Graham Parry. The Trophies of Time: English Antiquarians of The Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. xi+382 pp. ISBN 0198129629 Cloth.
F. J. Levy
University of Washington

Levy, F.J. "Review of The Trophies of Time. English Antiquarians of The Seventeenth Century." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.3 (1996): 8.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-3/rev_lev1.html>.

  1. In his Table Talk, John Selden notes that "The Reason of a Thing is not to be enquired after, till you are sure the Thing itself be so." Seldon illustrates his point with an anecdote about that great antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton: "'Twas an excellent Question of my Lady Cotton, when Sir Robert Cotton was magnifying of a Shoe, which was Moses's or Noah's, and wondering at the strange Shape and Fashion of it: But, Mr Cotton, says she, are you sure it's a Shoe?" The story provides an excellent exemplar of the taxonomic impulse of seventeenth-century antiquarianism, and of what might go amiss when preconceived notions stood in the way of rational analysis. The same point might, after all, have been made about the efforts to decode Stonehenge: speculations about whether that great monument was Roman, Saxon or British depended on what the antiquaries believed about the engineering skills and sophistication of those ancient civilizations.

  2. Such problems of taxonomy are part of Graham Parry's story of seventeenth-century antiquarianism; another part is the job of preserving the past against the efforts of those who, like the Puritans, saw the Catholic past as a standing invitation to a return to the horrors of Papistry. Thus William Dugdale, though perhaps the Grand Plagiary of David Douglas's English Scholars, 1660-1730, nevertheless remains one of Parry's heroes for his efforts to save church records of all kinds from the depredations set in motion in 1641. John Weever joins the antiquarian parade for a similar reason. So too does the great collector, Sir Robert Cotton. The Catholic exile, Richard Verstegan, made the Saxons into heroic ancestors of the English. John Selden and James Ussher (and perhaps Sir Henry Spelman) enter the book for their analyses of institutions. John Aubrey finds a place as a Baconian proto-archeologist, Aylett Sammes for setting the Phoenicians in motion on the stage of British history. Sir Thomas Browne, William Burton, Thomas Fuller have bit roles. But the book begins and ends with William Camden: the 1586 and 1695 editions of Britannia stand as the Pillars of Hercules, marking the boundaries Parry's book will not cross.

  3. A bare listing of Parry's subjects poses the question: "what is antiquarianism?" Parry himself answers it by stating that the antiquaries pursued origins, but in so variegated a manner as to defy further limitation. Such a definition allows philologists to share honors with chorographers and field archeologists, but isn't altogether adequate for analyzing the contemporary distinction between antiquaries and historians. Camden, in his antiquarian Britannia, was willing to include historical information, but consistently refused to engage in extended historical narratives. In his discussion of Camden, Parry follows his subject's own definitions, and so omits the Annales, the history of Queen Elizabeth's reign. Applied to Dugdale, the same distinction allows Parry to omit A Short View of the Late Troubles in England. But why then discuss Cotton's little history of Henry III? Nor does Parry's definition provide much guidance in deciding which antiquarians to include, which to leave out. In practice, Parry gets round the problem by writing small, focused biographies of his chosen few, perhaps because the biographical mode best suits his elegant style.

  4. Yet my pleasure in reading these accounts of the men who preserved the trophies of time was marred by recurring doubts. We know the seventeenth century as the age of the virtuoso, often an amateur, who managed to link interests in antiquities, art, history, genealogy, natural philosophy (and perhaps even the works of the poets and playwrights). The editions of Henry Peacham's Compleat Gentleman chronicle the virtuoso's rise; a biography of John Evelyn would serve to depict him in his hey-day. The antiquarian is part of this culture, but to understand how this works would require a much more comprehensive study, involving research into not only the acknowledged giants but also the larger number of men who published nothing and whose labors survive in manuscript or in the acknowledgments of their more assiduous friends. We need to know more about their religion, their politics, their social status, and the extent to which they felt their positions endangered. Most were conservative; some -- notably John Selden, whose later career is altogether omitted -- were not. We need to ask whether the fact that so few antiquarians ever brought their work to completion was really an accident, or whether that failure was somehow inherent in the "sociology" of the antiquarian project. The diffuseness of the materials had much to do with it, but so did the social status of many of the practitioners, for whom the act of collecting may well have been sufficient. As Parry himself points out, for many of them only a project like the new edition of Britannia could pry their collections loose. But all these objections may be seen as symptomatic of an underlying malaise. A group of biographies explains relatively little. To go further, to examine the conditions of antiquarianism -- in short, to follow the examples of Joseph Levine's Dr. Woodward's Shield and of the historians of seventeenth-century science -- Parry would have to analyze the operations of the community of antiquarians as well as its relationship to the larger social and scholarly community within which it was placed. To work out the lineaments of this culture of antiquarianism, however, would require the careful study of all the surviving manuscript correspondence and collections, whose importance Parry is careful to acknowledge but whose use he eschews.

  5. Parry's book is one fit to take its place beside Douglas's deservedly famous English Scholars, which it much resembles (and a little overlaps). Both books are made up of biographies, both are learned, both engagingly written. Douglas has the advantage of having lived in an earlier, simpler age: a distinguished medievalist himself, he was exploring the heroic age of his own discipline. Parry is, to a much greater extent, looking at his subjects from the outside, and has the disadvantage of living in parlous times, when we have the gravest doubts about progress, and have come to believe in the social construction of knowledge rather than in heroes.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(December 31, 1996)