How old was old?

Allegory of Old Age

Old Age depicted c. 1340 in a copy of the Roman de la Rose, Morgan Library MS M.503, fol. 3v (detail)

In 1350 Petrarch wrote a letter to Philippe de Vitry, a composer about whom I’m currently writing a book, complaining about something Vitry had said in a letter to another dude, which letter Petrarch had seen. The details don’t matter for present purposes, though I’ll get into them in the book. Anyway, in the course of berating Viry for this crazy and self-indulgent thing he’d written, Petrarch complained that Vitry was getting old—not physically, mind, but mentally: “videris… michi, vir egregie, non tam corpore quam animo senuisse” (you seem to me… to have aged not so much in body as in mind). Now Vitry was born in 1291, and was already 58 years old when Petrarch lashed out. If you are like me, you’ve often heard it asserted that medieval people were considered old by age 40, or 50, or some other age that makes us feel healthy and superior compared to our feeble distant ancestors. I’ve always been suspicious of such claims for reasons that are probably obvious from my tone here, and from the more concrete data from my realm of music history: We know that Vitry died at 70 and we think that Machaut lived into his late 70s; Ockeghem and Du Fay lived a long time too. Is composition the elixir of life? If not, what’s going on? Continue reading