Parliament of the Three Ages, The

Parliament of the Three Ages, The
(The Parlement of the Thre Ages)
(ca. 1370–90)
   The Parliament of the Three Ages is a late 14thcentury alliterative poem of some 660 lines, composed somewhere in the north Midlands. The poem survives in two manuscripts, and is part of the ALLITERATIVE REVIVAL, a trend among MIDDLE ENGLISH poets of the west and north to write in the alliterative style that had characterized poetry in OLD ENGLISH. The Parliament presents a DREAM VISION in which the narrator witnesses a dispute among Youth,Middle Age, and Old Age.
   The poem begins with a youthful narrator riding into the woods on a May morning in search of deer to poach. He brings down a great stag, and a detailed description follows in which he butchers and dresses the dead deer, a description not unlike the hunting scenes in the contemporary SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT. Tired from his exertion, the narrator falls asleep. In his dream he sees three figures: a bold knight on his horse, a wealthy man dressed in gray, and a white-haired man clad in black. The first man, representing Youth, vows to fight in a tournament to prove himself worthy of his Lady’s love. The second man, representing Middle Age, begins immediately to upbraid Youth and to advise him to acquire some land, wealth, and security. Their argument is cut short by Old Age or “Elde,”who dominates the last two-thirds of the poem. Asserting the inevitability of death and loss through the turning of Fortune’s wheel, Elde asserts the transitory nature of all things worldly, and so the futility of both the pleasures of Youth and prudence of Middle Age. The greatest part of Elde’s monologue is taken up by a lengthy account of the NINE WORTHIES— world conquerors from the pagan era (Hector of Troy,Alexander, and Caesar), from the biblical Jewish era (Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus), and from the medieval Christian world (King ARTHUR, CHARLEMAGNE, and Godfrey de Bouillon). Elde describes how each of these great figures lost everything through the turning of Fortune’s wheel. He then more briefly lists the wisest men of history (Aristotle, Virgil, Merlin, and Solomon) and the greatest lovers (IPOMADON, Amadas, Samson, TRISTAN, Dido, Guenevere, and others), and shows how these, too, were destroyed in the end. The tone and subject of Elde’s speech recall those of CHAUCER’s MONK’S TALE with its relentless focus on tragedy and loss. The poem ends as the dreamer awakens and gives a brief prayer to God and to Mary to amend his sins.
   Scholars have sometimes faulted the poem for the disproportionate speech of Elde, which seems tangential to the initial and somewhat undeveloped argument between Youth and Middle Age. But the poem is only apparently a DEBATE POEM. In fact Death shuts down all debate and Elde is its messenger. Parallels have been drawn between The Parliament of the Three Ages and a similar Middle English alliterative dream vision/debate poem,WINNER AND WASTER. Both appear in the same British Library manuscript, and the frugal Middle Age and prodigal Youth seem representations of “Winner” and “Waster” respectively. It has even been suggested that the same author wrote both poems. That view is not generally accepted, however, and in any case the emphases of the poems are different: While Winner and Waster focuses on the reform of the political and economic world, The Parliament of the Three Ages, with its gloomy concentration on Fortune, focuses on the transience of all worldly things.
   ■ Gardner, John, trans. The Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Owl and the Nightingale, and Five Other Middle English Poems. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
   ■ Ginsberg,Warren, ed.Wynnere and Wastoure and the Parlement of the Thre Ages. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Published for TEAMS by the Medieval Institute, 1992.
   ■ Offord, M. Y., ed. The Parlement of the Thre Ages. EETS 246. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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