Validation of Exceptional Longevity

Age Validation of Centenarians in the Luxdorph Gallery

by L.-L. B. Petersen and B. Jeune


[ References ]

The possible duration of human life has fascinated man throughout the ages and continues to do so, as is evident from the continued discussion in the media about who is the oldest person in the world, after the death of Jeanne Calment. In the early modern period this fascination with exceptional longevity led to publication of a large number of catalogues of long-livers (see Jeune, 1995).

In the present monograph Peter Laslett calls this phenomenon the cult of centenarians, aptly describing the apparently widespread tendency to accept wildly exaggerated age-claims at face value. As one of the subscribers to the centenarian cult, Laslett names Bolle Willum Luxdorph, whose picture gallery constitutes the theme of this chapter, and one of the questions which will be discussed in the end of this chapter is whether Bolle Luxdorph was in fact just another subscriber to the cult of centenarians or whether there are elements in Luxdorph's projects pointing to the future. Initially, however, the various projects regarding longevity which Bolle Luxdorph undertook will be presented.

Luxdorph's collection of pictures of old people

Bolle Willum Luxdorph, who lived from 1716-1788, was the first Dane known to have studied the phenomenon of old age. Luxdorph was a high-ranking Danish civil servant, leader of the Danish Chancellery as well as a scholar and poet. In the last years of his life Bolle Luxdorph created a collection of pictures of long-livers. A fact which has been known from Bolle Luxdorph's diary, which was published in the early part of this century (Luxdorph 1915-30). In 1988 some drawings in the collections of the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle were identified as originals from Luxdorph's collection, and a reconstruction of a small part of the collection of drawings was published by Thorkild Kjærgaard in the Annual Report of the Carlsberg Foundation (Kjærgaard 1990).

The exact date at which Luxdorph began taking an interest in the phenomenon of old age is not known, but it must have happened some time in the late 1770s. At this point, anyway, Luxdorph began systematically collecting data concerning very old people i.e. persons who had reached the age of 80 and over. Luxdorph, who was eminently proficient in classical as well as modern languages, ploughed through literature from throughout the ages, looking for information about persons who had reached extreme old age. At the same time he began an extensive correspondence with members of the Danish and Norwegian clergy, asking them to search the church registers of their parishes in order to find information about centenarians, just as he kept an eye on the newspapers and periodicals of his time looking for information concerning long-livers (Kjærgaard 1995).

The first result of Luxdorph's interest in the phenomenon of old age was a manuscript in Latin: Catalogus longævorum from 1780. This catalogue was never printed, but survives as a beautiful manuscript in the Royal Library of Copenhagen. Catalogus longævorum contains concise information on several hundred persons, ordered alphabetically and mainly from antiquity. It is quite obvious from the empty spaces left in the manuscript, that Luxdorph intended to have it illustrated. This idea was never realised, however, though a few pen-and-ink drawings survive. These had for the main part been copied from Jacob Gronov's Thesaurus Graecarum antiquitatum published in 12 volumes in Leyden 1697-1702. After 1780 Luxdorph used the blank pages of Catalogus longævorum to write notes about long-livers which he had come across, mainly in the periodical literature of his time.

It proved much easier to come by pictures of Luxdorph's contemporaries. Even before the completion of Catalogus longævorum, Luxdorph was busy building up a collection of pictures of old people, mainly from his own time and the recent past. Existing prints depicting old people were procured, and when no picture was available, Luxdorph went through great lengths to have one made. Many of the clergymen with whom Luxdorph corresponded were requested to procure pictures of the old persons whom they had informed Luxdorph about.

In 1783 Luxdorph published a catalogue of his pictures of long-livers, a printed book of 36 pages: Index tabularum pictarum et cælatarum qvæ longævos representant (Catalogue of painted and engraved pictures representing long-livers). Important changes had taken place compared to Catalogus longævorum from 1780. Firstly the main emphasis now lay on Luxdorph's contemporaries or near-contemporaries. Secondly an important change had been made in the ordering of the material, the alphabetical ordering of Catalogus longævorum had been replaced by the - from a gerontological point of view more interesting - sociological-systematical principle of age. Each person in the gallery is carefully listed according to the number of years, months and days of his or her life, with the oldest person - the Hungarian Petracz Czartan - first.

Index tabularum was dedicated to Count Otto Thott, who was Luxdorph's political chief and himself an ardent book collector on a much grander scale than Luxdorph. Index tabularum was published on the occasion of Thott's 80th anniversary on October 15th 1783, the pictures of Otto Thott - youngest of the old - concluding the book. Bolle Luxdorph probably had his inspiration for this rather elaborate birthday present from the story of André Hercules Cardinal de Fleury about whom he writes that Barjac, the valet of cardinal Fleury, some time before the death of Fleury arranged for Fleury to have Twelfth-night dinner with twelve others who were all older than him, thus obliging Fleury as the youngest to "tirer le gateau" (draw the cake)(Luxdorph 1783 p. 14).(1)

The 1783 catalogue lists 271 pictures representing 254 persons, since some of the persons were represented by more than one picture. For the remaining five years of his life Luxdorph continued collecting pictures of long-livers, and it is known that he intended to publish an extended edition of his 1783 catalogue and that a manuscript existed (Luxdorph 1915-30 p. 421 and Junge 1789 II Icones Longævorum p. 79).

