September 2, 2011 11:30 AM   Subscribe

First published in 1691 in London, The Athenian Mercury was the original supplier of answers to readers' questions, a format much imitated since. Queries on love, science, religion, literature and anything else people thought to ask about, were answered by The Athenian Society, members being publisher John Dunton and three of his friends. Athenian Mercury Project is a blog where Dr. Laura Miller publishes questions and answers from the The Athenian Mercury and The Awl has an occasional series where they trawl through the archive (1, 2, 3, 4). Both of these places are good places to start, but if they aren't enough, The Athenian Oracle: Being an Entire Collection of All the Valuable Questions and Answers in the Old Athenian Mercuries, is available on Google Books for free perusal, searching and download. Well, almost all, sadly enough volume one is nowhere to be found, but it does contain volumes two, three, four and a supplement (which includes a lengthy history of The Athenian Society). In addition to that, there is Athenian Sport, a collection of paradoxes debated by The Athenian Society. The questions asked by 17th Century Londoners should be familiar to those of us who read Ask MetaFilter.
posted by Kattullus (23 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't want to use the Google Books download thingy, you can also simply download a PDF of the book. The download link should be in the upper right corner.
posted by Kattullus at 11:41 AM on September 2, 2011

Has English changed so much since the 1700's? I can read the words, but the questions are close to being indecipherable:

Quest. 10. Whether stones are porous?

Answ. There is no sort of earth, stones or minerals, but are porous. Gold is the closest body, and yet we find it may be contracted into a lesser room, and also refined.

WTF? What the hell does this mean? Stones are not porous, ok, I'll along with that but what doe they mean by "gold is the closest body" and "it may be contracted into a lesser room"? That gold shrinks when cooled? Or that it shrinks when melted? And what does refining have to do with anything?

The answer raises more questions than it answers.
posted by GuyZero at 11:42 AM on September 2, 2011

Gold is dense, yet can be compressed.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:45 AM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I came across the Athenian Mercury back in my grad school days, just sitting in the stacks, available for checkout, at the Emory University library. I remember an article about conjoined twins--this is close, but not it. I remember queries written in poetry, and answered in poetry. Lovely thing.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:49 AM on September 2, 2011

"There is no sort of earth, stones or minerals, but are porous," indicates, I think, that ALL stones and earth and minerals and lions and tigers and bears are porous, GuyZero.

Did anyone think to ask back then why the Porridge Bird lays its eggs in the air?
posted by Kinbote at 11:49 AM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Metafilter: dense, yet can be compressed.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:50 AM on September 2, 2011

These are fantastic. There's a question in volume 3 about what's the deal with that Stonehenge thing anyway, and the answer talks about Merlin and giants, pretty much hits the nail on the head by saying it was probably a temple built by pre-Roman peoples, and ends with "Tho' how they got 'em thither does not much concern us, ſince we are not to fetch 'em away again." It's 17th-century Cecil Adams!
posted by theodolite at 11:56 AM on September 2, 2011 [6 favorites]

GuyZero, don't worry about the grammar--they also used the redundant from whence.
I don't care if the usage is 300 years old; it's still wrong.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:04 PM on September 2, 2011

A while back I had occasion to write an article about "the history of advice columns" (unfortunately the material is now down from the web, alas) -- most sources pointed to this as the grand-daddy of things like "Dear Abby" and such, and I listed it thus. (I then finished things off with a shout-out to AskMeFi, which was pleasing.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:05 PM on September 2, 2011

John Dunton, the publisher of the Athenian Mercury, also wrote an gossipy autobiography, The Life and Errors of John Dunton. According to Dunton, the Athenian Mercury was such a runaway success that he often showed up at the coffee-house to find a sack of several hundred letters waiting for him.

Jonathan Swift wrote an Ode to the Athenian Society in which, with uncanny foresight, he predicted that the Athenian Mercury would eventually be replaced by Yahoo Answers:

Censure, and Pedantry, and Pride,
Numberless nations, stretching far and wide,
Shall (I foresee it) soon with Gothic swarms come forth
From Ignorance's universal north,
And with blind rage break all this peaceful government.

posted by verstegan at 12:30 PM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

GuyZero: “WTF? What the hell does this mean? Stones are not porous, ok, I'll along with that but what doe they mean by "gold is the closest body" and "it may be contracted into a lesser room"?”

