Primitive History — A forgotten 'masterpiece'

Dan Crawford


t the end of his masterpiece, William Williams recalled how long and hard he worked to produce its 600-page bulk, pushing research into areas where the rest of the world was content simply to believe what it was told. He knew he would never again do anything so big or so important: this book was his legacy, his lifework, his monument. Eventually, he knew, it would be recognized as the landmark it is, and it would guarantee that his name would be remembered by generations born after he is dust. He cited verse to say so: "Old time, thou’lt soon demolish me; I these reprisals make on thee.”

What? You claim you have never heard of William Williams or of his great work, Primitive History from the Creation to Cadmus? There’s a reason for that. But writers stick together: it seems only right to pause and take one’s hat off to a man who thought his prose would survive his generation. We all feel like that; the fact that most of us are wrong about it makes this the more poignant.

William Williams, formerly of St. John’s College, Cambridge, had his magnum opus published by J. Seagrave of Chichester in 1789. His name, and the dedication of his book to the Prince of Wales, make it clear that he was Welsh, though he preferred the term "Cambrobriton.” (Research for this article turned up two dozen Welsh writers named William Williams; it seems to be a national characteristic.) He certainly has the poet’s skill attributed to the Welsh: unconventional spellings keep popping up. A phoenix is a "phenix;” the departure of Israelites from Egypt is "the Exod.” In poems, this is tolerable; in a 600-page lump of prose, it adds to the difficulties.

As to the subject of this prose, Williams was neither the first nor the last to try to explain the early history of Humankind. Not prehistoric humans: there is no prehistory. The complete history of Earth is available in the Bible, given the correct translation. (He preferred that used by Archbishop Ussher, who picked out a weekday afternoon in 4004 B.C. as the beginning of time.) The mythologies of ancient Greece, Egypt, Mexico, and other cultures add detail: we merely need to realize that the Greeks, being deprived of divine revelation, had to interpret things on their own, so some of their basic outline came out wrong. Noah, for example, became Poseidon in their version. But the truth is there if, like William Williams, you can calculate properly.

Williams had correlated the writings of the Greeks and Egyptians and Chinese with those of Moses ("the famous general of the Israelites,” who was familiar with the records kept by Thoth, the grandson of Ham­—you remember: Noah’s son) and had come up with a perfectly viable timetable. Here’s how it worked. If a legend mentions a painting, then that story took place after the Trojan War, since painting was invented after the fall of Troy. How did Williams know this? Williams had read everything and dovetailed the stories into continuous narrative. The author he brings to mind is Sir James Frazer, whose Golden Bough handles things differently, and at even greater length. But the scope of Williams’ knowledge is just as breathtaking.

In the first chapter, he discussed the timing of comets, the fitting of the planets of the Solar System into the six days of Creation, the speed of Earth’s movement (this became plot material when discussing Methuselah’s age), the speed of light, the movement of columns of ether, the possibility that other planets in the Solar System were habitable, and the possibility that the Earth itself was not habitable. (Well, actually, he was being as logical as you could possibly desire. See, Earth has these oceans, where no one can live, at least nobody who matters, and these vast deserts where nobody important lives, and the poles, where no one lives, so it would be wrong to say other planets are completely uninhabitable when it’s possible that they also have zones that are suitable for...well, anyhow, he reasoned that the planets have to be there for some good reason.)

And that’s just the first chapter. A browse through the pages that follow show how Irish Goths (or Scythians) introduced cannibalism to Europe, how Chinese and English could be proven to be closely related if one traced words to their Hebrew roots, how Aztecs, Tartars, and Arabs were all descended from a Celtic tribe that itself descended from Shem (you really must keep these sons of Noah in order), how to escape a crocodile since it, like the shark, has difficulty turning, and why education of the young has gone straight to pot. (The government doesn’t control education as much as it should.) One wonders what the Prince of Wales made of all this; Prinny was not one of the deep thinkers of his day.

The concept is rather appealing, and Primitive History could easily be a fascinating read, an encyclopedia of one man’s notion of how the universe works. If William Williams had paused in his research to learn something about how to write, he might have achieved this. But like a number of authors who spend their lives in research, he is unwilling to let a scrap of information escape. Here follows a sample paragraph. You can see what he was getting at; whether or not he got around to it is in the eye of the beholder.

"Nicander Colophonius mentions a tradition alluding to the human fall, that ‘the crime of Prometheus was his persuading mankind to resign to the Serpent their privilege of renewing their constitution’. Dr. Slare’s grandsire, at 86 years old, had new teeth, and his hairs became black; may not some diet aid this restorative aptitude. Menander says that woman occasioned the affliction of Prometheus. The Dragon in Nonnus tasting the juice of the grape is a fable evidently deduced from the Serpent tasting the original fruit in Eden. From an imperfect tradition concerning the tree of life, the Pagans acquired their idea of Moly, and from Paradise, their golden age.”

Ah well. Williams knew his book would be subjected to ridicule: he was ahead of his time. Like other authors he mentions — Homer, Socrates, Galileo, Bacon, Locke, and Newton — he knew he’d be understood by a later, wiser generation. He made his book available in two editions; over two centuries later, research turns up two copies besides the one that appeared somehow in Iowa. Both of those copies are in the British Library (Prinny’s copy is no doubt one of them.) Maybe the generation that would appreciate William Williams, formerly of St. Johns, has not yet been born.

True wisdom wasn’t appreciated in his age, he said: it was all a matter of publicity. Real research didn’t stand a chance against authors who could afford to make a lot of noise and public display. But one day, he knew, books would be appreciated for their contents. Perhaps he does deserve posthumous respect then: if not for the contents of his book, then for that optimism.

Title page of Primitive History. From the collection of Dan Crawford.

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