Old Age before Modernity
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Ribémont, Bernard: The Representation of Old Age in French Medieval Literature, in: Neumann, Christian Alexander (Ed.): Old Age before Modernity: Case Studies and Methodological Perspectives, 500 BC ‒ 1700 AD, Heidelberg: Heidelberg University Publishing, 2023 (Online-Schriften des DHI Rom. Neue Reihe – Pubblicazioni online del DHI Roma. Nuova serie, Vol. 8), p. 123-146. https://doi.org/10.17885/heiup.1086.c14936

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Published 23.02.2023.


Bernard Ribémont

The Representation of Old Age in French Medieval Literature

Abstract Our Western society has inherited a paradoxical and ambivalent view of old age from Antiquity, but above all from the Middle Ages. Although old age has been analysed with respect to selected works of French medieval literature, a more comprehensive and systematic treatment is still lacking, which is a gap that this paper aims to fill. It intends to propose an overview of medieval literary texts of various genres – epics, courtly romances, satires and allegorical poetry – in order to understand how old age was perceived and represented. Sometimes, the fictional literary works integrate knowledge from nonfictional texts such as encyclopaedias and medical treatises. When old age is portrayed, a broad panorama of positive and negative attributes and topoi are employed: on the one hand, wisdom, counsel, prowess, and exemplary behaviour, while on the other hand, the loss of mental and psychic abilities, physical frailty, ugliness and marginality. The main focus will be placed on questions of gender, which still deserve more attention. It will be examined to what extent the portrayal of male and female old age differs, whether the representation of each gender is balanced in itself or is rather onesided, to what extent the physical and psychological changes occurring during old age are correlated, and finally, how much the comparisons of old age to the other stages of life and interactions between older and younger characters matter.