Welcome to the second installment of Sonia Mullett's column on out-of-print books, the serendipitous treasures that she finds on secondhand bookshop shelves. She provides an in-depth look at a different book each issue. This column examines two works of John Aubrey: Monumenta Britannica: A Miscellany of British Antiquities and Miscellanies.

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Rendezvous with Rare Books:

Standing Stones and Tall Stories

By Sonia Mullett


A map drawn by Aubrey in Monumenta Britannica

Driving towards the village of Avebury last summer, I was so awed by the sudden sight of an oversize boulder, apparently jutting into the road, that I almost swerved to avoid it. The ancient sarsen, like a huge stone fist, only threatens the A4361, and actually sits safely, if incongruously, behind a small hedge at the northernmost point of Europe’s largest Neolithic stone circle. Nonetheless, it was an appropriate reaction to a monument that, according to John Aubrey, a seventeenth-century antiquary (and much else besides), exceeds “in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge, as a cathedral doeth a parish church”.


Aubrey, a remarkable collector with a passion for preservation, first stumbled upon the Avebury henge in 1649 and was “wonderfully surprised at the sight of those vast stones, of which I had never heard before”. It’s not hard to see why he was inspired by this mysterious terrain, which continues to provide fertile ground for speculative fiction (two examples being William Horwood’s Duncton Wood and ITV’s Children of the Stones). “These downs look as if they were sown with great stones, very thick … one might fancy it to have been the scene, where Giants fought with huge stones against the Gods”. Like that of many of his contemporaries, Aubrey’s landscape was populated by unaccountable phenomena; early in his studies he pondered whether – following local folklore – the Stanton Drew stones were the petrified bodies of Sabbath-breakers, noting how Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt in the Bible. The Aubrey who brought an “algebraical method” to archaeology, studied complex mathematics, and counted some of the leading thinkers of the day as friends (Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, William Harvey, Christopher Wren, Edmond Halley and Robert Hooke to name a few), was the same Aubrey who believed wholeheartedly in astrology, catalogued sightings of ghosts, and copied out spells. One such spell unwisely recorded how to “make a man Gunne-proofe”. The only book he saw through to publication was Miscellanies (1696). Its chapters on ‘Omens’, ‘Apparitions’, ‘Voices’, ‘Knockings’, ‘Blows Invisible’, ‘Marvels’, ‘Magick’, ‘Transportation by an Invisible Power’, ‘Visions in a Berrill, or Crystall’, ‘Converse with Angels and Spirits’, ‘Corpse-Candles in Wales’, and ‘Second-Sighted Persons’ managed to crush his reputation with all the force of a toppled sarsen. A tutor, writing to his pupil in the early 1700s, advises the student that Aubrey’s work can be found “amongst your father’s collection of mad books”.


As the title suggests, Miscellanies is an assortment of notes, correspondence and extracts. Stories of poltergeists pelting astonished onlookers with stones, grisly portents, unlucky places (avoid the hostelries of York Street in London’s Covent Garden, “very unfortunate for Homicides”), premonitions, apparitions, ghostly omens, spectral counsel and hidden Biblical prophesies tumble over each other, in a profusion of detail. Aubrey lists some helpful incantations. To discover potential spouses – if you haven’t got time to knit knots in your garters or dig for coal on St Agnes’ day – you could simply charm the first new moon of the year with: “All Hail to the Moon, all Hail to thee/I prithee good Moon reveal to me/This Night who my Husband (Wife) must be.” There are also a number of ways to take away the agony of toothache, including burning a charm while reciting: “Mars, hur, abursa, aburse./Jesu Christ for Mary’s sake/Take away this Tooth-ach”. And to guard against black magic it’s worth remembering that, “Vervain and Dill/Hinders Witches from their will.”  Aubrey  did  not intend  everything  in  Miscellanies  to  be taken at face-value – he writes that these “scattered Papers … might be somewhat amusing” if collated – and he is careful to record trickery and falsehood where it is revealed. There’s more than a touch of comedy, too, in the story of the man who, convinced of the monarch’s healing powers (a common belief known as the King’s Touch), rubbed his fungous nose on Charles II’s hand when the two encountered one another in St. James’ Park, “which disturb’d the King, but Cured him.” Here Aubrey sagely quotes Bacon: “That Imagination is next Kin to ‘Miracle-working faith’”.


