a child convert, exemplary tales have many of them. The case histories (Jacob of Regensburg, Elizabeth of Linz, and Catherine of Louvain) Sherwood presents here are of teenagers who "openly derided their parents" (196) and converted. The juxtaposition of the stories of Herman-Judah (probably the most studied conversion autobiography) and Guillaume de Flaix who also wrote about his conversion reveals that it was believed that younger converts could be more easily molded into Christians even though they were not usually ready to convert by themselves against their parents' wishes. Indeed, almost all documented cases show children and adolescents converting together with their parents.

Christian Kuhn, the only male contributor to the volume, transports us into sixteenth-century Germany into the heart of the powerful merchant family of the Tuchers. As they do today, parents wanted to keep in touch with their children, however far-flung they may have been. In the Tucher family 2000 letters attest to this desire, 200 of which are "intergenerational" (211). Kuhn's insights on this period's educational practices come from nuanced close readings of father-son communications, albeit limited to the elite. Being mindful of the problem of authenticity versus normativity in these types of texts, Kuhn shows that these letters reflect "traditional discourses and images of generational norms" (235) but at the same time open a window into the specificity of the Tuchers, in all their complicated and moving family dynamics.

Deborah Youngs wants to know whether medieval adulthood was seen as the prime of life or as a midlife crisis. Unlike youth and old age, adulthood was not "problematized" in the Middle Ages (240). There was a sense that adulthood represented a kind of zenith, a bridge between youth and old age that did not carry the burden of the negative aspects associated with either of them. Adulthood was defined by its qualities rather than by chronological age and had to be constantly "performed and demonstrated" (250). Differentiated by gender, adults needed to fulfill societal expectations: marriage and children for women, professional accomplishments for men. The self-reflection and soul searching brought about by adulthood, Youngs insists, had nothing narcissistic about it but was a sign of the ongoing battle against sin, exacerbated by the consciousness of being "adult."

Sue Niebrzydowski focuses on a one middle-aged individual, the ubiquitous fourteenth-century Margery Kempe. An inveterate pilgrim, she made many journeys and this article's achievement is to pinpoint how old Margery was for each displacement, how far she went, and for how long. After childbearing was the ideal time for a medieval woman to depart on pilgrimage. Table 3 reveals that in her late thirties and forties Margery traveled widely, then spent ten years in ill health, and resumed travel in her sixties. Many of her trips were "themed" (281), that is attempted copies of Saint Bridget of Sweden, Angela of Foligno, and Dorothea of Montau (not Mantau, as Niebrzydowski writes; 282). Just when the reader looks for a synthesis of the author's findings the article ends very abruptly.

With Philippa Semper's piece we finally arrive at "cold and snuffly" old age; these are the characteristics highlighted by the philosophical and medical discourses inherited from antiquity which center on the decay and deterioration caused by old age. But Semper wants to get away from normative texts and look for other sources for the definition of old age. She finds them in Beowulf and some Old English and Norse poems (the dates of which are no always indicated) where wise old heroes abound, as well as in some homiletic texts which remind us that we will always be young in heaven! Nonetheless, we must age on earth and it is good to be a saint, for old saints are filled with wisdom and show endurance and experience "spiritual growth" (312) in face of even the worst infirmities.

Karen Smyth's final article is articulated along three axes: the life cycle as related to the nation, Everyman, and the self in Lydgate's Fall of Princes and Troy Book. Challenging accepted notions of medieval time as cyclical and modern time as linear, Smyth presents a complex reading of Lydgate's two works (translations are not always provided) which shows that finally there is no "static formula" (346) that could describe the different stages of life. In the fifteenth century, Smyth concludes, any particular evaluation of the worth of any stage of the life cycle over another has vanished. Different genres and authors' goals determine what is good or bad when it comes to a given age. This article would have benefited from some streamlining and some signposting, especially for readers unfamiliar with Lydgate.

The editors have brought together a heterogeneous but enlightening group of articles that illuminate the life cycle from many different perspectives. No overarching conclusion emerges and in a way this is the book's strength. Moving away from the normative life cycle texts the authors demonstrate that age was just as relative in past centuries as it is today.



1. AARP magazine, February-March 2014, p. 42.

Article Details

Author Biography

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski

University of Pittsburgh