An image may be meant to communicate with one, with several, or with a wider population – but it will communicate information and perceptions current when it was first formed. There are no images of stealth-bombers in fourteenth-century pictures, not because the idea of stealth, or or hurled weapons, or of flight (as such) was unknown, but because there was no mental or technical context in which to envisage ways that fire might be hurled directly from the heavens by purely human agency. A thing doesn’t have to exist before it is drawn, but the social and linguistic environment must allow its conception and so its expression in imagery.
One must then ask where, and when (before 1438) a person could have envisaged the theme of ‘the Ages of Man’ in terms of individual, physiological ageing, and supposed as we might now do that its manifestations could be measured in gradations of a year or less.
Are the necessary words, concepts attested in western medieval Europe? What sort of person might be in a position to see and draw a large number of unclothed women, each of whom not only knew her precise age in years, but was willing to share that information as well as disrobing?
It’s a big ask in historical terms, yet such are the ‘givens’ implicit in JKPetersen’s recent post. ‘Stages of Life Revisited’.
There is no doubt the figures in the month-folios evince a variety of forms, from what we should call pre-adolescent to what we might call mature. The issues are, first, whether the images relate to the medieval European environment and, within it, to any of the several schemes by which medieval Latin Europe described the ‘Ages of Man’.
When one considers just how imprecise the terms were by which those ‘Ages” were described, the obstacles emerge as formidable.
Concerning the terms and ideas, for example. I’ll first cite
- Phyllis Gaffney, ‘The Ages of Man in Old French Verse Epic and Romance’, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Jul., 1990), pp. 570-582.
Gaffney begins her paper in the usual way, citing precedent studies for this subject, those in turn allowing the reader to track ideas about ‘Ages of Man’ in western medieval Europe, whether as literary or artistic tropes, and from their earliest origins.
So then, Gaffney writes:
Medieval attitudes towards the ages of human life have recently been examined in three major studies, drawing widely on evidence from literature and iconography,
[1..] .J A. Burrow, The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought (Oxford, 1986); Perfect Age of Man’s Life (Cambridge, 1986); E. Sears, The Ages of Man: Medieval Interpretations Cycle (Princeton, NewJersey 1986).
Gaffney also makes plain to the reader the evidence defining her own contribution, its range and sources. Her conclusions are to be taken as specific elucidation within that range, whether or not they apply more widely:
The sources for the discussion are some fifty chansons de geste and romances, of varying length and merit, dating period c.1000-1225.
All the hallmarks of a scholarly investigation and argument are here already in Gaffney’s paper, as they are found in any historical scholarship whether the writer is an amateur, an independent or a professional. Standards establish quality; a writer’s observing those standards allows a informed reader to rely on the information – and to check it – and the material is presented in a form intended to serve interests other than the scholar’s own.
In our case, checking evidence for, and against, a proposal by Petersen that the month-diagrams in Beinecke MS 408 might depict a medieval European view of the ‘Ages of Man’.
Preliminaries over, Gaffney then moves on to the evidence itself, and her argument (exposition) from it. She soon observes that:
First, there is the problem of age definition. It is well known that medieval [European] society had a great imaginative sense of the poetry of figures, but comparatively little interest in rigorous quantification, perhaps least of all in connexion with time. Bloch spoke of a vast indifference to time during this period, and the primary sources bear him out.
(Gaffney here, naturally, provides full bibliographic details).
Gaffney’s study is anchored in primary documents up until the target period; it is informed by knowledge of precedents – that is, prior contributions to this topic and its discussion – and now that the laid path is clear, another paving stone can be set in its proper place and sequence.
This is what has been lost in Voynich writings since the early 2000s. Formal methods do not ensure that what is written is some final, authoritative ‘word’ after which all others must stay silent; it simply addresses the current state of discussion while providing those who will come later with the means to review any specific stage, and how the present phase of debate+addition was reached.
The aim in serious research is just that; to serve the field of study and those who will follow one into it. It is extremely rare that one finds Voynich-related writings today that are informed by such aims, whether the material appears online or in print. Few scholars become involved, these days. Still fewer survive. To judge by several recent ‘Voynich’ books, some publishers no longer bother to invite peer-review from external specialists in languages, history, comparative iconography.. or any subject that would normally inform pre-publication review of writings about a medieval manuscript.
In other words, Voynich-related writings are now treated, with very few exceptions, as works of fiction.
