Dec 132018

On this date in 1640 Robert Plot FRS was baptized. His date of birth is not recorded. He was an English naturalist, first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, and the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. He also holds the unique distinction of being the only seventeenth century English scientist who was wrong about absolutely every theory he proposed. I happen to know about him because he wrote about a strange English traditional custom, and his description is the oldest description of English traditional dance we have.

Plot was born in Borden in Kent and educated at the Wye Free School. He entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford in 1658 where he received his BA in 1661 and an MA in 1664. He subsequently taught and served as dean and vice principal at Magdalen Hall while preparing for his BCL and DCL, which he received in 1671 before moving to University College in 1676. By this time, Plot had already developed an interest in the systematic study of natural history and antiquities. In June 1674, with patronage from John Fell, the bishop of Oxford, and Ralph Bathhurst, vice-chancellor of the university, Plot began studying and collecting artefacts throughout the nearby countryside, publishing his findings three years later in The Natural History of Oxford-shire. In this work, he described and illustrated various rocks, minerals and fossils, including the first known illustration of a dinosaur bone which he attributed to a giant (later recognized as the femur of a Megalosaurus), but believed that most fossils were not remains of living organisms but rather crystallizations of mineral salts with a coincidental zoological form.

The favorable reception of his findings not only earned him the nickname of the “learned Dr. Plot,” but also led to his election into the Royal Society of London on 6th December 1677, where he served as the society’s secretary and joint editor of the Philosophical Transactions (144–178) from 1682 through 1684. Another consequence of his success was his appointment as the first keeper of the newly established Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1683, as well as his simultaneous appointment as the first professor of chemistry in the new well-equipped laboratory housed within the museum.

In the field of chemistry he searched for a universal solvent that could be obtained from wine spirits, and believed that alchemy was necessary for medicine. In 1684, Plot published De origine fontium, a treatise on the source of springs, which he attributed to underground channels originating from the sea. Plot shifted his focus towards archaeology in the 1686 publication of his second book, The Natural History of Staffordshire, but misinterpreted Roman remains as Saxon. He also describes a double sunset viewable from Leek, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, and, for the first time, the Polish swan, a pale morph of the Mute swan.

Here is his description of the horn dance:

  1. At Abbots, or now rather Pagets Bromley, they had al∣so within memory, a sort of sport, which they celebrated at Christmas (on New-year, and Twelft-day) call’d the Hobby-horse dance, from a person that carryed the image of a horse between his leggs, made of thin boards, and in his hand a bow and arrow, which passing through a hole in the bow, and stopping upon a sholder it had in it, he made a snapping noise as he drew it to and fro, keeping time with the Musick: with this Man danced 6 others, carrying on their shoulders as many Rain deers heads, 3 of them painted white, and 3 red, with the Armes of the cheif families (viz. of Paget, Bagot, and Wells) to whom the revenews of the Town cheifly belonged, depicted on the palms of them, with which they danced the Hays, and other Country dances. To this Hobby-horse dance there also belong’d a pot, which was kept by turnes, by 4 or 5 of the cheif of the Town, whom they call’d Reeves, who provided Cakes and Ale to put in this pot; all people who had any kindness for the good in∣tent of the Institution of the sport, giving pence a piece for themselves and families; and so forraigners too, that came to see it: with which Mony (the charge of the Cakes and Ale be∣ing defrayed) they not only repaired their Church but kept their poore too: which charges are not now perhaps so cheer∣fully boarn.

There is no telling how accurate this description is, but it is unusually detailed for the era. You can find more on the dance in this post: