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9-08-2015, 14:52

Individuals in society, 1450–1600

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, western scholars had debated about how many stages made up a man’s life. Some argued for four, corresponding to the four seasons, some twelve, corresponding to the months and the signs of the zodiac, and some three, fi ve, six, eight, or ten. The most common number was seven, corresponding to the seven known planets (the planets out to Saturn plus the moon), and identifi ed by St. Ambrose in the fourth century as infancy, boyhood, adolescence, young manhood, mature manhood, older manhood, and old age. The “ages of man” show up textually in philosophical discussions, essays, and poetry, verbally in songs, plays, and sermons, and visually in manuscript illuminations, stained-glass windows, wall paintings, and cathedral fl oors, so that everyone was familiar with them. The ages of man began with stages of physical and emotional maturing, and then were differentiated by increasing and decreasing involvement in the world of work and public affairs. As Jacques says, a man moved from schoolboy to lover to soldier to offi cial, roughly the same progression shown in the engraving by Isaac, with the clean-shaven lover in a fancy plumed hat, the mustached soldier carrying a long pike, and the bearded offi cial in the elegant cape. As men moved from one stage to another, they were often shown with different objects symbolizing changing occupations or responsibilities. For men, only in adolescence was sexuality a factor, and marriage or fatherhood was almost never viewed as a signifi cant turning point. When people described the stages of a woman’s life, it was her sexual status and relationship to a man that mattered most: a woman was a virgin, wife, or widow, or alternately a daughter, wife, or mother. The ages-of-man motif shows people as individuals – or occasionally as couples – and one of the marks traditionally associated with “modernity” is the increasing importance of persons as individuals rather than members of social groups. The nineteenthcentury Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, who really created the modern idea of what the Renaissance was, saw “individuality” as one of its defi ning features: “In the Middle Ages … man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation – only through some general category. In Italy [of the Renaissance] … man became a spiritual individual .” 1 In the century and a half since Burckhardt wrote, his notion of the individualism of the Renaissance has been rejected, rethought, and revised along several lines. Medieval historians have asserted that the individual was important in learned philosophy, theology, and political theory, as well as popular songs, poems, and stories, since at least the tenth century, or perhaps far earlier. Conversely, scholars of the Renaissance and early modern periods have emphasized that groups of all sorts – families, clans, neighborhoods, guilds – remained extremely important into the eighteenth century, or even into the twenty-fi rst century for many people. This was particularly true for the nobility and for the broad mass of common people, but even among the subjects of Burckhardt’s study – upper-class Italian men living in cities – corporate groups remained central to their understanding of themselves and their place in the world. Along with these doubts about the “individualism” of the Renaissance, however, has come new interest in aspects of people’s lives as individuals that were not part of what concerned Burckhardt. He focused on intellectual and cultural factors, but more recently historians have investigated people’s physical bodies, identities as men and women, sexuality, and experiences with aging, thus returning to many of the same topics that for so long were part of discussions of the “ages of man.” This newer scholarship on the individual simultaneously broadens and problematizes earlier studies. We now know a great deal more about all kinds of individuals than we did even twenty years ago, but we also recognize how much those individuals are enmeshed in various social relationships and networks of power, and how much they perceived of themselves as members of various groups. The brief discussion of the individual in society in the previous chapter worked inward from conceptualizations of the entire social order; this chapter will work outward from the individual to the ever-widening social circles that surrounded him or her.

 

 

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