On August 13th 1788, Luxdorph died 72 years old. In his will he had left detailed instructions regarding his collections, and the catalogue which was to be made of them for the auction after his death. About his pictures of longævi Luxdorph states: "That all longævi with their age and which of them are but drawings be specified" (Luxdorph 1915-30 II p.421).(2)

Luxdorph's instructions were carried out in the catalogue for the auction in 1789, called Bibliotheca Luxdorphiana, which was compiled by Joachim Junge, who had worked with Luxdorph in his library since 1784. Luxdorph's pictures of long-livers are listed in a separate part of Bibliotheca Luxdorphiana called Icones longævorum. In this list - which constitutes the basis of the reconstruction of Luxdorph's picture gallery - the number of pictures in Luxdorph's collection had grown to 728 representing 515 persons. Of these pictures 78 are drawings, and 650 are prints. The ordering of the material in Icones longævorum is in principle the same as the ordering in Index tabularum, there is, however, one small difference. The ages of the persons in Icones longævorum are given in years only, and generally as the number of years commenced, so that "m. æt. 95" means died in his 95th year, and thus the person in question may have died at the age of 94. This means that in some cases there is a one-year discrepancy between the ages given in Index tabularum and those given in Icones longævorum. At the auction in the autumn of 1789 this unique collection was sold as one lot to an unknown buyer, and was then lost sight of for 200 years.

Luxdorph's list of long-livers

When one looks down the list of long-livers in Luxdorph's collection, the first remarkable feature is the number of centenarians and supercentenarians (people over 110 years). Several questions suggest themselves such as where did Luxdorph find them? What did he know about them? How reliable were his sources? Have any attempts been made at validating the age-claims of these people? And did Bolle Luxdorph himself make any attempts at age-validation?

In his article "Alleged Danish Centenarians before 1800" which has Luxdorph's correspondence with the Danish-Norwegian clergy as it main point of focus Thorkild Kjærgaard mentions that all the alleged centenarians in Luxdorph's picture gallery, have been disproved, but does not discuss this fact in further detail (Kjærgaard 1995 p. 48). For the past year the reconstruction of Luxdorph's Icones longævorum has been in progress, and in the process of identifying the pictures in Luxdorph's collection a number of the stories surrounding the famous European centenarians has surfaced. Below some of these portraits, the stories surrounding them and the attempts which have been made at validating the ages of the people in them will be discussed.

In his collection Luxdorph had most of the famous European supercentenarians of whom prints were in circulation. Most, if not all of the centenarians in Luxdorph's Icones longævorum can be rejected out of hand. This certainly applies to the first two pictures in Luxdorph's collection, which represent the most famous Hungarian supercentenarians Petracz Czartan and the Rowin couple Janos and Sara. Both of these engravings derive from a curious publication called Das Merckwürdige Wienn (Remarkable Vienna) published anonymously in 1727, a travel book in three monthly instalments describing remarkable sights in Vienna seen during the first three months of 1727 by two friends with the pseudonyms Amyntas and Polydorus (Hansch 1727; Adelung 1787 p.1784).(3) Luxdorph had this book in his library, and the information to which he had access regarding these famous supercentenarians, is the information which can be found here.

The famous Hungarian long-livers

The first one, in Luxdorph's collection the oldest one, is Petracz Czartan, who died in 1724, allegedly 185 years old. In the book Petracz Czartan, who had died three years previously, is described by another old man who had known him and we are told that he had a son by his third wife still living, who was now more than 100 years old. About his looks we are told that his eyes were somewhat red, that his hair and beard were greenish-white resembling bread mould, and that he still had a few teeth left. The evidence of the remarkable age of Petracz Czartan is astounding: He had reportedly witnessed the Ottoman conquest of the Temesvar fortress - which took place in 1552 - while herding his father's cattle as well as applauding the Christian reconquest of the fortress which took place in 1716. He had lived as a subject under ten different emperors, who are duly listed.

The second picture represents the Hungarian couple Janos Rowin 172 and his wife Sara 164 years. About the couple Janos and Sara Rowin we are told that they were both still living in 1727, that they had been married for 147 years, and that their youngest son was at this time 116 years old, and had two great grandchildren of 35 and 27 years.

Czartan as well as the Rowin couple were, we are told, painted by a German portrait painter living in Temesvar at the instigation of the commander of the Temesvar fortress count Frantz Paul von Wallis, and subsequently engraved by J.A. Schmuzer, engraver to the university of Vienna.

All of the arguments used to substantiate the age-claims of Petracz Czartan and the Rowin couple are of a kind typical for the legends of age-exaggerations. Petracz Czartan's evidence consists mainly of his recollection of historical events which he has allegedly witnessed. The evidence of the Rowin couple seems to be based solely on what they themselves have told about their ages, their marriage lasting 147 years, and their very long-lived descendants. Naturally no "hard evidence" such as birth certificates or marriage certificates seems to have been brought forward.

