Alleged Danish Centenarians before 1800

by Thorkild Kjærgaard

The first Dane known to have studied old age was Bolle Willum Luxdorph (1716-88) (Fig.1). He was a high-ranking civil servant in the Danish-Norwegian monarchy, leader of the Danish Chancellery. Luxdorph was a man of wide and varied interests. He cultivated roses, he was well-trained in classical studies and wrote, as one of the last in Denmark, a beautiful Latin. He published poems in Danish and of course in Latin and was a prolific writer in many fields. He was a great book-collector, and he kept a diary every day for decades. This voluminous diary has been published in our century and is one of the most rewarding sources of 18th century Danish-Norwegian history.

        Bolle Willum Luxdorph followed various tracks in his studies of old age. He compiled two catalogues of longævi ('longlivers'), ie people who had lived 80 years or more, 80 years being from Roman times the beginning of senectitute. He collected pictures of longævi. Finally in 1780 he made an investigation of the phenomenon of centenarians in the Danish-Norwegian monarchy of the late 18th century.

Luxdorph's picture gallery

The first of Luxdorph's two catalogues, both in Latin, was Catalogus longævorum from 1780. This catalogue was never printed, but survives as a beautiful manuscript in the Royal Library of Copenhagen. The second Index tabularurum pictarum et cælatarum qvæ Longævos repræsentant was published in October 1783 on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Luxdorph's political chief, Count Otto Thott, who is the youngest person mentioned in the catalogue.

        Catalogues of longævi were not unknown in the 18th century (see Jeune's introduction to this monograph), eg the Swiss scholar Albrect von Haller had published one in 1760 and earlier in the century a couple of such catalogues had been published in Paris. The extraordinary thing about Luxdorph's catalogues is that he combines his listing of longævi with pictures of the persons in question. The Catalogus longævorum, which incidentally lists 33 centenarians from classical times until 17th century Denmark including a couple of Danish kings, is illustrated with many drawings. The second catalogue from 1783 is, as the title indicates, a catalogue of pictures of longævi, including 36 pictures representing people who claimed to have reached the age of hundred years or more. Altogether the 1783-catalogue lists close to 300 pictures of longævi.

        In the following years Luxdorph continued to collect pictures of longævi, and when he died in 1788, at the age of 72, he left a collection of 728 pictures - drawings and prints - of longævi, arranged according to their age, the oldest first and the youngest, those of 80 years, including a few persons still living, last. None of the centenarians, of whom there were now 42, were verified or confirmed. Some of them were well-known European longævi, eg Cathrine of Desmonde (1464-1604). Most of these non-Danish-Norwegian longævi, perhaps all of them, have been refuted in the literature, beginning with the famous studies of Thoms (see Jeune's introduction).

        As far as the Danish centenarians or supercentenarians in the Luxdorph picture gallery are concerned they are all impossible to substantiate. Many of them were born abroad, which makes it next to impossible to verify their age claims. That is true of the soldier Anton Crolekofsky, who claimed to be 113 years old when he died in Copenhagen in 1785, and of whom a drawing was made for Luxdorph's gallery by a well-known Copenhagen artist Georg Fuchs (Fig.2). Crolekofsky claimed to have been born in Poland. Abramham Clod de Meer who died 1785, allegedly at the age of 102, was also born abroad. Abraham Clod de Meer, who is supposed to have been the first tobacco planter in Denmark, was reported to have been born in Holland.

        The sailor Christian Drakenberg, who towards the end of his life made a living out of being old, claimed to be 146 years old when he died in 1772. He was born in Norway before church registers were common. Drakenberg's totally unsubstantiated claim to high age was unusually inflated and fanciful, but also unusually successful. He was one of the most frequently pictured persons from the non-ruling classes in the 18th century Danish-Norwegian monarchy (Fig.3).

        Another centenarian in Luxdorph's gallery is the carpenter Jens Larsen Møller, who died in 1788, allegedly 102 years old, but with no evidence to confirm this (Fig.4). The same goes for the mint-master to Frederik II from the 16th century, and - to put it briefly - for all the rest of the centenarians in the Luxdorph gallery.

        Nevertheless, Luxdorph's series of portraits of longævi is highly interesting, probably one of the most unusual collections ever to have existed in Denmark, and certainly one of the most extraordinary Danish contributions to gerontology. Unfortunately the collection was split up and sold together with Luxdorph's other possessions at an auction in 1789. Since then these hundreds of drawings and prints have drifted around, until some of them ended up in museums, including the Frederiksborg Museum. A reconstruction of Luxdorph's collection in the form of a book has been under consideration for some time and is now under preparation. Hopefully it will be an entertaining as well as a rewarding contribution to the history of gerontology.

