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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XIII. Scholars and Antiquaries

§ 18. Anthony Wood and Athenae Oxonienses

The most prominent and characteristic name in the Oxford group is that of Anthony Wood, or Anthony à Wood as, in later years, he pedantically styled himself. Born in Oxford, in 1632, he spent, practically, his whole life there, and died, in 1695, in the house in which he was born. During his undergraduate days, he did not show any particular aptitude for academic studies; but his natural bent towards those antiquarian pursuits which afterwards claimed his whole energies soon declared itself, and at seventeen years of age he had begun to take notes of inscriptions. His graduation as B.A., in 1652, secured for him admission to the Bodleian library, “which he took to be the happiness of his life, and into which he never entred without great veneration.” There he browsed at large, and gave himself up to his beloved studies of English history, antiquities, heraldry, and genealogies, with music as his chief recreation.

But it seems to have been Dugdale’s Warwickshire that gave his studies a special objective. It fired him to attempt a similar work for his own county, and, with this object, he began transcribing the monumental inscriptions and arms in the various churches. As his researches and collections progressed, the scope of his undertaking was enlarged; and, presently, his original idea of preserving a record of extant monuments developed into that of a comprehensive survey which should include the antiquities of the city, a history of the university and colleges, and the biographical records contained in his Athenae and Fasti. In pursuance of this object, he explored all accessible sources: the manuscripts in the Bodleian, including the collections of John Leland, of which he made much use, the archives of the university, to which he was allowed free access, and the muniments of the several colleges; he also visited London for the purpose of working in the libraries there.

At length, in 1669, the university treatise being completed, the university press offered to publish the work, stipulating that the author should consent to its being translated into Latin “for the honour of the University in forreigne countries.” Dr. John Fell, dean of Christ Church, the prime mover in this design, undertook at his own charge the translating and printing. Richard Peers and Richard Reeve were commissioned to make the Latin version, and Fell took the editing into his own hands. His high-handed methods caused the author much heart-burning, and he thus (11 August, 1670) graphically describes the situation:

  • All the proofs that came from the press went thro the Doctor’s hands, which he would correct, alter, or dash out or put in what he pleased, which created a great trouble to the composer and author: but there was no help. He was a great man, and carried all things at his pleasure.
  • Wood’s diary, at this period, contains many complaints about the liberties taken with his book; and for the misdoings of Peers he cannot find words hard enough. But, in spite of his declaration that he would scarce own the book, he was not able to suppress a natural pride in the two handsome volumes which, in 1674, made their appearance under the title Historia et Antiquitates Universitatis Oxoniensis. Nevertheless, Wood’s dissatisfaction with the Latin version was quite genuine, and, very soon afterwards, he began an English transcription of the whole work, continuing the general history to the year 1660. This recension was not printed in Wood’s lifetime; but he bequeathed the manuscript to the university, and it was eventually published by John Gutch in 1786–96.

    The other section of Wood’s work on Oxford, Survey of the Antiquities of the City, or, as it was entitled in Peshall’s edition, The Antient and Present State of the City of Oxford, was probably begun before the idea of a separate work on the university took definite form, and a considerable portion of it was written between 1661 and 1663. At this point, his interest seems to have been absorbed by the university treatise, and, though he worked on the manuscript to the end of his life, continually revising it and adding fresh notes, the scheme was never actually completed. While a certain lack of form and proportion in the work may, therefore, be disregarded, there can be no question about its value as a minute record and reconstruction of the past, the details of which were industriously garnered from a great variety of sources and carefully collated with personal investigation of the localities.

    When pursuing his researches among the university archives, Wood must have come across the papers of Brian Twyne, a diligent Oxford antiquary who had done much pioneer spadework in the same field; but his diaries are curiously reticent on the subject. This silence may have been unintentional; but, as a matter of fact, he drew extensively upon this store; indeed, his latest editor goes so far as to say that “there was no originality in his work, for he merely put into shape Twyne’s materials.” But, whatever the extent of his indebtedness, no fraudulent motive need be attributed to Wood, for he makes constant reference to Twyne, and, in freely using such materials as came in his way, he was only following the custom of the day.

