The Ironist

J.G.A. Pocock

  • Gibbon and the ‘Watchmen of the Holy City’: The Historian and His Reputation 1776-1815 by David Womersley
    Oxford, 452 pp, £65.00, January 2002, ISBN 0 19 818733 5

Since two pioneering studies appeared in 1954, Arnaldo Momigliano’s ‘Gibbon’s Contribution to Historical Method’, and Giuseppe Giarrizzo’s Edward Gibbon e la cultura europea del Settecento, the historian of the Roman Empire has himself become the object of serious historical study. It can still be maintained that his work is, in D.R. Woolf’s words, ‘probably the most famous and perhaps the most misunderstood history written in the past three centuries’, and that this is the consequence of an excessive focus on the Decline and Fall’s first volume, which appeared in 1776 and had no successor until 1781. Because the reading public has been more interested in classical Rome than in late antique or medieval history, Gibbon is remembered as the author of this volume’s first 14 chapters, which recount the break-up of the Augustan and Antonine principate. The 15th and 16th chapters, which conclude the volume with a survey of Christian history before the victory of Constantine, instantly occasioned a fierce controversy over Gibbon’s evident unbelief and his use of irony to convey it, so that his writings on the history of the Church have been viewed through the glass of this controversy, and he is known as a polished and derisive sceptic carrying on the offensive against Christianity begun by Voltaire and continued by Parisian philosophy.

These readings have shaped his reputation since 1776 and form a large part of the history of his work; yet it can be argued, by the historian no less than the critic, that the volume of 1776 is preparatory and even tentative. The chapters on the Augustan-Antonine decline introduce the history of the monarchy founded by Constantine and lasting till 1453, which is the subject of five further volumes of the Decline and Fall. Since this was a Christian monarchy, co-existing with the Orthodox and Catholic Church or churches, its history entails an ecclesiastical history; but the narrative of this co-existence does not begin until the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Empire, and this is not narrated until chapter 21 of Gibbon’s second volume – five years and five chapters later than those closing the volume of 1776. It is therefore a problem why the historian found it necessary to go back to the post-apostolic age and write an introductory history, occasioning a controversy by whose lurid light his subsequent work was prejudged and has been judged ever since.

David Womersley – now Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford – stands at the head of those scholars who try to situate Gibbon in his 18th-century context, thus raising and trying to answer many questions, of which that just framed is central to the book he has now published. He has already given us a three-volume edition of the Decline and Fall which is by contemporary standards the first critical edition it has received. To this he has added a selection of the chief clerical responses to Gibbon’s first volume between 1776 and 1781, and has edited one of the several volumes occasioned by the Gibbon bicentennials between 1976 and 1994 (Gibbon died suddenly in January 1794). The book under review consists of essays written and rewritten with the aim of exploring documents, lying mainly outside the text of the Decline and Fall itself, that illustrate three themes: the controversy of 1776-81, which obviously furnishes Womersley with his title; Gibbon’s composition, between 1788 and 1791, of the various drafts of his autobiography; and the publication between 1796 and 1815 of his Miscellaneous Works, including an edited text of the autobiography, by his friend and executor Lord Sheffield. The two latter enterprises bear particularly on the controversy over the 1776 volume, and on questions arising from Gibbon’s (and Sheffield’s) responses to the French Revolution.

This is therefore not a study of the Decline and Fall, or altogether of its reception, or even of ‘the historian’s reputation from 1776 to 1815’ – which would have to be put together from many sources – so much as of attempts by Gibbon and Sheffield to shape the book’s reception and the historian’s reputation. Womersley has been motivated in writing it in two ways. In the first place, he is aware that history is overwhelmingly written from secularist and agnostic standpoints – there are reasons why it could hardly have been otherwise – that silently marginalise the writings of clerics and believers; it is taken for granted that Gibbon’s critics were an incompetent and slightly ridiculous crew, easily swept from the field by philosophic irony and superior scholarship. Womersley is persuaded, as I am, that a key to English history, between 1660 and 1830, is the contested maintenance by the Church of England of its position as the religion of state; from which it follows that the discourse of that Church – Gibbon’s critics (other than Joseph Priestley) were nearly all Anglican clergy – must be taken seriously, as argument from known premises dealing with problems known to arise from those premises. It may further follow that chapters 15 and 16 of the Decline and Fall can be considered as criticism intelligible to Anglicans and other Christians, situated partly within the context of a discourse already formed. Womersley is not primarily concerned to treat them in this way, but it is of the first importance that he knows it can and should be done.

His second set of motives is methodological. The book’s epigraph comes from Westcott and Hort, a Victorian team of New Testament scholars, and runs: ‘Knowledge of documents should precede final judgment upon readings.’ This admirable doctrine is developed into theological metaphor, when Womersley distinguishes between reading the text, studying its context and attending to ‘bibliography’ – the documented history of its production – after which he warns us that his ‘literary trinity is Arian, not Athanasian. The father is bibliography, the spirit is context, but close reading is only the son.’ One should not ask an Arian whether the spirit proceeds from the son as well as the father, but at a less exalted level there is need to remember that the text is also a document: it can tell us things other than the interpretations we read into it; while a document is also a text – someone wrote it and we have to read it. Womersley knows the text of the Decline and Fall as well as anyone now living, but in this book he studies documents for what they tell us about the text far less than for what they tell us about how Gibbon and Sheffield wished the text to be read. There are times when the Decline and Fall has to be read for what it may tell us in its own voice (and literary theory disregarded). Womersley knows this, too; the question may be how often he does it.

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