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  • The Antiquary: John Aubrey's Historical Scholarship by Kelsey Jackson Williams
  • Andrea Walkden (bio)
Kelsey Jackson Williams. The Antiquary: John Aubrey's Historical Scholarship. Oxford UP, 2016, 224 pp. ISBN 978-0198784296, $100.00.

The Antiquary opens with a story: in a freezing cold January in 1649, as England prepared to execute its imprisoned monarch, the twenty-two-year-old John Aubrey left the bedside of his dying father to join a friend on a hunt through the Wiltshire countryside. The trail led across the chalkland downs, a landscape strewn with sarsen stones, crystalline sandstone boulders that put [End Page 461] Aubrey in mind of the stone missiles once hurled by earthborn giants against the Olympian gods. The hunt rode through Avebury, a small village partly enclosed by a great stone circle, sixteen times larger than the circle at Stonehenge some nineteen miles away that Aubrey had known since boyhood. "Wonderfully surprized," he dismounted and left his companions for a while, amusing himself with this "more delightfull indagation" (2). Derived from the Latin verb indāgāre, to trace or track as hounds track their quarry, Aubrey's "indagation" presents itself as an alternative form of hunting, the pursuit not of a fleeing fox but of a receding prehistoric past. It was this first encounter with the Avebury landscape, or so Kelsey Jackson Williams proposes in his impressively learned and thoughtful study, that launched Aubrey's career as an antiquary: a person "studious to know ancient things" (6), according to one mid-seventeenth-century dictionary, or, in the more lyrically expansive words of Francis Bacon, one of those "industrious persons" who, "by an exact and scrupulous diligence and observation … do save and recover somewhat from the deluge of time" (Bacon 66).

Williams divides his monograph into two parts. Part one deals with "artefacts and sites" (18): chapter one focuses on Aubrey's investigative fieldwork at Stonehenge, while chapter two addresses his broader site-based study of the ancient landscape of Britain. Chapter three turns to Aubrey's study of medieval architecture and, especially, his pioneering method of dating buildings by the shape and style of their windows—"guessing by Windowes" in Aubrey's own, disarmingly modest phrase (81). Bridging the modern disciplines of archeology and architectural history, these various projects were collected into the Monumenta Britannica, a massive work Aubrey assembled over several decades that he was never quite able to bring to publication. His efforts to do so conclude the first half of Williams's book. The three chapters in part two turn from physical remains to words and texts. Chapter four reconsiders Aubrey's most famous work, his book of lives, commonly known as his Brief Lives, in the context of his lifelong antiquarian endeavors. Chapters five and six, by contrast, recover some of the least well-known and neglected aspects of Aubrey's sprawling oeuvre: his exploration of English folklore and folk practices, on the one hand, and his linguistic study of Welsh and English toponyms, on the other.

For readers of Biography, the chapter devoted to the Brief Lives has the most immediate claim to their attention. In a clever reversal, Williams here imagines Aubrey engaged in a practice he describes as "a sort of preventative or anticipatory antiquarianism" (104), painstakingly recording every conceivable detail of interest so that some unborn antiquary, centuries hence, might reconstruct from this archive of biographical evidence a fuller understanding [End Page 462] of the muddled realities of seventeenth-century life. Without Aubrey, we wouldn't know that the poet John Milton pronounced the letter R very hard like the snarl of a dog (Aubrey 663). Without Aubrey, we wouldn't know that the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes continued to play tennis until his seventy-fifth year (105), or that Walter Raleigh's beard turned up naturally at its tip (Aubrey 230). Williams does not communicate the deep playfulness of Aubrey's lives, but he mounts a forceful case for their motivation, showing how, by a supreme act of the antiquarian imagination, Aubrey projected the republic of letters into the future, preserving as much as he could.

While the chapter on the Brief Lives is of most direct relevance...


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