(Also fulfills Pre-1800 major requirement)
This seminar will examine the human life cycle as it was experienced and interpreted by men and women of medieval Europe. Age was, then as now, a significant dimension of individual lives, and our study of specific age groups, --children, teenagers, youth, adults, and the elderly-- will expose the effect age had on the course and on the representation of life, and the ways that this effect differed with geographic location, religion, gender, ethnicity, economic status, and social rank. There was therefore diversity in the patterns of life cycles, and in the prospects that stages of life held for medieval men and women. In this sociological model of the medieval life cycle, we will consider age as an aspect of social identity. Ageing registers the passage of time. Medieval philosophers, biblical exegetes, physicians, astrologers, encyclopedists, popular preachers, artists, all inherited from classical thought an understanding of the natural order according to which the universe (macrocosm) and man (microcosm) were harmoniously bound together by numbers. Medieval texts and iconography lavishly document pre-modern understandings of the differences between the ages of man, which varied according to disciplines. Thus, in Aristotelian biology, the life cycle was ordered by the three phases of growth, perfection, and decay. Elsewhere, the temporal cycle of the four seasons was made to correspond to the four human stages of life: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and old age. Alternatively, the seven planets inspired a life divided into seven stages. The most popular system took Genesis’s six-day creation of the world as the model for the six ages of man: infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth, maturity, old age. As the stages of life came to be described on grounds of intellectual, moral, and spiritual as well as bodily change, they stimulated a great deal of thought and artistic creativity in the later Middle Ages. Of course, the medieval life course impacted the body and took place within the material world. From the perspective of daily life, the life cycle is less a series of distinct stages than an integrated whole extending from conception to the afterlife. Our study of the rituals, social customs, and institutions that created linkages between the phases of the life cycle will comprehend pregnant women and their amulets and relic girdles; children who crafted their own toys; dubbing ceremonies; the sexually explicit clothing of young men; the maintenance agreements that secured food and shelter for the elderly who had to pass on their tenancies; as well as death and burials. Medieval human existence was perceived to extend beyond death. Death was held to constitute an age group, and the dead were believed to continue a parallel social existence. Not only was their memory honored, but actions took place to ensure their well-being in the afterlife. Thus, as we connect the biographies of people with their material environment, we come to realize that our two main categories of analysis, the life cycle and the life course, have differing analytical implications.