Anne Bradstreet, America’s first published woman poet and John Milton solve the problem of ‘aetatis suae.’

Lately I have been wrestling with a tricky question: what exactly does ‘aetatis suae’ mean? Our portrait identified as Lady Mary Sidney Lady Wroth (1587 – 1651/3) is due back from the restorer soon. I’ll post an image when she’s ready. One major clue to her identity is the age/date inscription AETATIS SUAE 19 ANNO 1607.

Untitled 2

‘Aetatis suae’ is Latin for ‘of his/her age’, and like most people I read this as ’19 years old in 1607.’ Lady Mary was born October 18th 1587, so she was 19 years old between (whatever hour she was born) October 18th 1606 and October 18th 1607.

So far so simple. But then I found this on the Marlowe Society website. Peter Roberts, Emeritus Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Kent – and alumnus of Marlowe’s alma mater, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge – disputes the identification of the Marlowe portrait at Corpus – believed to the only likeness of the playwright, spy, atheist, man-of-mystery etc – precisely on the meaning of ‘aetatis suae’. This filled me with alarm.


(c) Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Dr Roberts takes ‘aetatis suae 21′ to mean not ’21 years of age’, but ‘in the 21st year of his age’, that’s to say 20 years old. By this logic, Lady Mary wasn’t ‘Aetatis suae 19’ in 1607; she was in her 20th year from October 1606 to October 1607. I could argue that the inscription was wrong, but it is a crucial piece of evidence identifying the sitter. Overturning it would be like the comic tree-surgeon sawing off the branch they’re sitting on.

I don’t dispute this alternative reading of aetatis. Dr Roberts gives examples of this usage – including Sir Christopher Wren’s 1723 epitaph in St Paul’s Cathedral Reader, if you seek my monument, look around you – and I’ve seen many an old tombstone with an inscription like ‘dyed in ye XXX yere of his age.’ But are there Seventeenth Century examples where ‘aetatis suae X’ was used to mean ‘X years of age’ in the modern sense? There are, and I am grateful to Peter Farey, Marlowe scholar and Marlowe Society member, who cites in the same article the epitaph of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (April 5th 1588 – December 4th 1679) – Obiit anno Domini, 1679, ætatis suae 91 – where 91 clearly means ’91 years of age’.

The Marlowe Society post describes the Hobbes epitaph as ‘at least one exception’ to the rule proposed by Dr Roberts. And thank God there are others.

In John Milton’s Latin Elegies – which I hadn’t read before – I found two more examples, where the context shows that ‘aetatis suae’ is used to mean ‘years of age’.

Elegy II mourns the death of Cambridge University’s Senior Esquire Beadle Richard Ridding MA, who died late October or early November 1626. Milton (9th December 1608 – 8th November 1674) was 17 years old when Richard Ridding died, and the poem is titled Elegia Secunda Anno ætatis 17. In obitum Præconis Academici Cantabrigiensis 

Elegy III mourns Lancelot Andrewes who died October 25th 1626 and again the poet describes himself as ’17 years of age’ in the Latin title: Elegia Tertia, Anno aetatis 17. In obitum Praesulis Wintoniensis .

I was not quite home and dry, because Milton plays fast and loose with his age in another poem, Anno aetatis 16. In obitum procancelarii medici  on the death of Dr John Gostlin Vice-Chancellor of Medicine. Dr Gostlin died October 21st 1626, when – as we’ve seen – Milton was 17, not 16.  (I’m grateful to Dartmouth University’s online Milton: Elegiarum for all of this.)


(Wikimedia Commons, MarmadukePercy)

So is there another contemporary example, where the use of ‘aetatis’ is explicitly confirmed by internal evidence? Yes, thank God again, there is. Upon a Fit of Sickness, Anno 1632 Aetatis Suae, 19 was published in The Tenth Muse Lately spring up in America 1650, the first collection of poems by the first published woman poet in America, Anne Bradstreet (1612 – 1672).

The poem begins:

Twice ten years old not fully told

Since Nature gave me breath

There is only one interpretation here. Bradstreet is not yet twenty years old, confirming the ‘Aetatis suae 19’ of the title. The poem was published in 1650, during her lifetime, and there is no doubt that Bradstreet and her contemporaries understood ‘aetatis suae X’ to mean ‘X years of age’ exactly in the sense we would understand it now.

Bradstreet also mentions the year in the title, Anno 1632 Aetatis Suae 19, like the inscription Aetatis suae 19 Anno 1607 in Lady Mary’s portrait.

This was a huge relief; these examples show that Aetatis suae could be used and understood in either sense. Therefore the date/age inscription on the Corpus portrait fits Christopher Marlowe, and the date/age on the portrait I’m researching is right for Lady Mary Sidney Wroth.

I hadn’t heard of Anne Bradstreet before, which is entirely my own fault, as she is studied as a founder-figure in American literature, and particularly in the history of American feminist writing. Bradstreet was born in Northampton, but in 1630 she emigrated to America with her husband Simon Bradstreet, and her parents Thomas Dudley and Dorothy Yorke. The family settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts where her husband and father both became Governor. Bradstreet had eight children and was involved with her husband in the founding of Harvard University, where two of her sons studied. The Tenth Muse was published in 1650 to enthusiastic reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Her poems open a window into the life of a Puritan woman at the time, and advocate a striking degree of marital and sexual equality – echoes here of the painter Mary Beale, her younger contemporary and another educated woman from a Puritan background. I’ve just ordered To My Dear and Loving Husband on abebooks. I will let you know what it’s like.

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