Unhinging the Past: Joseph Strutt and the Antiquarian Poetics of the Piece

Unhinging the Past: Joseph Strutt and the Antiquarian Poetics of the Piece

Ina Ferris
University of Ottawa

1.        In Aleida Assmann's succinct definition, cultures are "systematic and highly elaborate strategies against the primary experience of ongoing decay and general oblivion" (43). Her model derives primarily if not exclusively from work on modern cultural memory focused on twentieth-century Europe, but it bears suggestively on late eighteenth-/early nineteenth-century Britain, when the sense of an ever more uncertain future impinged powerfully on the present, altering what was being asked of and about the past. Assmann thus understands cultures as temporal practices, reading them as a constellation of tactics and techniques of transmission, retrieval, and repetition geared to the survival of a particular group. But the memory sites cultures generate stand in different relations to the group as a whole. Assmann draws particular attention to the distinction between a "canon" and an "archive": this distinction marks the line between an "active memory" enacted in a wide range of public practices and institutions and a latent "archival memory" made up of what can be materially retrieved but is no longer current: the forgotten, overlooked, obsolete (43). Archival memory, she stresses, is a specialist memory, circulating outside the spheres of "common knowledge"; at the same time, however, she notes,"the borderline between the archival and the canon's active memory is permeable in both directions" (44). Items constantly migrate back and forth, so that cultural memory is properly understood as an ongoing dynamic of transfer and exchange. The story of antiquarianism in the early Romantic period is importantly the story of such a migration, as antiquaries, quintessential custodians of "archival memory," actively sought to move its materials out of the archive and into wider public circulation.

2.         No longer confining themselves to collecting bits of the past, corresponding about these, or describing them in papers for antiquarian circles, Romantic antiquaries increasingly turned into public authors, producing books for the literary market. Volumes of "curiosities," "popular antiquities," "specimens," and "reliques" appeared with regularity, achieving a surprisingly high critical profile in the periodical reviews, even as the old negative trope of the (specialized) myopic antiquary burrowing away among the "rubbish" of the past continued to remain in prominent play. By the end of the eighteenth century, Rosemary Sweet has shown, antiquarianism was becoming "popularized," as participation in antiquarian activities moved down the social scale into the "middling" reaches of the population and antiquarian authors, anxious to provide the public with a "more easily digestible antiquarianism," began to gain a broader readership (Sweet 330). Underlying these shifts in practice and reception was antiquarianism's own shift of interest over the course of the eighteenth century from the study of the classical past to that of the "popular antiquities" of Great Britain, both literary (ballads, rhymes, songs) and socio-historical (customs, manners, costume). As essays in this volume demonstrate, the classical past by no means dropped out, but the emergence of obscure sections of the national past as sources of historical interest produced important new genres and publication format. Prominent among these was the illustrated antiquarian history largely shaped by Joseph Strutt. This genre was instrumental both in opening up the study of everyday life in remote eras (particularly the Anglo-Saxon) as a historical subject and in promoting visual material as evidential source, but its success and influence were in no small part due to the fact that its innovations operated within the textual parameters of traditional historiography. By the late eighteenth century, illustrated antiquarian publications like the Society of Antiquaries' series of Vetusta Monumenta and Richard Gough's Sepulchral Monuments of Great Britain Applied to Illustrate the History of Families, Manners, Habits and Arts, At the Different Periods from the Norman Conquest to the Seventeenth Century (1786-96) had developed new forms of historical investigation founded on the study and representation of material remains. Illustrated antiquarian histories, however, based themselves primarily on archival materials located in venues such as the British Museum, the Bodleian and other scholarly collections (private as well as semi-public). In this documentary bias, as well as in the interest in "popular antiquities," they thus converged with literary antiquarianism, which too was intent on moving matter out of the archive and into public circulation. At the same time, I will argue, the tactics of illustrated antiquarian histories exemplify a poetics of the piece in which the past was placed rather differently than in the more familiar publications of literary antiquarianism.