An element very common to these myths of longevity is locating the stories to places not easily accessible, in this case the Temesvar Bannat in Hungary. This region was under Ottoman siege between 1552 and 1716, conveniently covering the entire period in which Petracz Czartan and the Rowin couple allegedly lived, and making it virtually impossible then as well as today to find any official evidence either supporting or disproving their age-claims.

Apart from the chapter dealing with Petracz Czartan and the Rowin couple, the author of Das Merckwürdige Wienn devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of the possibility of attaining antediluvian ages in modern time. In this discussion he cites well-known popular literature on the subject of old age such as the treatises of Francis Bacon

Figure 1.
Petracz Czartan, 185 Years.
Died in 1724. From the Temesvar Bannat in Hungary. Engraving by J.A. Schmuzer. From the book Das Merckwürdige Wienn 1727.
  Figure 2.
Janos Rowin, 172 years, and his wife Sara Desson, 164 years. From the Temesvar Bannat in Hungary. Engraving by J.A. Schmuzer. From the book Das Merckwürdige Wienn 1727. Fig. XIII. Here we are told about the couple that they were both still living in 1727, had been married for 147 years and that their youngest son was at this time 116 years old and had two great- grandchildren of 35 and 27 years.

(1561-1621) and Luigi Cornaro (1467 or 1475-1566)(4) which were also part of Bolle Luxdorph's library, and which were published in numerous editions in most European languages well into the 19th century (Zeman 1945 and Kirk 1994). From Harcouët de Longeville, Histoire des personnes qui ont vécu plusieurs siècles from 1715, he cites the case of the famous British supercentenarian Thomas Parr, listing the ten English kings under whom Parr had allegedly lived.(5)

This is a very clear example of how myths of extreme old age were constructed.

The famous British long-livers

The second prominent group of supercentenarians in Icones longævorum is British representing the three most famous British supercentenarians, Henry Jenkins, Thomas Parr and Katherine countess of Desmond. In his pioneering study Human Longevity its facts and its fictions from 1873 William J. Thoms set up criteria for age validation, stressing the fact that the burden of proof in these cases should rest with those who put forward the age-claims, rather than with those who dared disbelieve the amazing age-claims of supercentenarians. The majority of centenarians whose ages were examined by Thoms were his contemporaries or near-contemporaries, but Thoms also examined the legends of these three famous long-livers.

The oldest one of these is Henry Jenkins, "From Ellerton in Yorkshire. Who Lived to the surprising age of 169 which is 16 Years longer than old Parr". He died in 1670, and the picture which Luxdorph owned of him is an engraving by Thomas Worlige 1752 after a painting by Walker. Underneath the portrait is the life of Henry Jenkins by Mrs. Anne Saville, which was written in or around 1663, together with his epitaph on a monument erected at Bolton in Yorkshire by subscription in 1743. As Thoms shows the only evidence given in support of Henry Jenkins' claim to have lived for 169 years is his own recollection of events, for instance his claim to have witnessed at the age of twelve the Battle of Flodden field which took place in 1513. Evidence in fact very similar to that given by Petracz Czartan. In 1667 Henry Jenkins appeared as a witness in favour of Charles Anthony, clerk, in a case between Charles Anthony and Calvert Smythson

Figure 3.
Henry Jenkins, 169 years. Died in 1670. From Ellerton in Yorkshire. Engraving by Thomas Worlige 1752 after a painting by Walker. On the engraving is found the life of Henry Jenkins by Mrs. Anne Saville.
  Figure 4.
The old Thomas Parr, 152 years.
Died in 1635. Buried in Westminster. Engraving by C.V. Dalen.

regarding payment of tithes and on this occasion claimed his age to be 157 or thereabouts (Thoms 1873 p. 287). Thoms notes the curious fact that Henry Jenkins, who in 1662 or 63 had told Mrs. Anne Saville that he was 162 or 163 years old was now, five years later, actually claiming to be five or six years younger. When Jenkins died in December 1670 the burial register of Bolton on Swale written by the same Charles Anthony in favour of whom Jenkins had given evidence in 1667 simply states "Henry Jenkins, a very aged and poore man, of Ellerton buried". The age of Henry Jenkins is not mentioned (Thoms 1873 p.74).

"The Olde; Olde, very Olde Man or Thomas Parr", who in September 1635 was transported to London in a litter at the instigation of the Earl of Arundel and presented to the King is probably the most famous British supercentenarian. When he died in the middle of November of the same year William Harvey, famous for his discovery of blood-circulation, made a post-mortem examination of the body and, since Harvey did not discount the possibility that Parr was really 152 years old, Harvey's autopsy of Parr gave credibility to the legend of this famous supercentenarian. Thomas Parr was buried in Westminster Abbey, and the inscription on his grave, which carefully listed the ten kings and queens in whose reign Parr had reportedly lived, was re-engraved shortly before Thoms published his book in 1873 (Thoms 1873 pp.290-313). An example of the strong attraction which the legends of the famous supercentenarians continued to hold far into the 19th century.