But, back to Gaffney’s paper…
On the question of vocabulary, and whether it allowed precise description of of ageing – in terms of the ‘Ages of Man” – she says of Old French:
No clear-cut distinctions can be drawn between the various synonyms for enfes, ‘child’: words such as vallet, meschins, bachelers, damoisels, and jouvenciaus are in most cases semantically interchangeable. The same character in a narrative poem may be termed a jouvenciaus in one line, and an hons (homme) in the following line. The Old French term enfes/enfant has a much wider definition than in modern French, and can refer to a person aged anything between birth and thirty, as well as meaning ‘child’ in the sense of offspring, and a young warrior. The terminus ad quem for the end of childhood is marked by a social event, such as a youth’s being given territory to govern, rather than by a definite age. The synonyms for enfes are very often to be taken as denoting young bachelors not yet the sense of the iuvenes of the aristocracy of northern France in which Georges Duby has depicted as a disruptive and unruly composed of frustrated younger sons and given to a life of violence.
and for women…
one finds a relative ‘agelessness’ where female characters are concerned. Alice Colby’s study of the twelfth-century Old French portrait found that out of twenty-two portraits of female characters, the age was given only once…
Chretien’s romances, in particular, are thronged with damsels and maidens (puceles and damoiseles) of varying significance to the plot, of very indeterminate age, and interchangeably denoted by terms such as ‘pucele’/’damoisele’, ‘dame’/’feme’. As I. Pauli has remarked, ‘les idees de “femme” et de “fille” se confondent tres souvent: les limites entre ces deux notions sont tres flottantes’ (‘Enfant’, ‘garfon’, fille’ dans les langues romanes, essai de lexicologie comparee (Lund, I919) p. 12
I won’t reproduce all the references for this, though of course Gaffney does. Any interested in learning more will find her paper through JSTOR.
The historical situation in medieval France to at least the first quarter of the thirteenth century is obviously not conducive to anyone’s forming an idea of ageing solely as a change in physical form, defined in yearly gradations. One might say ‘this woman is eleven years old’ but the mental construct needed to clearly distinguish, within the ‘infant’ Age, an infant of six from an infant of ten or eleven just wasn’t there. One had a growing infant. Nor, of course, was there any concept at all of the “teen-ager” = this being a term invented in 1920s America as response to a hitherto unrecognised social need.
Plainly, the songs and language of medieval France cannot assist an idea of the month-diagrams’ tiered figures as expressing an ‘Ages of Man’ concept through the sort of lens suited to modern science, in which ‘meaning’ is imagined the province of the critical sciences and the purely physical that of pragmatic sciences.
The sheer number of bodies depicted in the month-folios presents another awkward problem for JK Petersen’s idea.
Versions of the “Ages of Man”
For describing the scheme of human life, there were five versions, of which the first three in the list below are most often found in the literature and images.
- The ‘three stages’ version, which often echoes the sun’s arising, noon, and sinking.
- The ‘four stages’ version – typically seen in parallel with the moods of the four seasons: from Infancy (Spring) to old age (Winter).
- The ‘seven ages’ whose parallels are the days of creation or, in later medieval Europe, the seven ‘planets’ ( i.e. Sun, Moon and five planets).
- The ‘ten ages’ version – a majority of examples occurring in Jewish works, each of the ten encompassing 7 years, according to the Biblical text where a man’s allotment is 70 years.
- The ‘twelve stages’ version – each stage equated with one of the 12 months.
In each of the schemes, an ‘Age’ is defined by a person’s activity in that phase of their life. A medieval image might define the second of three ‘ages’ as that when a man owned a horse and wielded a sword; a Victorian image as that when a man wore a top hat and was head of a family. . Each epoch in history made its own associations for its ‘Ages of Man’ but for all of them visual ‘props’ (devices) were essential for the sense to be conveyed. The unclothed figures in the Voynich month-folios have little but their head-coverings and a ‘star-flower’.
A clear outline for the origin and transmission through Europe of each scheme for the ‘Ages of Man’ is offered by:
- Max J. Okenfuss, The Ages of Man on the Seventeenth-Century Muscovite Frontier, The Historian, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Autumn 1993), pp. 87-104
As well as extending the history of that theme into the seventeenth century, this paper should be of interest to Voynich researchers because its chief figure is:
Simeon Polockij, an Orthodox Christian (probably Uniate) monk [who] was born in 1629 in Poland. He received a Jesuit humanistic education. Polockij (or as he styled himself late in life, “Simeonis Piotrowski Sitanianowicz Jeromonachi Polocensis Ordfinis] S[ancti] Basilii Magjni]”) moved to Moscow and attempted—largely unsuccessfully—to introduce Latin, humanistic values, and the works of classical pagan authors to hostile Muscovites.
Also with history of Beinecke MS 408’s study in mind, I note the publication in 1914, in the Classical Weekly, of the following paper, still valuable.
