Antiquarianism and history have always been closely related, not least because they are both disciplines primarily concerned with the study of the past. Historians, however, do not generally use the word 'antiquarian' in a positive sense. If a book is described as 'antiquarian' the implication is that its focus is narrow; that it is full of detail; but that it fails to see the 'big picture'. Antiquarian scholarship may be meticulously researched, but there is often an assumption that the subject matter is recondite, of little interest to anyone except the specialist, and that in the midst of empirical detail, the argument is lost. History, by contrast, seeks to analyse, understand and explain; it is interested in ideas as much as artefacts, and considers the general as well as a specific. It is an interpretation of the past rather than a simple record of factual observations.
There is a long history to this rather negative view of antiquarianism and its relationship to history. Even in the 17th century the figure of the antiquary was caricatured as
a man strangely thrifty of Time past, and an enemy indeed to this maw, whence he fetches out many things when they are now all rotten and stinking. Hee is one that hath that unnaturall disease to bee enamour'd of old age and wrinckles, and loves all things (as Dutchmen doe Cheese) the better for being mouldy and worme-eaten.(1)
This image of the antiquarian suggests an unhealthy, pathological obsession with the past, which values objects indiscriminately because of their age and their state of decay, rather than because of their meaning or significance.
Earle's caricature is cruelly witty, but offers little insight into what antiquarians have done in the past or what they do now. Given the negative associations of the word 'antiquarian' it is hardly surprising that few people today define themselves primarily as such. There is, however, a large and flourishing Society of Antiquaries (founded 1707) which has a current membership of over 2,300. There are also numerous regional and local societies which bear the word 'antiquarian' in their title, such as the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, the Halifax Antiquarian Society, the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society or the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia. The membership of the Society of Antiquaries of London includes archaeologists, art historians, architectural historians, historians specialising in any period from ancient history to the 20th century, archivists, and professionals involved in heritage and conservation. The majority, however, are concerned with some aspect of the material remains of the past, whether through archaeology, works of art, manuscripts and books, or the built environment. Archaeologists are by the far the largest single group in the Society of Antiquaries, and although the recent exhibition celebrating the Society of Antiquaries' history was called 'Making History', there was an undeniable emphasis upon the contribution of the Society and its membership to the development of archaeology as a profession and a discipline.(2) Thus the antiquarians of today are still associated with an object-oriented approach to the past, and with the excavation and preservation of its material remains.
What then has antiquarianism had to offer the discipline of history, as opposed to the development of modern archaeology? Traditionally, it was seen as the 'handmaid' to history, providing the raw materials from which a historical narrative might be constructed, and verifying the events of history with corroborative material derived from the evidence of, for example, coins and inscriptions.(3) But this understanding of the nature of the relationship between antiquarianism and history was articulated at a time when the writing of history was essentially a literary exercise, rather than a work of research as we would understand it today. The historian strove to write a narrative that was both elegant in tone and edifying in content. The purpose of writing history was to provide a guide to action for the present. The antiquarian was simply concerned with the recovery of the empirical detail of the past.
The densely referenced monograph of today, however, which is based upon detailed archival research and carefully avoids the teleology implicit in so much historical writing of the past, has more in common with the antiquarian scholarship of earlier periods than with much of what was regarded as true historical writing. Antiquarians prided themselves upon avoiding conjecture, fancy, distortion and exaggeration. Whilst historians might write for polemical purposes, to prove a political or moral point, the antiquarian presented the facts simply as they happened. Historians might try to force the events of the past into some preconceived agenda but the antiquarian was studiously neutral. As one antiquarian, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, pithily expressed it, 'We speak from facts not theory'.(4) In their emphasis upon rigorous empirical observation and comparative analysis, the antiquarians of the past borrowed much of the language of scientific experimentation: they compared their own labours to that of the scientist in a laboratory. They were proud to claim that antiquarianism was a science, based upon scrupulous observation and attention to detail.
The importance of careful empirical research, whether documentary or archaeological, fed into mainstream history in the 19th century. Historians such as William Stubbs, who founded the chair in constitutional history at the University of Oxford, used profoundly 'antiquarian' methods and sources in their research. Similarly, the demand of Leopold von Ranke that historians should seek to establish 'wie es eigentlich gewesen war' through thorough and detailed archival research has a clear resonance with the ethos of antiquarian scholarship expressed by the 18th-century antiquarian, Richard Gough: 'The arrangement and the proper use of facts', he wrote, 'is history'.(5)
In our post-modern age historians have less confidence in their ability to 'recover' the past with empirical certainty, but it is still possible to trace the influence of antiquarian thinking and methodology upon the historical discipline.(6) For example, although historians from a social science background may not be accustomed to think of themselves as 'antiquarian' in spirit, they are perhaps as close as anyone today in the historical profession to the antiquarians of the past. They collect evidence methodically; they use comparative analysis; they often (but not invariably) believe that their data reflects the objective reality of the past; and like antiquarians of the past, they define their discipline as a 'science'. In earlier periods, critics, poured scorn on antiquarians because they were interested in the most humdrum remains of the material past: a rusty stirrup, fragments of clothing, medical recipes or children's toys. Such items, antiquarians believed, shed light on the 'manners and customs' of the past. Today we can recognise this early interest in the customs, habits and dress of 'ordinary' people as one of the foundation stones of social history.
The legacy of antiquarianism also lives on in the field of family history. Genealogical studies were always a key element of antiquarian research and were crucial in establishing legal rights to property in cases of disputed inheritance or in demonstrating the antiquity of one's family lineage, at a time when social status was much more dependent on birth and ownership of land. Family historians today owe a debt of gratitude to the researches of earlier antiquarians and share much of their methodology and their sources. But the family historian is not the modern equivalent of the 18th- or 19th-century antiquarian. Rather, they are generally motivated by the desire to discover something about where their family came from. The need to establish the rights of inheritance to property or the antiquity of one's family has lost the pressing urgency which originally gave rise to this branch of study.
Similarly, antiquarianism has always had strong links with the study of local history. Some of the earliest antiquaries were topographers such as John Leland or William Camden who realised that the landscape could offer important clues about the history of the people who had once inhabited that place. The first attempts to trace Roman roads, to describe stone circles, or to identify iron age forts were made by antiquarians. Moreover, antiquarians have always appreciated the importance of the local study for illustrating the impact of historical change upon individuals and communities. The pursuit of 'histoire totale' exemplified by the Annales school shares the same all-encompassing vision of the past that antiquarians sought to recover in earlier periods. Similarly, the interdisciplinarity which is one of the defining strengths of English local history, as practised at the University of Leicester for example, is the modern counterpart to the intellectual diversity practised by antiquarians of the past.
Professor Rosemary Sweet is the Director of the Centre for Urban History at Leicester