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Rosemary Hill

From the fall of the Bastille in 1789 to 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.

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Rosemary's current research is on antiquarianism in the romantic period, from 1789-1851. These were the years that saw much of what we now mean by ‘history’ come into being. Social, local, oral and architectural history and the study of the Middle Ages were developed in the late Georgian and early Victorian decades largely by amateur antiquaries. Antiquaries were men (and very occasionally women) who were interested in the material remains of the past. They dug up ruins, deciphered manuscripts and studied old coins and armour. They were often seen as eccentrics or even magicians, but they pointed the way to modern historical practice.

The Romantic period also saw the rise of the historical novel and a new, dynamic relationship with the past which encouraged people to recreate it in architecture, painting and drama. This sometimes led to an elastic attitude towards the facts. Antiquaries were responsible for some of our most enduring misconceptions about the past. Her book follows the careers of twenty or so across the spectrum from scrupulous scholarship to wild invention. It considers such questions as what was Keats’s Grecian urn made of, who put the arrow in King Harold’s eye and where do Druids come from. Her subject is in part what Eric Hobsbawm called ‘the invention of tradition’, but while his purpose was to debunk her's is to ‘rebunk’ to see the history we have and those who made it as nearly as possible for what they are.

Find out more information about Rosemary and Time's Witness on her website

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