The Ages of Ageing in Early Modern Society

The idea that there were at least three, but often up to twelve ‘ages’ or stages of life permeated through, education art and the literature of the early modern period. In renaissance art in particular it was a popular theme, as illustrated in the image above by the sixteenth century artist Hans Baldrung ‘The Seven Ages of Woman’.

I personally like the idea of life cycles as a way of looking at history, when I wrote my MA dissertation I chose to focus on birth, life and afterlife (of monstrous births) as themes for my chapters, having been inspired at the time by David Cressy’s book Birth, Marriage and Death (1997).  So I can see the appeal of viewing life through this compartmentalised lens. There is also something comforting about finding a common thread throughout humanity, that we have all experienced and will experience the same milestones (if we’re lucky of course). Or in a more macabre memento mori sense, death comes for us all.

The image below is from The Orbis Pictus which was the number one educational book used in Germany during the 17th century. This shows how the idea of life stages was embedded from an early age, at least in Germany, but I would imagine across Europe.

Image from The Orbis Pictus depiciting ‘The Seven Ages of Man’

The seven ages were taught described as below:

A Man is first an Infant, 1.
then a Boy, 2.
then a Youth, 3.
then a Young-man, 4.
then a Man, 5.
after that an Elderly-man, 6.
and at last, a decrepid old man, 7.

Oh and as a secondary thought, also women:

So also in the other Sex,
there are, a Girl, 8.
A Damosel, 9. a Maid, 10.
A Woman, 11.
an elderly Woman, 12. and
a decrepid old Woman, 13.

Note that the older people are on the same level as the baby, while the young man and maid are at the top of the podium showing the steps up to the peak of youth. This reminds me of sayings that refer to old age as being ‘over the hill’ or more pertinently from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that ‘an old man is twice a child.’ Old age is seen as returning the elderly to the dependency and mental condition of a child.

While someone was termed as elderly they were not necessarily decrepit, though it would seem though two terms should go hand in hand. Looking at the 1500 and 1600s Beam has discussed how some people fought to stay active into their seventies to prove that they were still of use to society. While others felt that they were declining at aged 50[1] The Bibliotheca Scholastica (1589) defines elderly as being aged 50-70 while the Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1737) defines decrepid as ‘worn out with age, so as to walk stooping’. Interestingly the Bibliotheca Scholastica offers seven stages (if you include extreme old age) explaining each as follows, offering suggested ages for each:

  • Infancy, or the age untill seven yeares.
  • Childhood or the age from seven to fourteene.
  • Youth, or the age from fourteene, to twenty eight.
  • Manhood, or the age from twentie eight to fiftie.
  • The age from fifty to seventy An elderly man, or one of that age.
  • Senior. The age from seventy to death. Extreame oulde age, or the ende of this age.

There is an argument that age is a social construct and as Calasanti and Slevin put it, it is ‘shaped by cultural notions, in conjunction with social institutions that shift over time and place, as well as by other characteristics’[2]. In some cultures old age has been revered while others it has been reviled. In the UK there seems to have been a shift whereby people are expected to live and be able to work for longer, evidenced by the ever increasing State Pension age. I’m sure most fifty year olds would not relish being categorised as elderly as in the Bibliotheca Scholastica, but at the same time there is an obsession with youth and a pressure to stay looking young even in our twenties.

Nowhere is the ageing process encapsulated quite so perfectly than in Shakespeare’s infamous ‘All the world’s a stage’ monologue form As You Like it. I have quoted it in full below, or if you’d prefer listen to Benedict Cumberbatch’s dulcet tones as he recites it, see the YouTube link below.


As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII [All the world’s a stage]

William Shakespeare, 1564 – 1616
Jaques to Duke Senior

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


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Orbis Pictus: Johann Amos, 1592-1670; Bardeen, C. W. (Charles William), 1847-1924 [Editor];Hoole, Charles, 1610-1667 [Translator] Hoole, Charles, 1610-1667 [Translator]. available here.


[1] Beam, Aki C. L. ‘‘Should I as Yet Call You Old?’ Testing the Boundaries of Female Old Age in Early Modern England’ in Erin J. Campbell (ed.) Growing Old in Early Modern Europe: Cultural Representations (Ashgate, 2006)

[2] Calasanti, Toni M. and Slevin, Kathleen F., Gender, Social Inequalitities, and Aging, (Altamira Press: Oxford, 2001)


Figure 1 (header)  The Seven Ages of Woman by Hans Baldung (16thc) Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig

Figure 2 Image from Orbis Pictus



  1. I really enjoyed this! My own MA dissertation looked at the legal standing of children in early medieval Ireland, so I spent a lot of time grappling with what age was used for which group (in sometimes differing circumstances haha). It is such a rich subject area!


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