(This lecture was repeated on 17 November 2010, as part of the British Academy's 'Medieval Week'.)
Medieval poets were fond of personification allegory for reasons that modern readers do not always find easy to appreciate. This lecture explores some of the advantages of the allegorical mode by focusing on personifications of Old Age in some of the finest medieval English and French poets: John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland and Charles d’Orléans.
Each poet in his own way shows why Old Age is suited to personification. Growing old may be a gradual process objectively, but writers from all periods confirm the subjective experience that medieval allegories bring to life, i.e. psychologically, the awareness that we have aged takes us by surprise.
These personifications of Old Age are also sensitive to the social dimension of ageing, to its indignities and humiliations. By imagining Old Age as a person with whom we have to interact socially, medieval poets were able to capture the bewilderments and embarrassments of the ageing process.
About the speaker
Ad Putter is Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Bristol. His areas of research expertise include metre and Middle English Language, medieval romance, the Gawain poet, and Arthurian literature.
Professor Ad Putter