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John Aubrey.

John Aubrey (12 March 16267 June 1697) was an Englishmarker antiquary and writer, best known as the author of the collection of short biographical pieces usually referred to as Brief Lives and as the discoverer of the Aubrey holes in Stonehengemarker.


He was born at Easton Piers or Percy, near Malmesbury, Wiltshiremarker, of a well-off gentry family of the Welsh Marches. His grandfather, Isaac Lyte, lived at Lytes Cary Manormarker, Somerset, now owned by the National Trust. Richard Aubrey, his father, owned lands in Wiltshire and Herefordshire. For many years an only child, he was educated at home, with a private tutor, "melancholy" in his solitude. His father was not intellectual, preferring field sports to learning. Aubrey read such books as came his way, including Bacon's Essays, and studied geometry in secret. He was educated at the Malmesbury grammar school under Robert Latimer, who had numbered Thomas Hobbes among his earlier pupils, and at Latimer's house Aubrey first met the philosopher, whose biography he was later to write. He then studied at the grammar school at Blandford Forummarker, Dorset. He entered Trinity College, Oxfordmarker, in 1642, but his studies were interrupted by the English Civil War. His earliest antiquarian work dates from this period in Oxford. In 1646 he became a student of the Middle Templemarker. He spent a pleasant time at Trinity in 1647, making friends among his Oxford contemporaries, and collecting books. He spent much of his time in the country, and in 1649 he first 'discovered' the megalithic remains at Aveburymarker, which he later mapped and discussed in his important antiquarian work Monumenta Britannica. He was to show Avebury to Charles II at the King's request in 1663. His father died in 1652, leaving Aubrey large estates, but with them some complicated debts.


Blessed with charm, generosity of spirit and enthusiasm, Aubrey went on to become acquainted with many of the most celebrated writers, scientists, politicians and aristocrats of his day, as well as an extraordinary breadth of less well-placed individuals: booksellers, merchants, the royal seamstress, mathematicians and instrument makers. He claimed that his memory was 'not tenacious' by seventeenth-century standards, but from the early 1640s he kept thorough (if haphazard) notes of observations in natural philosophy, his friends' ideas, and antiquities. He also began to write Lives of scientists in the 1650s. In 1660 he proposed to several of his fellow-Wiltshiremen that they should collaborate on a survey of Wiltshiremarker. The others did nothing about it, but Aubrey produced a huge 2-volume (if unfinished) collection, the Wiltshire Antiquities, including some biographical material. Indeed, Aubrey's erstwhile friend and fellow-antiquarian Anthony Wood predicted that he would one day break his neck while running downstairs in haste to interview some retreating guest or other. Aubrey was an apolitical Royalist, who enjoyed the innovations characteristic of the Interregnum period while deploring the rupture in traditions and the destruction of ancient buildings brought about by civil war and religious change. He drank the King's health in Interregnum Herefordshire, but with equal enthusiasm attended meetings in London of the republican Rota Club, founded by James Harrington (the author of Oceana).

In 1663 Aubrey became a member of the Royal Society. He lost estate after estate due to lawsuits, till in 1670 he parted with his last piece of property and ancestral home, Easton Piers. From this time he was dependent on the hospitality of his numerous friends; in particular, Sir James Long, 2nd Baronet and his wife Lady Dorothy of Draycot House, Wiltshire. In 1667 he had made the acquaintance of Anthony Wood at Oxford, and when Wood began to gather materials for his Athenae Oxonienses, Aubrey offered to collect information for him. From time to time he forwarded memoranda in a uniquely casual, epistolary style, and in 1680 he began to promise the work "Minutes for Lives," which Wood was to use at his discretion.


An early photograph of Stonehenge taken July 1877
Aubrey approached the work of the biographer much as his contemporary scientists had begun to approach the work of empirical research by the assembly of vast museums and small collection cabinets. Collating as much information as he could, he left the task of verification largely to Wood, and thereafter to posterity. As a hanger-on in great houses, he had little time and little inclination for systematic work, and he wrote the "Lives" in the early morning while his hosts were sleeping off the effects of the night before. These texts were, as Aubrey entitled them, Schediasmata, 'pieces written extempore, on the spur of the moment'. Time after time, he leaves marks of omission in the form of dashes and ellipses for dates and facts, inserting fresh information whenever it is presented to him. The margins of his notebooks are dotted with notes-to-self, most frequently the Latin 'quaere'. This exhortation, to 'go and find out' is often followed. In the 'Brief Life' of Father Harcourt, Aubrey notes that one Roydon, a brewer living in Southwarkmarker, was reputed to be in possession of Harcourt's petrified kidney. 'I have seen it', he writes approvingly, 'he much values it'.

