One of the key aims of this book is to offer a synthesis of the main findings of current research on age. It is intended as an outline survey and consequently the scope of the book is deliberately broad: it covers two centuries, considers the large land mass of Western Europe with its diverse languages, customs and cultures, and ranges across the social spectrum. The book focuses solely on the Christian West, including consideration on the extent to which social rank influenced life expectancy, the methods and goals of upbringing, marriage patterns and funerary memorialisation. The book also demonstrates how extensive that range can be. Examples are drawn from manorial accounts, tax assessments, spiritual writings, didactic literature, romances, elegies, art and architecture. The main thrust is that age formed an essential part of a person's identity in late medieval Europe. During adolescence, men and women progressively took on their adult roles. Three chapters are devoted to educating girls. The book discusses young people's period of transition between childhood and adulthood. It draws attention to pious young women who fought against marriage and wanted a chaste life. Divergences between northern and southern Europe in terms of marriage patterns, family formation, opportunities for women and attitudes towards death and its rituals are discussed. The book shows that attitudes towards the undeveloped young meant that children had few legal responsibilities. Another aim of the book is to consider the changing opportunities and possibilities for people as they progressed through life.
This chapter aims to survey and assess the studies on what might be called literary or reading networks. It focuses on a highly literate group of book owners and writers connected with the household of Sir John Fastolf at Caister Castle, Norfolk. The richness of the information on the Fastolf household and East Anglian culture is well known and may lead to doubts that such an approach to literary and regional networks can be adopted for other lesser known groups and areas. When Raymond Williams stated that 'culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language', he probably did not have 'gentry' and 'networks' in his mind as the other two. The chapter highlights the problematic nature of those three words, separately and in combination.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The main thrust of this book is that age formed an essential part of a person's identity in late medieval Europe. It discusses theories of ageing in a range of medieval literature, demonstrating the tendency to group people together on the basis of age and to employ terms to denote childhood, adolescence, youth, adulthood and old age. It is the case that medieval society may have understood these terms to refer to different chronological ages or reflect different qualities from those understood by modern society. The book also considers the changing opportunities and possibilities for people as they progressed through life. A number of studies have drawn attention to divergences between northern and southern Europe in terms of marriage patterns, family formation, opportunities for women and attitudes towards death and its rituals.
The modern view of the Middle Ages is that life was brutal and short. It is a common assumption that people in medieval society did not know and did not invest much importance in knowing their age. Medieval society also used chronological age as a way to control the development of the person, regulating his or her full entry into society. Chronological age was merely one way of signifying age, and only one indicator of a person's capabilities. In modern theories of ageing individuals may be described in terms of having a physiological age, a social or cultural age, or a functional age. This chapter shows that age theory and classification were found in a wide range of late medieval writings. Medieval society was not interested in doing was testing theory by gathering and using statistics to calculate birth rates, mortality rates and life expectancy.
The first years of life were arguably the most dramatic of the medieval life cycle. Infancy, the first stage, was said to last until two or four, but most commonly seven; it was followed by a later stage of childhood lasting until the early teens. Qualities said to distinguish childhood, and more specifically infancy, from other age groups are a contradictory mix of incapacity, evil, naivety, innocence and hope. A wide range of literary and visual sources supported the view of the hapless infant. Among the noble and gentry families of Europe it was common for the infant to be given to a nurse in the same way as all the routine tasks of the household were performed by hired servants. The practice of wet-nursing has received a fair amount of modern criticism for militating against close child-parent relations.
This chapter considers the forms that vocational training took and the options available to the growing child in the years 1300-1500. The period 1300-1500 witnessed a growing number of voices expressing the value of literacy skills and formal education to individual, familial, spiritual and commercial development. The Church had made the provision of schooling a canonical requirement. For both sexes and across social groups, education was directed at providing them with the skills required for adult life. Since the nineteenth century, the fundamentals of a child's early education in Western Europe have been reading, writing and arithmetic. Schools are the main forums for this training, as well as providing common cultural and social experiences for five-to-fourteen-year-olds. For the aristocratic boy, later childhood saw him move out of the domestic sphere and the world of women, be that nursery or nunnery, and into the public arena for training among men.
This chapter considers those in their teens and twenties whom society recognised as physically young and still in a developmental stage. It focuses on the image of and attitudes towards youths and the opportunities open to them. The growing strength of the youth's body was matched by an increasing sharpness in the mind. Youth has had an association with social disorder, and the young in late medieval society were no exception. Beyond theory, medieval society at large acknowledged the existence of young people who were going through a period of formation and transformation before full adulthood. This might be because they were still pursuing education and employment training, had not yet received their inheritance, or had not yet married and taken responsibility for their own lives and those of others. The chapter highlights the type of training and life experiences gained by adolescents as they gradually assumed their adult roles.
Adulthood is culturally conditioned, a social category, and its attributes and meanings have changed over time and across cultures. This chapter investigates what the achievement of maturity meant in the later medieval period, the entrance points to this phase, and the experience of adulthood. While behavioural and physical qualities frequently lay behind definitions of maturity, there were a number of 'events' that marked the progression to adulthood. Of these, the closest to a universal rite of passage was marriage. Marrying in late medieval Europe was a process that marked the establishment of a new social and spiritual union. Marriage, parenthood, inheritance, and the establishment of one's own business or an official governing position were key transitional points, as they had transformative qualities that changed a person's status. The chapter also focuses on female widowhood because widowers had far less prominence than widows in medieval Europe.
The final stages of the life cycle witnessed the ageing of the individual to the point where he or she would be identified as 'old' or 'aged'. In twenty-first-century Britain, chronological age has a key role in defining the entry into senior citizenship. Sixty-five is the official age for retirement and pension entitlement. While medieval writers employed chronological age markers, they preferred identifying an old person in terms of appearance, or by mental and physical capabilities. With the introduction of state pensions in the twentieth-century Britain, old age became associated with retirement, and a clear distinction is drawn between the working, active young and the inactive old. There were no state pensions or universal work benefits in medieval Europe. The chapter also shows that the elderly in medieval society were stereotyped as physically weak, and exemptions from war and administrative responsibilities imply that some old people were given age-related assistance.
Death naturally marks the end of life. In late medieval descriptions of the ages of man, death followed decrepitude, the final stage of old age. It is easy to assume that death cast a long shadow over life in late medieval Europe. This chapter discusses the types of arrangements and rituals surrounding a person's last moments on earth, and the planning needed by those wishing to perpetuate the memory of her or his life. The funeral rites marked the stage of transition as the dead person was taken on a one-way journey from the place of the living (usually domestic) to that of the dead (a sacred setting). Like the death-bed rituals, funerals assisted the healing processes associated with loss. Burial physically removed the dead and the process of decay from the eyes of the living.