- John Aubrey
John Aubrey Born 12 March 1626 Died 7 June 1697 (aged 71) Nationality English Occupation author, antiquarian, biographer
John Aubrey FRS, (12 March 1626 – 7 June 1697) was an English antiquary, natural philosopher and writer. He is perhaps best known as the author of the collection of short biographical pieces usually referred to as Brief Lives. He was a pioneer archaeologist, who recorded (often for the first time) numerous megalithic and other field monuments in southern England, and who is particularly noted as the discoverer of the Avebury henge monument. The Aubrey holes at Stonehenge are named after him, although there is considerable doubt as to whether the holes that he observed are those that currently bear the name. He was also a pioneer folklorist, collecting together a miscellany of material on customs, traditions and beliefs under the title "Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme". He set out to compile county histories of both Wiltshire and Surrey, although both projects remained unfinished. His "Interpretation of Villare Anglicanum" (also unfinished) was the first attempt to compile a full-length study of English place-names. He had wider interests in applied mathematics and astronomy, and was friendly with many of the greatest scientists of the day.
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, thanks largely to the popularity of Brief Lives, Aubrey was regarded as little more than an entertaining but quirky, eccentric and credulous gossip. Only in the 1970s did the full breadth and innovation of his scholarship begin to be more widely appreciated. He published little in his lifetime, and many of his most important manuscripts (for the most part preserved in the Bodleian Library) remain unpublished, or published only in partial and unsatisfactory form.
- 1 Biography
- 2 Career
- 3 Methods
- 4 Works
- 5 Aubrey in popular culture
- 6 References
- 7 Bibliography
- 8 External links
Aubrey was born at Easton Piers or Percy, near Kington St Michael, Wiltshire, of a well-off gentry family of the Welsh Marches. His grandfather, Isaac Lyte, lived at Lytes Cary Manor, Somerset, now owned by the National Trust. Richard Aubrey, his father, owned lands in Wiltshire and Herefordshire. For many years an only child, he was educated at home, with a private tutor, "melancholy" in his solitude. His father was not intellectual, preferring field sports (hunting) to learning. Aubrey read such books as came his way, including Bacon's Essays, and studied geometry in secret. He was educated at the Malmesbury grammar school under Robert Latimer. (Latimer had numbered the philosopher Thomas Hobbes among his earlier pupils, and Aubrey first met Hobbes, whose biography he would later write, at Latimer's house.) He then studied at the grammar school at Blandford Forum, Dorset. He entered Trinity College, Oxford, in 1642, but his studies were interrupted by the English Civil War. His earliest antiquarian work dates from this period in Oxford. In 1646 he became a student of the Middle Temple. He spent a pleasant time at Trinity in 1647, making friends among his Oxford contemporaries, and collecting books. He spent much of his time in the country, and in 1649 he first 'discovered' the megalithic remains at Avebury, which he later mapped and discussed in his important antiquarian work Monumenta Britannica. He was to show Avebury to Charles II at the King's request in 1663. His father died in 1652, leaving Aubrey large estates, but with them some complicated debts.
Blessed with charm, generosity of spirit and enthusiasm, Aubrey went on to become acquainted with many of the most celebrated writers, scientists, politicians and aristocrats of his day, as well as an extraordinary breadth of less well-placed individuals: booksellers, merchants, the royal seamstress, mathematicians and instrument makers. He claimed that his memory was 'not tenacious' by seventeenth-century standards, but from the early 1640s he kept thorough (if haphazard) notes of observations in natural philosophy, his friends' ideas, and antiquities. He also began to write Lives of scientists in the 1650s. In 1660 he proposed to several of his fellow-Wiltshiremen that they should collaborate on a survey of Wiltshire. The others did nothing about it, but Aubrey produced a huge 2-volume (if unfinished) collection, the Wiltshire Antiquities, including some biographical material. Indeed, Aubrey's erstwhile friend and fellow-antiquarian Anthony Wood predicted that he would one day break his neck while running downstairs in haste to interview some retreating guest or other. Aubrey was an apolitical Royalist, who enjoyed the innovations characteristic of the Interregnum period while deploring the rupture in traditions and the destruction of ancient buildings brought about by civil war and religious change. He drank the King's health in Interregnum Herefordshire, but with equal enthusiasm attended meetings in London of the republican Rota Club, founded by James Harrington (the author of Oceana).