It might have suited soi-disant enlightened thinkers of later ages to dismiss Aubrey’s writings as the outmoded credulities of a bygone era, but the seventeenth century was a period in which boundaries between science and magic were fluid (Isaac Newton’s – another of Aubrey’s correspondents – interest in alchemy, for example, is well known). And we are richer for Aubrey’s all-encompassing desire to record, which is reflected in his appetite for scraps of information about supernatural phenomena and folklore. It was this mania for collection, coupled with a generosity of spirit, that – in an age of extreme social and gender inequality – saw him seek out anecdotes from rich and poor alike, as well as giving learned women their due in the fields of science, maths and medicine. In his Monumenta Britannica Aubrey’s humanistic empathy and imaginative openness, as much as a somewhat revolutionary empiricism and comparative methodology, allowed him to picture the people behind the stones (“I come abroad like the ghost of one of those Druids”) and to make his breakthrough that Avebury was older than previously thought: the work, he conjectured, of Iron-Age Druids forgotten in the “deluge of history” that followed the collapse of Roman Britain and not, as commonly believed, the ruins of the island’s imperial or Danish past. That the stones are more ancient than even Aubrey supposed was something he would not have been able to identify. But he was astute enough to sound a note of caution: “this inquiry I must confess is a groping in the dark … yet I can affirm, that I have brought it from an utter darkness to a thin mist: and have gonne farther in this essay than any one before me”.  


Word of the antiquarian’s enthusiasm for Avebury eventually found its way to Charles II, who commissioned a plan of the site. Aubrey added the results to ‘Templa Druidum’, a ground-breaking survey of British standing stones that forms part one of the Monumenta Britannica. There are four parts in all; the second covers Roman Britain, the third, other archaeological remains (including a section on ancient corpses found at St Paul’s after the Great Fire), and the fourth – arguably as significant as ‘Templa Druidum’ but never formally printed – contains essays on architectural history. Although unpublished until the 1980s, ‘Templa Druidum’ gives us the first written accounts of some prehistoric sites, overturned established origin theories, and was borrowed (uncredited) by the later and, perhaps, unjustly more celebrated archaeologist William Stuckeley. It includes a smattering of folklore, but, unlike in the Miscellanies, Aubrey is more interested in the physical reality of the stones themselves. The story that the Devil hit Merlin’s foot with a stone, leaving an imprint (today’s Heel Stone at Stonehenge), is derived from the fantasies of medieval cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth, and not at all seriously considered by Aubrey. This edition of the book contains Aubrey’s corrections and markings, as well as his notes-to-self (examples include a reminder to query the giant’s bone apparently found at the Cumbrian site known as Long Meg and Her Daughters).


Avebury is much diminished since Aubrey’s time: the destructive work of many generations who viewed megaliths littering the landscape with a mixture of annoyance (according to stone-circles expert Aubrey Burl, the word ‘sarsen’ is Saxon for ‘troublesome stone’) and fear. Others came looking for treasure, building materials, or even ingredients for ‘mummy’ (medicines made from human remains). A local clergyman cheerfully explained to Aubrey how to crack stones, whilst a doctor wrote to him about fields of ancient skeletons (carefully positioned, skulls touching, with their feet towards ‘The Temple’ – now destroyed): “I quickly perceived they were human and came the next day and dug for them, and stored myself with many bushels, of which I made a noble medicine that relieved many of my distressed neighbours ... [Though the bones were almost rotten, the teeth were] wonderfully white, hard and sound (no tobacco taken in those days).”


Bankrupt in 1671, Aubrey lived thereafter off the kindness of friends, whose hospitality often left their gregarious guest sore-headed. This was not conducive to getting work done. In a 2011 lecture for the Royal Society, Dr. Kate Bennett notes that, although he never completed a project he also never dropped one. Latterly the beauty of Aubrey’s prose has been admired by renowned twentieth-century writers such as Anthony Powell and John Fowles. But despite the attempts of various publishers to organise his work, much of it is no longer, if it ever was, in print. When available, it is often expensive. Exceptions to this are the Brief Lives: Aubrey’s lively sketches of contemporaries and historical figures, for which he is justly famous; and Miscellanies, available through various print-on-demand suppliers.

Sonia discussed:

Monumenta Britannica: A Miscellany of British Antiquities by John Aubrey (edited by John Fowles, annotated by Rodney Legg, Little Brown and Company, Boston, Toronto, 1980/1981), originally published by Dorset Publishing Company


Miscellanies reproduced in John Aubrey: Three Prose Works (edited, with introduction and notes, by John Buchanan-Brown, Centaur Press Ltd, Fontwell, Sussex, 1972)


Buy the Dorset Publishing Company version here on Amazon (£110!)

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