• Athenae Oxonienses;
  • John Aubrey;
  • Brief Lives;
  • The Countrey Revell;
  • early modern museums and collecting;
  • mummies and antiquarianism;
  • John Ogilby;
  • A Perambulation of Surrey;
  • Anthony Wood

This article argues that John Aubrey and his biographical collaborator, Anthony Wood, pioneered a new kind of encyclopaedic collection, which they understood to be empirically grounded ‘truth’ but which contemporaries derided as a ‘rhapsody’. A ‘rhapsody’ implies a basis in a new empirical practice, and a rejection of rhetorical tradition. Aubrey's voluminous collections were never published, largely because his work was overwhelmed by its attempt at comprehensiveness. Aubrey collaborated with Wood in his biographical encyclopaedia Athenae Oxonienses, which was prosecuted for its political content and also widely criticised as ‘barbarous’ in style and ‘trivial’ in content for ‘heaping up’ biographical detail gleaned, via Aubrey, from letters, documents, and lives specially written by a vast range of people. The ‘rhapsody’ is therefore remarkably socially broad-ranging. In this article I examine Aubrey's Brief Lives as an anti-rhetorical rhapsody stuffed with strange bedfellows; also his play The Countrey Revell and his three-volume antiquarian collection Monumenta Britannica. I explain how the ‘rhapsody’ was incompatible with print culture and therefore is most characteristically a manuscript, with Aubrey's failure to get his A Perambulation of Surrey printed given as an example.