In 1663 Aubrey became a member of the Royal Society. He lost estate after estate due to lawsuits, till in 1670 he parted with his last piece of property and ancestral home, Easton Piers. From this time he was dependent on the hospitality of his numerous friends; in particular, Sir James Long, 2nd Baronet and his wife Lady Dorothy of Draycot House, Wiltshire. In 1667 he had made the acquaintance of Anthony Wood at Oxford, and when Wood began to gather materials for his Athenae Oxonienses, Aubrey offered to collect information for him. From time to time he forwarded memoranda in a uniquely casual, epistolary style, and in 1680 he began to promise the work "Minutes for Lives," which Wood was to use at his discretion.
Aubrey approached the work of the biographer much as his contemporary scientists had begun to approach the work of empirical research by the assembly of vast museums and small collection cabinets. Collating as much information as he could, he left the task of verification largely to Wood, and thereafter to posterity. As a hanger-on in great houses, he had little time and little inclination for systematic work, and he wrote the "Lives" in the early morning while his hosts were sleeping off the effects of the night before. These texts were, as Aubrey entitled them, Schediasmata, 'pieces written extempore, on the spur of the moment'. Time after time, he leaves marks of omission in the form of dashes and ellipses for dates and facts, inserting fresh information whenever it is presented to him. The margins of his notebooks are dotted with notes-to-self, most frequently the Latin 'quaere'. This exhortation, to 'go and find out' is often followed. In the 'Brief Life' of Father Harcourt, Aubrey notes that one Roydon, a brewer living in Southwark, was reputed to be in possession of Harcourt's petrified kidney. 'I have seen it', he writes approvingly, 'he much values it'.
Aubrey himself valued the evidence of his own eyes above all, and he took great pains to ensure that, where possible, he noted not only the final resting places of people, but also of their portraits and papers. Though his work has frequently been accused of inaccuracy, this charge is somewhat misguided. In most cases, Aubrey simply wrote what he had seen, or heard. When transcribing hearsay, he displays an astonishingly meticulous approach to the ascription of sources. Take the fascinating 'Life' of Thomas Chaloner (who, Aubrey notes wryly, was fond of spreading rumours in the concourse of Westminster Hall, and coming back after lunch to find them changed, as in a game of Chinese whispers). When an inaccurate and bawdy anecdote about Chaloner's death is found to be about James Chaloner, rather than Thomas, Aubrey lets the initial story stand in the text, while marking it as such in a marginal note. A number of similar occurrences suggest that Aubrey was interested not only in the oral history he was noting down, but in the very processes of transmission and corruption by which it was formed.
In 1669, Aubrey began work on his collection of biographical sketches, which became known as his "minutes of lives" (Brief Lives was a 19th-century editorial title). He continued to work on them until 1693, when he deposited his manuscripts (in four folio volumes) in the Ashmolean Museum: they are now in the Bodleian Library, as MSS Aubrey 6-9.
As private, manuscript texts, the "Lives" were able to contain the richly controversial material which is their chief interest today, and Aubrey's chief contribution to the formation of modern biographical writing. When he allowed Anthony Wood to use the texts, however, he entered the caveat that much of the content of the Lives was 'not fitt to be let flie abroad' while the subjects, and the author, were still living.
Aubrey's relationship with Wood was to become increasingly fraught. Aubrey asked Wood to be 'my index expurgatorius': a reference to the Church's list of banned books, which Wood seems to have taken not as a warning, but as a licence to simply extract pages of notes to paste into his own proofs. In 1692, Aubrey complained bitterly that Wood had mutilated forty pages of his manuscript, perhaps for fear of a libel case. Wood was eventually prosecuted for insinuations against the judicial integrity of the school of Clarendon. One of the two statements called in question was founded on information provided by Aubrey and this may explain the estrangement between the two antiquaries and the ungrateful account that Wood gives of the elder man's character. It is now famous: "a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crased. And being exceedingly credulous, would stuff his many letters sent to A. W. with folliries and misinformations, which would sometimes guid him into the paths of errour".
