Chorea Gigantum (1663)

Written by Walter Charleton and published in 1663, Chorea Gigantum, or, The Most Famous Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly Called Stone-heng…Returned to the Danes, is a treatise on the origin of Stonehenge. In the midst of a period that could be traced back to the succession of James VI and I, followed by the English Civil War, the regicide of Charles I, and the restoration of the crown with Charles II, tracing historical roots and the idea of originality and authenticity is a splinter in the minds of the English people. Identifying a structure like Stonehenge as a symbol of authenticity and royalty becomes a call for stability, both ideologically and practically, in the public sphere. As such, Chorea Gigantum is a subtle attempt by Charleton to curry favor with Charles II by connecting him with the ancient past of Britain.

Chorea Gigantum, or The Giant’s Dance, is prefaced by a dedicatory poem by John Dryden that enumerates the scientific minds of the sixteenth and seventeenth century and their accomplishments. Dryden’s poem, therefore, places Charleton’s analysis that returns Stonehenge to the Danes among the great figures of science in England like Francis Bacon, William Gilbert, and William Harvey.

In Chorea Gigantum, Charleton responds to William Camden and especially Inigo Jones. He first considers Camden and Jones’ findings, comparing their inconsistent measurements about the height of the stones, and their assessment of the purpose of individual stones. Charleton is keen on evaluating both Camden and Jones on their merits; he considers each of their abilities side-by-side in an attempt to decide which testimony of the site to believe. Throughout this section, it seems that Charleton is as much interested in the idea of testimony and how to decide whether to adopt an analysis as he is in determining whether Camden or Jones is correct.

Charleton then turns to Jones’ theories about Stonehenge and its Roman origins, taking each of his reasons in turn and providing counterexamples for each.  Charleton refutes Jones’ ideas on the basis that the structure shows no evidence of walls (a feature that is typical for Roman structures of this type according to Charleton), that the animal bones that Jones identifies as remnants of animal sacrifice could have died there from natural causes, among other reasons.

After Charleton’s refutation of Jones’ ideas he turns to his own ideas about Stonehenge. Leaning on the work of Olaus Wormius, who Charleton corresponded with about the project, he proceeds to present a reasoned analysis of what the structure telegraphs about its origins. He uses geometry and reasoned comparisons to determine that the structure was not built by the Romans, but the Danes. He contrasts it to Roman architecture found in Bath, England, and compares it to similar stone circles in other parts of the British Isles, and especially in Denmark. He then proceeds to consider these structures along with their known uses in order to determine that Stonehenge was a structure used for coronation ceremonies, and not a temple in which animal sacrifice was practice. The idea of Stonehenge being as a coronation site is the strongest link to the Restoration of the crown in 1660 and Charleton’s attempt to curry favor with Charles II through this text.


D. Geoffrey Emerson