- Cornelia G. Harcum, ‘The Ages of Man: A Study Suggested by Horace, Ars Poetica, Lines 153-178′, The Classical Weekly, Vol. 7, No. 15 (Feb. 7, 1914), pp. 114-118.
Part of Horace’s description of age..
Many disadvantages beset the gray haired man, either because he seeks to procure new wealth, and miser-like touches not and fears to use the hoard already found, or because he does everything timidly and half-heartedly. A procrastinator is he, holding long to his hopes, sluggish, longing eagerly for future years, hard to please, full of complaints … a reprover and censurer of the younger generation..’
pretty timeless stuff. 🙂
Harcum refers also to medieval European imagery, including the rarer 10-fold division which she associates with Solon (a law-giver in ancient Greece).
In art, as well as in literature, the Ages of Man is a frequent motif, going back to the twelfth century or even earlier, as the windows and the sculptures of several cathedrals still bear witness. One of the earliest examples of the artistic treatment of the subject is at Basle; it may be dated about the close of the twelfth century. It is in the form of a circular window representing the wheel of life. This wheel has a number of spokes which serve as ladders upon which the figures climb. They are ten in number, thus agreeing with Solon’s division.
Voynicheros espousing a ‘German-‘ or ‘Italian-‘ or ‘German-and-Italian’ theory, or who are able to see Jewish intellectual life as such, the following should be especially interesting, though I would suggest, in view of its date, that the content be checked against more recent studies.
- L. Landau, A German-Italian Satire on the Ages of Man’, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 31, No. 8 (Dec., 1916), pp. 465-471.
In one place, Landau writes,
The author of our satire divides the life of man into twelve periods, in each of which, with the exception of the first and last, he is compared to an animal. Thus at the age of one year he is compared to a king, at three to a pig, at seven to a kid, at eighteen to a horse, at thirty to a fox, at forty to a lion, at fifty to a cock, at. sixty to a dog, at seventy to an ape, at eighty to a serpent, at ninety to an ox, and at a hundred to a house in ruins.
Since ladies of the month-folios’ sort also appear in what is usually imagined a ‘baleneological’ section of the Voynich manuscript, it is fair to mention that the themes of the ‘Ages of Man’ and of bathing appear together in a Ferrarese painting in the early sixteenth century – too late, one would think, to explain content in the Voynich manuscript but here it is. (Note that within western Europe it was still unacceptable, even among European humanists, to depict a ‘real’ woman’s pubic region and -hair.)
- Peter Humfrey, ‘The Patron and Early Provenance of Titian’s ‘Three Ages of Man’ The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 145, No. 1208, Art in Italy (Nov., 2003), pp. 787-791.
I can find no suggestion in any of the iconography or in the primary or the secondary sources treating the ‘Ages of Man’ theme over the spectrum from the classical era to 1438, that there existed any interest in defining in terms of the actual progress of human ageing: that is, as physiological change in any individual.
The required objectification and ‘scientific’ observation would appear proper only to a much later period. Until then, the idea was always of a parallel made between external phenomena in the natural world and the passage of human life, in the generic sense, through its ‘seasons’ from birth to death.
Whether described in parallel with the three parts of the day, or of the four seasons, or the twelve agricultural months, figures in ‘Ages of Man’ schemes are always presented in terms of the clothing, social interactions and daily activities perceived as proper to that ‘Age’ – from the babe’s ‘mewling and puking’ to the adult’s horse-riding and marriage, to the aged figure’s walking with a stick and huddling by the fire.
JK Petersen’s post includes his own survey of imagery, following through to as far as a the nineteenth century. That survey shows clearly enough how perceptions changed after the medieval period with its set numbers of ‘3’, ‘4’ ‘7’ ’10’ or ’12’, and how the ‘scientific eye’ only much later came to depict those ‘Ages’ in simple physiological-social terms. By the nineteenth century, affect from ethnological investigations becomes evident, and what is described is less human life as microcosm of divine order than the ‘human tribe’ and the status of various persons within it.
Voynich Studies and the ‘Ages of Man’.
Newbold and William Friedman might have been among those who read the article that had been published by Harcum in 1914 (see above), but it is more likely that another, published in 1954, might have been brought to notice by someone living in post-war America and interested in the Voynich manuscript.
- Edith A. Standen, ‘The Twelve Ages of Man’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 12, No. 8 (Apr., 1954),pp. 241-248.
Discussing a set of tapestries acquired by the Museum, she says in one place that despite the ‘labours’ depicted in them..
… we are not dealing with a set of the Four Seasons (a favorite tapestry subject), as above each deity appear the symbols of three months starting with January, February, and March (instead of March, April, and May) for spring, and ending with October, November, and December (instead of December, January, and February) for winter. We are concerned with the seasons of the life of man, and, as in the Books of Hours, each month corresponds to a period of six years..
