restricted access Perfect Age and Piers Plowman
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Perfect Age and Piers Plowman The English poet Patricia Beer is given to turning her hand to deeply traditional subjects. In a recent poem entitled "Seven Ages", she suggests that the tradition of codifying the ages of human life—a tradition already old when Hippocrates divided life into seven unequal parts—is rooted in man's need to provide himself with a series of role models: Anything better than the anxiety dream Of being on the stage without a part, Especially in a long play: seven acts, Although the first and last are played in darkness. Man's need to see the sequence of the ages of life represented in front of him, in whatever ways the arts or sciences of different periods find appropriate, is such a universally-felt need that it is tempting to take it for granted that our particular model of the sequence of the ages transcends the barriers of time and place. The physical facts of birth and weakness, growth and vigour, decline and death, to some extent influence every representation of the ages, but where the representations of the ages in different cultures tend to have most in common with each other is at the two ends of the sequence rather than in the middle. It has always been recoqnized that infancy and decrepit old age, the "acts...played in darkness", strangely resemble each other, whether the second childishness of the very old be attributed to Freudian regression or to the balance of bodily humours; but what happens to man's mind, body and spirit in the middle of his life has been perceived and interpreted in many different ways. W e shall not be concerned here with traditional numerical divisions of the ages, or with whether the number seven should or should not be regarded as the number associated with the Ages of Man. The history of number symbolism in general, and the writings of the Pythagorean school in particular, are of very great interest for their own sake. Yet discussions of the ways in which the Ages of Man have been represented have often been less illuminating than they might have been, given the wealth of material which they have brought to light, because such discussions tend to be organized around the numerical divisions themselves, rather than around the concepts associated with the Ages of Man topos. (One thinks particularly of Franz Boll's breathtakingly informative study, "Die Lebensalter", and the important chapter in Samuel Chew's book, The Pilgrimage of Life. ) This method of organization, by way of the number of ages represented, has been a feature of discussions of the Ages of Man ever since Classical times, and it is bound to suggest that the most significant question to be asked about any representation of the ages is: H o w many are there? A much more interesting question, though much harder to answer, might be: How has man's need to see the sequence of the ages represented in front of him influenced this particular representation of the ages? 56 M. Dove The particular representation of the ages we are concerned with in this paper i s the representation nf the aqes in Piers Plowman, nnd there i n one ; i (| i ! i . i ) n c e p t , the concept of the perfect nqe, which i s purl ieulnrly sii|nificnnl in relation to the ways in which Langland represents the Ages of Man. The best way towards an understanding of the medieval concept of the perfect age i s to see i t as a response to the memento mori implicit in any representation of the ages. For i f i t i s true that man's wish to see, or hear, or read representations of the sequence of the ages i s rooted in his need to impose a knowable shape upon what the individual experiences as frightening, unexpected and directionless physical and mental changes—"Anything better than the anxiety dream / Of being on the stage without a part"—then, once the seguence of the ages has been represented, in whatever form, the inevitability associated with stepping from one gradus, one age, to the next...