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The World Grown Old in Later Medieval Literature

The World Grown Old in Later Medieval Literature

The idea of the world grown old, termed senectus mundi, persists throughout the Middle Ages, representing the sense of a continuing estrangement from divinity as the direct result of human sin. In the sixth age of human history, that following the incarnation, the world continues to decline physically and morally, since men and women, knowing of Christ, reject him by doing evil. At the same time, the world potentially becomes improved spiritually, when of their free choice humans elect to behave morally and decline to consent to sin. Augustine’s treatment of the doctrine in The City of God is especially influencial, as human history is viewed from a perspective of physical decay and spiritual maturation: the earth declines through six ages while the humble and oppressed – citizens of the city of God – gain the possibility of salvation. Commentary on the parable of the vineyard (Matt. 20.1-16) was of central importance to exegitical development of senectus mundi. as the hours of the parable are associated with the historical maturation process. In a famous sermon delivered at Paul’s Cross in the late 1380’s, Thomas Wimbledon combines both topics, linking his protheme of the world ages with his theme of “@elde reckynyng of thi baili:” at the end of the six ages, mortals of whatever estate must give account of their work in the “vineyard,” the church. The three estates provide a natural division of the sermon’s theme, and the subsequent three question for the estates – “How hast thou entred?” “How hast thou reulid?” and “How hast thou lyuyd?” – seem to anticipate the triad of Do’s in PPl, as well as important aspects of CT. In clerical satire, the motif of the world upside-down appears often in conjunction with that of the world grown old, as the world’s decline is attributed to the overturning of old ethics and values. Anti-fraternal polemic also draws on the theme of senectus mundi, with the rise of mendicant orders, often perceived as contemporary equivalents of the Pharisees, identified as one of the “signs” of the last times. In PPl, L depicts the movement from innocence to experience as a rejection of spiritual and agrarian values, embodied in Piers the Plowman. The world of the narrative has become labyrinthine through human fraud and corruption, especially in the church, which has become so morally compromised that reform may not be possible. The Dreamer makes an interior pilgrimage to discover the grounds of spiritual renewal, the garden within, which must be cultivated by conforming to Christ’s model in order to transcend the ravages of time, both in the decay of the body and the world’s degeneration. For the locus of this pilgrimage, L deploys the controlling image of the felde to represent the world, the saeculum, in which people work for, or prey upon, the common weal. As an antitype of Piers stands the figure of Cain, emblematic of the Augustinian city of man and of the rejection of the agrarian ideal. L associates Cain with the “wastours” and hence with those who refuse to cultivate their gardens as they should. Wit, drawing on popular interpretation of Gen. 6.1-2, develops the idea of genetic wickedness into a typology of marriages based on primitive history and its consequences, with couplings motivated by lust and greed dominating the modern era. Cain’s engendering “in vntyme” becomes emblematic of the persistent and willful falling into sin which will bring on a recrudescence of the evil temporarily arrested by the Flood. In the plowing of the half-acre, another transformation of the felde and of the vineyard, Piers’s communal ideal that all citizens should promote the common profit founders on the reality of the fallen nature of man, and Hunger must be invoked against the Cain-like “wastours.” The felde undergoes a further transformation in B.16, into the garden of Charity. This is the archetypal felde, the interior locus of action where humankind lost the image of God through original sin, of which the other feldes within the narrative are exterior mirrors. In passus 19, Piers’s harrowing of the felde offers the Dreamer a vision of the way by which mankind can recover the image of God and reverse the pernicious effects of the world grown old. The call to dine at Conscience’s feast represents the culmination of the laborers’ work in the vinyard, as the eucharist, Piers’s “breed yblessed,” finds its way from Truth’s felde into the barn of Unity, provided the community renders unto God according to the ethic of redde quod debes. One helps pay back this debt when one works, whether in manual labor or praying, the way of Martha and Mary (or Hawkyn and Patience) respectively. Yet passus 20 portrays a field of folk who reject the work of the felde, attack the barn of Unity, and help build Cain’s city of man through marriages contracted and births conceived “in vntyme.”

Rev. Lawrence Warner, The Medieval Review 98.01.09 [http://name.umdl.umich.edu/baj9928.9801.009]; Míceál F. Vaughan, YLS 12 (1998): 189-94; Hugh White, RES 50 (1999): 372-73.


Cambridge, Mass.: The Medieval Academy of America, 1997.


Dean, James