A large part of the "minutes of lives" was published in 1813 as Letters Written by Eminent Persons in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. A near-complete transcript, Brief Lives chiefly of Contemporaries set down John Aubrey between the Years 1669 and 1696, was edited for the Clarendon Press in 1898 by the Rev. Andrew Clark. This is still the best edition available, despite a number of excisions to spare late-Victorian blushes. More readily available (but much more selective) are the versions edited by Anthony Powell (1949), Oliver Lawson Dick (1949), and, most recently, John Buchanan-Brown (2000), which incorporates an excellent short introduction by Michael Hunter.
Literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote concerning Aubrey in his Foreword to the 1962 edition of Aubrey's Brief Lives published by the University of Oklahoma Press:
- This edition is, indeed, the first one that has been faithful to Aubrey's text and that has attempted to make a book from his manuscripts. For what Aubrey left was not a book. He loved to compile gossip about famous men and to note their peculiarities, and in pursuit of this information he often went to considerable trouble. It was said of him by one of his friends that he expected to hear of Aubrey's breaking his neck someday as the result of dashing downstairs to get a story from a departing guest. But he did not keep his records in order. He would try to get things down on paper the morning after a convivial evening - "Sot that I am!" is the apologetic cry that is reiterated in his writings - when the people he was visiting were still in bed and he himself was suffering from hangover. He sometimes mixed anecdotes about different people, sometimes wrote the same story several times, and sometimes noted down under a subject's name only a few words or a mere list of dates and facts.
No entirely satisfactory edition of the Lives has in fact yet appeared: there are a number of difficult editorial problems as to what should be included or excluded, and how best to present the material. Kate Bennett's doctoral thesis (deposited in the Bodleian) begins the task; and she continues to work on the project.
At somewhat greater length, Aubrey also wrote a life of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (author of Leviathan): this is now Bodleian MS Aubrey 9. It is often grouped with the Brief Lives, but is really a separate and self-contained work. It served as the basis for Richard Blackburne's Latin biography, Vitae Hobbianae auctarium, published in 1681.
The Monumenta Britannica was Aubrey's principal collection of archaeological material, written over some thirty years between about 1663 and 1693. It falls into four parts: (1) "Templa Druidum", a discussion of supposed "druidic" temples, notably Avebury and Stonehenge; (2) "Chorographia Antiquaria", a survey of other early urban and military sites, including Roman towns, hillforts ("camps"), and castles; (3) a review of other archaeological remains, including sepulchral monuments, roads, coins and urns; and (4) a series of more analytical pieces, including four exercises attempting to chart the chronological stylistic evolution of handwriting, medieval architecture, costume, and shield-shapes. Of these last, the essay on architecture, "Chronologia Architectonica", written in 1671, was the most detailed, and (although in its unpublished state it remained little known) is now regarded as a highly perceptive milestone in the development of architectural history.
The manuscript of Monumenta Britannica is now Bodleian MSS Top.Gen.c.24-5. An edition of the first three parts (reproduced, following unorthodox editing principles, partly in facsimile, and partly in printed transcript) was published by John Fowles and Rodney Legg in two volumes in 1980-82. This edition has, however, been criticised for doing Aubrey "less than justice" on various grounds: for a failure to consolidate what were essentially drafts and working notes into a coherent whole, for silent omissions and rearrangements, for inadequate and occasionally inaccurate annotation, and for the omission of the important fourth part of the work.
Aubrey began work on compiling material for a natural historical and antiquarian study of Wiltshire in 1656. In 1659, a self-appointed committee of Wiltshire gentry determined that a county history should be produced on the model of William Dugdale's Antiquities of Warwickshire, and it was agreed that Aubrey would deal with the northern division of the county.
He chose to divide the work into two separate projects, on the Antiquities and the Natural History of the county respectively. The work on the Antiquities (which he entitled Hypomnemata Antiquaria) was closely modelled on Dugdale, and was largely finished by 1671: Aubrey deposited in the Ashmolean Museum in two manuscript volumes, of which one was withdrawn by his brother in 1703 and subsequently lost. Some of his interim observations on the county's natural history were read to the Royal Society in 1668 and 1675-6. He recast the work (now modelling it on Robert Plot's Natural History of Oxford-shire (1677)) in 1685, and it was effectively finished by 1690-91, when he transcribed a fair copy. Another transcript was shortly afterwards commissioned (at a cost of £7) by the Royal Society. In 1693 Aubrey asked his brother William and Thomas Tanner (afterwards Bishop of St Asaph), to bring the project to completion: they were keen to do so, but it was not to be.
