Saturday, January 25, 2014


Horrors of Decrepitude

‎Harry Vredeveld, note on Erasmus, "Poem on Old Age," lines 7-22, in Erasmus, Poems, vol. II (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), pp. 416-417:
Catalogues of the ravages of old age are a literary tradition with both biblical and classical roots. See for example Eccles 12:1-5; Pliny Naturalis historia 7.51.168, cited in Adagia II iii 48 (LB II 500D / CWE 33 156-7); Juvenal 10.188-245; Maximianus Elegies 1. Because of their power to arouse fear and disgust, detailed lists of the horrors of decrepitude were a favourite argument in Christian contemptus mundi and wisdom literature; see Christian Gnilka 'Altersklage und Jenseitssehnsucht' Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 14 (1971) 5-23, with patristic examples; Pseudo-Neckam (Roger de Caen) De vita monachorum Wright II 183-4; and Innocent III De miseria condicionis humane 1.9 'On the Discomforts of Old Age.' They naturally also figure in medieval medical treatises; see for instance Roger Bacon De retardatione accidentium senectutis 2, particularly page 18; and Arnaldus de Villanova Speculum introductionum medicinalium 28A-B.

Erasmus took his place in this tradition early in his career, long before he wrote the present poem. His earlier depictions of old age, full of colours borrowed from Juvenal's tenth satire, always occur, as here, in a strongly rhetorical context; see 95.55-68, 101.1-7, and 104.15-22 below; De contemptu mundi ASD V-1 54:377-81 / CWE 66 147; Enchiridion LB V 58D and 59B / CWE 66 116 and 117. For later examples see Adagia I v 36 and II iii 48; Moria ASD IV-3 82:215-84:231 / CWE 27 92; and especially Psalmi 38 ASD V-3 215:645-51, amplifying the signs of decrepitude after age eighty: 'For who can still regard that as life, when the whole body trembles, the eyes are dimmed, the ears grow deaf, the tongue stammers, the voice fails, the teeth fall out, the feet stagger, and no part of the body performs its service; when even the powers of the mind fail, intellect is paralysed, reason is benumbed, memory retains nothing ... Is that not rather a long death than life?'
The Latin for the passage from Erasmus' commentary on Psalm 38:
Quis enim eam vitam existimet, quum tremit omne corpus, caligant oculi, obsurduerunt aures, balbutit lingua, fugit vox, exciderunt dentes, titubant pedes, nec ulla corporis pars suo fungitur officio: quin & animi vires deficiunt, stupet intellectus, obtorpuit ratio, nihil continet memoria ... An non haec longa mors est verius quam vita?

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