Writing the History of Middle Earth

Colin Kidd

  • Barbarism and Religion Vol 1: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-64 by J.G.A. Pocock
    Cambridge, 339 pp, £55.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 521 77921 9
  • Barbarism and Religion Vol 2: Narratives of Civil Government by J.G.A. Pocock
    Cambridge, 422 pp, £55.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 521 77921 9

Tall, silver-haired and bearded, with a mesmerising voice and beguiling manner of delivery, John Pocock has long struck me as the Gandalf of the historical profession. The range, altitude and stylistic sophistication of his writing seem almost other-worldly, though legend has it that his distinctive accent derives from a small community of Channel Islanders in New Zealand. In prewar academia there, the teenage Pocock, the son of a classicist, could observe such notables as Karl Popper and an offensive visitor from Australia, the young professor of Greek at Sydney, Enoch Powell. Trained as a historian in New Zealand and by Herbert Butterfield at Cambridge, Pocock has since the mid-1950s woven a spell over the history of early modern British political thought, a subject whose contours he has refashioned in unexpected ways and endowed with an allure which has captivated younger generations of scholars.

The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal law (1957) examined an antiquarian contest centred on the continuity – or otherwise – of England’s legal and Parliamentary heritage which resonated throughout 17th-century political debate. Not only did Pocock recover out of this unlikely material a major ideological context for the century of revolutions, but he also isolated John Locke as a rarity among his contemporaries, a controversialist who did not engage with the particularity of English historical precedents. The result was to downgrade the immediate political significance of Locke’s writings in the era of the Glorious Revolution. In Locke’s stead, Pocock drew attention to the less celebrated achievement of James Harrington (1611-77) and to his use of a classical idiom of republican citizenship. Classical republicanism turned out to be a vital hidden ingredient in the history of English political thought, which assumptions about the importance of a Lockean language of natural rights had hitherto rendered invisible.

In The Machiavellian Moment (1975) Pocock showed how this republican stream had its source in an Aristotelian civic tradition renewed by Machiavelli in the Discourses on Livy, and went on to depict its full spate in the politics of Augustan England. From the 1690s a fiscal-military state of public debt, standing armies and a mushrooming financial sector prompted Harrington’s immediate heirs towards a vigorous exploration of the effects of different forms of property, and their distribution, on the civic virtue of the political classes. This language of civic humanism was soon adopted by British colonists in North America, where it remained dominant long after its demise in 18th-century England: ‘The Nixon Administration was immolated on altars originally built by the Old Whigs; and the knives were still sharp.’

If the first phase of Pocock’s project involved writing a more textured history of Anglo-American political thought, the second promoted a pluralist reconstruction of British history – once a polite way of describing the history of Greater England – as the history of four nations. The advent of European integration led this post-imperial New Zealander, based from the mid-1960s in the United States, to reflect, somewhat wistfully, on his British inheritance: an ‘archipelagic’ bequest determined by the long interactions of the peoples, kingdoms, cultures and churches of these islands. Pocock’s prophetic – yet still controversial – plea for a new subject, first articulated in 1974, led eventually, a decade or so after his promptings, to a vigorous new branch of historiography which tackled the British problem and the related issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe.

Pocock himself broadened his analyses to consider the political discourses associated with the Unions of 1603, 1707 and 1800, and the dynamic role of the Scottish Enlightenment in the evolution of the Whig tradition. Indeed, iconoclasts from the self-confident peripheries who debunk Old England’s identity and past glories often invoke Pocock’s name; but they cannot count him among their number. On the contrary, Pocock flags up achievements scarcely imagined by the most John Bullish of patriots. Nobody has done more to puff the notion of an ‘English Enlightenment’, a concept that remains an oxymoron in many quarters, where, Pocock concedes, ‘an ox sits upon the tongue.’ But this aversion rests, as we shall see, on the assumption that there was a definitive ‘Enlightenment Project’, a benchmark against which the England of Whig government, Newtonian science and latitudinarian religion somehow fails to pass muster.

Far from marking the limits of Pocock’s historical imagination, the British world has been a point of departure to more exotic destinations. Italy between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment exerted a particular fascination through the scholarship of Arnaldo Momigliano and Franco Venturi. Further afield, his interests as a historian of political thought have extended to ancient Chinese philosophy and the conceptual vocabulary of Maori discourse.

