Dec 212017
 

Today is the December solstice, which, astronomically speaking, is not a day but a moment, and can fall anywhere from December 20th to December 22nd. This year it happens to occur very late on the 21st here in Cambodia, and rather earlier in Europe and the Americas, so we’re good to go. Without going into excruciating detail (nor being entirely accurate), the solstice occurs when the sun appears to stand still, from the Latin sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”), in its apparent movement north to the tropic of cancer once per year, and south to the tropic of capricorn 6 months later. Changing directions is the matter of a mere moment, but historically cultures have celebrated the entire day when the change occurs, because the moment is not really detectable as such. It can be calculated, but you can’t see it happening. If it’s cloudy that day, you can’t actually see it at all, and even if you can see the sun, its apparent change of direction can take a day or two to be obvious. Assigning a day is convenient for everyone.

The solstice is called the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere because they are diametrically opposite.  This is the shortest day in the year in the north, and the longest day in the year in the south.  Consequently, I don’t generally like to be ethnocentric about solstices, but this year I will make an exception and focus on the wintry side of things because we are in Christmastide, and Christmas makes more sense as a winter festival than as a summer one, even though I’ve celebrated them in both summer and winter.  Winter suits me better for Christmas. Likewise spring suits Easter much better than autumn.

Marking the solstice probably goes back to Neolithic times; certainly it was an important time in northern latitudes where crops were sown, and animals tended. Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland attest to this fact, as do Inca, Aztec, and Mayan sites. It is naïve in the extreme to think that “primitive” peoples were afraid every winter that the sun was dying and would never return unless certain magical rituals were performed. People are not that stupid. Did they also think the sun died every night? Of course not. Experience tells you it will rise again the next day. Likewise, “primitive” people knew about the cycle of the seasons. They built Stonehenge, and like monuments, not so much to worship the sun (although that may have been a component), but to predict its course year to year so that they could plan their annual activities accordingly.

The primary axes of both of ancient monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). It is significant that at Stonehenge the Great Trilithon was oriented outwards from the middle of the monument, that is, its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun. The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months”. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The bulk of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

Iranian people celebrate the night of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice as, “Yalda night”, which is known to be the “longest and darkest night of the year”. On this night all the family gather together, usually at the house of the oldest, and celebrate it by eating, drinking and reading poems (esp. Hafez). Nuts, pomegranates and watermelons are especially served during this festival.

The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a midwinter (winter solstice) holiday called Yule (also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót, midvinterblot, julofferfest) and also called the season or one of the winter months by the same name. Scandinavians still use a cognate of “Jul” for this time of year. In English, the word “Yule” is often used in combination with the season “yuletide” a usage first recorded in the 9th century. The Norse god associated with Jul was Jólner, which is one of Odin’s many names. The concept of Yule occurs in a tribute poem to Harold Hårfager from about 900, where “drinking Jul” is referred to. Julblot is the most important feast. At the “julblotet”, sacrifices were given to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming germinating crops.

Sol Invictus (“The Unconquered Sun”) was originally a Syrian god who was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under emperor Aurelian. He too was worshipped and feasted around the Midwinter solstice. What we have to be careful of is believing that Christmas evolved out of traditions such as Sol Invictus celebrations and the like.  It did not, even though in some cultures some Midwinter customs, such as decorating with holly and mistletoe, were transferred over. Christmas is a Christian tradition – end of story. The activities associated with Christmas in different cultures may have been picked up from Midwinter celebrations in general. That’s only natural. Is eating a big festive meal somehow a pagan tradition, or is it just something we all do on significant holidays?

I think making a chocolate Yule log is a merry thing to do today if you live in the northern hemisphere. I used to make one every year as part of my Christmas baking. I’ll confess that I usually cheated, but it was fun anyway. I would buy a chocolate Swiss roll and cut it and shape it so that it resembled a log with a branch coming off one side. Then I would slather it with a chocolate icing, mark the icing with a fork to resemble bark, let it dry a little, dust it with icing sugar for snow, and add a sprig of holly from the garden for decoration. It never lasted long in my house.

