Until a year or two back I imagined an antiquarian to be either a blinkered eccentric of some sort – I think I had read an M R James ghost story in which an antiquarian featured – can’t say I’m keen on M R James, though he was himself an antiquarian – or some old pompous somebody who sold dusty and more or less unreadable books to people who weren’t interested in reading them anyway but just wanted to possess them. That was before I started reading John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr.
Basically, it’s the biography Aubrey never got round to writing. He spent a long-ish 17th century lifetime writing but his writings are all over the place – so much to record, so many new things to discover, so many distractions. What Ms Scurr did was to go through all his papers and extract all the autobiographical entries, rearranging them as nearly as possible in chronological order. She does not put words in his mouth, simply extracts a whole life from a lifetime of scattered notes.
John Aubrey was an English gentleman, comfortably off as a young man, desperately impoverished in later life when, his father having died, his inheritance was discovered to be ‘encumbered with debts’. He lived through all sorts of dangerous history, recording, amongst other things, the execution of the King. A kindly enthusiast, he was a man who made friends easily and kept them. He was naïve, imaginative and somewhat disorganised.
Things never seemed to turn out quite the way he expected. He suffered from recurrent bouts of ‘love-sickness’ which he describes in a matter of fact way, like a kind of indigestion – falling for young ladies who, on the whole, did not fall for him in return. Towards the end of his life he begins to feel the cold greatly. His eyes failing, he continues to record spells (To Cure the Thrush; To Cure the Tooth-ache; For the Jaundice), omens and dreams. He complains about the slowness of printers and fears he will not live to see his Monumenta Britannica in print.
He recorded everything, was interested in anything and everything. He travelled backwards and forwards from Wiltshire into Wales, to Oxford, over to France, and wherever he went he sketched what he saw. Every story he heard, he wrote down. He was elected to the Royal Society, and proposed to them his idea for moving blood between chickens, which was laughed at, causing his natural stammer to become worse from sheer embarrassment. But a short while later he was proposing to them a new idea – for a cart with legs instead of wheels.
He commissioned drawings of ancient ruins, so that they should not be lost to history. He collected things, including a turquoise ring, which fascinates him. He records where spots have appeared on the ring, and how they have moved. He corresponds with others about the ideas of fluidity in stones.
He loved Stonehenge, and realised it was far older than Roman times. He was even more deeply impressed by Avebury ring. He was anxious about the damage being done to these monuments – ancient stones being carried away to make house lintels, for instance, or ground up for medicine. The King asked him to make a sketch of Avebury and present it to him.
It seems that antiquarians have been around since ancient Greek and Roman times. They have been in China, in India – all over the world. Often mocked as narrow obsessives who recorded trivia in ridiculous detail for no obvious purpose – today’s equivalent would be nerds, train-spotters, anoraks – they have often turned out to be more accurate original sources than the ‘historians’ of the day. Their interests included customs, religious rituals, political institutions, genealogy, topography and landmarks, and etymology.
The reason they have proven unexpectedly useful is this – they believed in empirical evidence. They did not allow themselves to assume anything – ‘We speak from facts not theory’ (Sir Richard Colt Hoare, 18th Century antiquary). Neither did they presume to interpret what they recorded. They left interpretation to later generations but in the meantime saw themselves as saving what was left lying around after a shipwreck – the passage of time, history itself, being the shipwreck. They saved things – curious physical objects (often displayed in a ‘cabinet of curiosities’), stories, data, words, facts, rarities. They often collected books, borrowed books from each other, corresponded at length about passages in those books, or things they had discovered. They drew, they wrote, they thought, they shared information, they asked questions, they wondered.
In those days, gentlemen had the time to dream. They had a reverence and a fascination for the past. They were curious, longing to know anything they might know. They had opportunities to travel – slowly – and collect – indiscriminately – and were humble enough to ask the questions their contemporaries dismissed as foolish.