Mar 122016


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his lifetime, and many of his most important manuscripts (for the most part preserved in the Bodleian Library ) remain unpublished, or published only in partial and badly edited form.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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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