The Gravity of Old Age in an Old Era

Why the theme of old age was so important and focused on in the Middle Ages

The perceptions we have of old may age stem from the Middle Ages.

It is undeniable that The Canterbury Tales are Geoffrey Chaucer’s magnum opus. Its twenty-four stories carefully intertwine a complex collection of themes, with each tale tackling different elements which, when combined, form the crux of The Canterbury Tales.

Among the numerous themes undertaken in the work, there is one that relates to every living being on Earth, and that is old age. Aging is universal; that is, every organism experiences the aging process, which eventually leads to death. The third story of The Canterbury Tales, The Reeve’s Tale, is the tale which focuses upon old age and uses it as its primary theme.

The Reeve’s Tale, like most stories in The Canterbury Tales, is split into a prologue and the tale itself. The tale stars Oswald, an old wealthy estate manager who works with his younger master. Chaucer does not pull strings when it comes to Oswald’s age, as we are immediately informed of his old age; barely ten lines into the prologue, the Reeve states in lines 3867–3870:

“But ik am oold; me list not pley for age; Gras tyme is doon; my fodder is now forage; This white top writeth myne olde yeris; Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris.”

Here, the Reeve uses a variety of metaphors to reiterate that he is of old age: that his fodder is now like dry straw, with his white hair representing his old age, and that his heart is moldy and rotten.

A typical metaphor Chaucer uses for the advancement of age is the progression of the year, with its seasons: spring is typically representative of young age, and as the year progresses, so does age; by the end of the year, winter has come, which represents old age. This reaffirms the place of age in Chaucer’s understanding of time at the end of a year, as he often compares time to old age, with the advancement of time correlating to the advancement of age.

This is relevant in the Reeve’s line “Gras tyme is doon; my fodder is now forage”, as the Reeve’s evolution in age from fresh grass to dry fodder, old food for livestock, is representative of once being a young age, but growing older and muckier. According to Carol A. Everest, professor at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, with this line:

“Chaucer concentrates on the transformation from moist, spring grass to the dry hay of autumn and winter, a change which traditionally relates the aging year to aging humanity.”

This is already a significant reference to old age, merely thirteen lines into the Prologue. Continuing with these lines, the Reeve affirms his old age by bringing up his white hair, when he states “This white top writeth myne olde yeris”. In this instance, according to Everest:

“The Reeve, too, links the dryness of age with his greying hair which he in turn relates to the whiteness of mould…The logic of the connection between dryness, grey hair, and mouldiness becomes apparent in common medical theories of aging and putrefaction.”

White hair is, of course, indicative of old age, as hair often whitens with age, though the natural putrefaction process, and by the time old age is reached, it is often completely whitened. Likewise, the Reeve states that his heart has become old and moldy, in his line “Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris”. In a physical sense, his heart, like his hair, has aged and become old through natural putrefaction, as, according to Everest, “Greyness, associated with mould and mildew, links the aged heart with the hoary head”.

However, the heart is also representative of emotions, and an old, moldy heart often implies negative feelings, insinuating that the Reeve has become more angry, greedy and grumpy with old age, a comparison he directly makes in his speech to come.

Ebeneezer Scrooge is a character who perfectly fits the “old age” archetype Chaucer describes.

The Reeve then goes on to give a speech regarding his old age, stating that being old has left him weak, yet still desiring more. Of this, he states in lines 3883–3888:

“Foure gleedes han we, which I shal devyse — Avauntyng, liyng, anger, coveitise; Thise foure sparkles longen unto eelde. Oure olde lemes mowe wel been unweelde, But wyl ne shal nat faillen, that is sooth. And yet ik have alwey a coltes tooth.”

To him, being old has four essential qualities: boasting, lying, anger, and greed, which are, of course, all negative elements. By having these negative elements as qualities of being old, Chaucer is indicating that old age is representative of negativity, despair and a lack of hope.

This can once again relate to the Reeve’s earlier comment about his old, moldy heart, as the heart is paradigmatic of emotions, and thus as he as aged, his heart has become moldy and he has been filled with negative feelings of anger and despair, which is indicative of the “old man image” Chaucer is attempting to paint here. According to the late George R. Coffman, author and professor at the University of North Carolina:

“…The immediate and important consideration is that in mood and tone his introductory words furnish perfect motivation for the remainder of his speech — that of an old man.”