Luxdorph owned no fewer than four pictures of Thomas Parr. The oldest one was a print by Cornelis van Dalen, a Dutch engraver living in London at the time of Parr's death. Apart from this engraving, Luxdorph owned two very similar prints that have obviously been made after the van Dalen print, one with French and one with German text, and finally Luxdorph's collection contained a mezzotint portrait made by George White in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, nearly a hundred years after the death of Thomas Parr. An interesting example of the interest which very old people attracted all over Europe. Shortly after the death of Thomas Parr the poet John Taylor published a life of Thomas Parr, with numerous facts listed in support of Parr's reported age. W.J. Thoms conducted a very thorough investigation of these alleged facts, and found that none of them had any foundation in reality, nor was any information found which could throw any light on the true age of Thomas Parr (Thoms 1873 pp. 85-94).

Luxdorph also owned a picture with the title: "Young Parr Son to Thos. Parr the Shropshire man who was born in 1483 and died in 1635. His living to so great an Age as 152 Years, occasioned his son to be Called young Parr as past 4 score". Thoms, apart from demonstrating the lack of any evidence whatsoever to show the true age of Thomas Parr, also tells us that Thomas Parr did not have any children, so it remains unclear who the person on this picture really is, it is certainly not the son of Thomas Parr.

Figure 5.
Thomas Parr, young Parr, over 80 years. Allegedly son of old Parr. Engraving by unknown engraver.
  Figure 6.
Katherine (Fitzgerald) Countess of Desmond, 140 years. Died in 1604. Second wife of Thomas 12th Earl of Desmonds. Engraving by F.G. Aliamet from Thomas Pennant 's Tour in Scotland 1769. According to F.M. O'Donoghue, and H.M. Hake, Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits, London 1908-. The picture has been falsely identified and is in reality a portrait of Rembrandt's mother.

Similar mysteries surround the picture of Katherine countess of Desmond, who died in 1604 allegedly at the age of 140 years. Thoms argues convincingly that she was more likely close to 100 years old when she died. Her exact date of birth has been impossible to establish, but she lived as a widow for 70 years after having been married for about 5 years, so she did become very old, roughly 90 years or a bit more (Thoms 1873 pp. 95-104). In contrast to Henry Jenkins and Thomas Parr, Katherine of Desmond does not herself seem to have taken any part in forming the myth about her extreme old age. What has apparently happened in the case of the countess of Desmond is that two or three different countesses of Desmond have been mixed up. The story originates from Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World published in 1614 ten years after the death of Katherine of Desmond, and since for a long time repeated uncritically by subsequent authors.

The print which Bolle Luxdorph owned is an engraving by Aliamet from Thomas Pennant's A Tour in Scotland 1769 (Pennant 1769). Pennant's account of Katherine of Desmond builds on Raleigh's information supplemented with elaborations by Francis Bacon who is credited with the surprising fact that she dentired twice or thrice. Bolle Luxdorph owned Pennant's book, and in a handwritten note he refers to this book for information on Katherine of Desmond (Luxdorph's papers regarding longævi, undated manuscript). In Part II of his Tour in Scotland (p. 87) Pennant notes that one of the copies of the original painting of Katherine has the name Rembrandt written with a pen on the back, and the picture has since been identified as a portrait of Rembrandt's mother (O'Donoghue and Hake 1908- vol. II p. 45). So not only did Katherine of Desmond not live 140 years, her portrait is not even a portrait of her.

Biographies of long-livers

The fascination with the phenomenon of extreme longevity was widespread in the second half of the eighteenth century, thus academic papers from England, Germany, Denmark and Sweden reporting fantastic tales of supercentenarians were translated into French and published accompanied by tables of mortality, and generally without any questioning of the veracity of the age-claims (Troyansky 1989 p. 112).

In the 1770s biographies were published of different supercentenarians and Bolle Luxdorph had three of these biographies in his library, as well as portraits of the persons in his picture gallery. The oldest one, and the one who promoted his age-exaggeration most actively himself was the Dane Christian Jacobsen Drakenberg (?1626-1772), who allegedly reached the age of 145 years 10 months and 2 days. Luxdorph owned four different engravings of Drakenberg, three of them published in Denmark and one published in London, another indication of the international distribution of the legends of the very old. Drakenberg's biography was first published in 1774 (Anonymous 1774) and has since then been reissued several times.

Figure 7.
Christian Jacobsen Drakenberg, 145 years 10 months and 2 days. Died in 1772. Engraving published in London
by J. Spilsbury in 1765.
  Figure 8.
Annibal Camoux from Marseille, 122 years. Died in 1759. Engraving by Dejean after a painting by Henry.
The engraving serves as frontispiece to the life of Annibal Camoux: Le Socrate Marseillois. Marseille 1773.

