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THE NATURAL HISTORY OF WILTSHIRE
GEORGE POULETT SCROPE, ESQ. M.P.,
&c, &c. &c. ___________________________________
MY DEAR SIR,
BY inscribing this Volume to you I am merely discharging a debt of gratitude and justice. But for you I believe it would not have been printed; for you not only advocated its publication, but have generously contributed to diminish the cost of its production to the "WILTSHIRE TOPOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY", under whose auspices it is now submitted to the public.
Though comparatively obsolete as regards its scientific, archaeological, and philosophical information, AUBREY'S "NATURAL HISTORY OF WILTSHIRE" is replete with curious and entertaining facts and suggestions, at once characterising the writer, and the age in which he lived, and illustrating the history and topography of his native county. Had this work been revised and printed by its author, as he wished and intended it to have been, it would have proved as useful and important as Plot's "Staffordshire" and "Oxfordshire"; Burton's "Leicestershire"; Morton's "Northamptonshire"; Philipott's "Kent"; or any others of its literary predecessors or contemporaries. It could not have failed to produce useful results to the county it describes; as it was calculated to promote inquiry, awaken curiosity, and plant seeds which might have produced a rich and valuable harvest of Topography.
Aubrey justly complained of the apathy which prevailed in his time amongst Wiltshire men towards such topics ; and, notwithstanding the many improvements that have since been made in general science, literature, and art, I fear that the gentry and clergy of the county do not sufficiently appreciate the value and utility of local history; otherwise the Wiltshire Topographical Society would not linger for want of adequate and liberal support. Aubrey, Bishop Tanner, Henry Penruddocke Wyndham, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, and the writer of this address, have successively appealed to the inhabitants of the county to produce a history commensurate to its wealth and extent, and also to the many and varied objects of importance and interest which belong to it: but, alas ! all have failed, and I despair of living to see my native county amply and satisfactorily elucidated by either one or more topographers.
By the formation of the Society already mentioned, by writing and superintending this volume and other preceding publications, and by various literary exertions during the last half century, I have endeavoured to promote the cause of Topography in Wiltshire ; and in doing so have often been encouraged by your sympathy and support. For this I am bound to offer you the expression of my very sincere thanks; and with an earnest wish that you may speedily complete your projected "History of Castle Combe,"
My dear Sir,
Yours very truly,
Burton Street, London. 1st September, 1847.
IN the "Memoir of John Aubrey", published by the Wiltshire Topographical Society in 1845, I expressed a wish that the "NATURAL HISTORY of WILTSHIRE", the most important of that author's unpublished manuscripts, might be printed by the Society, as a companion volume to that Memoir, which it is especially calculated to illustrate.
The work referred to had been then suggested to the Council of the Society by George Poulett Scrope, Esq. M.P., as desirable for publication. They concurred with him in that opinion; and shortly afterwards, through the kind intervention of the Marquess of Northampton, an application was made to the Council of the Royal Society for permission to have a transcript made for publication from the copy of the " Natural History of Wiltshire" in their possession. The required permission was readily accorded; and had not the printing been delayed by my own serious illness during the last winter, and urgent occupations since, it would have been completed some months ago.
When the present volume was first announced, it was intended to print the whole of Aubrey's manuscript; but after mature deliberation it has been thought more desirable to select only such passages as directly or indirectly apply to the county of Wilts, or which comprise information really useful or interesting in itself, or curious as illustrating the state of literature and science at the time when they were written.
Before the general reader can duly understand and appreciate the contents of the present volume it is necessary that he should have some knowledge of the manners, customs, and literature of the age when it was written, and with the lucubrations of honest, but "magotie- headed" John Aubrey, as he is termed by Anthony a Wood. Although I have already endeavoured to portray his mental and personal characteristics, and have carefully marked many of his merits, eccentricities, and foibles, I find, from a more careful examination of his "Natural History of Wiltshire" than I had previously devoted to it, many anecdotes, peculiarities, opinions, and traits, which, whilst they serve to mark the character of the man, afford also interesting memorials of his times. If that age be compared and contrasted with the present, the difference cannot fail to make us exult in living, breathing, and acting in a region of intellect and freedom, which is all sunshine and happiness, opposed to the gloom and illiteracy which darkened the days of Aubrey. Even Harvey, Wren, Flamsteed, and Newton, his contemporaries and friends, were slaves and victims to the superstition and fanaticism of their age.
