Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
It was a commonplace for educated people of the medieval era to think in terms of the ages of man, but the bewildering multiplicity of schemes for dividing the life-span into three, four, five, six, seven or some other number of divisions tells its own story. These are abstract conventions that cannot be read as simple mirrors of social practice. Thus, for example, within the tripartite scheme, the first stage may extend well into the third decade. The stages of childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood are here compressed into a single phase, but there is little reason to believe that people in the middle ages were unable to recognise these as distinctive and with their own needs. The terminology of the ages of man schema is likewise problematic. Latin terms such as pueritia, adolescentia and iuventus suggest obvious English equivalents, but these are in fact meaningless outside the philosophical framework to which they belong. It would be unwise, however, to dismiss these systems as of no practical relevance. They may not readily translate into evidence for social practice, but they may still have influenced the way people of the time thought about themselves and each other. The effect of the schemes tends to be that maturity was achieved only slowly, but that old age was reached at an earlier age than we would expect from the perspective of our own culture of longevity.