The fourfold division in human life
The division of a human life in certain periods has been known from Antiquity. Elizabeth SEARS (1986) and BURROW (1986) gave – in the same year and under the same title ‘The Ages of Man’ – a survey of the different types of divisions of the human presence in a historical context. Both books provide a wealth of division types in the (European) Middle Ages, but do not position their results in a time-related context.
Burrow was of the opinion, that biological orientated writers favored the threefold division (with an ‘augmentum – status – decrementum‘ setting), the physiologists (or early medical professions) preferred the fourfold, and the sevenfold division was promoted by astrologists (or early human sciences). An example of the last category was given in a book of the Greek-Egyptian astronomer, mathematician and geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus, called the ‘Tetrabiblos’, dating from the first century AD. This book was written in an intense Alexandrian spirit and presented a seven-division of the human life-span (WINKEL, 1923):
period duration in years cosmic body
0 – 4 4 Moon
4 – 14 10 Mercure
14 – 22 8 Venus
22 – 41 19 Sun
41 – 56 15 Mars
56 – 68 12 Jupiter
68 – end – Saturn
BURROW (1986) referred to a ‘four-age tradition in Antiquity’, but does not really touch the subject: ‘the development of the tetradic scheme in Antiquity is a much-studied subject which lies outside the scope of this book.’
Nearly four centuries after Bede’s ‘De Temporum Ratione‘, the English monk Byrhtferth wrote his ‘Manual’, and reworked the material to a full-flown tetradic universe (BAKER, 1980; HART, 1972) (fig. 64). The so-called ‘Ramsey Computus’ (1086 – 1092) was the highlight of the Medieval four-fold way of thinking, in a visible form (fig. 65). SINGER (1928) dated the manuscript in 1110. BAKER & LAPIDGE (1995) gave a full description of Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion.
Fig. 64 – A tetradic diagram in Byrthferth’s Manual. Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Ashmole 328, p. 85. In: SEARS, 1986. The ages of man are four-fold: Pueritia (the months January – March), adolescentia (April – June), juventus (July – September) and senectus (October – December)
The diagram of Byrhtferth in the Ramsey Computus. Oxford, St. John College, ms. 17, fol. 7v (around 1100 AD) is the apotheosis of medieval tetradic thinking.
Fig. 65 – The four-fold micro- and macro-cosmos in the ‘Manual of Byrhtferth‘, Oxford St. John College ms.17 fol.7v. The ages of man (pueritia (-14 years), adolescentia (-28 years), juventus (- 48 years) and senectus (70 – 80 years) make a clockwise motion.
A rather rough copy is present in the ‘Peterborough Computus‘ (Fol. 8r. British Library, London. MS Harley 3667) (fig. 66). FOYS (2006) pointed – in his article of an unfinished Mappa Mundi from Late Eleventh-Century Worcester – to this Harley 3667 document. It seems that the ADAM depiction is on the reverse of a mappa mundi map (T-O map) of Harley 3667, 8v.
A further division of the human life in four was given by Philip de Novare (1265) in his ‘Les Quatre Ages de l’homme’ (FREVILLE, 1888). In the same spirit was Aldobrandino of Siena’s ‘La Regime du corps’ (1287) (fig. 67, see also fig. 16).
Fig. 67 – The ‘four ages of man’ by Aldobrandino of Siena (1287) in ‘La regime du corps‘. fol. 42v, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, cod. Reg. lat. 1256. In: SEARS, 1986.
The theme of the four ages of man continued after the thirteenth century of the European cultural period, but its character became increasingly symbolic. Genuine four-fold thinking drifted towards a lower division environment. This move – which lasted for almost six-hundred years – increased the (visible) visibility, but decreased the character of real tetradic thinking. The invention of the printing press ‘enabled the widespread dissemination of the literature of symbolism including the new genres of emblem and device’ (RAYBOULD, 2009). The world of painting added to the visualization of the four-fold, but not necessarily to the understanding of a tetradic world view. Jan Miense Molenaer’s painting of the ‘four ages of man‘ (1630) epitomized the state of affairs (in division thinking) in the seventeenth century (fig. 68).
Fig. 68 – The Four Ages, a painting by Jan Miense Molenaer, 1630 (Museum van Loon, Keizersgracht 672, Amsterdam).
BAKER, Peter S. (1980). The Old English Canon of Byrhtferth of Ramsey. Speculum 55, 1
BAKER, S. and LAPIDGE, M. (Ed.). 1995. Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion. Oxford University Press, Oxford. (with Old English and modern translation)
BURROW, J.A. (1986). The Ages of Man. A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought. Clarendon Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-811188-6
FOYS, Martin (2006). Anglo-Saxon England. An unfinished mappa mundi from Late Eleventh century Worcester. Cambridge University Press.
FREVILLE, M. de (1888). Philippe de Novare. Les Quatres Ages de l’homme. SATF, Paris.
HART, Cyril (1972). Byrthtferth and His Manual. Medium Aevum, 41 (1972), 96.
RAYBOULD, Robin (2009). Emblemata. Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance. The Grollier Club, New York.
SEARS, Elizabeth (1986). The Ages of Man. Medieval interpretations of the Life cycle. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04037-0
SINGER, Charles (1928). From Magic to Science. Essays on the Scientific Twilight. Ernest Benn Ltd., London.
WINKEL, Max E. (tr.) (1923). Tetrabiblos. Buch I und II. Die Hundert Aphorismen nach Philipp Melanchton besorgten und mit einer Vorrede versehenen Ausgabe aus dem Jahre 1553. Ins Deutsche übertragen von M. Erich Winkel. 2 Bände. Linser Verlag, Berlin-Pankow.