It has long been customary to regard John Aubrey as a credulous and gossiping narrator of anecdotes of doubtful authority, and as an ignorant believer of the most absurd stories. This notion was grounded chiefly upon the prejudiced testimony of Anthony a Wood, and on the contents of the only work which Aubrey published during his lifetime,- an amusing collection of "Miscellanies" relating to dreams, apparitions, witchcraft, and similar subjects. Though his " History of Surrey" was of a more creditable character, and elicited the approval of Manning and Bray, the subsequent historians of that county, an unfavourable opinion of Aubrey long continued to prevail. The publication of his " Lives of Eminent Men" tended, however, to raise him considerably in the estimation of discriminating critics; and in my own " Memoir" of his personal and literary career, with its accompanying analysis of his unpublished works, I endeavoured (and I believe successfully) to vindicate his claims to a distinguished place amongst the literati of his times.
That he has been unjustly stigmatised amongst his contemporaries as an especial votary of superstition is obvious, even on a perusal of his most objectionable work, the "Miscellanies" already mentioned, which plainly shews that his more scientific contemporaries, including even some of the most eminent names in our country's literary annals, participated in the same delusions. It would be amusing to compare the "Natural History of Wiltshire" with two similar works on "Oxfordshire" and " Staffordshire," by Dr. Robert Plot, which procured for their author a considerable reputation at the time of their publication, and which still bear a favourable character amongst the topographical works of the seventeenth century. It may be sufficient here to state that the chapters in those publications on the Heavens and Air, Waters, Earths, Stones, Formed stones, Plants, Beastes, Men and Women, Echoes, Devils and Witches, and other subjects, are very similar to those of Aubrey. Indeed the plan of the latter's work was modelled upon those of Dr. Plot, and Aubrey states in his Preface that he endeavoured to induce that gentleman to undertake the arrangement and publication of his "Natural History of Wiltshire". On comparing the writings of the two authors, we cannot hesitate to award superior merits to the Wiltshire antiquary.
A few passages may be quoted from the latter to shew that he was greatly in advance of his contemporaries in general knowledge and liberality of sentiment:-
" I have oftentimes wished for a mappe of England coloured according to the colours of the earth; with markes of the fossiles and minerals." (p. 10.)
"As the motion caused by a stone lett fall into the water is by circles, so sounds move by spheres in the same manner; which, though obvious enough, I doe not remember to have seen in any booke." (p. 18.)
"Phantomes. Though I myselfe never saw any such things, yet I will not conclude that there is no truth at all in these reports. I believe that extraordinarily there have been such apparitions; but where one is true a hundred are figments. There is a lecherie in lyeing and imposing on the credulous, and the imagination of fearfull people is to admiration." [In other words, timid people are disposed to believe marvellous stories.] (p. 122.)
"Draughts of the Seates and Prospects. If these views were well donn, they would make a glorious volume by itselfe, and like enough it might take well in the world. It were an inconsiderable expence to these persons of qualitie, and it would remaine to posterity when their families are gonn and their buildings ruined by time or fire, as we have seen that stupendous fabric of Paul's Church, not a stone left on a stone, and lives now only in Mr. Hollar's Etchings in Sir William Dugdale's History of Paul's. I am not displeased with this thought as a desideratum, but I doe never expect to see it donn; so few men have the hearts to doe public good to give 4 or 5 pounds for a copper-plate." p. 126.)
With regard to the history of the work now first published, it may be stated that it was the author's first literary essay; being commenced in 1656, and evidently taken up from time to time, and pursued "con amore". In 1675 it was submitted to the Royal Society, when, as Aubrey observed in a letter to Anthony á Wood, it "gave them two or three dayes entertainment which they were pleased to like." Dr. Plot declined to prepare it for the press, and in December 1684 strongly urged the author to "finish and publish it" himself; he accordingly
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