Antiquarians have long created history from the bric-a-brac of everyday life
Time’s Witness: History in the Age of Romanticism
(ALLEN LANE, 416 PP, £25)
Tablet bookshop price £22.50 • Tel 020 7799 4064
Jonathan Oldbuck, the antiquary at the centre of Sir Walter Scott’s third Waverley novel, is a celibate obsessive, a squabbler, collector and enthusiast, a scholar of Pictish languages and a keen archaeologist. Scott wrote The Antiquary in 1816, shortly after he returned from visiting the battlefield of Waterloo bearing all sorts of Napoleonic souvenirs he’d picked up there. In the character of Oldbuck, Scott created someone whose interests were very much his own – a fossicker in the relics of the material past. But Oldbuck, like the storyteller Scott, also represented a new way of looking at history, of imagining it into being in a spirit that lay beyond the written word. The antiquaries lifted the curtain of the grand narrative of classical historical study and dug about for the human details, for the stuff, the bric-a-brac, of everyday life, not only of sacred sites and battlefields, but of clothes, food and language.