Sunday, March 20, 2016

Gotta Love Antiquarians

  The other day I was excavating some archaeological deposits in a bottom drawer and found some yellowing notes I had taken years ago from William Stukeley's Itinerarium curiosum. I had completely forgotten I had taken them. It was a while ago and I got distracted for a decade or so. Sometimes real life gets in the way of your cyberlife. I have a bit of a passion for antiquarian writers and illustrators. They tend to be looked down on a bit by academic historians of the serious serious scholarly variety because of their eclectic magpie style of collecting random information and some lack of rigour in checking it, not to mention their fondness for dodgy etymologies, genealogies, intricacies of heraldry, corporation minutes recorded in endless detail, scandalous doings of the aristocracy, and their penchant for putting little historical treasures into their pockets.
  The point is, they saw things at a particular time and from the mindset of that time. They saw things that have gone. Their perceptions of particular eras of the past are different to our own. When you read them, you are not just looking at the past, but at past perceptions of the past.
  Many of their works are now hard to come by, or were, until the Internet Archive started reproducing them in some numbers. Farewell interlibrary loan slips and visits to rare book rooms. Hello antiquarian world delivered to my desktop.

  At the simplest level they can show you what something looked like when it looked different to the way it does now, as with this picture of Beverley Minster with a little dome over the crossing, from C. Hiatt 1898 Beverley Minster, an Illustrated Account of its History and Fabric: London.This is reproducing an engraving that was old when the book was published.

  They can show you things that are not able to be seen any more, as with this grave slab of an abbot from the long disappeared Meaux Abbey near Beverley, from G. Poulson 1840 The History and Antiquities of the Seigniory of Holderness ... Vol.2: Hull. This work describes various relics that were located in farm buildings near the abbey site at the time.

  Urban renewals of the 19th century resulted in the removal of many picturesque, but probably uncomfortable and unhygienic, dwellings, changing the whole appearance and sense of the town environment. This example was once in Boston, from Pishey Thompson 1856 The History and Antiquities of Boston: Boston and London.

  Some public buildings or monuments of a town have been demolished, such as this market cross at Harewood, from J. Jones 1859 History and Antiquities of Harewood: London. This is quite symbolic of the changing status of the place from a small market town to a village that could be moved holus bolus out of the country estate at the whim of the local landowner.

  They can strip away the modern urban clutter and give you a different sense of how the spaces in a town worked, as in this picture of the Westgate and castle hall at Winchester, from J. Milner 1809 The History, Civil and Ecclesiastical and Survey of the Antiquities of Winchester, Vol.2: Winchester.
  No, they are not photographs, they are interpreted pictures. Actually photographs can be quite interpretive too. The engravings follow certain conventions, like inserting rustic yokels with livestock into every scene with a derelict old building and often exaggerating the ruinousness of ancient sites for romantic effect. These in themselves convey something of the attitude of the writers and illustrators, working within their own time and space, to not only the remains, but the historical era they came from.
  The words they wrote also reveal their attitudes to the eras they describe. I am not looking for some ultimate historical truth here, but how the perception of an era, and the perception of places within a certain era, is built up in multiple layers as ideas develop, alter, get refuted, get reinvigorated. The events of history are reflected in patterns on the ground, in the design of towns, in the shapes of the countryside. The attitudes to history are reflected in the words and pictures used to describe them.
  The antiquarians are providing a link between two projects which I started as multimedia projects long ago, with an emphasis on visual evidence; an examination of the way John Leland saw the country and places in it immediately after the Reformation when much religious urban infrastructure was torn down or allowed to moulder away, and a view of how modern towns of medieval origin reflect their past, even as they incorporate modern urban institutions into their fabric. Actually, the antiquarians are not so much a link as part of a weave of historical and contemporary observations over time.

  To celebrate my discovery of my Stukeley notes, and the fact that the Internet Archive has a facsimile of his book, he has been incorporated into my Flickr Tour of Boston. The engraving above shows the famous church towering over a scruffy little town with a wooden bridge over the river. He describes it as a place much decayed, its warehouses shut down and various buildings demolished. He describes little antiquities he has found (and palmed) and repeats bits of antiquarian gossip he has acquired.
  These Flickr tours are my work in progress, as I turn a mountain of decomposing slides and early prehistoric scans of same into a useful data bank, excavate old material from Word files extracted from obsolete multimedia file formats using an old computer that had to be given periodic offerings of mammoth meat to keep it going until the job was done, and swap crayola graphics for Google earth pictures and the like. It may all make sense one day. Feel free to browse the Flickr Collection of Leland Tours, but don't expect it to look like a big picture for a long time yet. This is called working in public.
  Meanwhile, under the Stukeley notes was another set from a book by one William Bray who went touring around, mainly in Derbyshire and Yorkshire, publishing his observations in 1783. Heading north through Yorkshire he refers to "and other hills in the horizon, on one of which the White Mare of Weston Cliff, or White Stone Cliff, is visible on a clear day" In a footnote he explains "A mark in a hill, like the White Horse in Berkshire, Whiteleaf-cross in Bucks etc." Now the current wisdom claims that the white horse of Kilburn, located on Whitestone Cliff where it can be seen when travelling from York to Thirsk on the A19, was created in 1857 by a local schoolmaster, with the help of his pupils, because he didn't see why they should only have hill figures down south.

Image by Tony Wells, via Wikimedia Commons
  So what did William Bray see? Was there some sort of precursor to this figure there? Did the local schoolteacher have some knowledge of something that used to be there, but wasn't any longer? You can always find surprises in antiquarian books. 
  Next stop the two Williams, Stukeley and Bray, will be visiting Leicester. And there might be some new tours of little places of no great complexity, until I get the rest of the raw material in order.
  I always hated Dickens in high school, mainly, I think, because our dopey teachers tried to present it as high art rather than jolly ripping yarns. Not so long ago I went back and read The Pickwick Papers. The ever so important Mr Pickwick and his gang of wandering buffoons are a wonderful, joyful send up of these folks rambling around the countryside looking at stuff, then giving talks to each other about it, not to mention getting into all manner of scrapes and japes. Even back then some of these folks were considered to be amusing. We should be grateful for their curiosity.

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