3.         I take as representative of the popularizing thrust (in several senses) of illustrated antiquarian history the influential but under-studied figure of Joseph Strutt. Strutt himself came from outside the gentry-professional circles that traditionally dominated historical study, underscoring the central role of such self-educated figures in the period's reconfiguration of knowledge (Heringman). Apprenticed in his teens to the celebrated engraver William Wynne Ryland, Strutt turned antiquarian author in his early twenties with a seminal publication, The Regal and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of England (1773). This book grew out of his researches in the manuscript collections of the British Museum and literally offered readers a new "view" of early English history in the engravings with which it was profusely illustrated. Pioneering the use of manuscript illuminations as historical material, Strutt sought in his engravings to provide a more accurate depiction of historical dress and customs. Importantly, he was motivated not only by the desire to contribute to historical knowledge but also, as Roy Strong has noted, by an explicit wish to transmit such knowledge to painters and others engaged in representing the past to the public (Strong 51). After this first work, which concentrated on the noble classes, Strutt's books greatly widened their focus to cover the whole range of social ranks, and they increasingly devoted themselves to the subject of informal social life (habits, customs, pastimes). His authorship remained governed by the desire to make his antiquarian researches more widely accessible, and culminated in an attempt at an antiquarian romance set in the fifteenth century, left unfinished at his death. In one of literary history's happy coincidences, his publisher, John Murray, asked the best-selling antiquarian-poet Walter Scott (not yet a novelist) to conclude the work, which appeared in 1808 as Queenhoo-Hall: A Romance.

4.         The engravings Strutt had pioneered in Regal and Ecclesiastical Antiquities constitute the core of his achievement and became the hallmark of his historical publications. Thus the engravings are prominently advertised in the titles of his two most influential books: A Complete View of the Dress and Habits of the People of England ...Illustrated by Engravings Taken From the Most Authentic Remains of Antiquity (1796-99); and Sports and Pastimes of the People of England...Illustrated by Engravings selected from Ancient Paintings (1801). Strutt himself in his prefaces repeatedly emphasized the centrality and provenance of the engravings, as in the "Address to the Public" prefacing Dress and Habits: "The engravings, which form the most material part of this publication, are taken from drawings in Manuscripts coëval with the times that they are intended to illustrate, or other monuments of antiquity equally authentic" (Dress and Habits 1:ii). Importantly, authenticity rested not only on the archival source but on the fidelity of Strutt's craftsmanship. Hence he follows this initial statement with the affirmation that the engravings are "faithfully copied from the originals, without an additional fold being made to the draperies, or the least deviation from the form of the garments" (Dress and Habits 1:iii). At the same time, the "Address to the Public" draws attention to the epistemological difficulties encountered in the making of the engravings. The "labour" of antiquarian research is a standard motif in antiquarian prefaces, but Strutt had to contend with particular problems attendant on dealing with two sign systems in the archive (words, images). Correlating these proved difficult, sometimes impossible.

5.         On the one hand, he reports, the verbal descriptions of clothes in contemporary accounts were often too "vague or nugatory" to be of help in explicating the drawings or monumental effigies contemporary with them; on the other hand, where the descriptions were in fact full, Strutt could often find no paintings or other images to offer "concordant assistance" (Dress and Habits 1:iv). Even as he exerted himself to coordinate these "two sources of information," he often had to admit defeat and resorted to "conjectural evidence" (Dress and Habits 1:iv). In other words, if he wanted to produce an illustration (as he typically did), he had to make a decision. In illustrated antiquarian histories, Sam Smiles astutely observes, the uncertainties and conflicting interpretations that could be accommodated in the text could not be reflected in the images: indeed, Smiles argues, the "authoritative closure" of the latter tended to efface the indeterminacy often present in the former (Smiles 63). Images dominate, and it was Strutt's images that developed a potent afterlife as sources in history textbooks, historical paintings, and theatrical productions (Mitchell, Strong). In them, Roy Strong remarks, Strutt "pieced together for the very first time a picture of everyday life in England from the Anglo-Saxons down to the Tudor age" (Strong 50). But if Strutt "pieced" things together, he did so by first pulling them apart. The importance of Strutt's publications from a more literary-theoretical point of view is that they throw into relief the degree to which this mode of the antiquarian transmission of the past depended less on preserving its remains than on turning the past itself into pieces: a deliberate, even aggressive, disaggregation of the past.