The world of Edward Gibbon (1737-94) provides a canvas spacious enough for a work which blends the various themes that have exercised Pocock’s career. For Barbarism and Religion is no narrow biographical study, but provides a full ‘ecology’ of Gibbon’s contexts, including a range of possible influences on him. It explores, for example, themes of classical virtue and republican liberty from the perspective of the literary and historical quarrel between ancients and moderns; the canon of Enlightenment historical narratives, from Giannone to Hume; the ideological struggles of Augustan England, both in church and state (and the place of the Gibbon family within them); and the fluidity within Europe’s decidedly plural Enlightenments. Included among Pocock’s several Enlightenments are England’s clerical Enlightenment and those enlightened ‘spawn’ of Calvinism, the Huguenot république des lettres and the Scottish Enlightenment, whose astonishing fertility endowed 18th-century Britain with a genuinely ‘Anglo-Scottish’ high culture. Pocock – perhaps alone among early modern British historians – is also able to do justice to Gibbon’s global vision. Indeed, the central thesis – among the many compelling ideas to be found in Barbarism and Religion – involves a major recasting of the celebrated historian of the Latin West as an unexpected historian of a Eurasian Middle Earth.

Unexpected because we think we know Gibbon. His intimate life seems familiar, from his swollen left testicle to his romance with the penniless Suzanne Curchod, which ended with his decision not to sacrifice the comfortable, if empty, existence of a gentleman and scholar: ‘I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.’ We also think we know the work and its origins. Gibbon reflected in his Memoirs how ‘at Rome on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter ... the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.’ This might be a plausible account of the genesis of the idea, but not of the form which the Decline and Fall would eventually assume, of a history focused on Byzantium and its Eastern hinterlands. Too many readers fail to venture beyond the familiar first volume, and accept all too willingly Gibbon’s carefully spun account of his magnum opus found in the Memoirs. Picture instead the travels undertaken only in his imagination: picture the historian as he sits, in Pocock’s parody, ‘musing on the Golden Horn while the muezzins were calling the faithful to prayer across the dome of Hagia Sophia’.

Here is a Gibbon who diverges not only from our preconceptions of his achievement, but also from many of his contemporaries among the great historians of 18th-century Europe. In a series of case studies of major historians in Volume II of Barbarism and Religion, Pocock outlines the dominant macronarrative of Enlightenment historiography. This traced the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, the irruption of barbarian tribes from the North and East, the rise of feus and the emergence of feudal barbarian kingdoms, the rise of the Papacy, the decline of feudalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the eventual appearance of commercial society, urban politeness and a stable European states system. Pocock argues that Gibbon’s aborted History of the Liberty of the Swiss, dealing with the decay of feudalism between the 13th and 15th centuries, would have contributed to this genre. Indeed, the Decline and Fall remains something of a glorious accident. Gibbon sought, but never found ‘a theme for a history of post-medieval Europe written in the grand manner’. He considered undertaking more commonplace narratives on such topics as the expedition of Charles VIII to Italy, the career of Sir Walter Ralegh and the history of Florence, as well as the history of the Swiss. All of these had some bearing on the making of early modern Europe. Aspects of this Eurocentric interpretation of the Christian millennium also featured in the Decline and Fall, not least in the early ‘General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West’, but became increasingly marginal to Gibbon’s project as it was progressively realised between the publication of the first volume in 1776 and the final instalment in 1788, which tells a very different story of barbarism and religion.

The Western Papacy might be expected to loom large in Gibbon’s history. Gibbon’s allegiances favoured the papal Guelf over the imperial Ghibelline cause: consider his unfinished ‘Antiquities of the House of Brunswick’ (1790-91) and his remark elsewhere that ‘the Guelfs displayed the banner of liberty and the church’. The Popes were, of course, unlikely friends of liberty, but they had posed less of a threat to the communities of Western Europe than the more immediate ambitions to universal monarchy of the Hohenstaufen emperors. Yet Gibbon’s ecclesiastical history is an account not of the Papacy – despite his own allusion to the cross on the Capitol – but a patristic story of the Eastern Fathers and Councils and the Platonist corruptions of Christian theology. This Eastern focus is readily explained. Pocock provides a plausible account of an English Enlightenment whose defining axes of debate were Christological and Trinitarian. Beneath the obvious shock of the new – the accommmodation of religion with Newtonian science and the emerging insights of a critical Scriptural hermeneutic – the English Enlightenment witnessed the revival of ancient disputes from the patristic era. Indeed, heresy did not always spring from a deliberate programme of deist subversion, but, as often as not, from a quest for an uncorrupted primitive Christianity.

Barbarism presents the other ‘enigmatic’ departure from the template of Enlightened historiography. In addition to the familiar Gothic ancestors of the Western European nations, the Decline and Fall engaged with the histories of two further categories of barbarian, the Arabs and Persians of the Near East, and the nomads of the central Asiatic steppe, the Huns, Turks and Mongols. The history of the Empire in the East could not be understood without reference to the shocks experienced in Europe from the movements of these Asiatic peoples and to their ultimate causes in the political convulsions of the Chinese Empire beyond. Moreover, was the history of the Goths – complacently celebrated as the origin myth of the nations of Western Europe – so easily separated from the history of more alien barbarisms beyond? Did not the Tartars, after all, have their parliaments, or Coroultai?

