How our understanding of the past was transformed between the French Revolution and the Great Exhibition by a band of long-forgotten pioneers, the antiquaries.
Between the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851, history changed. The grand narratives of the Enlightenment, concerned with kings and statesmen, gave way to a new interest in the lives of ordinary people. Oral history, costume history, the history of food and furniture, of Gothic architecture, theatre and much else were explored as never before. Antiquarianism, the study of the material remains of the past, was not new, but now hundreds of men – and some women – became antiquaries and set about rediscovering their national history, in Britain, France and Germany.
The Romantic age valued facts, but it also valued imagination and it brought both to the study of history. Among its achievements were the preservation of the Bayeux Tapestry, the analysis and dating of Gothic architecture, and the first publication of Beowulf. It dispelled old myths, and gave us new ones – Shakespeare's birthplace, clan tartans and the arrow in Harold's eye are among their legacies. From scholars to imposters the dozen or so antiquaries at the heart of this book show us history in the making.
Rosemary Hill is a writer and historian. Her biography, God's Architect- Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain (2007) won the Wolfson History Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Elizabeth Longford Prize and the Marsh Biography Award. In 2008 she published a prize-winning study of Stonehenge and its cultural legacy. She is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books, a visiting professor at the University of York, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a quondam fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.
Hill is a magnificent historian and ... Time's Witness is a book to change the way you think about history. -- John Carey * Sunday Times * in this rich and absorbing study ... Hill has succeeded splendidly in her mission to rescue these often strange, eccentric but fascinating figures from oblivion and the condescension of posterity . -- Paul Lay * The Times * 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. -- Sarah Watling * Literary Review *