Jun 112017
 

Today is the birthday (1776) of John Constable, RA, renowned English painter of the Romantic era known principally for his landscape paintings of Dedham Vale, the area surrounding his home — now known as “Constable Country.” Constable was never financially successful and he did not become a member of the establishment until he was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of 52. However, his work was embraced in France, where he sold more works than in his native England and inspired both Romantics and early Impressionists.

Constable was born in East Bergholt, a village on the River Stour in Suffolk, to Golding and Ann (Watts) Constable. His father was a wealthy corn merchant, owner of Flatford Mill in East Bergholt and, later, Dedham Mill in Essex. Golding also owned a small ship, The Telegraph, which he moored at Mistley on the Stour estuary, and used to transport corn to London. After a brief period at a boarding school in Lavenham, Constable was enrolled in a day school in Dedham. Constable worked in the corn business after leaving school, but his younger brother Abram eventually took over the running of the mills.

In his youth, Constable went on sketching trips in the surrounding Suffolk and Essex countryside, which was to become the subject of major portion of his art. These scenes, in his own words, “made me a painter, and I am grateful”; “the sound of water escaping from mill dams etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things.” Later, while visiting relatives in Middlesex, he was introduced to the professional artist John Thomas Smith, who advised him on painting but also urged him to remain in his father’s business rather than take up art professionally.

In 1799, Constable persuaded his father to let him pursue a career in art, and Golding granted him a small allowance. Entering the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer, he attended life classes and anatomical dissections, and studied and copied old masters. In 1802 he refused the position of drawing master at Great Marlow Military College, a move which Benjamin West (then master of the RA) counseled would mean the end of his career. In that year, Constable wrote a letter to John Dunthorne in which he spelled out his determination to become a professional landscape painter:

For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking the truth at second hand… I have not endeavoured to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men…There is room enough for a natural painter. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth.

Constable’s usual subjects, scenes of ordinary daily life, were unfashionable in an age that looked for more romantic visions of wild landscapes and ruins. He made occasional trips further afield. By 1803, he was exhibiting paintings at the Royal Academy. In April he spent almost a month aboard the East Indiaman Coutts as it visited south-east ports while sailing from London to Deal before leaving for China. In 1806 he went on a two-month tour of the Lake District. He told his friend and biographer, Charles Leslie, that the solitude of the mountains oppressed his spirits, and Leslie wrote:

His nature was peculiarly social and could not feel satisfied with scenery, however grand in itself, that did not abound in human associations. He required villages, churches, farmhouses and cottages.

To make ends meet, Constable took up portraiture, which he found dull, though he executed many fine portraits. He also painted occasional religious pictures but, according to John Walker, “Constable’s incapacity as a religious painter cannot be overstated.”

Constable adopted a routine of spending winter in London and painting at East Bergholt in summer. In 1811 he first visited John Fisher and his family in Salisbury, a city whose cathedral and surrounding landscape were to inspire some of his greatest paintings.

From 1809, his childhood friendship with Maria Elizabeth Bicknell developed into a deep, mutual love. Their marriage in 1816 when Constable was 40 was opposed by Maria’s grandfather, Dr Rhudde, rector of East Bergholt. He considered the Constables his social inferiors and threatened Maria with disinheritance. Maria’s father, Charles Bicknell, solicitor to King George IV and the Admiralty, was reluctant to see Maria throw away her inheritance. Maria pointed out to John that a penniless marriage would detract from any chances he had of making a career in painting. Golding and Ann Constable, while approving the match, held out no prospect of supporting the marriage until Constable was financially secure. After they died in quick succession, Constable inherited a fifth share in the family business.

John and Maria’s marriage in October 1816 at St Martin-in-the-Fields (with Fisher officiating) was followed by time at Fisher’s vicarage and a honeymoon tour of the south coast. The sea at Weymouth and Brighton stimulated Constable to develop new techniques of brilliant color and strong brushwork. At the same time he put more overt and bold emotion into his art.

Although he had scraped an income from painting, it was not until 1819 that Constable sold his first important canvas, The White Horse, which led to a series of “six footers”, as he called his large-scale paintings. That year he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. In 1821 he showed The Hay Wain (a view from Flatford Mill) at the Academy’s exhibition. Théodore Géricault saw it on a visit to London and praised Constable in Paris, where a dealer, John Arrowsmith, bought four paintings, including The Hay Wain. It was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1824, winning a gold medal.

