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Kelsey Jackson Williams, The Antiquary: John Aubrey’s Historical Scholarship
by Graham Parry

Williams, Kelsey Jackson. The Antiquary: John Aubrey’s Historical Scholarship. Oxford UP, 2016. xiv + 191 pp. ISBN: 978-0198784296. $76.00 cloth. 

To the reader of this journal, with interests primarily Spenserian, it is worth remarking that Spenser did have a distinct inclination towards antiquarian studies, evident most notably in his View of the State of Ireland. The discussions between Eudoxus and Irenaeus about the origins of the Irish, and the movement of peoples across Europe from Scythia, are characteristic of early antiquarian debates, as is the use of linguistic evidence to track those movements. The recording of Irish customs and laws, ways of fighting and modes of dress is typical too. Spenser was acquainted with William Camden, the doyen of antiquarian studies whose work is praised in Spenser’s The Ruines of Time, itself something of an antiquarian poem featuring the spirit of the Roman city of Verulam. However, the nymph of Verulam can only lament that the city has been swallowed up by oblivion, whereas a true antiquary would vigorously seek the restoration of the ruins of time.

The antiquarian movement was only just beginning in Spenser’s time. If we move forward a generation, we find Michael Drayton writing Polyolbion, a lengthy topographical poem in the Spenserian mode with a considerable amount of antiquarian content. Drayton has much to say about the origins of Britain, and he writes evocatively about the multi-layered landscapes of the country. He explores the historical depths of those landscapes, attempting to recover the events of the past and speculate about national origins and ancient societies. In order to amplify the antiquarian credentials of his poem he recruited his friend John Selden to write learned annotations to his verse, annotations that do not match well with the pastoral leisureliness of Polyolbion. In the same year as Drayton published the first part of Polyolbion, 1613, William Browne brought out the first volume of his topographical-antiquarian poem Britannia’s Pastorals, also written in the Spenserian style, and also inspired by William Camden’s Britannia.

Move forward another generation, and we arrive at the time of John Aubrey’s formative years, when antiquarian studies had become a matter of widespread interest to the English gentry. Relatively little known in his own time, John Aubrey is enjoying a phase of appreciative attention at present. Kate Bennett’s long-awaited edition of Brief Lives appeared in 2015, Ruth Scurr’s fictional autobiography of Aubrey based on Brief Lives captured a large readership in the same year, and now Kelsey Williams invites us to understand the essential unity of Aubrey’s miscellaneous interests in an intensely informative monograph.[1] While its anecdotal character guarantees that Brief Lives will always draw plenty of readers, the unusual nature of many of Aubrey’s projects, plus the difficulty of accessing them, means that a new guide and interpreter is a welcome figure. It is over forty years since Michael Hunter published John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning, the last book to provide an overview of his achievements.[2]

How does one find a unity of purpose among the persistent concerns of the ever-curious Aubrey? What connections does the study of ancient monuments have with speculation about the geological vicissitudes of the earth, or the folk-lore of the English countryside with the variety of languages that have been spoken in the British Isles? How has history shaped landscape? What holds together the myriad details of the lives of his countrymen that he collected and preserved? This learned and thought-provoking book attempts to bring a wholeness to the work of a man whose one published work in his lifetime was aptly entitled Miscellanies.

Williams presents Aubrey as an investigator who believed that the world around us is only comprehensible if we see it as the result of long centuries of slow change since earliest antiquity. By “earliest antiquity,” Williams means the Tower of Babel, from which the various nations spread out after the Flood, according to Genesis chapter 11. One does not normally associate Aubrey with conventional biblical history, for he rarely mentions the Bible or biblical chronology. Yet Williams is able to point to enough references to claim that “Aubrey’s view of the ancient past was essentially biblical: a gradual repopulation of the world after the fall of Babel … While he was willing to admit that the physical world was much older than commonly supposed, human culture was only a postdiluvian construct with an origin a few thousand years in the past. English sites, including Stonehenge, had been built by the not-so-distant descendants of the architects of Babel” (90-1). The process of slow change can be traced by comparing examples of objects or practices within a given category over a long period of time or across different societies that may have parallel histories. To carry out this kind of survey into deep time, and to have the necessary polymathic skills to make appropriate cross-referencing, requires one to possess the qualifications of an antiquary. These qualifications included a profound curiosity about the past, wide reading, a knowledge of the history and customs of other cultures, and a capacity to make imaginative connections.

Since Aubrey the antiquary is best known for his investigations into the ancient stone monuments of Britain, we can see how Williams evaluates Aubrey’s practices as an interpreter of prehistory by looking briefly at the chapter on Monumenta Britannica. The standing stones of Britain predate the written record, so understanding their significance depends on comparing them with similar constructions in Europe and beyond that might offer a clue to their purpose. Although Aubrey’s unsettled lifestyle—he spent much time sleeping on the sofas of friends—prevented him from building up a substantial library, he managed to gain access to many learned books published on the continent, thanks to wealthy friends and the Bodleian. By reading surveys of Nordic and Germanic antiquities by the likes of Ole Worm, Olof Rudbeck, and Athanasius Kircher he was able to form a collection of images and speculations about the nature of these antiquities. He recognized that they were all part of a northern European tradition of sites for communal gatherings, worship, and burial, and understood that prehistoric Europe had a common culture with much movement of peoples. Having come to the conclusion that stone circles were ritual sites, and probably burial places, he then associated them with druids because these were the only priests recorded in pre-Roman times, and because the absence of records and lack of any chronology left him with no alternatives. He knew from classical writers that druids were frequenters of woods and groves, and held the oak tree in special veneration, but he decided they must also have presided over the stones. Popular belief has never rejected Aubrey’s speculations, even if modern archaeologists have no time for them.