Drakenberg for the last years of his life actually made a living out of being old. We first meet him in 1732 when he procured a certificate from the vicar Cornelius Nicolai of the church in Skee in Bohuslän (which is now in Sweden, but was until 1658 part of the Danish-Norwegian monarchy) testifying that according to the old church register of Skee Drakenberg had been born November 18th 1626 and baptised in that church by the vicar Peder Johansen Wynsteen proving that he was now 106 years old. The certificate also states the names of Drakenberg's parents, and of the farm at which he was born. In the postscript of the latest edition of Drakenberg's biography from 1972 Paul G. Ørberg disproves all the facts listed in this certificate (Ørberg 1972). The vicar of Skee in 1732 was Johan Schoug and the vicar in 1626 was Christoffer Lauritzen Friis; the two vicars named in the document have apparently never existed. The farm on which Drakenberg had allegedly been born had just been built in 1626, and was owned by someone else; no trace can be found of the people named as Drakenberg's parents and finally no church register going back to 1626 exists from the church of Skee, and it is doubtful whether one ever has. In other words the certificate proving the amazing age of Drakenberg is a forgery, though a very successful one.

From 1735 and for the rest of his life Drakenberg received an annuity from the Danish king because of his extreme old age, and he also enjoyed the protection of the Danish nobleman Frederik Danneskjold-Samsøe who among other things paid for Drakenberg's wedding in 1737. The fact remains, however, that Drakenberg must have reached a substantial age. Paul Ørberg argues that Drakenberg in the early 1730s must have looked old enough to pass for a centenarian, and that this indicates that he was at least in his sixties in 1732 and since he lived until 1772, he was in all likelihood a centenarian at his death. This remains speculation, however, and unless more evidence materialises to substantiate Ørberg's theory, the Norwegian peasant Eilif Philipsen who died in 1785 reportedly almost 103 years old remains the closest we get to a verified centenarian in the Luxdorph material. Eilif Philipsen's age-claim has been investigated and is supported by entries of baptism and marriage in the relevant church register (Kjærgaard 1995), but the possibility of name-saking still has to be excluded through a family reconstitution.

The second supercentenarian whose biography can be found in Bolle Luxdorph's library was Annibal Camoux from Marseilles who died in 1759 at the reported age of 121 years 3 months and 13 days. The print of him which Luxdorph owned was an engraving by Dejean after a painting by Henry which serves as frontispiece to his biography (Anonymous 1773). The book tells us that he was born in 1638, and as evidence of his age we are told that he laboured on the construction of the Fort Saint-Nicolas (1660-65).

Figure 9.
Hans Hubrig, 113 Years. Died in 1779. Engraving by Schlitterlau after Lindau. 14,9 x 9,4 (8vo) Index tabularum p. 6. The engraving serves as frontispiece to Christian Löber's Freuden Hans Hubrigs. Dresden 1778.
  Figure 10.
Jean Causeur, 131 years. Died in 1774. Butcher. Born in the village of Ploumoguer in Basse Bretagne. Engraving by Le Cler after a painting by Charles Caffieri from 1771.

We are also told that he learned the use of herbs from the naturalist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in 1681, which he used to his own benefit and that of the duchesse de Parme whom he was alleged to have healed in Marseilles in 1756. Apparently Luxdorph found the biography of Annibal Camoux unsatisfactory though, he never cut open the last fifty pages of the book. Annibal Camoux is the only one of Luxdorph's supercentenarians whose exact age has been established by more recent research. In 1957 the French historian Louis Thibaux discovered that Annibal had in reality been born in Nice in 1669, and was thus actually only 90 years old when he died (Troyansky 1989 p. 24).

The third centenarian biography in Luxdorph's library is that of the German Hans Hubrig who died in 1779 at the reported age of 113. The engraving which Luxdorph owned was made by Schlitterlau after a drawing by Lindau, and serves as frontispiece to the book Freuden Hans Hubrigs (The joy of Hans Hubrig) which was published in Dresden in 1778 with an elaborate dedication to Friedrich August, duke of Saxony by Christian Löber, imperial poet and professor of anatomy (Löber 1778). In the biography we are told that Hans Hubrig was born in the small village of Langrieth, and that he was a soldier in his youth but became a farmer when the war ended. Hans Hubrig enjoyed the protection of Duke August of Saxony, much in the manner of Drakenberg. No attempt seems to have been made to validate the age of Hans Hubrig.

In the case of Annibal Camoux as well as in the case of Hans Hubrig the prints that Luxdorph had in his picture gallery were the same prints as those in their biographies, though other prints of these supercentenarians do exist. This probably indicates that Luxdorph acquired the biographies first, and then having learned of the existence of the prints subsequently acquired those.

Another French supercentenarian whose extreme age-claim has been invalidated by later research is Jean Causeur, butcher, 131 years (?1641-1774), born in the village of Ploumoguer in Basse Bretagne. The engraving which Bolle Luxdorph owned of Jean Causeur was made by Le Cler after a painting by Charles Caffieri made in August 1771. The portrait of Jean Causeur was published while he was still alive, and Bolle Luxdorph does not seem to have known when Jean Causeur died, listing only the birth year and the age reported on the portrait. Jean Causeur died April 30th 1774, having for the last two years of his life been accorded a pension by Les États de Bretagne on account of his extreme age. On his death certificate his age is given as "about 130 years". Research made in the relevant parish registers towards the end of the 19th century revealed that a Jean Causeur was baptised in Cremenoc on March 3rd 1645 which would seem to support his claim of about 130 years, but a marriage certificate from 1690 naming a Jean Causeur and Marie Lehir both of Ploumoguer aged around 25 years, and another marriage between the same Jean Causeur and Louise Halscouet in 1692 where his age is given as about 30 years places his birth between 1665 and 1670, which would make him between 104 and 109 at his death (Dictionnaire de Biographie Francaise vol. VII 1954-56, p. 1469). This is still an exceptionally high age, and it would seem most likely, until otherwise proved, that yet another Jean Causeur born even later has existed.