If the tone and mood of the Reeve’s speech is indicative of an old man, then Chaucer has succeeded in reaffirming the outlook that with old age comes feelings of anger and despair, a common outlook which still remains today.

Moving past the Prologue and turning to the tale itself, the theme of old age does not dissipate, but rather, advances, remaining the primary theme of the tale. More prominent examples of the Reeve showing his old age, and the significance of it, appear, with an underrated yet still prominent example being the Reeve’s sword. At the very beginning of the tale, in lines 3929–3932, we learn of the Reeve’s sword, with Chaucer stating:

“Ay by his belt he baar a long panade, And of a swerd ful trenchant was the blade. A joly poppere baar he in his pouche; Ther was no man, for peril, dorste hym touche.”

The Reeve always carried by his side a long cutlass, with the blade being trenchant, very sharp, and no one else dared to mess with him. The sharpness of the sword is significant as Chaucer specifically decided to give the old man a sharp sword; given the various metaphors relating to his old age, it would be expected that the Reeve’s sword would be old and worn, lost of its sharpness. However, this is not the case, which may indicate that the sword is representative of his prime years, since, according to university professor and scholar Brooks Forehand:

“He may have used [the sword] frequently and cruelly in his youth (anger still one of his “foure gleedes”), and stories of his youthful physical violence (now replaced by “his sleighte and his covyne”) may still be in circulation.”

The fact that “Ther was no man, for peril, dorste hym touche”, that no one dares to mess with him, may indicate this, as his violent past is now known to others, who see the Reeve and his sword, and cower.

The representation of a passing year as old and a new year as young is indicative of the Medieval representation of old age, which correlates to the seasons and the advancement of a yearly period.

Unlike most aspects of the Reeve, such as his heart and hair, his desires have not faded with his age. Earlier in the Prologue, the Reeve states that “But wyl ne shal nat faillen, that is sooth. And yet ik have alwey a coltes tooth”, revealing that despite his old age, he still possesses desires.

However, he does not specifically state what those desires are, but it can be inferred that what he desires is young age, and representing this desire could be, in fact, the sword he wears around. This is indicated by the Reeve’s behavior since, according to Forehand:

“…if [the Reeve] knows that he is not going to use the blade, why does he wear it? As a symbol. He likes to think of things youthful…An old man so prone to figurativeness would be likely to wear a sword as a symbol of youth. So doing satisfies his vanity by reminding him and others-those above and below him — of what he once was. To him it is youth.”

Essentially, the Reeve wears the sword not necessarily to fend off others — although this encourages others to fear him, his old age, and old age itself — but to fulfill his desire of returning to his youthful state.

Chaucer’s representation of age in The Reeve’s Tale directly accords with medieval views of age and its associations. The medieval view of age corresponded to negative emotions and feelings, as it was often looked upon that as a person aged, they grew increasingly hostile. According to Daniel F. Pigg, professor at The University of Tennessee at Martin, during the time The Reeve’s Tale was written:

“Old age was typically described in terms of a person who was ‘impatient, quick to anger, irritable, bored and boring, hostile to new customs, laughter and merriment.’ Chaucer’s Reeve is an excellent, almost textbook example here.”

Not far into The Reeve’s Tale does it become strikingly clear that the Reeve embodies all of these elements, even directly saying so when he brings up the “foure gleedes” or essential qualities of being old, which were discussed earlier. This builds upon the significance of the theme of old age within the rest of The Canterbury Tales as it introduces the theme of old age and its negative qualities to the book.

Chaucer keeps his themes consistent throughout all of the tales, with numerous allegories and metaphors to old age beyond The Reeve’s Tale, but they all stay the same: old age is indicative of unhappiness, despair, and the eventual death to follow.

Despite The Reeve’s Tale being just one of the twenty-four tales of The Canterbury Tales, its early position in the overall work, being just the third story, is crucial to setting up one of the many primary themes in the work, which is old age. Chaucer makes the values that old age represents extremely clear, while relating them to the medieval perceptions of old age during the time, and allowing old age to remain a common theme throughout the rest of the tales.

Through the Reeve, Chaucer sets up a specific portrayal of old age, laying the foundation for its place in time — representing the end of a year — and reaffirming the significance of old age in his works.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.

Native New Yorker. Pizza, Sports, Games, Life. Writing about whatever my heart desires. Follow me for more articles!