6.         Antiquarianism as a whole is notoriously a phenomenon of pieces and piecing. Its signature practice, Yoon Sun Lee points out, is a "foraging" among the defunct, the broken off, and the obscure. Such "foraging," she observes, operates within a temporality of discontinuity, premised on the "loss and extinction that made retrieval necessary," and hence stands at odds with discourses or narratives premised on a temporality of continuity (Lee 77). This discordance intensified when antiquaries turned from collecting to publishing pieces of the past. That is, where antiquarian collecting approached the past as a found object (actual "remains" that persisted from the past), antiquarian publications (thick volumes foregrounding authorial or editorial "labours," their pages typically broken up with footnotes and marginal notations) made apparent that the past was something worked on and worked up. Taking up—and taking out—bits of the past, antiquarian authors, editors, engravers, and bibliographers explicitly engaged in acts of reframing and reshaping. So Francis Douce (like Strutt, interested in "popular antiquities") notoriously removed individual leaves and cut out images from his manuscripts and early printed books, pasting them into scrapbooks in the hope of assembling a chronology for the history of dress (Jensen 181-82). As Kristian Jensen emphasizes, Douce had "no interest in the integrity of books as medieval objects" (181). For him they were not found objects ("relics") but literally "bits" of information, ready to be put to modern use whether to produce an informal chronology of dress or, as in his Illustrations of Shakespeare and of Ancient Manners (1807), to elucidate references in literature from the past. Unlike the antiquarian soul in Nietzsche's famous image, Douce did not wrap himself up in his antiquities and move into them; rather, he moved the past about (Nietzsche 19).

7.         So too did Strutt. While his engravings may not have deviated in "the least" from the "form of the garments," matters were rather different when it came to their "arrangement." Strutt's commitment to publication as a communicative act made for certain breaches of fidelity. Notably, the same "Address to the Public" that claims absolute accuracy in copying figures allows for some fudging when it comes to putting them together: "it has been my study to render them interesting by grouping them as pleasingly as the nature of the subject would admit" (Dress and Habits 1:iii) Moreover, he has introduced "ornamental embellishments," although these (he hastens to say) are not "in any instance" the work of his imagination but "accurate specimens of ancient art, and extracted from the same manuscript that the figures, or some of them at least, are taken" (Dress and Habits 1:iii). A flexible protocol of fidelity (i.e., fidelity with loopholes) governs all his works, reiterated in his final completed work, Sports and Pastimes, where he avers that the plates do not contain "a single figure that has not its proper authority" and declares that all have been "faithfully made," but goes on to qualify the assertion of faithful craftsmanship by remarking that the figures have been copied "without the least unnecessary deviation" (Sports and Pastimes 1). What may make for "necessary" deviation he does not specify, but the concluding sentence offers a clue: "As specimens of the art of design they have nothing to recommend them to the modern eye, but as portraitures of the manners and usages of our ancestors, in times remote, they are exceedingly valuable" (Sports and Pastimes 1). This sentence is at once a concession to the "modern eye," to its assumption that illustrations properly exemplify "the art of design," and an attempt to reorient its vision by redefining such visual matter in non-aesthetic terms: illustrations as documentary, rather than aesthetic, effects. More than this, however, it underlines Strutt's acute awareness of the readerly eye playing over his images, and points up the degree to which his recompositions (a recurring feature of his work) engage the aesthetic as well as historical imperative, recalling his earlier remarks in Dress and Habits on his willingness to arrange figures as "pleasingly" as possible.