In his lifetime, Constable sold only 20 paintings in England, but in France he sold more than 20 in just a few years. Despite this, he refused all invitations to travel internationally to promote his work, writing to Francis Darby: “I would rather be a poor man [in England] than a rich man abroad.” In 1825, perhaps due partly to the worry of his wife’s ill-health, distaste of living in Brighton (“Piccadilly by the Seaside”), and the pressure of numerous outstanding commissions, he quarreled with Arrowsmith and lost his French outlet.

After the birth of their seventh child in January 1828, Maria fell ill and died of tuberculosis on 23 November at the age of 41. Intensely saddened, Constable wrote to his brother Golding, “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me.” Thereafter, he dressed in black and was, according to Leslie, “a prey to melancholy and anxious thoughts”. He cared for his seven children alone for the rest of his life. He was elected to the Royal Academy in February 1829, at the age of 52. In 1831 he was appointed Visitor at the Royal Academy, where he seems to have been popular with the students.

He began to deliver public lectures on the history of landscape painting, which were attended by distinguished audiences. In a series of lectures at the Royal Institution, Constable proposed a three-fold thesis: firstly, landscape painting is scientific as well as poetic; secondly, the imagination cannot alone produce art to bear comparison with reality; and thirdly, no great painter was ever self-taught. He also spoke against the new Gothic Revival movement, which he considered mere “imitation”.

He died on the night of 31 March 1837, apparently from heart failure, and was buried with Maria in the graveyard of St John-at-Hampstead, Hampstead. (His children John Charles Constable and Charles Golding Constable are also buried in this family tomb.)

Constable quietly rebelled against the artistic culture that taught artists to use their imagination to compose their pictures rather than nature itself. He told Leslie, “When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.” He was never satisfied with following a formula. “The world is wide”, he wrote, “no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other.”

Constable’s watercolors were also remarkably free for their time: the almost mystical Stonehenge, 1835, with its double rainbow, is often considered to be one of the greatest watercolors ever painted. When he exhibited it in 1836, Constable appended a text to the title: “The mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath, as much unconnected with the events of past ages as it is with the uses of the present, carries you back beyond all historical records into the obscurity of a totally unknown period.”

In addition to the full-scale oil sketches, Constable completed numerous observational studies of landscapes and clouds, determined to become more scientific in his recording of atmospheric conditions. The power of his physical effects was sometimes apparent even in the full-scale paintings which he exhibited in London; The Chain Pier, 1827, for example, prompted a critic to write: “the atmosphere possesses a characteristic humidity about it, that almost imparts the wish for an umbrella”.

Constable’s oil sketches were innovative in that he did them in oils directly from the subject in the open air. To convey the effects of light and movement, Constable used broken brushstrokes, often in small touches, which he scumbled (covered in a very thin layer of opaque paint) over lighter passages, creating an impression of sparkling light enveloping the entire landscape. One of the most expressionistic and powerful of all his studies is Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, painted about 1824 at Brighton, which captures with slashing dark brushstrokes the immediacy of an exploding cumulus shower at sea. Constable also became interested in painting rainbow effects, for example in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831, and in Cottage at East Bergholt, 1833.

To the sky studies he added notes, often on the back of the sketches, of the prevailing weather conditions, direction of light, and time of day, believing that the sky was “the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment” in a landscape painting. In this habit he is known to have been influenced by the pioneering work of the meteorologist Luke Howard on the classification of clouds; Constable’s annotations of his own copy of Researches About Atmospheric Phaenomena by Thomas Forster show him to have been fully abreast of meteorological terminology. “I have done a good deal of skying”, Constable wrote to Fisher on 23 October 1821; “I am determined to conquer all difficulties, and that most arduous one among the rest.”

Constable once wrote in a letter to Leslie, “My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge, and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up.”