The 1780 investigation by Luxdorph

In 1780 Luxdorph wrote to the bishops and a few other high-ranking men of the church in Denmark and Norway, asking them to provide information about the centenarians in their districts - especially those recently deceased. Luxdorph also requested detailed biographies of the alleged centenarians and descriptions of their health. He wanted facts, not fairy-tales, and the clergy were asked to check all information on age with the church registers of baptisms and burials, the registers which had been introduced by law in Denmark in 1645-46 and in Norway in 1685. Apparently not all the clergy responded, but many did, most of them by asking the vicars of the various parishes to provide the answers. The answers were returned to Luxdorph, who collected them, together with some miscellaneous material on old age in a volume of documents called Longævi, today kept at the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

        When you study the replies from the Danish and Norwegian clergy you cannot help noticing a significant difference between the material provided by the Danish clergy and that provided by their Norwegian colleagues. The Norwegian clergy mention almost 30 centenarians, while the Danish quote less than 10, although there were more people living in Denmark than in Norway.

There is probably a very simple explanation for this: age exaggeration was relatively easy in Norway, where church registers were introduced nation-wide as late as in 1685, while they were introduced already in 1645-46 in Denmark. This means that in 1780, when Luxdorph was requesting information on centenarians, church registers had only existed nation-wide in Norway for 95 years, except for the relatively few places where church registers had been in use on a voluntary basis before 1680. The parsons in Norway knew of course that people tended to exaggerate their age, but they could not do very much about it apart from adding: he or she claims to have attained this and that age, and that is supported by this and that fact and by his children and all the family, but unfortunately there is no church register to confirm his or her claim.

        In Denmark where church registers had existed on a nation-wide basis since the 1640s it was much more difficult to get away with age exaggeration. People adjusted their behaviour accordingly, because few wanted to make fools of themselves. Apart from incurable mythomaniacs, only people coming from abroad or from other parts of the monarchy, first of all Norway and Schleswig, were seriously tempted to issue unsustained claims about their age.

        How many, if any, of the nearly forty claims to an age of 100 years or more brought to the attention of Luxdorph by the Danish and Norwegian clergy can be sustained? Obviously all claims that cannot be sustained by some hard facts must be discarded. An absolute minimum requirement is a corresponding, well identified entry in a church register both for birth and death. Any further confirmation of their identity during their long lives is, of course, most welcome. Applying these basic criteria, all but one of the alleged centenarians in Luxdorph's material are invalidated. Most of them immediately, a couple after a few supplementary checks, including a woman called Margrethe Andersdatter, who was allegedly born in 1677 in Ingerslev Torup parish on the Island of Funen in a farming family and died at the age of 103 in Hjallese, Dalum parish, just outside Odense. A long biography of this fine woman is provided in a letter from a local clergyman, and everything sounds very reasonable and respectable, except perhaps for one detail: she claims that her mother obtained the very high age of 112. Anyway, Margrethe Andersdatter does not figure in the church register from 1677 of her alleged native parish. The information about the high age of her mother makes it tempting to suggest that perhaps she was one of those incurable mythomaniacs.

Eilif Philipsen - the first centenarian?

However, one is left, and that is the Norwegian, Eilif Philipsen from Ugenæs at Kinsarvik, near Bergen. He was christened together with his twin sister, Ingeborg, in Kinsarvik church on 21 July 1682. We know this for certain, because Kinsarvik was among the Norwegian parishes which on a voluntary basis kept a church register already in the 1670s. We come across him again in 1701, where he is mentioned in the first Norwegian census. He is here recorded as being 18 years old. At that time he lived with his father and two younger brothers, 10-year-old Jacob and 3-year-old Hans. Next time we see him is in 1721, where he is marrying the local 22-year-old Ingebjørk. We meet him again already two years later in 1723, when he was involved in a court case and in 1727, when he inherits his native farm. In 1753 at the age of 71 Eilif Philipsen handed over the farm to his son-in-law, the husband of his adopted daughter.

        Then there is a gap of thirty years, before we meet him again. This time because he is mentioned in the local vicar's letter to Luxdorph. The vicar had taken a long time replying to Luxdorph's enquiry from 1780. He did not reply until April 1783. But then he also had something to tell, namely that there was a 101-year-old man in his parish. This was Eilif Philipsen, who still lived in retirement on his native farm together with his now 84-year-old wife. He lasted another two years. According to the church register in Kinsarvik Eilif Philipsen died 20 June 1785. There seems to be no doubt at all that the Eilif Philipsen, who died in Kinsarvik in 1785, was the very same Eilif Philipsen, who was christened at the same place almost 103 years earlier (Fig.5 and Fig.6).

        There is no doubt that Luxdorph cherished his collection of pictures much more than his statistical investigation from 1780. When he had visitors he loved to show them his collection of portraits of the old. It could be that as a contribution to the cultural history of old age and to the history of gerontology, the picture collection is of greater interest than the sociological material, contained in the replies from the Danish and Norwegian clergy to Luxdorph's letter of 1780 .

        However, when we talk about centenarians, it is the 1780 investigation which counts. The picture gallery offers no serious candidate to an 18th century centenarian. The 1780 investigation does. Eilif Philipsen, by the way, seems to confirm the "tail theory", according to which centenarians do not emerge until well into the earlymodern period. Not until the end of the 18th century, when the disease pattern in Europe had been less severe for quite a few decades, does it become time to look for the first centenarians. They may occur everywhere in Europe, so why not, indeed, in a well-to-do and socially stable rural district outside Bergen in Norway?



Updated by V. Castanova,  March 2000