Figure 1: Joseph Strutt, Sports and Pastimes of the English (London, 1801), plate 1. Courtesy of Ellis Library, University of Missouri.

8.         For Rosemary Mitchell the recompositions of Strutt represent "rather surreal collages with an uncertain system of chronology" (Mitchell 64). Figures taken from different manuscripts are combined in the same frame; images drawn from widely separated historical periods appear in the same plate and under the same rubric; and so on. To give a a brief example, Plate One in Sports and Pastimes consists of three images illustrative of "Hunting." The letterpress identifies these as taken from manuscripts produced five hundred years apart: the middle image of a Saxon chieftain hunting wild boar comes from a 9th-century manuscript (Cottonian collection); the upper image showing the mode of attacking a boar is from an early 14th-century manuscript (owned by Francis Douce); and the lower image of "unearthing" a fox comes from another early 14th-century manuscript (in the Royal collection) (Sports and Pastimes 4-5). Where the textual plane specifies and separates, then, the visual plane elides and conjoins. Together they express the doubled logic of the piece activated by genres like the illustrated antiquarian history. Breaking up and moving around bits of the past, this form of historical publication rendered the past at once divisible (as something that could be "placed") and portable (malleable and mobile).

9.         Richard Maxwell has noted that the techniques of antiquarian history in general constitute a proto-sociology in that they tend to survey social systems section by section and to construct "inclusive systems of classification" (Maxwell 60). Strutt's works clearly fit this model. Elaborately taxonomic, they continually divide, sub-divide, and sub-sub-divide analytic categories, parsing them into ever smaller units. At the same time, however, they lack the interest in the "interdependence among parts of a given whole" that Maxwell defines as the antiquary's "fundamental interest" (Maxwell 60). Instead Strutt's histories exploit the peculiar status of the piece as a detached and—more importantly—detachable single unit. Pieces signal the divisibility of a category, as in "a piece of music," and their specificity lies in the fact that they are at once separated from a whole and yet complete in themselves. Hence a piece possesses a certain autonomy. We can speak of "a broken piece" without redundancy, for example, and this possibility separates the piece from the more familiar "fragment" of Romantic studies to which antiquarianism itself has often been assimilated. Christopher Scalia, for example, aligns "the antiquary's faith in the power of historical remnants" with "the distinctly Romantic aesthetic of the fragment" (Scalia 10). Certainly, antiquarianism as a whole, including illustrated antiquarian histories, was committed to the potency of historical fragments, but to understand the "operation" of these histories (to invoke Certeau's term) in the transformation of historical fragments into print publications, we need to distinguish (if not absolutely) the fragment from the piece. A "piece of writing," after all, does not mean the same things as a "fragment" of writing: the one pertains to the rationality of division, the other to the obscurity of separation.

10.         Fragments in both the literary-philosophical sense associated with "high" Romanticism and the more mundane (material) historical sense imply absence: something lost, broken, beyond, or not yet in being. This is not to confound the two modalities—the historical fragment is a function of historical processes, the other of mental ones—but they cohere insofar as both designate the limits of what can be known or thought. The piece, by contrast, imposes a limit. Lacou-Labarthe and Nancy's distinction between the fragment and the piece in The Literary Absolute (while directed specifically to the literary-philosophical fragment) provides a useful gloss. The fragment, they explain, is not simply "a pure piece," nor can it be equated with condensed forms like the maxim because such forms make a claim to completeness whereas the fragment involves "an essential incompletion" (Lacou-Labarthe and Nancy 42). Completeness is thus the sign of the piece. It is not a broken bit but a singular entity, even though but a portion of a larger whole; hence it invokes presence rather than absence, clarity not obscurity. "Fragments or shadowings of true history," Walter Scott writes in "Essay on Romance," "may yet remain hidden under the mass of accumulated fable," and such "shadowings" (elusive and unpredictable) speak to the unknowability of the past (180). Strutt himself was acutely aware that he was working in a field where little could be positively known. The Anglo-Saxons, he wryly remarks, were "a people, whose existence is all we can be certain of" (Compleat View 1). But in working on the traces (visual and verbal) they did leave in their texts, he produced the pieces that set out for readers what could be known: a limited completeness.

