Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 5 March 2012

John Aubrey and the Printed Book

This evening I attended a lecture at the Oxford Bibliographical Society by Dr Kate Bennett on John Aubrey and the Printed Book. Dr Bennett has recently completed a new two volume edition of Aubrey's Brief Lives for Oxford University Press, and is now working on an edition of Aubrey's letters.


John Aubrey 1626-1697
A portrait from 1666.

Image: Avebury Matters blogspot

Many of Aubrey's books, with his annotations, and his manuscrpts survive in the Bodleian Library - her originally gave them to the Ashmolean - and at Worcester College here in Oxford. He spent a considerable amount of his life in and around Oxford, where indeed he is buried.

For much of his life he was peripatetic, and also impecunious, staying with friends, and leaving caches of his books and notes with them for safekeeping. In Oxford he worked with Anthony Wood, in the latter's work on the history of the University, and as an early member of the Royal Society corresponded with many of the scientifically minded pioneers of the time as well as with those with antiquarian interersts, for which he is better known.

His inspiration was partly from the ideas of Francis Bacon, but also from his childhood. He rercalled howas aboy he was a fiend of his local rector in Wiltshire who had manuscripts from Malmesbury abbey from which he used pages to stop up beer kegs, and all of which Aubrey, returning as a 21 year old in 1647, found had been irretrievably lost - the remainder had been used for scouring guns during the Civil War. Similarly he recalled paying 1/6 for abook not for the text but because he recognised the cover to be made out of a ninth-century manuscript which he wanted for its paleographic interest; the item is still there amongst his papers.

his nurse singing him ballads and thinking these ought to be preserved as potetially containing historical insights. Thus, although William Dugdale wrote to him that such sources were not worth keeping, Aubrey did so, becoming a pioneer of recording oral tradition and folk-lore. In many ways he saw the Civil War as a time not only of physical destruction but as the time when
" the Fairies were chased away." I recall that sense of nostalgia in him in the dramatisation of Brief Lives with Roy Dotrice when that was shown on television.

Aubrey's intersts, as the exhibition at the Bodleian in 2010 showed were wide - indeed as Dr Bennett said, he seesm to have deliberately avoided completion of his various and all embracing projects, because completion would lead to complacency. He was always adding to the sum of his knowledge.

He had an eye for detail both as an artist, drawing the remains of Rosamund's Bower at Woodstock and the "grot"or fantastical gardens of Thomas Bushell at Enstone nearby, or indeed commissioning the drawing of the tower of Osney abbey before it was destroyed in 1644, and for such things as the fact that his copy of John Denham's poem "Cooper's Hill" printed in Oxford during the Civil War was on brown paper, which was all that the printers could get rather than the better quality papers they were used to in London.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable talk about a really rather endearing character - I once had the idea of establishing a dining society in his honour for like-minded freinds, but it was one of those ideas that never got beyond being just that - so, I suppose, it was very Aubrey-like.

My previous posts on John Aubrey can be se en at John Aubrey and at An Italian garden in seventeenth century Surrey.

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