Wednesday, June 18, 2014

John Aubrey: The Natural History of Wiltshire (1656-91)

John Aubrey in 1666, portrait by William Faithorne


[Image from the Ashmolean Museum website]

The book I have read is in fact an abridgement first published in 1847. The book was not published in Aubrey’s lifetime and represents a sort of ongoing compendium of “papers” that was added to over many years. He had freely offered these papers to Dr Plott, so he does not seem to have thought of them as a book, even when “tumultuarily stitch’t up”.

[This 1847 edition is available on E-Gutenberg.]

I pointed out a maybug on the pavement of a residential street in Bath. “Look at his antennae, they look like fans”, I lectured happily to a child in the vicinity -  “and look! his poo is green!” The child lingered while we strolled off up the hill. When we were far enough off, there was a stamping sound.

Of his own secret impulse to “make a scrutinie into the waies of nature”, Aubrey says that generally “’Twas held a sinne”, and of himself “Credit there was none; for it gets the contempt of a man’s neighbours”. So it does still, except in highly buffered zones such as universities (where, however, Natural History is not regarded as a subject).



"Natural History" certainly gets away with a lot.  In Aubrey’s book, it's an almost unlimited subject: it comprises,( apart from weather, plants, animals, etc,)  such things as architecture, agriculture, the “historie of cloathing” (i.e. the cloth trade), notable families and “accidents”. This scopelessness is essential. (And why tie yourself down to Wiltshire? Aubrey is quite content to go outside his county when he as something interesting to report.)

Aubrey saw things differently from us. In his time people didn’t move around much, and some districts were healthier than others, so that he speaks of the North Wiltshire folk, for example, as “phlegmatique, skins pale and livid, slow and dull, heavy of spirit; hereabout is but little tillage or hard labour, they only milke the cowes and make cheese; they feed chiefly on milke meates, which cooles their braines too much, and hurts their inventions” etc. etc. The explanations sound like guesses, but his observation may be fairly sound. Man in those days was an animal who varied with his habitats. Now we are all under glass, so to speak, and a uniform strain.


On June 3rd, 1647, Aubrey’s mother noticed the sky, in which two rainbowy circles were intersecting around the sun. As Aubrey remarks, she might not have noticed it at all but for the accident of going outside to look at the dial. I saw something similar while on the beach at Benidorm (30/3/02 18:00), though on this occasion there was thin cloud, the sort that makes sundogs visible, but Aubrey says that when his mother saw the haloes “it was a very cleare day”. No-one else in Benidorm seemed to be aware of the phenomenon, which lasted all the time we were walking back to the hotel. Just being outside (as most people must have been in June) was not enough - “few took notice of it because it was so near the sunbeams”.

[I saw three suncave arcs and two sunvex arcs. If they were the Parry arcs and other exotic haloes, I am obviously lucky or spend too much time looking at the sky. I can also report an authentic Wiltshire observation; a complete lunar rainbow seen while driving westward on the A303 at Amesbury (19/1/03 19:20). The rainbow appeared for only a couple of minutes. To me it looked like a white beam, arising as from a spotlight, but bent into a bow. I was driving and couldn’t pull over in time to have a good look, but Maria said she could make out faint rainbow colours, in particular if she didn’t look at it directly. From these somewhat casual remarks you will gather that we had never heard of lunar rainbows and consequently had no idea of their intense rarity (the Met Office receives about two reports a year). If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have stopped dead on the carriageway. Alas! it’s most unlikely that any person previously informed about lunar rainbows has ever gone on to see one. Has a lunar rainbow ever been photographed? And those colours... – if only we’d checked, we could have dealt a blow to the common surmise that the moon doesn’t produce enough light for a lunar rainbow to be coloured. But Maria can’t rule out the possibility that the colour she saw was just the tinting along the top of my windscreen...] 

The difficulty of discussing plants in the days before Linnaeus is brought home to us vividly. At Priory St Mary: “In this ground calver-keys, hare-parsely, wild vetch, maiden’s honesty, polypodium, fox-gloves, wild-vine, bayle.” John Ray, who wrote some contemporary notes on the manuscript, complained: “Calver-keys, hare’s-parseley, mayden’s-honesty, are countrey names unknown to me.” Local knowledge may have been great, but knowledge cannot be passed on using such unsystematic equipment.

Of the “wich-hazel” Aubrey was well aware that in some counties it was called “wich-elme”. To our minds it seems impossible not to go one step further and to state that the trees quite obviously are elms, and not hazels. Some such perception of natural groupings must have enabled Linnaeus to develop his genera, though he didn’t conceive of a common origin. Aubrey has only one kind of classification, which loosely equates to the species; though he can say, as of the hazel, “Wee have two sorts of them”. This would clearly pose an interesting problem if all hazels were supposed to be connected by kinship to a primordial pair (in Eden, perhaps). But I think that this was not conceived. Local varieties were probably assumed to be “just there”, their ancestry a cloud. God could have intervened many times, making special creations. In Aubrey’s time many insects were believed to emerge from inanimate material.

Considered as a whole, Aubrey’s conception of his county is rather like an account of the “wonders” that you’d find stepping through the grounds of a spacious country seat. He is anecdotal. The world in which he lived had less structure, less roads, less development, less grasp.

Dr Ralph Bathurst, Dean of Wells, and one of the chaplains to King Charles 1st, who is no superstitious man, protested to me that the curing of the King’s evill by the touch of the King doth puzzle his philosophie: for whether they were of the house of Yorke or Lancaster it did. ‘Tis true indeed there are prayers read at the touching, but neither the King minds them nor the chaplains. Some confidently report that James Duke of Monmouth did it.

Such a passage opens a window, and the view is very curious. A whole fabric of credulity is being forked over by inappropriate mental instruments. It must collapse, or retire into some more shadowy mode, such as ceremonial, but has not quite done so for Aubrey. He is prepared to record the story that woodpeckers can drive out iron nails with the help of a leaf; he reports an experiment, apparently in confirmation, and suggests that it be repeated. But John Ray impatiently cuts the traces: “without doubt, a fable”. For science is also about seeing what experiments not to bother with.  

Undoubtedly Ray’s cold clarity has given us a vast fresh field in which to roam. But I like the emphasis that Aubrey’s conceptions place on the Orcheston Grass and the Glastonbury Thorn. He is alive to individual phenomena, to the peculiarities of place. It is credulity, but it’s also an openness of mind that seems to me now an important component in our relations with nature. We need, not to “recover it”, for it was only a hint, but to find something like it.

(2002, 2003, 2014)

Aubrey's 1666 survey drawing of Stonehenge
[Image from Bodleian Library]

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