James Ussher, primate of Ireland, was one of the most celebrated intellectuals of the 17th century, whose views were taken seriously in nooks and crannies of the Anglican church until T. H. Huxley demolished biblical literalists in 1860. Ussher's abiding fame was his computation of an Old Testament chronology which he published in 1658. Ussher was able to announce to a credulous world that the creation "fell upon the entrance of the night preceeding the 23rd of October (4004 bc)". Then there was Charles Leigh, the Lancashire man, who in 1700 published the view that the Phoenicians had colonised Lancashire where they established their capital at Preston.
Writing with clarity and wit, Parry offers case studies of many intellectual leaders of the Stuart age. He has, however, no illusions. He sees how arcane and abstruse these intense men could be, aptly describing the endeavours of some of as "the spinning of cobwebs over the furniture of the past". However the achievement of this book is to furnish sumptuously what has been hitherto the rather bleak and empty chamber of humane studies of early modern Britain.
Parry shows how so much that is still central to a liberal studies curriculum has its roots in the antiquarian movement, which began with the publication of William Camden's Britannia in 1585. What could have been more vital to the constitutional issues of the 17th century than the opposed views of John Selden and Sir Henry Spelman on the origins of law? For Selden, the common law was there before the king, for Spelman, kingship was superior to the evolution of law.
Stuart antiquarians offered the first serious attempts at archaeological field work, the earliest, faltering descriptions of architectural styles, the beginnings of an awareness of the importance of oral culture and the collection of folklore, an appreciation of the heritage of medieval literature and the discovery that there was such a thing as early Britain. Such intellectual ambition suggests that what the 19th century achieved for the evolution of the new sciences, the 17th had done for the arts.
The Trophies of Time will establish itself as the authoritative account of the antiquarian movement. Now it is to be hoped that this study will inspire a consideration of how this great heap of books became missiles in the titanic political battles of the age.
David Howarth is senior lecturer in fine art, University of Edinburgh.
The Trophies of Time
Author - Graham Parry
ISBN - 0 19 812962 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 382