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Aging in the Fifteenth Century

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arts and theatre, men and dementia

After þat heruest inned had hise sheues,

After Harvest had drawn in his sheaves

And that the broun sesoun of Mihelmesse

And the brown season of Michaelmas

Was come, and gan the trees robbe of her leues,

Was come, and began to rob the trees of their leaves

That grene had ben and in lusty freisshenesse,

That had been green and in lusty freshness,

And hem into colour of yelownesse

And had dyed them the colour of yellow

Had died and doun throwen vndirfoote,

And thrown them down underfoot,

That change sanke into myn herte roote.

Then that change sank in to my heart’s root.

 

Thomas Hoccleve (1367-1426) is among the earliest English writer to leave us an account of his own mental illness. A professional clerk at the Office of the Privy Seal, as well as a prolific poet writing for patrons as powerful as Henry IV and Henry V, Hoccleve had a great deal to lose not only through his illness, but through the immense difficulties of writing about such an experience.

Hoccleve’s My Compleinte (c. 1419) seeks to re-make his self as a writer through the explicit – and often moving – narration of his psychological suffering and recovery.

To begin with, he re-makes a very famous passage of verse (the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) into a striking evocation of aging. Where Chaucer’s seasonal setting for the Canterbury Tales was Spring, Hoccleve’s is Autumn. Where Chaucer writes of youth, Hoccleve inverts the focus to that of age. In the Canterbury Tales, the rejuvenating action of April rain pierces down to the roots of the earth, bathing the veins and roots of plants in liquid which produces new life (and the impulse to go on pilgrimage).

Hoccleve uses the imagery of a natural world moving in the opposite seasonal direction. Harvest is over, the gloomy ‘broun’ season robs the trees of their leaves, which fall from their past green freshness to stained yellow, and then to the earth. The enervating fall of leaves and life leads to the introduction of Hoccleve’s remarkable autobiographical narration of his suffering and recovery.

More harmful, perhaps, even than the suffering itself – what Hoccleve terms his ‘wilde infirmite’ – is the tangible sense of isolation and loneliness that adheres to the experience. Those who previously made up his ‘companie’ begin to avoid and ignore him, ‘casting their heads away’ ‘Whanne I hem mette, as they not me sy’ [when I met them, as if they couldn’t see me]. It is, perhaps, this social reaction which Hoccleve’s text is designed to tackle, as the narrative develops into a virtuoso ‘series’ of textual parts designed both to demonstrate his recovery and reclaim the financial and cultural kudos he had previously enjoyed.

The sheer age of Hoccleve’s writing itself might serve to remind us of the ways in which the understanding of aging and mental illness has always been conditioned by various historical moments, its meaning shaped by cultural and social pressures and imperatives which change over time. It also, though, remains a remarkable account of the deeply troubling time when ‘the substaunce of my memorie / Went to pleie [play] as for a certain space’, and the ensuing wait for his ‘wit’ to ‘hoom [home] come agein’. 

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