Time’s Witness: History in the Age of Romanticism by Rosemary Hill - review by Sarah Watling

Sarah Watling

Relics, Ruins & Worm-eaten Things

Time’s Witness: History in the Age of Romanticism


Allen Lane 416pp £25

In August 1815, only weeks after the French defeat at Waterloo, the novelist Walter Scott set out to visit the battlefield. Standing on the spot from where Napoleon had supposedly watched the battle, Scott experienced ‘a deep and inexpressible feeling of awe’, before being besieged by hawkers. He came away with a number of mementos, including the skull of a Life Guardsman. Then he went home and wrote The Antiquary, a novel in which, Rosemary Hill observes, ‘the idea of a lived relationship between past and present, enacted through artefacts, emerges for the first time as a theme in literature’. It was also the ‘first self-portrait’ of an antiquary in British literature.

We still tend to dismiss the antiquary as the kind of uninspired collector of information embodied by George Eliot’s ossified Casaubon. To the gentlemen historians of the Enlightenment, they were tasteless provincial nobodies (in other words, they lacked the means for a grand tour), whose interest in the material remains of the past ranged from the dull to the downright insanitary. To the 19th-century professionals who succeeded them, they were an amateurish embarrassment, whose contributions to knowledge were rarely acknowledged, even (or especially) when they provided the basis for later work. In Time’s Witness, a history of history in the Romantic age, Hill launches a rehabilitation. Taking her ‘impetus’ from Hugh Trevor-Roper’s implication in ‘The Romantic Movement and the Study of History’ that the development of the discipline fell into abeyance between the towering figures of the 18th century (Hume, Gibbon, Robertson) and the 19th (Macaulay, Michelet, Ranke), she contends that the study of the past during those years was stewarded by exactly these much-maligned endeavourers.

The best antiquaries, Hill shows, were learned, energetic and imaginative men (and they were mostly men, though she gives space to a few women), able to marshal masses of information in ways that for the first time illuminated swaths of the past. Between them, they were responsible for an incredible expansion in what was allowed to count as history, in terms of both source material and subject matter. Crucially, they turned the past into a topic of popular interest and even investment.

The boundary between ‘historian’ and ‘antiquary’ was always somewhat porous and often related to class. Generally, antiquaries of this period fell ‘somewhere between the artisan classes and the lower ranks of the gentry’; many were Catholic and barred from public office. Significantly, historians confined themselves to the study of written records, while antiquaries ranged about through architecture, manuscripts, imagery and any physical artefact they could get their hands on. They operated ‘through independent societies and informal networks of collaboration’. They weren’t picky about intellectual turf: if a science like botany or geology could help them to understand the past, they applied it. They ventured into areas previously deemed unworthy of study, reclaiming the Middle Ages and national histories. Rather than concerning themselves with the machinations of great men, they sought to establish how people had lived, what they had worn, what stories they’d told and what games they’d played. Thus, for instance, the work of Joseph Strutt, an engraver and son of a miller, who wrote the ‘first detailed and properly referenced history of dress in English’, which he followed with a study of medieval sports and pastimes, both drawn from visual sources. Or that of the irascible Joseph Ritson, who compiled the first ‘and still the fullest’ collection of Robin Hood tales.

If these things were worth studying, it followed that they were worth preserving as well. Antiquaries fought heroic battles against the Georgian tendency for the blithe ‘improvement’ of Gothic buildings, beginning in 1789 with the partial rescue of Salisbury Cathedral. It is to them that we owe the survival of the Bayeux Tapestry and the first publication of Beowulf.

Front and centre in the popularising of history was, of course, Walter Scott. He was one of thousands who made the journey to Waterloo, a place immediately imbued with historical significance, to sightsee and pick up relics in the years after the allies’ victory. That so many did this is indicative of the ‘shift in sensibility’ central to Time’s Witness, which began with the French Revolution and in which writers like Scott played a fundamental part.