A very interesting detail regarding the portrait of Jean Causeur is that in contrast to many of the other portraits this one does indeed seem to represent an extremely aged person.

Long-livers from illustrated dictionaries

Luxdorph's collection contained a large number of portraits published in the seventeenth century, and some of them can be traced to various illustrated biographical dictionaries published in that century or earlier. Luxdorph owned a number of these dictionaries, and he searched them to find information on long-livers. One example is the two portraits of Lucas Gauricus who according to Icones longævorum died at the age of 111 years. No further information is given in Icones longævorum and the portraits of Lucas Gauricus are not listed in Index tabularum, which indicates that Luxdorph had acquired them after October 1783, the publication date of Index Tabularum. In the Department of Prints and Drawings at The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Copenhagen a portrait of a Lucas Gauricus was found, one of a number of portraits with the description Boissard attached to them.

A search in the book section of Bibliotheca Luxdorphiana revealed that Luxdorph owned two different books by Jean-Jaques Boissard, one published in 1597 and one published in 1669, and fortunately Luxdorph's own copies of these books have been acquired by The Royal Library in Copenhagen (Boissard 1597 and Boissard 1669). The 1597 edition contains portraits of 50 famous men as well as their written biographies, and on the inner cover of the book Luxdorph has written that he has bought the book on May 22nd 1786, that is as might be expected after the publication date of Index Tabularum.

The 1669 edition contains no written biographies, but a much larger number of portraits. All the portraits from the 1597 edition are there, the publisher had as it is stated in the title used the original plates inherited from Jean-Jaques Boissard and engraved by Theodore de Bry, but a large number of portraits by other artists have been added. On the first blank page of the book Luxdorph has written that he has acquired this very rare book in October 1785, and on two blank pages at the back we find a hand-written alphabetical list of all the persons in the book who became more than 80 years old. Among them is "Gauricus, Lucas, n. 1476. m. 1588 æt. 112".

The second print of Lucas Gauricus in the Luxdorph collection is an example of a type of print which constitutes about one tenth of Luxdorph's collection, the small duodecimo print. Almost all of these prints came from the same book, namely Paul

Figure 11.
Lucas Gauricus, 111 years. Died in 1558. Mathematician and astrologer from Naples. Luxdorph has misread the death year 1558 as 1588, Lucas Gauricus was in reality 82 when he died. Engraving from Boissard 1669.
  Figure 12.
The same. Engraving by unknown engraver from Paul Freher, Theatrum virorum eruditione clarorum. Nürnberg 1688.

Freher, Theatrum virorum eruditione clarorum, Nürnberg 1688. This book, which is a very large folio of nearly 1800 pages, contains biographies of famous men and is illustrated by 84 large plates each containing 16 portraits. These portraits were also sold as loose plates, with the single small portrait cut out and sold separately, and these tiny portraits - about 6 by 4 centimetres - can be found in practically all the cabinets of prints in Europe. Luxdorph did not own a copy of Freher's Theatrum virorum, if he had he might have discovered that he had made a mistake in relation to Lucas Gauricus, an Italian astrologer about whom Freher quite clearly states that he died in 1558 at the age of 82, so the year 1558 has somehow been misread as 1588, adding 30 years to the age of Lucas Gauricus (Freher 1688 p.1458).

Luxdorph's attitude to the legends of centenarians

Luxdorph did not publish any treatises on the phenomenon of extreme longevity. He seems for the main part to have concentrated on gathering material and faithfully recording his findings. Nevertheless, he is interesting for several reasons.

He did not content himself with the information on exceptional longevity which could be found in extant literature. He gathered new material himself in his correspondence with the clergy of 1780, and several instances can be found in this material reflecting if not a critical attitude towards centenarianism as such, then at least an urge to discover the truth about alleged centenarians. It is quite obvious that Luxdorph asked the clergy to investigate alleged centenarians by checking the parish registers for entries of baptism whenever possible. One such examination led to the rejection of the age-claim of a 105 year-old Norwegian woman since no entry was found in the relevant church register for her alleged year of birth 1654 (Letter from Lillejord vicarage in the Luxdorph papers regarding longævi).