The manuscript of the Naturall Historie is now Bodleian MSS Aubrey 1 and 2. The Royal Society's copy, which includes material (mainly on supernatural phenomena) that Aubrey afterwards removed from his own manuscript, is now Royal Society MS 92. The surviving manuscript of the Antiquities is now Bodleian MS Aubrey 3. A highly selective edition of the Naturall Historie was published by John Britton in 1847 for the Wiltshire Topographical Society. The Antiquities were published (again, with certain omissions) by J.E. Jackson in 1862 as Wiltshire: the Topographical Collections of John Aubrey.
Perambulation of Surrey
In 1673, the royal cosmographer and cartographer John Ogilby, planning a national atlas and chorography of Britain, licensed Aubrey to undertake a survey of Surrey. Aubrey carried out the work, but in the event Ogilby's project was curtailed, and he did not use the material. Aubrey, however, continued to add to his manuscript until 1692.
The manuscript is now Bodleian MS Aubrey 4. In a much-revised form (with both additions and excisions) it was published by Richard Rawlinson as the Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey in five volumes in 1718-19.
Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme
The Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme was Aubrey's collection of material on customs, traditions, ceremonies, beliefs, old wives' tales and rhymes, or what today would be termed folklore. It was compiled over many years, but written up between 1687 and 1689.
The manuscript was in the hands of White Kennett, and as a result it is not with Aubrey's other collections in the Bodleian: it is in the British Library, as Lansdowne MS 231. An edition was published by James Britten for the Folklore Society in 1881. It was more satisfactorily re-edited in 1972 by John Buchanan-Brown.
Interpretation of Villare Anglicanum
Aubrey's Interpretation of Villare Anglicanum was the first attempt to devote a work entirely to the subject of English place-names. It is, however, unfinished (or, as Gillian Fellows-Jensen explains, "hardly begun"). Aubrey compiled a list of some 5,000 place-names, but managed to provide derivations for only a relatively small proportion of them: many are correct, but some are wildly wrong. The manuscript is now Bodleian MS Aubrey 5.
The only work published by Aubrey in his lifetime was his Miscellanies (1696; reprinted with additions in 1721), a collection of 21 short chapters on the theme of "hermetick philosophy" (i.e. supernatural phenomena and the occult), including "Omens", "Prophesies", "Transportation in the Air", "Converse with Angels and Spirits", "Second-Sighted Persons", etc. Its contents mainly comprised documented reports of supernatural manifestations. The work did much to bolster Aubrey's posthumous reputation as a superstitious and credulous eccentric.
Aubrey's papers also included "Architectonica Sacra"; and "Erin Is God" (notes on ecclesiastical antiquities).
His "Adversaria Physica" was a scientific commonplace book, which by 1692 amounted to a folio "an inch thick": it is lost, although extracts have survived in the form of copies.
He wrote two plays, both comedies intended for Thomas Shadwell: the first has not survived; the second, "Countrey Revell", remained unfinished.
Aubrey in popular culture
In 1967, English director Patrick Garland created a one-man show, "Brief Lives", based on Dick's edition of Aubrey's work. Starring Roy Dotrice, it became the most successful one-man production ever seen, with Dotrice giving over 1800 performances across forty years on both sides of the Atlantic. For many, the play became an essential means of understanding a "vanished time" and one version of it. Aubrey scholars, however, have sometimes seen the production as over-emphasising his eccentricities and lack of organisation, to the detriment of a wider appreciation of his contributions to scholarship.
In 2008, Aubrey's Brief Lives  was a five part drama serial on Radio 4. Writer Nick Warburton intertwined some of Aubrey's biographical sketches with the story of the turbulent friendship between Aubrey and Anthony Wood. Abigail le Fleming produced and directed.
- ^ Aubrey, John (1626–1697) on the website of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription or library membership required), retrieved 29 Sep 2010.
- ^ The relationship between the two men is explored in Balme 2001.
- ^ Bennett 2000.
- ^ Michael Hunter, Editing Early Modern Texts: an introduction to principles and practice (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 38-9.
- ^ See Hunter 1975, pp. 156–7, 162–6, 181.
- ^ Colvin 1968.
- ^ Horsfall Turner 2011.
