OFF THE SHELF / Spiders round the neck: Kenneth Baxter on the Diary of Elias Ashmole, aged 16-70

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The Independent Culture
JOHN AUBREY, the author of Brief Lives, was a gregarious man whose acquaintance included Elias Ashmole, 'the greatest virtuoso and curioso that ever was known or heard of in England'. Ashmole, like Dr Johnson, was a shopkeeper's son of Lichfield. Less lethargic than Johnson, he became a solicitor, cavalry officer and excise official until marriage to a rich widow enabled him to devote himself to astrology, alchemy and antiquarian research. 'It pleased God to put me in mind that I was now placed in the condition I had always desired, which was that I might be enabled to live to myself without being forced to take pains for a livelihood.'

His The Way to Bliss deals with the elusive philosopher's stone, which he never despaired of finding, but he was more than a dilettantish dabbler. Charles II, whose collection of English coins he catalogued, appointed him Windsor Herald, and he wrote a valuable History of the Order of the Garter. His friend John Tradescant, the celebrated gardener and snapper-of curiosities, bequeathed his collections to Ashmole. He added his own and gave the lot, 12 wagon-loads, to Oxford on condition that a repository be built to house them. Hence the (Old) Ashmolean Museum, opened by the Duke of York in 1683.

As might be expected of such a diligent man, Ashmole kept a Diary. It is not in the same class as Pepys or Evelyn, whom he knew, but it makes fascinating if quaint reading. It begins when he was 16, newly arrived in London and learning to sing and dance, to play the organ and virginals. It ends when he was 70, a well-to-do and respected man much esteemed by his sovereign.

Assemblies of the Commissioners of Excise, Astrologers' Feasts and meetings of the Royal Society, botanical forays and antiquarian excursions kept him busy; but he found time to christen a few children, attend a witch trial and show the king a pair of mummified Siamese twins and 'a male infant cut out of a woman's belly and preserved in liquor'. At the Lord Mayor's Banquet he informed Pepys, sitting next to him, that 'frogs and many insects fall from the sky perfectly formed'.

Comments on the deaths of friends and relatives occur with distressing frequency, as do accounts of his own ill-health - loose teeth and bowels, colics, surfeits, hot and cold agues, gout in the hands and both little toes. He was struck by a coach horse, badly shaken by robbers on Maidenhead Heath and suffered from melancholy vapours. However, blood-letting, possets of thistles, poultices and purges, the application of leeches, holding bryony root and hanging three spiders round the neck proved efficacious remedies. 'I took my usual sweat' is the last entry, though he lived another five years.