By Ad Putter
British Academy Review, Issue 17 (2011)
Introduction: It is statistically likely that more of us will see Old Age than did our ancestors in medieval England. The period after the Black Death, which arrived in 1348 but returned in waves thereafter, was particularly depressing for life expectancy. Records from the city of Florence provide some indicative figures: the life expectancy there was 40 in 1300; in 1375, after the plague, it had gone down to 18. It might be thought, then, that poets from this period would not have much relevant to say about what getting old feels like, especially since they were also writing at a time when personification allegory had become the dominant form. In allegorical fiction, feelings (e.g. Hope, Love, Hate) and abstract concepts (e.g. Youth and Old Age) behave as if they were people (or objects), in obvious violation of the laws of physics. Can we really expect to learn anything about ageing from later medieval allegories?
I would like to consider that question with reference to a ballade by Charles d’Orléans. Charles defied statistical averages: he died in 1465, aged 70. Such longevity was not in fact all that unusual, despite the average life expectancy, which was distorted by the large numbers of childhood deaths in the period. If you survived into adulthood, chances were that you would live for another 30 years or more.
If Charles d’Orléans had reasons for being conscious about his age, these reasons were altogether different. Marking time for 25 years as a political hostage, he must have felt that his best years were slipping away from him, so the topic of ageing naturally weighed on his mind. He was only 20 when he was captured at the battle of Agincourt and separated from his wife Bonne d’Armagnac. She died when he was around 40, still stuck in England; he was coming up for 45 when he was finally released. Now the life of a royal hostage like Charles was not like that of modern prisoners, and recent scholarship has discredited the false image of Charles pining away in harsh confinement. It is better to imagine Charles as an involuntary guest; he participated in the social life of his custodians and even learned to speak and write English. Yet the revisionist idea of Charles comfortably lodged with cultured and congenial hosts is equally false, for a man who is enjoying himself cannot be held to an extortionate ransom. In Charles’s case, the price of freedom was set at 240,000 écus. He paid it willingly.