The point isn’t whether that distinction is accurate, but that it may have been known to the Friedmans or people of their circle.
Jim Reeds’ transcription of documents sought out as part of his own original contribution to Voynich studies shows a reference made to the ‘Ages of Man’ as early as 1944. That we have this particular section of the ‘research road’ preserved is due to Jorge Stolfi. (see here).
The record made by Jim Reeds begins:
National Cryptologic Museum, VF 10-8
Transcribed by J. A. Reeds, 15 Nov 1998
editorial marks: lines beginning with # are mine.
# in typed documents, matter in single brackets [thus] is handwritten
# my comments are in [[double brackets]]
Captain, U. S. Army, Retired.
# handwritten minutes in Rhoads’s hand
Meeting at 5 PM 9 June in Room 214 Hq.
Read “amusing document”.
Read Mrs. Voynich letter & reply.
Read photostat of translation of Latin from Newbold book of accompanying
Read note re plants from Speculum Jan. 1944.
Interpretation of characters.
Feely — list
Read Seaman’s note.
F’s observations — diagram of evils on p:
4 ages of man = 68 years
but characters do not all appear in text.
use of greek letter spelled out
partly & straight cipher other
Seaman list & agree
Next meeting in 1 week.
make of that what you will. 🙂
From that time until now (and perhaps from as early as Newbold’s research, to which I have not access) the ‘Ages of Man’ theme arises to view in Voynich writings, only to sink again like a cork in a heavy swell, over and over again through those seventy-and-more years but always something floating, never firmly grounded and certainly never taking root.
In the Index to Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma..
and thereafter in the first – i.e. Reeds’ – mailing list, and so in various other Voynich blogs, journals, articles and forums etc. etc.
The majority are focused on fourfold diagrams. The following is fairly typical, and nicely illustrates the extent to which standards had degraded by 2008, with a writer’s focus entirely on his own ideas and the implication that it was not the weight of evidence, but an individual’s “authority” which should decide what was, and wasn’t to be deemed true. This is from an online publication called ‘The Journal of Voynich Studies’.
(communication 10/28/08 2:29 PM)
from: Berj N. Ensanian
Subject: J.VS: Asterisms in Voynich illustration f85r2
As you recall from off-J discussions early this last September, I was struck by a peculiarity in the Voynich f85r2 cosmological illustration, namely: that the man at the top of the ring surrounding the sun is with his hand and its finger pointing directly at a group of dots which is located inside the upper-right fanning sprout of water (or whatever that is) which originates from the central ring. That group of dots, examined at best available resolution, appears to me to be intentional and organized.
The f85r2 panel is part of a 12-panel foldout. The f85r2 illustration is referred to by some [sic!] as “The four ages of Man”, a designation dating to well before the availability of the high-resolution SID images, and subsequently no longer convincing in my view.
and that, rather than the style seen in work by Reeds or by Stolfi, is today the norm for most Voynich writings, online or in print.
I say ‘most Voynich writings’, not ‘all’.
Perhaps as later generations look over the material produced after 2004, they will wonder how it was that aberrant method ever replaced the earlier – and beyond Voynich studies still universal – conventions of formal scholarship.
As far as I’ve witnessed that descent over the past decade, it was chiefly achieved by an invention and repeated assertion of essentially meaningless ‘memes’ e.g. “to cite precedents is unnecessary” independence from which was effectively deterred by similar, but specifically personal ‘memes’ drawn no less from thin air. History shows the combination of orders and punishment of dissenters is highly effective in promoting and maintaining group-cohesion.
Cryptologists are permitted to research and debate to higher ethical and methodological standards …so long as they are speak about cryptology.
But now – the bright side… Petersen’s new idea.
I believe that no precedent exists for JKPetersen’s idea – set out in his latest blogpost – that whoever first designed the month-folio diagrams intended to illustrate an ‘Ages of Man’ scheme.
Koen Gheuens’ post of June 30th, 2019, did mention the ‘Ages of Man’ but only in passing, and again with regard to one of the ‘four-fold’ diagrams.
- Koen Gheuens, ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’, The Voynich Temple, June 30th., 2019).
There may well have been more about the ‘Ages of Man’ in articles published by Stephen Bax and contributed by Darren Worley or by Marco Ponzi, but since Bax’ death, the site has become corrupted – all entries in the comments’ column wiped, replaced by repetitions of an infected paragraph, and such evidence of breach necessarily renders all its remaining data suspect. It has indeed become “dangerous” to seek evidence establishing correct precedence within the history of this manuscript’s study.