things magazine / about / what's new? / archive / photos / projects / order
The Rudiments of Grammar
click to view frontis
caption link / issue index / archives
Jane Stevenson
Past masters
things 12
summer 2000
The first ever grammar of Anglo-Saxon was written by a woman, Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1756), and published in 1715. It’s a remarkable piece of work, one of the first witnesses to English linguistics as a technical discipline, and a very considerable work of scholarship. 

I own a copy, though I am not a collector of old books, because it was given to me in 1978 when I went to Cambridge to study Anglo-Saxon, by another remarkable woman, my mother, who had herself studied Anglo-Saxon thirty-odd years before, and bought it out of interest in her own student days for four shillings and sixpence. 

So: this is a book of considerable interest for someone like me who is interested both in Anglo-Saxon, and in the history of intellectual women. In terms of my personal life, it’s also of sentimental value. Both of these are good reasons for owning a three-hundred-year-old book, but neither is ‘antiquarian’. Furthermore, I have actually read it, which is a very un-antiquarian thing to do. Yet The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue is a good place to start thinking about antiquarianism, because this book has an antiquarian interest as well. On the title-page, by the printed words ‘By ELIZABETH ELSTOB’, is an inscription: ‘who presented this to Ra: Thoresby’. This brief inscription in faded sepia ink turns the book into an antiquarian’s object: it is antiquarians who care about association, who preserve, depending on means and opportunity, ‘a teacup owned by the Poet’s sister’, Bonnie Dundee’s snuff-mill, or the chair John Wesley died in.

Ralph Thoresby himself was an antiquary of Leeds (the Thoresby Society is named after him). He published two important works of local history, The Topography of the Ancient and Populous Town and Parish of Leeds, and The History of the Church of Leeds, but above all, he collected antiquities. At his death, a catalogue of his ‘genuine and valuable collection’ was issued by Whitston Bristow under the title Musaeum Thoresbyanum. Elizabeth Elstob was one of the friends who shared his interests. In a letter she sent him from London in 1709, she notes: ‘I am very sorry I cannot at present oblige you with any Original Letters of Famous Men or Women: but will make it my business; to collect what I can, which shall be at your service. I have sent you a Copy of a Letter from K. Charles the 2. to one Mr Testard, a French Minister: which is sign’d with his own hand, and was seal’d with the Royal Signet.’ In this description, we find a clue to antiquarianism. In Thoresby’s value system, the letter is interesting because it is signed with Charles II’s own hand and sealed with the royal signet. What it is about is apparently unimportant.

There is an apparently subtle, but significant distinction between antiquarianism and history. I would define it briefly by saying that it is is impossible for something to be simultaneously of antiquarian interest, and dangerous. History – or myths of the past – can be potent for the present and future: one need think no further than the Orange marches of Northern Ireland, or Hitler’s Aryan fantasies, partially generated by the work of wholly respectable historians. Antiquarianism, with its focus on numinous, associational objects, is, for all its concern to evoke the living spirit of the past, irretrievably concerned with what is dead. More subtly still, the antiquarian may be seen attempting to inject embalming fluid into a live subject. 

I am thinking here most particularly of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), the originator of Highland Picturesque, which for two hundred years has been a vastly profitable industry based on tartan, cairngorms, eagles’ feathers, haggis, the whisky and the music. Scott’s historical novel Waverley (1814) – after which Edinburgh’s principal railway station is named, a unique tribute to a work of fiction – made the Highland way of life an object of sentimental interest for the first time in history, and its disjecta membra, claymores, targes, what have you, thereby became collectable antiques. 

The last of the Stuarts, Henry Benedict, Cardinal of York, died in 1807, and with him died Jacobitism. In the preceding half-century, the Gaelic-speaking Highlands were not merely devastated, but almost depopulated. The chances of the nankeen-trousered gentlemen of Scott’s generation encountering a claymore wielded in anger by a bare-legged kerne was virtually nil: those Highlanders that remained existed in a state of extreme economic marginality and accepted impertinent Picturesque Tourists with inflexible, cryptic courtesy. The collections of claymores and targes which are a key element of Scottish Baronial style (usually located in the hall), were made by antiquarians, and are a direct reflection of their absolute redundancy as weapons of war. But Scott found he was on somewhat different ground when he subjected the religious fanatics of 17th-century Scotland to an antiquarian treatment in Old Mortality (1816): as a variety of indignant reactions within the country promptly told him, many of the issues raised by the Covenanters were still uncomfortably alive in his own time.

In Elizabethan England, the Middle Ages still had the power to menace the new world order, especially in that the England of Elizabeth was only precariously Protestant, and the most visible monuments of the Middle Ages were blatantly Catholic. The Elizabethan schoolmaster-scholar William Camden founded something called a Society of Antiquaries (later broken up by James I as a potentially subversive body, a direct indication that its members were not ‘antiquaries’ in the sense in which I am using the term), but his work does not now seem antiquarian, rather, it is scientifically documented, highly tendentious history. 

For the rise of antiquarianism, we have to look to such men as John Aubrey (1626–97) in the mid 17th century. It was Aubrey who uttered the quintessential statement of the antiquarian impulse: ‘How these curiosities would be quite forgott, did not such idle fellowes as I am putt them downe!’ Aubrey collected odd information about his contemporaries, examples of peasant supersitition, interesting objects, ideas, and facts, and set them down in a series of compendious, shapeless texts such as the famous Brief Lives and the less well-known Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. 

Aubrey records traces of Catholic or pre-Catholic ritual in the lives of the peasantry – for instance, he is the first person to record the ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’, which implies that the nominally Protestant inhabitants of Yorkshire continued to believe the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory – with nothing more than mild interest. There is no suggestion that the folk-Catholicism of Yorkshire presented any kind of political or educational problem to the Stuart state, it is merely a curiosity; a testimony to the obstinate tenacity of the peasant mentality, and as such, worth recording. Only a man absolutely certain that Catholicism was a spent force in English life could be ‘curious’ in quite this way. In the same way, Aubrey prints in his Miscellanies a narrative of second sight and shamanistic travel collected in the north of Scotland, with the remark that this sort of thing is a fascinating survival. It is sobering to reflect that twenty years earlier in the parish of Auldearne in the north of Scotland telling a very similar story was considered grounds for execution. 

Contrary to idle scholarly opinion, Aubrey’s whole oeuvre is shaped not by omnivorous credulity, but by the secure detachment of the antiquary. 

Antiquarianism is a stance, or a state of mind. There is a streak of antiquarianism in almost everybody who is interested in the past at all. Without antiquarianism, a scholarly version of the basic instinct to collect, historians would be hard put to it to find an audience for our activities: it is almost certainly the most widespread form of being interested in the past, since the ‘past’ in question is a playground, devoid of menace or intellectual stimulus. It is the inevitable instinct of antiquarians to collect objects as specimens: as archaeologists never tire of telling the hordes who buy metal-detectors, almost anything has more of a tale to tell in its context than out of it, but to live permanently up to the ideal of comprehensive understanding which that represents is more than most of us can manage.

things 12, summer 2000

to top of page