East Anglian kitchels have been mentioned in English literature dating back to Chaucer. They can still be found easily in Suffolk or Essex. They are raisins, mixed peel, and almonds with spices sandwiched between layers of puff pastry. They are made by baking a single block and then cutting it into squares or rectangles so that the sides are open, not crimped.  I generally use commercial frozen puff pastry for convenience, but if you are a dab hand, make your own. I tend to use a lot more spice than standard recipes.  You choose how much you want, or select individual ingredients from my list at the bottom.

Suffolk Kitchels

Ingredients

3 oz butter
10 oz currants
4 oz chopped candied peel
4 oz coarsely ground almonds
3 tsp mixed spice (see below)
1lb puff pastry (thawed if frozen)
extra melted butter for glazing
caster sugar (optional)

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C

Melt the butter over low heat in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat and add the currants, peel, almonds and spice. Stir well with a wooden spoon so that everything is mixed thoroughly. Check seasonings. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Grease a large baking sheet very well.

Divide the pastry in 2 and roll out each half into equal rectangles. Place one half on the greased baking sheet and brush generously with melted butter.

Spread the fruit/nut mixture evenly over the pastry base, ensuring there is a margin around all four edges. Give the edges an extra brush of butter and carefully place the second rectangle of pastry on top. Crimp the edges and brush the top with melted butter. Score squares or rectangles (as you prefer) in the top with a sharp knife.

Bake for about 25 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Place the baking sheet on a wire rack, sprinkle with caster sugar if you wish, and allow to cool slightly. Cut away the crimped edges along the short sides , and use the score marks to cut the whole piece into squares (or rectangles).

Serve warm or cold.  I like a little whipped cream with them, but that’s probably a bit too indulgent, and is not traditional.

You’ll see “mixed spice” as an ingredient listed in English recipes for desserts. It’s analogous to “pumpkin pie spice” in the US in that you can buy it prepared.  I prefer to make my own, or, more commonly, add separate spices as I see fit.  If you want precise measurements, here you are.

Mixed Spice

1 tbsp ground allspice
1 tbsp  ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground nutmeg
2 tsp ground mace
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground ginger

Mix the spices together thoroughly and store in an air-tight container in the freezer.

Jun 202016
 

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The June solstice is the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the Winter Solstice  in the Southern Hemisphere. The date varies between June 20 and June 22, depending on the year, and which time zone you are in. The June Solstice this year (2016) in Universal Coordinated Time (UTC – formerly GMT) is on Monday, 20 June 2016 at 22:34 UTC, which is Monday, 20 June 2016, 23:34 BST in London, but on Tuesday, 21 June 2016 at 06:34 CST in Los Angeles. So when is it? The thing is that the exact time of the solstice is determined by the moment when the sun’s zenith is at its furthest point from the equator. On the June solstice, the sun reaches its northernmost point and the Earth’s North Pole tilts directly towards the sun, at about 23.4 degrees. It is also known as the northern solstice because it occurs when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere.

This means that, strictly speaking, the solstice is not really a day, but a moment in time. The day on which that moment in time occurs, however, is generally referred to as the solstice, and significant events take place on that day. Ancient cultures went to great lengths to calculate when solstices were to happen, especially the winter solstice. With days getting colder and nights getting longer, it’s comforting to know that things are going to turn around, and Spring is on its way. It’s a ridiculous modern chronocentrism (http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/chronocentrism/ ) to believe that we are oh-so-smart and know better, but primitive peoples in the distant past thought that the sun was dying every winter and that they had to light big bonfires and perform superstitious magic to bring it back. Hogwash. People really aren’t that stupid. When the same thing happens year after year, you kinda get the idea. The numerous monuments all over the world, aligned to solstices, make it clear that ancient peoples knew what they were doing and were skilled observers.

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Calculating an extremely precise moment for solstices (and equinoxes) is a function of modern astrophysics. I suspect that I am like most people who don’t really care when the exact point is, as long as I know roughly. When I lived in Buenos Aires my apartment had a great view of the setting sun, and because the sunsets were amazing, and different, every day, I got in the habit of photographing the sun every evening as it set. When you’ve done this for a year (and I did it for three – because I’m just a tad driven), you notice how days and nights lengthen and shorten, and how the position of the sun on the horizon shifts over the course of the year.