11.         For Strutt the production of such pieces depended on unhinging the past from the frames within which it understood itself. Like most antiquaries interested in popular antiquities at this time (if not antiquaries in general) he adhered to the standard stadial model inherited from Enlightenment historiography, distancing himself from the values and beliefs of earlier ages, notably but not only the medieval period. The Middle Ages he considered largely barbaric and superstitious; the customs, sports and pastimes that he made his special subject were typically "absurd and childish" (Sports and Pastimes xxii). Moreover, he stresses, these absurdities often lingered on into what we now call the Early Modern era, as in the "extravagant" pageants and shows popular in the sixteenth century to which he devotes a substantial section of his historical survey. "For want of more rational entertainment," he explains, high and low alike enjoyed "motley displays of pomp and absurdity" (Sports and Pastimes xxix). To exemplify, he focuses in on a specific pageant marking the setting of the midsummer watch in Chester, a ritual rooted in medieval custom and revived in the mid-sixteenth century. Suspending his general survey, Strutt presents the fortunes of this pageant through and as an archival document, a literal piece of the past:

I have now before me an ordinance for the mayor, aldermen, and common councilmen of the city of Chester, to provide yearly . . . on the eve of the festival of Saint John the Baptist, a pageant, which is expressly said to be 'according to ancient custome,' consisting of four giants, one unicorn, one dromedary, one luce, one camel, one ass, six hobby-horses, and sixteen naked boys. (Sports and Pastimes xxvi)
This document stems from 1564, and Strutt goes on to report that under the Commonwealth the spectacle was discontinued, and the constructed items (giants, unicorn, etc.) were destroyed. At the Restoration, however, the practice was revived, and this meant the city had to make new molds, find materials, and (most of all) pay for them. Strutt then lays before the reader "without any farther apology" the "curious" computation of charges for the renewed pageant in 1661, starting with the cost of the four great giants, "all to be made new, as neere as may be lyke as they were before, at five pounds a giant the least that can be, and four men to carry them at two shillings and six pence each" (Sports and Pastimes xxvii).

12.         He presents the list of charges without comment, although he cannot stop himself from interrupting to note "a very ridiculous entry" for arsenic to be put into the paste used to construct the giants in order "to save the giants from being eaten by the rats, one shilling and fourpence" (Sports and Pastimes xxvii). What makes all this ridiculous (but clearly entertaining) is incongruity, a disjunction both at the level of discourse (the language of giants mingling with that of bureaucratic calculation) and at the level of historical existence (modern Chester reviving obsolete medieval ritual). Strutt's account of sixteenth and seventeenth-century pageants in general is structured by motifs of incoherence and artifice that define them as regressive movements. His ultimate target can be seen as the idea of tradition and the temporality of historical continuity that such spectacles sought to uphold. Suggestively, insofar as Strutt does identify historical continuities in popular life, these tend to be negative (like gambling). Strutt, that is, writes from across a divide marked by modernity's forward movement, and it is precisely the sense of historical distance that allows him to extract the case of the Chester pageant (its origins, its revivals) from a no longer meaningful ideological-historical matrix in order to move it into the foreground of his text as a piece-in-itself. The past is moved into the present precisely through/as difference.

