Tabloid tales from the 17th century

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Facts and Fables: John Aubrey. Radio 3. Sunday, June 1. Age range: 14-plus

Living history as a means of understanding our past and ultimately explaining our present is used in many retrospective studies of the 20th century. No contemporary history series seems to be complete without the talking-head format of those who have been there, done that and emerge with a story to tell on the way we were.

Back in the middle of the 17th century, John Aubrey had much the same idea. At a time when his peers thought all historical scholarship began and ended with a sheet of vellum, Aubrey was out in the fields of his native Wiltshire, listening to life stories and village gossip. He believed, said one of the historians in this gem of a programme, "that real wisdom could come from the mouths of ordinary people".

His view of the past took into account types of evidence which no one had seen as appropriate. He found meaning in the warp and weft of everyday life, the superstitions (there are several highly recommended spells for thrush, toothache and how to get rid of a dog that bites); traditional crafts, folklore and the minutiae of social intercourse in rural communities.

His observations were meticulous: "the indigeni (of north Wiltshire) are respectively witty or dull, good or bad," he wrote. "They speak drawlingItheir skins are pale and lividIThey feed chiefly on milk mead which cools their brains too much and hurts their inventions."

He goes on to establish that their predeliction for melancholy and malice meant that they were more likely to find themselves in a court of law than folk elsewhere. The programme discovered that today's Wiltshire man, somewhat surprisingly, felt the description was still spot on.

Aubrey viewed the arrival of gunpowder and printing presses with equal horror. The latter, he lamented "has frighted away Robin Goodfellow and the fairies". Magic and myth had been hitherto firmly entrenched in rural tradition and at this time began to totter on the brink of a new era of scepticism and a more scientific approach to life.

But Aubrey was more than a tabloid hack-in-waiting, he was also a pioneer field archaeologist. He had been a visitor to Stonehenge from his childhood and was the first to establish its origins were Druidic rather than Roman. And while on a hunting trip outside Avebury, he unearthed its own prehistoric monument, which he saved from imminent ruin by alerting the King to its existence.

Aubrey died 300 years ago tomorrow and yet his absorbing fascination for the past is as vivid now as it was then. Radio 3 is to be congratulated for this lively exhumation, which revealed the fabric of 17th-century village life in all its fabulous detail.

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