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Naturally, around the solstices you are aware that the sun’s apparent movement along the horizon is changing direction. It’s not a blink-of-the-eye moment; it takes several days to notice. But it’s evident over time. It’s good if you have a specialist to tell you exactly when the change occurs, otherwise you end up saying “Oh, the sun is heading back in the other direction – damn, I missed the turning point !” It’s much better to be able to have a party right when the change is happening. Here’s a decent video explaining solstices and other stuff if you are interested. There’s a lot more here than just explaining the seasons https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82p-DYgGFjI

When it comes to dating my blog posts I have several challenges. When does the June solstice occur this year, for example? In Italy, where I am now, it is today (20 June), but in California it is tomorrow by their reckoning. Sorry Californians – I’m going with where I am now. I liken this to figuring out when my birthday is (and when other people’s birthdays are). I was born at 9 pm on 30 March in Argentina. Obviously I don’t celebrate at exactly 9 pm Buenos Aires time; that’s going a bit far, even for me. If I were to, though, I’d have to figure out when it is 9 pm in Buenos Aires according to my current time zone. I am not that nuts. I celebrate my birthday from midnight to midnight where I am (and I try to wish people a happy birthday when it is the day of their birthday where they are). With blog posting, things are not quite so simple.

My server is set to UTC, so it changes from one day to the next at midnight UTC.  Here in Italy that is not a big problem because my local time (which is summer time) is only 2 hours ahead of UTC, so what I think the date and time are locally, is not so different from what my server thinks it is (not that my server does a lot of thinking).  When I was in Argentina and China it was a whole different story. What date my server thinks it is makes a difference to me because my posts are date stamped. If I want to say “today is . . . blah blah,” I have to synchronize with my server so that the date stamp is correct. That meant that when I was in Argentina I had to get the day’s post finished and up before 8 pm or it was stamped on the wrong date, and in Kunming, I could dither around until 7 am and still get a post up for the day before. I’ll be in real trouble if I ever move to Alaska. Fortunately that’s unlikely to happen in this lifetime.

I crossed the International Date Line by ship from west to east in 1965 on the way from Australia to England. That was a trifle surreal. You’re sitting down to dinner on Wednesday night, go to bed, and then next morning it’s Wednesday again. Time zones, the Date Line, Summer Time, etc. are all human artifacts that are important in the global age, but they can mess you up. I tend to be happiest when I can organize my life by the sun, and not by clocks. My body tells me what I need to know. I can’t remember the last time I woke to an alarm clock. If I have something urgent to do, such as catching a plane, I’ll set an alarm to be sure. But I always wake before it goes off. When light fades I go to bed, and when dawn breaks I am up.

Solstices are of marginal interest to me. They do mark the passage of the seasons, and that’s important, but I don’t do much to celebrate them. I get the feeling that a lot of “sun worshippers” at Stonehenge and the like, are ordinary folks trying to invest their humdrum mechanized, modern lives with some kind of meaning beyond clock watching and the daily grind.  More power to them. If you want an excuse for a party, go for it, but don’t expect me to be there. I answer to my own rhythms these days, and they don’t generally involve hanging out with other people.

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As it happens, Queen Victoria succeeded to the British crown on this date in 1837. William IV died at the age of 71 in the early hours of the morning. Victoria wrote in her diary, “I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen.” Official documents prepared on the first day of her reign described her as Alexandrina Victoria, but the first name was withdrawn at her own wish and not used again. She had just turned 18, which meant that a regency could be avoided, but was young and inexperienced in government and had to grow into the role. This she did over her 63 year reign, the longest in British history until Elizabeth II surpassed her in 2015.

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My mum always made apple Charlotte on Sundays to replace the usual apple crumble for the winter months. It’s a good treat for this time of year. If you make it with wild berries or a mix of berries and apples, which I usually do, it’s called Summer Pudding. Either will do for a celebration today. Here is Mrs Beeton first to combine solstice festivities with the Victorian:

A VERY SIMPLE APPLE CHARLOTTE.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—9 slices of bread and butter, about 6 good-sized apples, 1 tablespoonful of minced lemon-peel, 2 tablespoonfuls of juice, moist sugar to taste.

Mode.—Butter a pie-dish; place a layer of bread and butter, without the crust, at the bottom; then a layer of apples, pared, cored, and cut into thin slices; sprinkle over these a portion of the lemon-peel and juice, and sweeten with moist sugar. Place another layer of bread and butter, and then one of apples, proceeding in this manner until the dish is full; then cover it up with the peel of the apples, to preserve the top from browning or burning; bake in a brisk oven for rather more than 3/4 hour; turn the charlotte on a dish, sprinkle sifted sugar over, and serve.

Time.—3/4 hour. Average cost, 9d.

Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons.

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This is not quite the way my mum did it, nor I. I completely line a buttered pudding basin with bread, fill it with apple slices (or berries), top with a lid of bread, then bake in a 300°F oven for 45 minutes. I used to add sugar to the apples, but I don’t any more because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, and I try to minimize sugar intake. Use white sugar if you do.

Mar 122016
 

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Today is the birthday of John Aubrey FRS, English antiquary, natural philosopher, and writer. He is probably best known (if known at all) as the author of Brief Lives, his collection of short, occasionally humorous or racy, biographical pieces. He was a pioneer archaeologist, who recorded (often for the first time) numerous megalithic and other field monuments in southern England, and who is particularly noted as the discoverer of the Avebury monument. The Aubrey holes at Stonehenge are named after him, although there is considerable doubt as to whether the holes that he observed are those that currently bear the name. He was also a pioneer folklorist, collecting together a miscellany of material on customs, traditions and beliefs under the title “Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme”. He set out to compile county histories of both Wiltshire and Surrey, although both projects remained unfinished. His “Interpretation of Villare Anglicanum” (also unfinished) was the first attempt to compile a full-length study of English place-names. He had wider interests in applied mathematics and astronomy, and was friendly with many of the greatest scientists of the day.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, thanks largely to the popularity of Brief Lives, Aubrey was regarded as little more than an entertaining but quirky, eccentric and credulous gossip. Only in the 1970s did the full breadth and innovation of his scholarship begin to be more widely appreciated. He published little in his lifetime, and many of his most important manuscripts (for the most part preserved in the Bodleian Library http://www.bookofdaystales.com/bodleian-library/ ) remain unpublished, or published only in partial and badly edited form.

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In 1967, English director Patrick Garland created a one-man show, “Brief Lives”, based on Aubrey’s biographies. It starred Roy Dotrice and became the most successful one-man production ever produced, with Dotrice giving over 1800 performances over 40 years on both sides of the Atlantic. Aubrey scholars, have sometimes seen the production as over-emphasizing Aubrey’s eccentricities and lack of organization, to the detriment of a wider appreciation of his contributions to scholarship. This may be fair comment, but only partially. I saw the production in Oxford in 1973 and thoroughly enjoyed its portrayal of the man. After all, Aubrey’s work was generally unsystematic and quirky. Nonetheless his breadth of knowledge and insight come through.

Aubrey was born at Easton Piers or Percy, near Kington St Michael, Wiltshire, to a long-established and affluent gentry family with roots in the Welsh Marches. Richard Aubrey, his father, owned lands in Wiltshire and Herefordshire. For many years Aubrey was educated at home with a private tutor, and preferred reading in solitude, mostly because his father was far from intellectual, preferring hunting 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 been Thomas Hobbes’ teacher and whom Aubrey met later) He then studied at the grammar school at Blandford Forum, Dorset.

John Aubrey

He entered Trinity College, Oxford, 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 Temple. He made a great many friends at Oxford and began collecting an extensive library. He also spent much of his time in the country, and in 1649 he first discovered the megalithic remains at Avebury, which he later mapped and discussed in Monumenta Britannica, and showed 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, that ultimately impoverished him. He was, however, able to survive courtesy of the generosity of his numerous friends.

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Aubrey was 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 17th-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 1659 he was recruited to contribute to a collaborative county history of Wiltshire, leading to his unfinished collections on the antiquities and the natural history of the county. His erstwhile friend and fellow-antiquary 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.

Aubrey died of an apoplexy, probably a stroke, while traveling, in June 1697, and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen, Oxford.