Aubrey himself valued the evidence of his own eyes above all, and he took great pains to ensure that, where possible, he noted not only the final resting places of people, but also of their portraits and papers. Though his work has frequently been accused of inaccuracy, this charge is somewhat misguided. In most cases, Aubrey simply wrote what he had seen, or heard. When transcribing hearsay, he displays an astonishingly meticulous approach to the ascription of sources. Take the fascinating 'Life' of Thomas Chaloner (who, Aubrey notes wryly, was fond of spreading rumours in the concourse of Westminster Hall, and coming back after lunch to find them changed, as in a game of Chinese whispers). When an inaccurate and bawdy anecdote about Chaloner's death is found to be about James Chaloner, rather than Thomas, Aubrey lets the initial story stand in the text, while marking it as such in a marginal note. A number of similar occurrences suggest that Aubrey was interested not only in the oral history he was noting down, but in the very processes of transmission and corruption by which it was formed .


As private, manuscript texts, the 'Lives' were able to contain the richly controversial material which is their chief interest today, and Aubrey's chief contribution to the formation of modern biographical writing. When he allowed Anthony Wood to use the texts, however, he entered the caveat that much of the content of the Lives was 'not fitt to be let flie abroad' while the subjects, and the author, were still living. He asked Wood to be 'my index expurgatorius': a reference to the Church's list of banned books, which Wood seems to have taken not as a warning, but as a licence to simply extract pages of notes to paste into his own proofs. In 1692, Aubrey complained bitterly that Wood had mutilated forty pages of his manuscript, perhaps for fear of a libel case.

Wood was eventually prosecuted for insinuations against the judicial integrity of the school of Clarendon. One of the two statements called in question was founded on information provided by Aubrey and this may explain the estrangement between the two antiquaries and the ungrateful account that Wood gives of the elder man's character. It is now famous: "a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crased. And being exceedingly credulous, would stuff his many letters sent to A. W. with folliries and misinformations, which would sometimes guid him into the paths of errour."

Late in life, Aubrey began a History of Northern Wiltshire but, feeling that he was too old to finish it properly, he made over his material, around 1695, to Thomas Tanner, afterwards Bishop of St Asaph. In the next year was published his only completed work, though not his most valuable: the Miscellanies. Aubrey died of an apoplexy while travelling, in June 1697, and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, Oxford.

Besides the works already mentioned, his papers included: "Architectonica Sacra" "Erin Is God" (notes on ecclesiastical antiquities) and the "Life of Mr Thomas Hobbes of Malmesburymarker," which served as the basis for Dr. Blackburn's Latin life, and also for Wood's account. Some parts of his survey of Surreymarker were incorporated in R Rawlinson's Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey (1719); some of his antiquarian notes on Wiltshire were printed in Wiltshire: the Topographical Collections, corrected and enlarged by J.E. Jackson (Devizes: Henry Bull, 1862); part of another manuscript on "The Natural History of Wiltshire" was printed by John Britton in 1847 for the Wiltshire Topographical Society. A two-volume facsimile with a transcript of part of his Monumenta Britannica was published by John Fowles and Rodney Legg in 1980. the Miscellanies were edited in 1890 for the Library of Old Authors; the "Minutes for Lives" were partially edited in 1813. A near-complete transcript, Brief Lives chiefly of Contemporaries set down John Aubrey between the Years 1669 and 1696, was edited for the Clarendon Press in 1898 by the Rev. Andrew Clark from manuscripts in the Bodleian Librarymarker, Oxford. This is still the best edition available, despite a number of excisions to spare late-Victorian blushes. More readily available is John Buchanan-Brown's serviceable Penguin paperback (Harmondsworth, 2000). This edition incorporates an excellent short introduction by Michael Hunter, whose John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning (London: Duckworth, 1975) is indispensable. Kate Bennett argues for a connection between "John Aubrey's collections and the early modern museum" in the Bodleian Library Record for 2001, and her doctoral thesis in the Bodleian begins the task of editing the Lives, further discussed in Bray, Handley and Henry, eds, Marking the Text (2000). She discusses his earliest antiquarian work in Oxoniensia LXIV (1999).

Literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote concerning Aubrey in his Foreword to the 1962 edition of Aubreys's Brief Lives published by the University of oklahoma Press:

This edition is, indeed, the first one that has been faithful to Aubrey's text and that has attempted to make a book from his manuscripts. For what Aubrey left was not a book. He loved to compile gossip about famous men and to note their peculiarities, and in pursuit of this information he often went to considerable trouble. It was said of him by one of his friends that he expected to hear of Aubrey's breaking his neck someday as the result of dashing downstairs to get a story from a departing guest. But he did not keep his records in order. He would try to get things down on paper the morning after a convivial evening - "Sot that I am!" is the apologetic cry that is reiterated in his writings - when the people he was visiting were still in bed and he himself was suffering from hangover. He sometimes mixed anecdotes about different people, sometimes wrote the same story several times, and sometimes noted down under a subject's name only a few words or a mere list of dates and facts.

See also John Britton, Memoir of John Aubrey (1845); David Masson, in the British Quarterly Review, July 1856; Émile Montégut, Heures de lecture d'un critique (1891); and a catalogue of Aubrey's selections in The Life and Times of Anthony Wood ..., by Andrew Clark (Oxford, 1891-1900, vol. iv. pp. 191-193), which contains many other references to Aubrey. For a more recent biography, see John Aubrey and his Friends by Anthony Powell (1948).

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