    At the request of the authorities, Wood had written, as an addition to the Historia, notices of the lives of Oxford writers, to be appended to the accounts of the respective colleges, and it may have been this task which suggested to him the idea of compiling a counterpart to the history, in the shape of an account of all the writers who had received their education at the university. This undertaking was probably even more akin to his peculiar genius than the Historia itself, and for some years he worked energetically at it. He searched registers and all kinds of records, made inquiries far and near, wrote letters innumerable, and received contributions from many friends and correspondents. When Athenae Oxonienses, the monumental work upon which his chief fame rests, at length made its appearance, its outspoken criticisms caused no little resentment in various quarters. This reception was, no doubt, anticipated, for the book was issued without the author’s name, and, in the preface, endeavours were made to justify “harsh expressions” and “severe reflections,” on the ground “that faults ought no more to be conceal’d than virtues, and that, whatever it may be in a painter, it is no excellence in an historian to throw a veil on deformities.” But these precautions did not serve to protect the author from the consequences of reckless charges, as he found to his cost. The libel suit which was prosecuted against Wood in the vice-chancellor’s court at Oxford for statements reflecting upon Edward Hyde, first earl of Clarendon, ended against him; he was expelled the university, and his book was publicly burned. It has been aptly remarked of Wood that he was “unquestionably one of the most useful of our distinguished writers,” and this applies in special measure to Athenae. With its wealth of information concerning English authors, it is still of the highest importance, and, in its particular sphere, possibly The Dictionary of National Biography is the only work that, in the course of two centuries, has taken a place beside it.

    It is hardly possible to consider Athenae apart from the personality of the man to whom its existence is due and the impress of whose character it bears. To enormous industry and an insatiable appetite for research, Wood united a naturally ungenerous temperament and asperity of disposition, increased, in later years, by close application to study and the narrowing effects of a too exclusively academic life. Peevish and quarrelsome, disliked and mistrusted, he withdrew more and more from intercourse with his fellows and immersed himself in his self-imposed task. One can picture him in the seclusion of his garret study, penning, with keen satisfaction, severe judgments and spiteful comments upon the lives and achievements of those who did not meet with his approval. He can hardly be acquitted of malice in his animadversions, even if the saying attributed to him concerning his projected third volume of Athenae be apocryphal: “When this volume comes out, I ’ll make you laugh again.” But it must, in fairness, be observed that he did not allow the friction caused by the disposal of Sheldon’s manuscripts to warp his estimate of Dugdale, and that he speaks eulogistically of bishop Fell, in spite of his high-handed mode of editing the Historia. His claim to a desire for truth must also be conceded to him; but truth was sometimes apt to mean an overscrupulous care lest any weight should be omitted from the adverse scale.

    Wood was not only a chronicler of the past, but a recorder, also, of the passing hour, and in his autobiography and diaries we meet him at close quarters. The record is minute, at times even trivial. It embodies much interesting detail of university life; but, except for his youthful reminiscences of the civil war, glimpses of the outside world are few. He notes that Dryden was soundly cudgelled by three men one night near Will’s coffee-house in Covent garden; but he seldom gives pictures like that of his meeting with Prynne, who was at that time keeper of the records and had promised to take him to the Tower. Wood, with a soupçon of his accustomed acidity, says that he

  • went precisely at the time appointed, and found Mr. Prynne in his black taffaty-cloak, edg’d with black lace at the bottom. They went to the Tower directly thro the City, then lying in ruins (occasion’d by the grand conflagration that hapned in 1666); but by his meeting with several citizens and prating with them, it was about 10 of the clock before they could come to the same place.
  • That he is careful to place his own doings in a favourable light is only natural; but he finds pleasure in recording incidents and opinions unfavourable to others, and seems entirely devoid of both sense of humour and the milk of human kindness. We like him better and can forgive him, in a measure, when he tells of his solicitude over Dodsworth’s manuscripts, and the pains he took in spreading them out on the leads to dry when they were in danger of perishing from damp. So far as Wood himself is concerned, one is tempted to think it a pity that the autobiography has been preserved, for it leaves the impression that he was a disagreeable person and that, for all his great work, he was a little soul.