Romanticism provided both the ‘underlying driving force and the all-embracing context’ in which this antiquarian heyday ‘flourished’: the relationship between the two was so important that Hill calls her subject ‘Romantic antiquarianism’. The Romantics and the antiquaries were drawn to forgotten and overlooked things: the derelict and the marginalised; untamed places and languages. Here, too, new interchange blossomed. Strutt’s work influenced new approaches to theatre, while four years after the Battle of Waterloo, Scott achieved his ‘greatest success to date’ with Ivanhoe, the first of his novels to be set entirely in medieval England, drawing on his own antiquarian work and that of others. (As ever, the past proved political. Time’s Witness is revelatory on the implications of the French Revolution for approaches to history and fascinating on Scott’s role in forging Scotland’s sense of itself after union with England.)

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If today’s historians aim to marry readability with provability, they owe much to Romantic antiquaries’ attempt to apply Coleridge’s ‘union of deep feeling with profound thought’ to historical enquiry; to go beyond reason as sufficient for explaining human life. As Hill puts it, this meant ‘empiricism on the one hand’ and ‘sensitivity and imagination in order to understand history in human terms’ on the other. The attention to detail deemed pedantic and trifling by some brought a lasting emphasis on using primary sources and on citing them. And one of the great legacies of Romantic antiquarianism was that the past became a foreign country: a place peopled with recognisable humans rather than the alien, irrelevant world it had been. Or, as Carlyle put it, ‘we look into a pair of eyes deep as our own.’

Although they were rigorous in some ways, the openness of Romantic antiquaries can look sloppy by today’s standards. In the new fashion for the antique, mood and appearance – emotional truth – were acceptable in place of authenticity. The fruitful cross-fertilisation between historical research and the arts, and the intense identification with the past, sometimes blurred boundaries. Imagination could go too far.

At the ‘midway point’ along a range of writers with differing approaches stands Scott himself. His enormous popularity, Hill writes, derived in part from his ability to meet the imaginative demands of the Romantic age. Novels like Ivanhoe, rooted in serious scholarship, were also exercises in ‘filling in the gaps in history, rebuilding the ruins and colouring in the background detail’, creating compositions ‘whose truth is aesthetic rather than literal’.

At its limits the scale tipped towards charlatanism, though Hill is sympathetic to the Allen brothers, better known as the Sobieski Stuarts, who posed as Jacobite heirs to the throne and are responsible for the popular misconception that Scottish clans historically had their own individual tartans – which arose because they forged a ‘seventeenth-century history’ saying so. (They didn’t dare publish it until after the death of Scott, who had seen right through the brothers and their manuscript.) That they convinced so many people seems to have been down as much to the fact that they looked the part as to their genuinely high-quality research. ‘They always wore the Highland dress,’ one acquaintance recalled, ‘and looked melancholy and spoke at times mysteriously’.

In the best Romantic tradition, Hill chooses to focus on antiquaries for whom sufficient correspondence survives to allow her to build up pictures of distinct individuals: real people, with real passions, foibles, squabbles and triumphs. The canvas is appropriately large, and one sometimes has to pay close attention to navigate the jumps in chronology. Also in the best Romantic antiquarian tradition, the book is an engaging and densely detailed scholarly tome that reads a bit like a love letter, or at least an expression of infectious intellectual enthusiasm.

Throughout Time’s Witness, ‘history’ becomes visible as a succession of ideas and theories about the past that are continuously overlaid and revised in an ongoing process of exchange and accumulation. As Hill notes, antiquaries helped establish standards that, when developed into specialisation and professionalisation, sowed the seeds for their renewed marginalisation. But at the root of their flexibility in matters of authenticity, she argues, was a knowing understanding of our tendency to see in history exactly what we’re looking for. ‘In recognizing the place of imagination and subjectivity in the study of the past,’ she shrewdly observes, ‘the antiquaries of the Romantic age were perhaps more realistic than some of their successors.’

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