In some cases Luxdorph took a very personal interest in living centenarians. One of them was the soldier Anton Carolicopsky who died in Copenhagen 1785 allegedly 113 years old. Luxdorph sent his favourite painter Georg Fuchs to make a drawing of Carolicopsky in 1780, which Fuchs subsequently used when he made this engraving, and on November 24th 1781 Luxdorph wrote in his diary that he has had a visit from the old Carolicopsky. Luxdorph tells us that Carolicopsky had been born in Poland, which would have made it impossible for Bolle Luxdorph to substantiate his age-claim. We are also told, however, that Carolicopsky's father died at the age of 144, but this remarkable fact does not seem to have made Luxdorph suspicious of Carolicopsky. Luxdorph simply recorded the story of Carolicopsky as it was reported to him without any sceptical comments.

Figure 13.
Anton Grolekofsky (Carolicopsky), 113 years. Died in 1785. Soldier. Engraving by Georg Fuchs.
  Figure 14.
Ole Bendtsen, 94 years. Engraving by Georg Fuchs. The text under the engraving states that Ole Bendtsen died on October 31st 1782, allegedly over 100 years old. But Luxdorph discovered that he had been baptised in 1669, and died in his 94th year.

Nevertheless, Bolle Luxdorph may have been the first to make attempts at all at validating the ages of alleged centenarians, no one else seems to have done so until the second half of the nineteenth century. In at least one case Bolle Luxdorph himself ventured into validation of an age-claim. In Luxdorph's diary for May 12th 1782 he writes that Fuchs - the painter customarily used by Luxdorph on such occasions - has gone to Høie Taastrup, a village some 20 kilometres outside Copenhagen, to make a drawing of an old man said to be 110 years old.(6)

The man in question was the farmer Ole Bendtsen, and Luxdorph subsequently discovered that Ole Bendtsen had been baptised in the church of the village Sigersted January 27th 1689, which made him 93 years 9 month and 4 days old when he died on October 31, 1782. These facts were duly written on the drawing (Luxdorph 1783; Kjærgaard 1990 p. 125). The drawing of Ole Bendtsen has not been recovered, but fortunately Georg Fuchs used the drawing to make an engraving of Ole Bendtsen which does exist. On the engraving is a caption reading: "Ole Bendtsen A farmer from Zealand Died in Høie Taastrup 1782 October 31st allegedly over 100 years old". In Index tabularum as well as in Icones longævorum, however, Ole Bendtsen is placed according to his correct age.

In other cases Luxdorph expressed what may be interpreted as slight doubt regarding the age-claims of supercentenarians. Some of the pictures in the Luxdorph picture gallery represent people of whom the only portraits in existence are fantasy portraits. One of these is Attila, king of the Huns who according to some legends reached the age of 124. Luxdorph had a print of Attila in his collection which he commented on with the words "Ætas suspectæ fidei", indicating that he did not really believe in the supposed 124 years of Attila (Luxdorph 1783 p. 5). This doubt has been carried on by Joachim Junge, who in Icones longævorum describes the print of Attila thus: "Attila, m. ut vulgo perhibetur, æt. 124" (Attila, dead it is commonly said in his 124th year)(Junge 1789, II p.39).

Even in the case of Drakenberg, the most famous Danish supercentenarian, there is some indication that Luxdorph did not entirely believe in his legend. On one of the Drakenberg engravings in Luxdorph's collection he was reported to have died in 1770 instead of 1772. This engraving was given the comment "most incorrect" by Luxdorph (Luxdorph 1783 p. 4), which would seem to indicate that Luxdorph had some doubts as to the veracity of the entire Drakenberg legend, but this legend was after all supported by the apparently irrefutable evidence of the certificate from Skee, so Luxdorph let the matter rest with this small comment.

That Luxdorph should have been reluctant to completely discount the possibility of attaining ages exceeding 100 years is not surprising, so did most of the scholars of his time who applied themselves to the study of longevity (see Laslett in the present monograph). A case in point is that of the German scholar Haller who in 1760 among more than hundred cases of supercentenarians cited the cases of Parr and Jenkins as evidence of the possibility of man living to the age of 200 years (Jeune 1995 p. 15).

Luxdorph refers to another famous scholar, Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon (1707-88) who put forth the theory that the maximum duration of life of man as well as of animals is a multiple of the period of growth, which in the case of man means a maximum lifespan of about 90-100 years (Buffon 1760/1835, pp. 108-9; Jeune 1995). But even Buffon does not discount the possibility that man may in rare cases live much longer. In fact in a later edition of his De l'Homme, in a chapter called Du bonheur de l'âge avancé from 1777 (Buffon 1984, p. 104), Buffon argued, using the example of a horse living to 50 years, that every species including the human one would produce a few individuals with a lifespan twice as long as normal, for human beings this would mean "160 years instead of 80 years". Nor does Buffon discount the extreme ages reached by the antediluvian patriarchs of the bible, instead he speculates that the nature of the soil from which food was grown must have been different then (Buffon 1750/1835, p. 109). Nevertheless Buffon never contributed to the cult of centenarians by passing on reports of supercentenarians as Bacon and Haller did. He was much more interested in the variation of mortality (Buffon 1760/1835, pp. 114-115), and in the average life span, especially in the fact that even octogenarians still had a life expectancy of 3 years (Buffon 1984, p. 107).