13.         We can place in instructive contrast to these tactics those of literary antiquaries. Devoted to transmitting popular literary antiquities, they too generally disavowed the ideological frames within which their archaic materials took shape, and (like Strutt) they were equally dismissive of their aesthetic value. However, their disavowals, Ann Rowland argues in an important study, operated in effect as tactics of rescue, a canny transfer of value from content to form, which located the past in different relationship to the present. Rowland's argument is worth laying out in some detail. The key move, she points out, was an "antiquarian formalism" that elided the often scandalous, sensational, and otherwise suspect content of literary antiquities to instead privilege "form as a vehicle of cultural and national continuity" (Rowland 21). This move was premised on the analogy between the collective stages of history and the stages of the individual life promulgated in Enlightenment thought: literary antiquaries overlaid the "primitive" stages of society and the stage of childhood, casting both as primarily oral orientations in the world, especially responsive to the aural and kinetic pleasures of form (repetition, rhythm, and so on). The rhymes and games of childhood in the present were thus understood as a link back to the ancient origins of national culture, and the child became the bearer of a "formal memory," which connected current generations to the earliest generations. If enlightened adults could no longer tap into this "formal memory" in quite the same way, they could access it indirectly through memories of childhood. This helps to explain the recurring motif of "remembered from childhood" in the prefaces of literary antiquarian texts to which Rowland draws special attention and which lend to the scholarly collections "the aura of personal memory" (Rowland 167). The literary antiquary's authority and authenticity hence rested on the interplay of "childhood attachment" and "adult scholarly practice" through which he modeled a modern approach to texts of the past, a reading at once affective and yet properly critical (Rowland 167).

14.         The scenario described by Rowland sustains the claim for a continuous national culture and defines the past as at once an interiorized and externalized object in relation to the modern subject. Even so archival a creature as Joseph Ritson, fierce defender of the integrity of ancient texts, attaches the "originals" of the poems he includes in Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry (1791) to personal memory: "the pleasing recollection of that happyest period of which most of them were the familiar acquaintance" (Ritson xii-xiii). Moreover, he projects (or at least wishes for) readers who will tap into the poems he has collected, able to shake off "the artificial refinements of modern taste" and participate in "humble effusions of "unpolished nature, and the simplicity of old times" (Ritson xiii-xiv). By contrast to this kind of appeal, the rare moments when Strutt introduces a personal note, as in the reference to the document "I have now before me" in the Chester passage, route personal connection through an impersonal archival memory rather than (as in Ritson) a personal experiential memory. Not memory but portability is the keynote. The impersonal antiquarian piece, that is, rendered the past not simply alien but alienable, something that could be moved about. Where the abstraction carried out by the "antiquarian formalism" of literary collections absorbed the past into the present through a quasi-anthropological notion of an enduring deep memory, the abstraction characteristic of illustrated histories of social and everyday life unrooted the past to render it modular, allowing it to become a platform for experiment, imitation, and performance in the present. Strutt, we recall, directed his research into costume and customs not only to the cognitive realm of knowledge but also to the performative realm of representation (e.g., painters, actors), and his Dress and Habits rapidly became a handbook for theatrical producers and costume designers. The relocation of the past for the present effected by both modes of antiquarian publication underwrote large swatches of intellectual and cultural innovation in the Romantic period, but they represent distinct if often overlapping trajectories within the strategy against oblivion that Assmann identifies as the work of culture. And they do so, I want to suggest, because they proffered very different answers to the question posed by Henri Bergson (in a rather different context): "but the past, once achieved, if it is to be retained, where is it?" (Bergson 191).

Works Cited

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[Ritson, Joseph]. Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry: From Authentic Manuscripts and Old Printed Copies. Adorned with Cuts. London: [n.p.], 1791. Print.

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Strong, Roy. And When Did You Last See Your Father?: The Victorian Painter and British History. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978. Print.

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Strutt, Joseph. Glig-Ceman Angel Deod Or The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England: Including the Rural and Domestic Recreations, May-Games, Mummeries, Pageants, Processions, and Pompous Spectacles, From the Earliest Period to the Present Time: Illustrated by Engravings selected from Ancient Paintings; In which are Represented Most of the Popular Diversions. 2nd Ed. London: [n.p.], 1810. Print.

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Published @ RC

June 2014