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Aubrey simply wrote what he had seen, or heard. When transcribing hearsay, he displays a careful approach to the ascription of sources. For example, in his life of Thomas Chaloner he recorded an inaccurate and bawdy anecdote about Chaloner’s death, but subsequently found it to be in fact about James Chaloner. Aubrey let the initial story stand in his text, while highlighting the error in a marginal note. A number of similar occurrences suggest that he 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.

Here’s a few quotes that give a small idea of how he wrote:

Sir Walter, being strangely surprised and put out of his countenance at so great a table, gives his son a damned blow over the face. His son, as rude as he was, would not strike his father, but strikes over the face the gentleman that sat next to him and said, “Box about: twill come to my father anon.”

Arise Evans had a fungous nose, and said, it was revealed to him, that the King’s hand would cure him, and at the first coming of King Charles II into St. James’s Park, he kissed the King’s hand, and rubbed his nose with it; which disturbed the King, but cured him.

If Solomon counts the day of one’s death better than the day of one’s birth, there can be no objection why that also may not be reckoned amongst one’s remarkable and happy days.

Mr. William Shakespeare was born at Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwick. His father was a butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbors, that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s trade, but when he killed a calf he would do it in a high style and make a speech.

This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.

Aubrey was very fond of collecting recipes for home cures, and was acquainted with a number of authors of recipe books, both medicinal and culinary. He was a friend of Sir Kenelm Digby’s son who gave publishers access to his father’s papers which resulted in The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened (1669), which I have quoted before in my posts on 17th century figures.

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Here’s a section I am playing with now as I write:

A FRICACEE OF LAMB-STONES, OR SWEET-BREADS, OR CHICKEN, OR VEAL, OR MUTTON

Boil the meat in little pieces (if Chicken, flead and beaten) in the Pan with a pint of fair-water, with due seasoning. When it is very tender, put some Butter to it, and pour upon it a Liquor made of four yolks of Eggs beaten with a little white wine and some Verjuyce; and keep this in motion over the fire, till it be sufficiently thickened. Then pour it into a warm dish, and squeese some juyce of Orange upon it, and so serve it up. If you would have the meat first made brown and Rissolé, fry it first with Butter, till it be brown on the outside; then pour out all the Butter, and put water to it, in which boil it, and do all as before. If you like Onions or Garlike, you may put some to the water. Fresh broth may be used (both ways) instead of water, and maketh it more Savoury.

A NOURISHING HACHY

Take good Gravy of Mutton or Veal, or of both, with the fat clean skimmed off. Break into it a couple of new-laid Eggs, and stir them in it over a Chafing-dish of Coals; in the mean time, mingle some small cut juycy hashy of Rabet, Capon or Mutton with another parcel of like Gravy as above, till it be pretty thin. Then put this to the other upon the fire, and stir them well with a spoon, whiles they heat. When all is heated through, it will quicken of a sudden. You may put in at first a little chipping of crusty bread, if you will. Season this with white Pepper, Salt, juyce of Orange or Verjuyce, of Berberies, or Onion, or what you like best.

A pint of Gravy (or less) four or five spoonfulls of hashy, and two Eggs, is a convenient proportion for a light Supper.

Such Gravy, with an Onion split in two, lying in it, whiles it is heating, and a little Pepper and Salt, and juyce of Limon or Orange, and a few Chippings of light-bread, is very good Sauce for Partridges or Cocks.

The Nourishing Hachy is what catches my eye. I have some rabbit and lamb on the hob at present, and will make the sauce in a while. It looks rather like an allemande sauce which I have made a number of times in the past, and enjoy. Allemande sauce is based on velouté sauce, but thickened with egg yolks and heavy cream, and seasoned with lemon juice. Velouté is one of the five mother sauces of classic French cuisine as defined by Antoine Carême in The Art of French Cooking in the 19th century. Escoffier worked on sauce allemande in the early 20th century and renamed it sauce blonde. It is generally known today as sauce Parisienne. I’ll dispense with the cream and just make the sauce with thickened lamb broth, egg yolks, and the seasonings mentioned. Here’s my initial process – lamb in one pot, rabbit in another. “Hachy” is “hash” – so I’ll strip some meat from each and use the Allemande sauce with additional garlic and onions.

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The finished product 2 hours later:

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