No, it's saying stones are porous – that "there is not a body but is porous," that is "everything is porous." Gold is the closest body to being nonporous, but even it "may be contracted into a lesser room."
posted by koeselitz at 12:39 PM on September 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

But does gold float, and is it a witch?
posted by blue_beetle at 12:53 PM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here is one that comes up on Ask MeFi with some frequency, and with a very elegant answer:

Tuesday, May 12, 1691, Question 1
Quest. 1. Whether a friendship contracted by single persons may continue with the same zeal and innocence if either marry?

Answ. That excellent person, the Reverend Bishop Sanderson has a case very near akin to this, if not nicer, which the persons concerned will find extremely well worth their reading and consideration. -- In the mean time we answer -- it may, tho' ten to one if it does; since in those circumstances there will be a great hazard that either the innocence will spoil the zeal, or the zeal the innocence: Not but that there's a great deal depends on the characters of the persons concerned; a friendship may perhaps be innocent where 'tis not safe; but hardly either long, in this case, unless between those of great prudence and virtue, since 'tis oftentimes only a pretence, and as such one of the most dangerous things in the world.

In the mean time, as generosity may be criminal, so suspicion is base, and one infallibly ruins friendship as the other may virtue and honour, tho' a prudent caution may perhaps be a medium between both. The worst on't seems to be here -- that seeing friendship can be only in the heighth (as we have formely described it) between two, how shall it remain with equal zeal and innocence, at least justice, when one is married? For either there will be more or less tenderness for the friend than for the wife or husband -- if more, 'tis injustice; for people ought not to marry any but such as are fit to make friends; if less, the former friendship must be diminished, as if the marriage be happy it generally, perhaps always is.

If I amn't mistaken, the pinch is here, and the solution accordingly, that if the friendship between the persons married have but the ascendant, and if that be continued with the highest degree of zeal, any lower measure of that and friendship may innocently remain where it was before planted.
posted by Atrahasis at 12:56 PM on September 2, 2011

"Complaints in the Athenian Mercury about a ‘Knot of Apprentices’ misbehaving with a ‘Servant Maid, of no good Reputation’ were frequent. The Athenian Society warned apprentices that such behavior risked ‘scandal and danger‘ to their reputations. The termination of an indenture could be ruinous to a young man’s prospects, and such conduct threatened his ‘Fame, Estate, Body, and ’tis to be fear’d Soul and all’". (March, 1692)
posted by clavdivs at 1:00 PM on September 2, 2011

Did anyone see a juicy term for flame-baiting c. 1691ff. ?
posted by bukvich at 1:03 PM on September 2, 2011

φιλόλογος (philologos)
posted by clavdivs at 1:13 PM on September 2, 2011

"Gold is the closest body," I think, means gold is the most dense, compact, tightest body ...
posted by jayder at 3:45 PM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ooh, this is wonderful. I'm downloading.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:40 PM on September 2, 2011

Also, Laughinge Out Loude at ye Poste Title
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:42 PM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

"My serving girl bought one of Mrs Miggins' pies last Whitsuntide and placed it on a shelf in the pantry where ere since it has lain concealed by other comestibles and hence was not eaten in due time. The crust appears whole and no noxious humours emanate. Do the principles of good physick mean I might consume said pie without placing myself at hazard of the flux?"
posted by Abiezer at 7:17 PM on September 2, 2011 [9 favorites]

Baldrick, Mrs. Miggins' pies are composed primarily of moldy orange peel, shredded back issues of Le Moniteur Universel, and dung. I would not recommend them for consumption by any human. You should be fine.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:44 PM on September 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Great post.
posted by Not Supplied at 9:05 AM on September 3, 2011

Damn, I wish that blog were more frequently updated. The selections are great and now I feel like I need to get hold of a *gasp* paper copy.
posted by immlass at 10:52 AM on September 3, 2011

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