Parochial queries

October 14, 2008

Robert Boyle’s ‘General Heads for Natural History of a Countrey’, published in 1666 in Philosophical Transactions, shows Boyle endeavouring to define the kind of information travellers should collect about foreign countries. Today’s text, Edward Lhuyd’s Parochial queries in order to a geographical dictionary, a natural history &c. of Wales (1697) is an interesting echo of Boyle’s article, decades later.

Lhuyd was a naturalist and philologist who studied at Oxford in the 1680s, where he became involved with a scientific group headed by Robert Plot, which met in the Ashmolean museum. He kept a lasting connection with this museum, and drew up a catalogue of fossils for them in the 1690s, whilst participating in the naturalist community at large. In 1693, Lhuyd accepted an offer to contribute entries on the Welsh counties to Camden’s Britain, and in 1695 revealed his plans for A design of a British dictionary, historical and geographical: with an essay entitl’d ‘Archaeologia Britannica’; and a natural history of Wales.

Lhuyd set about this project in an organised way, and the Parochial queries form a questionnaire that he and his assistants sent out (4000 copies) to every parish in Wales, to be duly answered and returned to him to analyse.

Lhuyd wrote that he had published the queries ‘for the easier and more effectual Performance of so tedious a Task’, issuing the disclaimer that

Nor would I have any imagine, that by Publishing these Queries, I design to spare my self the least Labour of Travelling the Country, but on the contrary be assured, I shall either come my self, or send one of my Assistants into each Parish throughout Wales, and all those in Shropshire and Herefordshire, where the Language and the Ancient Names of Places are still retain’d

Participants were asked to restrict their comments to local knowledge only, and to differentiate between different categories of information:

My Request therefore to such as are desirous of Promoting the Work, is, That after each Query, they would please to write on the blank Paper, (or elsewhere if room be wanting) their Reports; confining themselves, unless the Subject shall require otherwise, to that Parish only where they inhabit; and distinguishing always betwixt Matter of Fact, Conjecture, and Tradition.

There are too many fascinating queries in this text to print here, but here are a few to entice you to look up Lhuyd on EEBO. If not, there will be more about him here in the future.

XVII. Whether the Parish be generally Corn-Ground or Pasture? Colour of the Soil? Very Fertil, Barren or Indifferent? Mountanous or Champion Ground? Woody, Heathy, Rocky, Clay-Ground, Sundy, Gravelly, &c?

XVIII. The Sorts of Grain Sown in the Parish, and the Composts used; with any Useful Observations in Husbandry; and a Computation of the Number of Cattel and Horses it breeds; as also of the Sheep, Goats, Hogs, &c.

XXII. A Register of the Weather, for the Space of One Year at least, kept by one or two in each County, would be of considerable Use: With Observations on the Figures of Snow and Hail: The Time it generally begins to Snow on our highest Mountains, and when it desists; with any other Curious Remarks about Meteors.

XXIII. Observations concerning Tides, Eddies, and Whirl-Pools; Form and Consistence of the Shoar or Maritim Land, and the Influence the Sea has upon it. What Tokens of Woods or Buildings gain’d by the Sea? Particularly whether Kaer Anrhod, Sarn Badric, and Sarn y Bwch (in North Wales) be presum’d to be Artificial or Natural; And if the former, what Evidence there is for it?

XXIV. An Account of the Subterraneous and Diving Rivers; and of such as are totally absorb’d, or no where distinguishable afterwards; also of Sudden Eruptions of Water, and Periodical Streams. A Computation of the Number of Springs in the Parish. How near the Tops of Hills are the highest Running Springs? Or are there any in very even Plains remote from Hills? Any Fountains that ebb and flow? Waters that petrifie or incrustate Wood, Moss, Leaves, &c. Medicinal Springs, or Waters of unusual Taste, Smell, or Colour, or Remarkable for their Weight, or tinging the Stone or Earth whence they proceed?

Again, it is important that some of Lhuyd’s queries move towards an understanding of a region’s inherent riches, as you can see in numbers 25 & 26:

XXV. Particular Information of all Places where there are any Caves, Mines, Coal-works, Quarries, Stone-Pits, Marl-Pits; or in short, where Labourers dig upon any Occasion whatever.

XXVI. If such Places afford any uncommon Oars, Earths, or other Minerals; Stones resembling Sea-Shells, Teeth, or other Bones of Fish; or Crabs-Claws, Corals, and Leaves of Plumes; or in brief, any Stones, or other Bodies whatever of a Remarkable Figure; the Workmen are desired to preserve them, till they are call’d for by the Undertaker, or some of his Friends; in Consideration whereof, they shall receive some Reward suitable to their Care and Pains.

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