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History in the Making
A New Antiquarianism

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A New Antiquarianism

Perhaps because of the constant writing and rewriting of the past, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a new and passionate interest in historical research. Several gentlemen and scholars became antiquarians, intent on collecting and preserving the traces of the past in manuscripts, coins, relics or ruins. In 1586, the College of Antiquaries was formed in London. Among its numbers were such luminaries as the London historian John Stow, who wrote a celebrated Survey of London, piling up amazing detail about the capital’s buildings and history; William Camden, who had particular interests in England’s Roman legacy, producing the massive tome Britannia [1586]; William Dugdale’s interest focused on his native county of Warwickshire and produced the beautiful volume The antiquities of Warwickshire illustrated [1656]. The antiquarians provided British readers with different possibilities for their past. Were they descended not from Brutus but from the Picts, Angles, Saxons, Danes, or Normans? What was Britain’s relationship with ancient Rome? In 1612, John Speed published a history that told Britain’s story through a series of invasions: The history of Great Britaine under the conquests of the Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans.


Among the side-effects of this new antiquarianism was the birth of Anglo-Saxon culture as an object of study. From the 1560s onwards, there was a concerted campaign to present to the world documents from England’s Anglo-Saxon period. For lawyers such as William Lambard, this was part of an attempt to find early sources for English law. Most importantly, though, it appealed to churchmen like Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury, and Protestant historians such as John Foxe, who were furthering John Bale’s researches into England's church. Texts such as the Gospels in Anglo-Saxon, according to Foxe, showed that “religion presently … is no new reformation of things … but rather a reduction

of the Church to the Pristine state of old conformity.”


Archaionomia. London, 1568

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