John Aubrey (March 12, 1626–June, 1697) was an English antiquary and writer, best known as the author of the collection of short biographical pieces usually referred to as Brief Lives.
He was born at Easton Piers or Percy, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire, of a wealthy and famous family of the border region. He was educated at the Malmesbury grammar school under Robert Latimer, who had numbered Thomas Hobbes among his earlier pupils, and at Latimer's house Aubrey first met the philosopher whose biography he was later to write. He entered Trinity College, Oxford, in 1642, but his studies were interrupted by the English Civil War. In 1646 he became a student of the Middle Temple, but was never called to the bar. He spent much of his time in the country, and in 1649 he drew attention to the megalithic remains at Avebury. His father died in 1652, leaving Aubrey large estates, but with them some complicated debts.
Aubrey nevertheless went on to become acquainted with many of the most celebrated writers, scientists, politicians and aristocrats of his day; and he possessed an eye for detail. Though his memory was 'not tenacious', he kept thorough (if haphazard) notes of his friends' appearances, their foibles and, most importantly, the gossip which attached to them. Indeed, Aubrey's erstwhile friend and fellow-antiquarian Anthony Wood predicted that he would one day break his neck while running downstairs after some retreating guest or other. Aubrey played no active part in politics, but from his description of a meeting of the Rotary Club, founded by James Harrington (the author of Oceana), he appears to have had republican beliefs. His reminiscences on this subject date from the Restoration, and have been toned down accordingly.
In 1663 Aubrey became a member of the Royal Society, and in the next year he met William Somner, "in an ill hour," he tells us. He lost estate after estate due to lawsuits, till in 1670 he parted with his last piece of property and ancestral home, Easton Piers. From this time he was dependent on the hospitality of his numerous friends. In 1667 he had made the acquaintance of Anthony Wood at Oxford, and when Wood began to gather materials for his Athenae Oxonienses, Aubrey offered to collect information for him. From time to time he forwarded memoranda in a uniquely casual, epistolary style, and in 1680 he began to promise the work "Minutes for Lives," which Wood was to use at his discretion.
Aubrey approached the work of the biographer much as his contemporary scientists had begun to approach the work of empirical research by the assembly of vast museums and small collection cabinets. Collating as much information as he could, he left the task of verification largely to Wood, and thereafter to posterity. As a hanger-on in great houses, he had little time and little inclination for systematic work, and he wrote the "Lives" in the early morning while his hosts were sleeping off the effects of the night before. These texts were, as Aubrey entitled them, Schediasmata, 'pieces written extempore, on the spur of the moment'. Time after time, he leaves marks of omission in the form of dashes and ellipses for dates and facts, inserting fresh information whenever it is presented to him. The margins of his notebooks are dotted with notes-to-self, most frequently the Latin 'quaere'. This exhortation, to 'go and find out' is often followed. In the 'Brief Life' of Father Harcourt, Aubrey notes that one Roydon, a brewer living in Southwark, was reputed to be in possession of Harcourt's petrified kidney. 'I have seen it', he writes approvingly, 'he much values it'.
Aubrey himself valued the evidence of his own eyes above all, and he took great pains to ensure that, where possible, he noted the final resting places not only of people, but also of their portraits and papers. Though his work has frequently been accused of inaccuracy, this charge is somewhat misguided. In most cases, Aubrey simply wrote what he had seen, or heard. When transcribing hearsay, he displays an astonishingly meticulous approach to the ascription of sources. Take the fascinating 'Life' of Thomas Chaloner (who, Aubrey notes wryly, was fond of spreading rumours in the concourse of Westminster Hall, and coming back after lunch to find them changed, as in a game of Chinese whispers). When an inaccurate and bawdy anecdote about Chaloner's death is found to be about James Chaloner, rather than Thomas, Aubrey lets the initial story stand in the text, while marking it as such in a marginal note. A number of similar occurrences suggest that Aubrey was interested not only in the oral history he was noting down, but in the very processes of transmission and corruption by which it was formed.
As private, manuscript texts, the 'Lives' were able to contain the richly controversial material which is their chief interest, and Aubrey's chief contribution to the formation of modern biographical writing. When he allowed Anthony Wood to use the texts, however, he entered the caveat that much of the content of the Lives was 'not fitt to be let flie abroad' while the subjects, and the author, were still living. He asked Wood to be 'my index expurgatorius': a reference to the Church's list of banned books, which Wood seems to have taken not as a warning, but as a licence to simply extract pages of notes to paste into his own proofs. In 1692, Aubrey complained bitterly that Wood had mutilated forty pages of his manuscript, perhaps for fear of a libel case.
Wood was eventually prosecuted for insinuations against the judicial integrity of the school of Clarendon. One of the two statements called in question was founded on information provided by Aubrey and this may explain the estrangement between the two antiquaries and the ungrateful account that Wood gives of the elder man's character. It is now famous: "a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crased. And being exceedingly credulous, would stuff his many letters sent to A. W. with folliries and misinformations, which would sometimes guid him into the paths of errour." Wood's stuffy habit of referring to himself in the third person, and his roving, magotie-headed prose style, may have done more than anything to highlight Aubrey's laconic brilliance. All in all, the two men come across much as they were: Wood as a high-table bore; Aubrey as the eccentric raconteur at everyone's star-studded dinner party.
Late in life, Aubrey began a "History of Northern Wiltshire" but, feeling that was too old to finish it properly, he made over his material, around 1695, to Thomas Tanner, afterwards Bishop of St Asaph. In the next year was published his only completed work, though not his most valuable: the Miscellanies. Aubrey died of an apoplexy while travelling, in June 1697, and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, Oxford.
Beside the works already mentioned, his papers included: "Architectonica Sacra" (notes on ecclesiastical antiquities) and the "Life of Mr Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury," which served as the basis for Dr. Blackburn's Latin life, and also for Wood's account. (Aubrey became exasperated that Blackburn, among other collaborators, refused to admit troublesome details into Hobbes's life: 'they will not mention his being a page'). His survey of Surrey was incorporated in R Rawlinson's Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey (1719); his antiquarian notes on Wiltshire were printed in Wiltshire: the Topographical Collections, corrected and enlarged by JE Jackson (Devizes: Henry Bull, 1862); part of another manuscript on "The Natural History of Wiltshire" was printed by John Britton in 1847 for the Wiltshire Topographical Society; the Miscellanies were edited in 1890 for the Library of Old Authors; the "Minutes for Lives" were partially edited in 1813. A complete transcript, Brief Lives chiefly of Contemporaries set down John Aubrey between the Years 1669 and 1696, was edited for the Clarendon Press in 1898 by the Rev. Andrew Clark from manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This is still the best edition available, despite a number of excisions to spare late-Victorian blushes. More readily available is John Buchanan-Brown's serviceable Penguin paperback (Harmondsworth, 2000). This edition incorporates an excellent short introduction by Michael Hunter, whose John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning (London: Duckworth, 1975) is indispensable.
See also John Britton, Memoir of John Aubrey (1845); David Masson, in the British Quarterly Review, July 1856; Émile Montégut, Heures de lecture d'un critique (1891); and a catalogue of Aubrey's selections in The Life and Times of Anthony Wood ..., by Andrew Clark (Oxford, 1891-1900, vol. iv. pp. 191-193), which contains many other references to Aubrey. For a more recent biography, see John Aubrey and his Friends by Anthony Powell (1948).