Luxdorph owned Oeuvres complètes de Buffon in the edition of 1774, and he referred to Buffon in the section De Ætatibus Animalium in Catalogus longævorum (Luxdorph 1780). Thus Luxdorph was in excellent company believing in the possibility of reaching ages considerably in excess of 100 years. It should also be borne in the mind that centenarians and supercentenarians at no point constituted more than about 10 % of Luxdorph's collection of pictures of long-livers. By far the largest part of the collection consisted of pictures of people aged between 80 and 100 years.

Of the 23 persons listed in Icones longævorum older than 110, only two derive from Luxdorph's own investigations. One of them was Anton Carolicopsky who has been discussed above, and the other one was a drawing of a man called Andreas Nielsen who died in 1782 at the alleged age of 121 years 6 months and 5 days, and who had reportedly been baptised in the cathedral of Bergen in Norway in 1660. Unfortunately, the drawing has not been recovered. Andreas Nielsen had a certificate from 1768 with attesting witnesses testifying to his baptism in Bergen on June 5th 1660, and the biographical details in the same letter include a father living to the age of 134, and a life as a soldier with many details of battles. In fact a life-story remarkably similar to the legend of Drakenberg (Luxdorph 1783 and Luxdorph papers regarding longævi). All the other pictures of people over the age of 110 in the gallery represent supercentenarians who were already well established before Luxdorph began his investigation, and whose age-claims would have been as impossible to validate for Luxdorph as they are today.

Finally we must return to the question posed in the beginning: Was Bolle Luxdorph as stated by Peter Laslett just another subscriber to the cult of centenarians? The answer must be that he was. He does seem to have believed in the fantastic tales of supercentenarians from all over Europe and he contributed himself by passing on previously reported supercentenarians. He seems to have accepted what others had to say on the subject and he even reported two new supercentenarians that he had discovered.

Nevertheless, there are also elements in the Luxdorph investigations pointing to the future. Luxdorph did not blindly accept the stories of centenarians reported to him in the letters from the clergy. In several cases there is more than one letter from the same clergyman about the same centenarian reflecting the fact that Luxdorph has been asking for supplementary information which might substantiate the age claim of the centenarian. Luxdorph's investigation of the age-claim of Ole Bendtsen does show us that he was aware of the problem of age-exaggeration and that he was maybe the first who refuted an alleged centenarian by age-validation.

The true value of the Luxdorph picture gallery, however, lies not in the statistical information which it provides. As can be seen from the above examples most if not all of the centenarians and supercentenarians in the gallery have been or can be invalidated, and even a number of the persons aged less than 100 in the gallery have had their ages adjusted downwards by recent research. What makes the Luxdorph picture gallery unique is the fact that many of the pictures in this collection represent old people from the less affluent strata of society of whom no pictures would have existed but for their claim to exceptional longevity. Thus the collection constitutes a valuable contribution to the history of old age by enabling us to look at famous and less famous old people of the past, and the way in which they were represented at the time.


1. Luxdorph refers to Vie privee de Louis XV. II. p. 45.
2. Luxdorph's Testament is printed in Luxdorphs Dagbøger vol. II pp. 419-426. From the point of view of an art-historian it may be of interest to note that his remark reflects the fact that in the late 18th century the valuable part of the collection was the prints; the drawings were only second-best.
3. Chapter LXXXIII: Gelegenheit zu den vernünfftigen Gedancken von der Möglichkeit noch heutiges Tages ein hohes und gesundes Alter zu erreichen and Chapter LXXXIV: Beschreibung eines Temeswarischen Greissen von 185 Jahren: Petracz Czartan: Merckwürdige Umstände bey diesem Greissen: Janos Rowin und Sara zwo alte Eheleute von 172 und 164 Jahren, die annoch leben. According to Adelung 1787 the author of the book was Michael Gottlieb Hansch (1683-1749) who lived in Vienna from 1726, and in Bibliotheca Luxdorphiana (in-quarto no. 1291) the name Hantsch is written in a parenthesis in front of the title. Luxdorph also owned a copy of Adelung (in-quarto nos. 2826-27). For information on this type of 18th century German travel book see Michael Harbsmeier (1994), Chapter 6, Binnenwelten.
4. In Bibliothca Luxdorphiana we find (In Octavo no. 251) Luigi Cornaro, Et Ædrue Levnets Nytte translated by T. Bartholin Copenhagen 1753 and (In-fol no. 291) Francis Bacon of Verulam Opera Omnia Frankfurt 1665.
5. Hansch 1727 p. 132. The legends of Parr and Jenkins have apparently been mixed up. The author tells the story of "Thomas Parecke ein Engelländer" born in 1483 which is the alleged birth-year of Thomas Parr, but he lets Thomas Parr die in 1651 at the age of 169 which is the reported age of Henry Jenkins, neither Parr nor Jenkins died in 1651.
6. In note 7 on the same page Eiler Nystrøm claims that the old man in question is the soldier Anton Carolicopsky, but this is highly unlikely, since Carolicopsky lived in Copenhagen, not in Høie Taastrup, and the Fuchs drawing of Carolicopsky was made in 1780, whereas the drawing of Ole Bendtsen was made in 1782.

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