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22.08.05 Rogers, Writing Old Age and Impairments in Late Medieval England

22.08.05 Rogers, Writing Old Age and Impairments in Late Medieval England

The old MAN is often found in some of the more familiar pieces of Middle English literature (and in Shakespeare). Following the familiar path of Cicero’s De Senectute (perhaps first blazed by Aristotle and then followed by such as Juvenal and Maximianus) and oft repeated by numerous medieval writers, our old man is apt to be depicted as facing in two directions: aware of the decline in physical (and sexual: “unlust may nat to live attaine/ And says that love is but verray dotage”) and mental powers that comes with old age and yet--or simultaneously--standing as a sage, now endowed with the wisdom of the years and a knowledge of the past that only he is entitled to enunciate and transmit.

In this survey of this theme as displayed in such familiar writings as those of Hoccleve, Gower, Chaucer, and Caxton, among others, Rogers makes use of the idea of a “prosthetic,” and “impairment”--aids to and in support of the role of the old man--to bring home this two-faced reality that incorporates both lived experience and its literary depictions. As there is much similarity in the human condition across years and cultures, so medieval thinking about the condition of and the role of the aged--whether welcomed or to be dreaded--has these late medieval writers, plus Shakespeare in Pericles, falling into a long queue that includes Innocent III for his De Contemptu Mundi, among others who wrote in this vein. In a study designed to look at how “old age might have been culturally and socially constructed,” Rogers turns to The Parlement of Thre Ages and Wynnere and Wastoure as literary case studies in the way “Elde” uses narrative--one of his tools or weapons--as a prosthetic to compensate for those impairments that are part of the human condition. As events and thoughts of and taken from the Past point us to previous events and writings and therefore to olden times, telling of them--in both historical and literary depictions--become the property of that aged speaker. The years may “disfegurede my face and fadide my hewe” but these inevitable albeit natural “impediments produce the moral authority of Elde” (33), since at least in their literary depictions, “narratives of impairment and incompleteness prove powerful” (15).

Chaucer’s Reeve fits into this pattern, emphasizing--like other voices who can be heard (read) on this theme--that “one of the advantages of age is its release from youthful desire and impulse” (47). Rogers traces some of sources for Chaucer’s theme or depiction to the widely known thirteenth century treatise,Husbandry, supposedly authored by one Walter of Henley and in which the aging landlord-father is passing on his wisdom to his son, or so he would like to do in a debate setting similar to what we find in the Reeve’s tale. Hoccleve, and then Caxton, as his printer, also join the line of those who write about these two-sided aspects of aging. The autobiographical passages in Hoccleve introduce the worries of “financial woe” along with those of old age, much as Caxton will later look to publish texts that he hopes will give him a comfortable return in his own old age. For both men, “work, and writing in particular, becomes something of a substitute for the miseries of age” (77), though Hoccleve is also quite willing to talk of the more personal problems of his stomach, his back, and his eyes. And Caxton, who published Cicero’s well-known treatise in a Middle English translation for Sir John Fastolf who was now “lyuyng the age of four score yere” (89) as an indication of a healthy public interest in writings that shed light on various aspects of the “ages of man” theme. The final case study links Gower to Shakespeare by way of the latter’s relying heavily for his (or for his share of) “Pericles.” Shakespeare drew heavily on Gower’s adaptation of the Latin Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri which Gower had included in his Confessio Amantis (to the extent of almost 2000 lines).

There is a fair amount of sameness in Rogers’ treatment of the various authors under examination. However, he expands a theme of universal interest. Two critical comments. One is that this book is almost entirely focused on the way its basic theme is treated in literature. The almost total absence of references to the demographic profile of medieval England gives it a rather one-sided perspective or context, with almost no reference to what we know about the actual presence of the Elde (including some women, they being totally excluded in the literary treatment) in the world that read these major authors. The other criticism points to a very dense prose style, one that might be an obstacle for even a canny graduate student. But to summarize this short monograph, it points us to an issue of perennial interest and it pries out an interesting run of ambivalent views about the pluses and the minuses of the human condition as it chalks up the experiences seven or eight decades or even nine decades.