Although Aubrey found the comparative method invaluable for understanding the ancient world, and was well-read in modern European scholarship, as Williams impressively shows, he was nonetheless an avid nationalist in antiquities. He admired the Ancient Britons for their hardiness, and was pleased to repeat Caesar’s information that the center of druidic learning was in Britain, drawing aspirants from all over Celtic Europe. The native Britons were worthy ancestors, but the Romans had also left indelible marks on the country, and had brought the inestimable benefits of civility to Britain. For the Saxons and the Danes, however, he had little respect. They hardly knew how to build in stone, he believed. Aubrey is unusual for an antiquary of his generation in that he had little interest in the Saxons, and never attempted to learn Anglo-Saxon. The spread of Christianity across England in Anglo-Saxon times did not engage his attention, and indeed, Christian beliefs generally do not feature in his writings. The habits of comparative study and looking at the customs of many cultures seem to have diminished Christianity to one set of beliefs among many others. Williams notes a strand of anti-Trinitarian opinion in his papers, but maintains that “Aubrey was not a deist, much less an atheist. His historicization of religious ritual was part of a larger sceptical approach to Christian theology” (126). He shared many of the attitudes of his friend and hero, Thomas Hobbes. In Aubrey’s Remaines of Gentilisme, his treatise of custom and folklore, he expressed his thoughts that the origins of Christian ritual probably lay in Graeco-Roman religious practice. “In the infancy of Christian Religion it was expedient to plough (as they say) with the heifer of the Gentiles … had they donne otherwise, they could not have gain’d so many Proselytes or established their Doctrine so well, and in so short a time” (126).  Aubrey in fact seems rather pleased that he can identify so many traces of Roman custom in Britain. Yet, as a student of comparative religion, he is aware that Roman customs in turn derived from earlier, undetermined sources.

In matters architectural Aubrey was also pleased that the Roman model still exerted influence in Britain. One tends to think that his interest in architecture showed itself most memorably in his manuscript tract “Chronologia Architectonica,” which he intended as an appendix to Monumenta Britannica. In this work—and using the comparative principle—he appears to have been “the first antiquary to attempt a chronology of medieval architectural styles” (82). By looking closely at Gothic arches, especially window shapes and tracery, and noting likely dates of construction in chronicles and on monuments, he was able to estimate the phases of the Gothic style. He seems to have taken no aesthetic pleasure in the Gothic, regarding it as a regrettable and degenerate form of architecture, “barbarous” or “fantastick.” Nonetheless, he evidently felt it was worth the effort to trace the decline of architecture until its first recovery in Tudor times (he instances Somerset House and Longleat), when classical forms reappeared. This recovery paved the way for a full classical revival brought about by Inigo Jones, whose Banqueting House he regarded as “so exquisite a piece, that if all the Books of Architecture were lost, the true art of Building might be retrieved thence” (84). Palladianism was the historic inheritance of modern Englishmen who lived in a country once civilized by the Roman imperial presence. When he found time to imagine a design for a new house for his small estate at Easton Piers, in the 1660s, he sketched “a pastoral Roman country house” with descending terraces, cypresses and a grotto, a sort of Tusculan villa in Wiltshire (79). He added quotations from Horace and Ovid to his sketch, but that was the extent of his dreaming, for he spent much of his life penniless. 

Given that Aubrey was proud of his Welsh ancestry, and, like many of his contemporaries, considered the Welsh the descendants of the Romanized Britons, one can understand why he felt strongly that he had Roman entitlements. In the later phases of his life, he became more interested in the Welsh language and in the evidences for gradual linguistic change in English, and foreign influences on it, mainly as a result of his friendship with Edward Lhwyd, the Welshman who became Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and a specialist in Celtic languages and antiquities. He came to believe that Welsh and English bore the traces of foreign invasions that had left no written record. Words in Welsh that had a similarity with Greek words were signs of a forgotten phase of Greek colonization. He was persuaded by reading the French linguist and antiquary Samuel Bochart that the Phoenicians had had colonies in this island, and could even suspect that the Persians once had a presence in Northern Europe, “but no Historie tells us when: Time and Oblivion have obliterated it” (145). Philology came to seem like an Ariadne’s thread that would lead him back to the blank spaces of our past.

How does Williams fit the Brief Lives into this broad scenario of recovering the past? These short biographies that Aubrey wrote over several decades were another exercise in the recovery of the past in a way that Williams describes as “anticipatory antiquarianism.” “Aubrey the antiquary was vividly aware that the remnants of his own time would one day be ‘antiquities,’” and he determined to preserve them. The memory of great men and great deeds will survive in formal histories, but the intimate character and idiosyncrasies of individuals will be lost. Private, unofficial accounts of his contemporaries will become valuable as a new kind of history that will record the physical immediacy, the mannerisms and quirkiness of men who were remarkable in small ways as well as great. Aubrey justified his unusual biographical method in his “Life of Hobbes”: “Though to some at present it might appeare too triviall, yet hereafter ‘twould not be slighted but passe for antiquity”—and so indeed it has come to pass (104).

Kelsey Williams’s book enables us to appreciate how extensive the antiquarian researches of an industrious scholar could become in the second half of the seventeenth century. It helps us to understand how a new way of looking at the past grew to possess the imagination of a generation of well-educated men through the experience of a single remarkable individual.


Graham Parry
University of York

[1] John Aubrey, Brief Lives with An Apparatus for the Lives of our English Mathematical Writers, edited by Kate Bennett, Oxford UP, 2016, and Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life, Chatto and Windus, 2015.

[2] Michael Hunter, John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning, Duckworth, 1975. 


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Cite as:

Graham Parry, "Kelsey Jackson Williams, The Antiquary: John Aubrey’s Historical Scholarship," Spenser Review 47.2.34 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed September 26th, 2018.
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