The seven (or four) ages of man

This article is mostly about visualising some data from the 15th and 16th centuries, about how someone’s lifespan can be divided up into stages. It happened because my friend Tamsin Lewis (a historical music expert) pointed me at a tweet by Dr Alun Withey (a history lecturer). The tweet had a photo of some lovely data in a book, but I just couldn’t get my head around it in the form it was presented, which was frustrating. (Regular readers of this blog might remember that I had a similar reaction to some data about wealth distribution in Tudor Suffolk, so I had to analyse and visualise that too.) So, if only for my own benefit, I tried to visualise it so that I could understand it.

A quick note on the data

As usual, it’s worth pausing and thinking about the data before doing lots of work on it. The data was presented by someone who seems to be an expert in the relevant field (Dr Withey). The sources that the data refers to all seem to exist according to a quick Google, and come from the right period of time. I haven’t bothered to go back to the primary sources (as a good historian would – good job I’m not a historian), so will take it on trust that they’re quoted correctly.

If the article’s title (minus the bit in brackets) is familiar, it’s because it’s a reference to the opening monologue in As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Even though Shakespeare is a source of excellent imagery, poetry and insight, he’s not well-known as a source of quantitative data. For instance, there are no age ranges attached to his seven ages of man, so we can’t include that in this analysis. The reason why I’ve added the part of the title in brackets is because some of the data divides a lifespan into seven parts, and some into four parts.

I would normally try hard to avoid language that’s sexist or discriminatory in other ways, but I’m deliberately using ‘man’ here. The source data uses ‘man’, and I think that number, names and age ranges of age brackets would be different for a woman in books contemporary to the sources.

Ages of man

With all that out of the way, here are the ages arranged as a single chart, which I hope is easier to understand than the original table in the tweet.

A horizontal bar chart showing the different schemes for ages of man

The data shown here isn’t identical to what’s in the tweet. First, only one scheme (Hart) puts an upper bound to the last age bracket (decrepit old age is up to and including 97). To make things simple, I used this as the upper bound for the last age bracket in all the other schemes. Second, I’ve grouped some age brackets together across schemes, as they seemed to be similar:

  • Youth / young man
  • Staied youth / lustie state of life
  • Middle age / man’s age / manhood
  • Green old age / flourishing old age
  • Decrepit age / decrepit old age.

There are some interesting similarities and differences across the schemes. Both Elyot and Goeurot use only one age bracket for the ages 0-25, but call it different things (childhood / adolescence). Bullein splits the same age range into two brackets (childhood and youth), Vaughan and Hart split roughly that age range into three brackets (infancy, childhood, strippling age / infancy, childhood, youth) and Lemnius splits it into four (infancy, childhood, puberty, adolescence). As a result, adolescence is either ages 0-25 (according to Elyot) or ages 18-25 (according to Lemnius). Infancy seems to be universally 0-7 where it exists.

All but one (Elyot) scheme starts a new bracket at 34 or 35. According to Bullein, that’s when old age starts! (Five years too late, according to Logan’s Run.) Life after 34 is split into one, two or three age brackets.

As to how well this lines up with the experiences of people in those times – I’m afraid I don’t know history well enough to say. The differences in infant mortality, education, the age when you start work including apprenticeships, the safety net available to people who were sick or old and frail, life expectancy, medicine, conscription etc. all make it dangerous to make assumptions based on today.

This was made using Excel, as a stacked bar chart. I turned on data labels, which were the series names. I then had to fiddle with the colour of some of the labels to make them readable against their background.

The course of life

I mean this not in the CV sense but trying to get an overall picture of which age follows which other ages.

Diagram showing how the ages flow on from each other, with similar ages (e.g. "youth" and "young man") grouped together into a single blob on the diagram.

I made this diagram to show that for some authors people go straight from birth to adolescence, whereas for others people get to adolescence only via infancy, childhood and infancy. Similarly, some authors say people go straight from youth to old age, and others say that people get to old age via the lustie state of life and manhood first.

This diagram was made using Graphviz.

You say tomato, I say tomato

There are interesting questions that the age brackets raise, such as: What is a young man? (How old is he, and so what would you expect of him?) Bullein says that someone stops being a young man at age 25. Elyot, Lemnius and Goeurot say that someone starts being a young man at age 25. What does “young man” mean?

I’ve come across this kind of problem in a few different settings. The first is in my day job. If you’re trying to get your software to talk to someone else’s software, there are a few hurdles you need to clear. Assuming that security is taken care of, and the low level details to do with file formats, column widths etc. are all sorted, there can be more fundamental problems left to do with meaning. It could be that both bits of software use a selection of these terms, but for very different purposes: customer, account, user, product, service, subscription, package, product and so on.

In my experience the way to start untangling this problem is to look for what things are used for. What is the thing that incurs a debt that can be paid directly (rather than having to be paid as a share of a payment made to a higher-level thing)? What is the thing that uniquely identifies me from the person who might live next door to me? Also it’s worth asking about relationships – what thing is this thing related to, and how many of Other Thing can or must This Thing have?

Another area is speech and text, across languages and dialects. In French and German, I can (and should) make a distinction between two forms of ‘you’: ‘tu’/’du’ for one person I’m familiar with, ‘vous’/’sie’ for one person who’s unfamilar or higher-ranking than me socially or many people. If I use ‘tu’ when I should use ‘vous’ for one person, I’m being disrespectful. Modern Southern British English doesn’t make this distinction – it has just ‘you’. Older versions of English, and modern English in e.g. Yorkshire has ‘thee’ and ‘you’ that make the same distinctions. American English has ‘you’ and ‘y’all’ but that is only a singular / plural distinction and not an informal / formal one. Some languages just don’t have the building blocks available in other languages. Among many other things, this is delved into much more deeply in Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter.

Summary

There’s no great point to this article, other than an appropriate visualisation can make data easier to understand, and the same data can support and benefit from more than one visualisation. I found it interesting to play with the data to see what I discovered, and I hope it was useful and interesting.

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