- ^ Michael Hunter, "Laying the Foundations", Times Literary Supplement (28 Nov. 1980), p. 1332 ("less than justice").
- ^ Stephen Briggs, "John Aubrey" (letter), Times Literary Supplement (30 Jan. 1981), p. 113.
- ^ Burl 2010, pp. 9-10.
- ^ For the contents of the second volume, see Hunter 1975, pp. 241-2.
- ^ Published in John Aubrey, Three Prose Works, ed. John Buchanan-Brown (Fontwell, 1972), pp. 129-304.
- ^ Fellows-Jensen 2000, p. 90.
- ^ Fox 2008.
- ^ .e.g. Bennett 2001, pp. 213-5
- Bennett, Kate (1999). "John Aubrey's Oxfordshire Collections: an edition of Aubrey annotations to his presentation copy of Robert Plot's Natural History of Oxford-shire, Bodleian Library Ashmole 1722". Oxoniensia 64: 59–86.
- Bennett, Kate (2000). "Editing Aubrey", in Joe Bray; Miriam Handley; A.C. Henry (eds), Ma(r)king the Text (2000). Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 271-90.
- Bennett, Kate (2001). "John Aubrey's collections and the early modern museum". Bodleian Library Record 17: 213–45.
- Bennett, Kate (2007). "John Aubrey, Hint-Keeper: life-writing and the encouragement of natural philosophy in the pre-Newtonian seventeenth century". Seventeenth Century 22: 358–80.
- Balme (ed.), Maurice (2001). Two antiquaries: a selection from the correspondence of John Aubrey and Anthony Wood. Edinburgh: Durham Academic Press. ISBN 1900838117.
- Britton, John (1845). Memoir of John Aubrey, F.R.S.. London: Wiltshire Topographical Society.
- Burl, Aubrey (2010). John Aubrey & Stone Circles: Britain’s first archaeologist, from Avebury to Stonehenge. Stroud: Amberley. ISBN 9781445601571.
- Clark (ed.), Andrew (1891–1900). The Life and Times of Anthony Wood. 4. Oxford. pp. 191–193.
- Collier (ed.), John (1931). The Scandal and Credulities of John Aubrey. London: Peter Davies.
- Colvin, H.M. (1968). "Aubrey’s Chronologia Architectonica", in J. Summerson (ed.), Concerning Architecture: essays on architectural writers and writing presented to Nikolaus Pevsner. London: Allen Lane the Penguin Press, pp. 1–12.
- Dragstra, Henk (2008). "'Before woomen were Readers': how John Aubrey wrote female oral history", in M.E. Lamb; Karen Bamford (eds), Oral traditions and gender in early modern literary texts. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 41-56.
- Fellows-Jensen, Gillian (2000). "John Aubrey, Pioneer Onomast?". Nomina 23: 89–106.
- Fox, Adam (2008). "Aubrey, John (1626–1697), antiquary and biographer". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/886. Retrieved 11 October 2011. (Subscription resource.)
- Horsfall Turner, Olivia (2011). "'The Windows of this Church are of several Fashions': architectural form and historical method in John Aubrey's 'Chronologia Architectonica'". Architectural History 54: 171–93.
- Hunter, Michael (1975). John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning. London: Duckworth. ISBN 0715608185.
- Kite, John Bruce (1993). A Study of the Works and Reputation of John Aubrey (1626-1697), with emphasis on his 'Brief lives'. Lampeter: Edward Mellen Press.
- Masson, David (July 1856). British Quarterly Review.
- Montégut, Émile (1891). Heures de lecture d'un critique: John Aubrey, Pope, William Collins, Sir John Maundeville. Paris.
- Poole, William (2010). John Aubrey and the Advancement of Learning. Oxford: Bodleian Library. ISBN 9781851243198.
- Powell, Anthony (1948). John Aubrey and his friends. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
- Tylden-Wright, David (1991). John Aubrey: a life. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 0002150972.
- Works by John Aubrey at Project Gutenberg
- "Brief lives", chiefly of contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey, between the years 1669 & 1696 ; edited from the author's mss. by Andrew Clark
- Full scan of 1898 edition at Open Library
- Richard Colt Hoare's `Life of John Aubrey'
- Biographical comments and a few of the Brief Lives can be found at mym's Aubrey Shrine
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