Antiquarianism

F J Falding speaks to us from the 19th century about how antiquarianism embodies an over-arching and syncretic involvement with a local environment, an approach that is still valid in NE’s version of ‘neo-antiquarianism’

Not until I began to prepare this paper was I quite aware how difficult a task I had undertaken. Anyone who writes on a topic should be able to convey to his readers a clear definition of it; but in writing on Antiquarianism, I find a subject of delightful vagueness and most admirable confusion. Shall we try what can be done with definitions or descriptions? Shall we say that Antiquarianism is ‘the occupation of Antiquaries, and the study of Antiquities’? But who are Antiquaries, and what are Antiquities?

1 – We owe the name of Antiquary to the post-Augustan Latin word Antiquarius, applied to writers or speakers that affected obsolete words and archaic forms of expression.

2 – In the middle ages Antiquarii were residents in monasteries whose occupation was to make new copies of old books, to whose care and skill later times are indebted for manuscript copies of the classical writers of Greece and Rome, of the Christian Fathers, and of the Sacred Writings themselves.

3 – More recently the antiquary was the keeper of royal cabinets of antiquities and curiosities gathered from other lands. Henry VIII of England called John Leland his “Antiquary”.

4 – In the year 1572, in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, a society was formed by Bishop Parker, Sir Robert Cotton, William Camden, and others, for examining and preserving antiquities, but King James I put a stop to their meetings, lest they should include politics in their studies. In Queen Anne’s time, in 1707, a new society was formed. It included the famous names of Gale, Stukeley, and Rymer. Reconstituted in 1717, it obtained a royal charter from George II in 1750, and was incorporated as The Society of Antiquaries in London.

5 – But there are Antiquaries who are not fellows of that society nor of any other. They are, it must be owned, an undefined and almost indescribable set of people who are supposed to concern themselves about Antiquities. So now we must ask, “What are Antiquities ?”

Widely, and in the first instance correctly, the term is applied to all remains of ancient times. Whatever has survived the past, whatever has escaped the ravages of time and the fleeting generations of men, belongs to the Antiquities.

But if this definition of Antiquarianism is correct, what then is left for the Historian to do ? What difference is there between History and Antiquities? Perhaps it may be thus stated: The Historian deals with the political relations of men as nations, with the successive events and vicissitudes of their existence, with their principles, motives and achievements in their relations as causes and effects. He brings the past down to the present, and shows how the present springs out of and proceeds from the past. The Antiquary is content with the separate, isolated, and individual products of the past that the present offers to his notice.

In our days the range of antiquarian study has been widely extended and vastly deepened. But even this wide range is not enough. The Antiquary finds everywhere fragments of the past which carry him beyond the limits covered by authentic history. The objects of his careful study lead him back to periods of time and conditions of human life of which there are no written records. Then he finds himself compelled to make inquiry into the origin of man himself, and into the very structure of the earth on which he lives. lie becomes bewildered with the enormous mass of his antiquarian accumulations, and finds it absolutely necessary to divide and subdivide his immense task of investigating and classifying the materials he has to study. Gradually he finds that a change has taken place in the very nature of his work. He has been obliged to call science to his aid, and so Antiquarianism becomes Archaeology, Palaeontology, Ethnology, Numismatics, Sociology, etc., etc.; and he finds that Antiquarianism is still attaching itself to every known art and science as its basis and its support.

Still there is a distinction between the Antiquary and the Archaeologist. The one collects the materials, the other arranges, classifies, and explains them. The one is practical, the other is theoretical. Antiquarianism is an art, Archaeology is the science. Where the Antiquary sees only curious remains of which the historian is absolutely silent, the Archaeologist shows us how he first learnt to chip flints for knives and spear heads before he discovered the use of articulate speech, or found the comfort of clothes, dwellings, and cooked food.

For all ordinary purposes, then, there is still a real difference between Antiquarianism and Archaeology. The Antiquary is a homelier and more modest person. lie likes to pick up odds and ends. He loves to poke among ruins and church yards. You see him haunting old curiosity shops and old book stalls. If the streets are up for a deep drainage, or the foundations of an old house are dug out, he is there. At home he has a room called his studio, or his den, or his museum, full of queer things, overflowing into other rooms of the house, sorely trying to the housewife’s sense of neatness and order. He loves to talk with tottering old men, and crones hard of hearing, of the former days and of the better ways. He loves to hear a good old Saxon or Danish word that the ‘forebears’ used, or that lingers only in hamlets where our ‘rude forefathers’ lived. Genealogies, brass rubbings, copies of odd epitaphs, rusty blades, coins green and worn with age, and such-like things fill him with joy and satisfaction.

So long as the Antiquary was satisfied with hunting up scattered remains and examining curious relics, Antiquarianism could not be called a- science. It was a study, a recreation, an amusement, perhaps a hobby. But even thus it had its uses and its pleasures. It prepared the way for science. It gathered materials for history. It became the parent of many sciences, of which it is still the nursing mother. At the same time it inspired wholesome interest in all that concerns man and his modes of life, in our ancestors and their ways and works. It was itself an improving, humanising study. It filled up many vacant moments with pleasant occupation. It diverted many anxious thoughts, and solaced many sad feelings. It may be truly said that no genuine Antiquary could ever be a brute or a churl.

Sometimes, perhaps, the Antiquary is a simple, harmless, credulous man, lie thinks he has made a wonderful discovery, he has lit upon a precious treasure, he has some grand secret, until he receives the rude shock of better knowledge.

No end of fun has been poked at ‘the Antiquaries’ from the very first. Those times have long since passed away, and in England, in Germany, in France, and in America also, Antiquarianism has survived ridicule and won respect. The desultory pursuit of fragmentary antiquities grew into an important science, or rather spread itself into a group of sciences, which even now, on account of their common origin and kinship, cannot be sharply distinguished. The unscientific Antiquarian is the parent of them all. He has rendered eminent service to the student of nature and of man. All branches of knowledge have been enriched by his labours. His contributions to science form, if not their most valuable, still a very considerable part of all their worth. History has been remodeled by Archaeology.

But Archaeology or scientific Antiquarianism does not stop within the line of historic ages and nations. It steps boldly into the regions of the dark untrodden past. It asks questions respecting the prehistoric life of man, and it makes researches into the stages of his progress, and strives to retrace every step until it discovers his very beginning. Into this vast and limitless domain the mere Antiquary does not venture. He is content to be the Historian’s quarryman. He aims no higher than to be the Archeologist’s sapper and miner. And yet what splendid scope, and what endless variety of interest are left for him.

How many of us might find in Antiquarianism a change of occupation, healthy alike to body and to mind ? What new life might it not give to Mechanics’ Institutes and Literary Societies if each member would contribute his researches to the common stock. If the more conspicuous amid remarkable monuments of antiquity are exhausted, are there not still old village churches, and manors, and farms, ballads and legends, the folk-lore of the peasantry, half obliterated traces of old habits and customs, fragments of olden language and olden opinions and theories, relics of art and manufacture, inscriptions on buildings and tombs and monuments, old books, old MSS., old deeds; heraldry, with seals, and brasses, and stained windows, and family genealogies; costumes, as seen in old engravings, and pictures, and illuminations; coins, rings, and amulets. All these things and many more might afford pleasure, cultivate taste, extend the bounds of our knowledge, fill up pleasantly what otherwise were listless or unhappy or ill spent hours.

Originally published in Old Yorkshire Vol. 5, pp.viii-xx (Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1884)
Abridged and published in NE97, Spring 2004, pp.10-12

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