Working with Antiquarians: a workshop by Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams

Blog written by Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams, British Academy Fellow


Out of the depths: a selection of Antiquarian texts from St Andrews’ special collections. Photo attrib. Daryl Green, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

“It is decidedly Celtic,” said the Baronet; “every hill in the Highlands begins with Ben.”

“But what say you to Val, Sir Arthur; — is it not decidedly the Saxon wall?”

“It is the Roman vallum,” said Sir Arthur; — “the Picts borrowed that part of the word.”

“No such thing; if they borrowed anything, it must have been your Ben, which they might have from the neighbouring Britons of Strath Cluyd.”

Jonathan Oldbuck, whose learned disagreement with his neighbour Sir Arthur Wardour, above, is one of the great set pieces of Walter Scott’s The Antiquary (1816), has defined how many people understand antiquarianism.  Once the dominant method for understanding the past across Europe, it became denigrated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as something minute and myopic, the cranky pursuit of esoteric enthusiasms which only tangentially related to proper history.  In the last few decades, however, this has started to change as historians of early modern Europe have begun to recognise the skill, the ingenuity, and the sometimes dizzying erudition of their antiquarian predecessors.

Last month (on 8 March) I led a workshop in St Andrews’s own Martyrs Kirk Research Library which introduced an eager class of students and staff to this historiographical tradition.  With the invaluable aid of Daryl Green, Rare Books Librarian, I had gathered together eleven early printed books from the university’s special collections which represented the evolution of antiquarianism from the fifteenth century to the eighteenth.  Over the course of the subsequent two hours the group of us explored and discussed these works, looking at everything from an Oxford don’s 1650 engagement with medieval Arabic history, to some of the earliest manuscript facsimiles, to one of the Enlightenment’s most lavish coffee table books (on the architecture of ancient Greece).


Looking at the Danish antiquary Ole Worm’s (1588-1654) engraving of the Golden Horn of Gallehus. Photo attrib. Daryl Greene, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Going into the workshop, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve seen responses to antiquarianism which range from fascination to profound indifference and I was prepared to field some of the tough questions that arise in this line of research: is antiquarianism really history?  What purpose does it serve?  Why should we, as modern-day scholars, care about this long-past toolbox of methods and assumptions?  But I needn’t have worried.  Antiquarianism is enjoying something of a renaissance these days, with more books and articles published on the subject every year, and this renewed interest was reflected by the workshop attendees, all of whom brought a wonderful level of engagement, interest, and knowledge with them, making the whole process a delight to be part of.  While Jonathan Oldbuck still holds sway in Sir Walter Scott’s pages, we’ve gently set him aside in the real world and found that behind him lies a vast continent of scholarship which we’re only just beginning to explore.

About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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