Monday, December 13, 2010

Three score and twelve?

Just a short one for St Lucy’s Day. This is the 1538 Sarum primer, and there she is on her Saint’s Day, ‘saynt lucy vyrgyn’ on ‘xii i’.

But I was more amused by the verses under the woodcut (itself not concerned to end the year with a cheerful Yuletide, but depicting a dying man receiving the last rites from a tonsured priest. An acolyte holds up the service book, a young woman in a fur-edged gown prays, and one has to concede that the persective of the four poster bed has gone wrong, so that they are in front of it rather than on or beside it). These are the verses:

The yere by December taketh his ende

and so dooth man at thre score and twelve.

Nature with aege wyll hym on message sende

The tyme is come that he must go him selve.

‘Three score and twelve’?! This seems a little high-handed in the face of the much cited witness of King David (as they would have considered it) in Psalm 90:

9 For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.

10 The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

11 Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.

12 So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

I gave the whole context rather than the single verse, because verse 9 reminded me of Macbeth, the text which also ha:

“Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange.”

Back in the Sarum primer, the two year extension in ‘twelve’ is the first B rhyme in the ABAB quatrain, so hardly looks forced by having to find a rhyme (‘ten’ anyone could rhyme to, after all). Perhaps it stemmed, rather, from wanting to tie the life of man more closely to the twelve months.

I chased ‘threescore and ten’ for a while: into Thomas Hardcastle’s Christian geography and arithmetick (1674), reflecting lugubriously “that our Dayes are numbred does denote the shortness of them; Eternity cannot be numbred, what ever is in God is incomprehensible and innumerable, the Dayes of God are not to be numbred. We say he is a Poor man that can number his Flock, that can tell how many sheep and cattel he has, the Dayes of a Man are soon told they are quickly reckoned up, he that hath but a little skill in Arithmetick, may cast up the number.”

I liked this epigram about desire outliving performance in Henry Parrot’s Cures for the itch (1626):

Old Limpus faine would live & see good days,
Fully attain'd to threescore years and ten,
Who though from wenching much his strength decays
Yet has he will as well as youngest men.

Richard Steele published a comprehensive guide to the topic in A discourse concerning old-age tending to the instruction, caution and comfort of aged persons (1688):

“The Antediluvians lived eight or nine hundred years. Those which were born after the Flood, did scarce live half so long; for Arphaxad, who was born after it, lived but 440 years, Gen 11. 13. And in the time of Peleg his Grand-child, the Age of man was shrunk half in half shorter; he lived only 239 years, Gen. 11. 21. And in the Age of Nahor, great Grand-child to Peleg, it fell to 150. Gen. 11. 25. And so the ordinary term of mans life was by degrees curtail'd, that in Moses time, the dayes of his years were reckon'd at threescore years and ten…

And the formula appears reliably often in comic drama, as when Old Gerald announces his plans to marry a fifteen year old in that excellent farceur Edward Ravenscroft’s The Anatomist:
The Sham Doctor (1697):


No Sir, if you had been contemporary with the Patriarchs, you had been counted now a very youth, but in this short-liv'd age we live in, Sir, you are, as one may say, worn to the stumps.

Old Gerald.

Hold your prating; Threescore is mans ripe Age.


Yes, and his rotten Age too; but you, if I mistake not, are threescore and ten.

Old Gerald.

No more of Age: 'Tis a thing never to be inquired into, but when you are buying Horses.


How? Not in Marriage Sir.

Old Gerald.

Not if a man be very rich.

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