However, an awareness of a common Eurasian barbarity served only to heighten Gibbon’s appreciation of Europe’s contingent uniqueness as a lively mosaic of states – ‘twelve powerful though unequal kingdoms, three respectable commonwealths, and a variety of smaller though independent states’ – which had escaped the dead hand of Oriental despotism. He rejoiced in the progress of the military arts which now guaranteed the vigorous interdependence of the European states system ‘secure from any future irruption’ of Asiatic barbarism. To become conquerors, the barbarians needed to become civilised: optimistically to modern eyes, the otherwise ironic Gibbon believed that advances in war were accompanied by ‘proportionable improvements in the arts of peace’.

Nor should we exaggerate Gibbon’s originality as an apostle of globalism. If the terminus of Enlightened narrative was the modern European states system, then the latter’s reach now extended across northern Asia. The entry of China into the European polity of nations is symbolised for Pocock by the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689). This agreement with an expansionist Russia was the first occasion when Manchu China implicitly recognised a European power as an equal in status. Pocock suggests other reasons why Asia crept in at the margins of the Enlightenment narrative. Voltaire’s history, for example, was Latinocentric and Gallocentric in its account of Europe, but the world beyond Christendom had its uses. Gentile history – and especially the written evidence of a distant antiquity in Chinese chronology – provided a formidable weapon for a deist keen to puncture the sacred pretensions of the histoire universelle and, by extension, the authority of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Closer to home, Pocock tells a quite different story about the place of Eurasian pastoralism in the conjectural histories of the Scottish Enlightenment. Evidence from the Asian steppe was grist to the mill of universalists dedicated to explaining the stages through which humans had passed from the primitive hunter-gatherer era to the refinement of modern commercial society. As Pocock demonstrates, Gibbon’s interest in the peoples of the steppe was quite different: to explain the particular historical causes in Central Asia which lay behind the incursions of the Goths and Germans into the Latin West.

Gibbon’s interest in the East was nourished from much deeper – and surprising – indigenous sources. Pocock notes that both his Enlightenment and his historiography had ‘Anglican origins from which there was never any need that his European journeyings or the growth of his unbelief should separate him’. Gibbon’s departure from the pattern of Enlightened narrative was anticipated in the continuation of Archdeacon Echard’s Roman History, which dealt, significantly, with the period ‘from the Removal of the Imperial Seat by Constantine the Great, to the Taking of Constantinople by the Turks’. More remarkable is the way Pocock establishes a plausible High Church provenance for Gibbon’s Enlightenment. The pietistic non-juror William Law was an influential presence in the Tory and High Church Gibbon family circle as the spiritual adviser of Edward’s aunt Hester; but Pocock brings out the ecumenical implications in the historian’s formative reading. Was it not the Laudians who had broken with the Protestant demonisation of the Papal Antichrist? Pocock notes that an acknowledged favourite of the young Gibbon – William Howell’s High Church History of the World– advanced a neutral depiction of the Pope as ‘a patriarch who had succumbed to the temptations of civil history’.

Clerical erudition certainly distanced Gibbon from the free-range speculation associated with the Encyclopédie, but we should not view the former simply as a counterweight to the wider values of the Enlightenment. The battle of the books, once vulgarly misconstrued as a quarrel between superior Moderns who despised antiquity and antiquarian defenders of classical values, is now much better understood. Musty antiquaries were to be found among the ranks of the Moderns, aiming to use modern scholarly techniques – following the pioneering work in church history of Mabillon and Montfaucon – to know the world of antiquity better than the Ancients who had lived in it. Worldly politeness, on the other hand, was associated with the gentleman-champions of the relevance of pagan antiquity to the Europe of 1700. Alerted by Hume to the ways in which an Erastian ‘cultic’ establishment could ‘lobotomise’ religious disputatiousness, Gibbon never became a philosophe, but remained ‘a silently sceptical conformist to the Church of England, studying the history of a theology that maintained it and it maintained, but in which he did not believe.’

Anglican theology, perhaps more than Enlightened narrative, had offered Gibbon an intellectual route out of European history from the beginning. Defences of the orthodox Christian story from the 17th and 18th centuries, such as the Universal History (1736-44), were necessarily global in compass. Indications of a unity concealed beneath the apparent diversity and otherness of the peoples beyond Christendom seemed to provide telling evidence for the embattled historicity of the Old Testament, as Pocock shows in his chapter on James Parsons and his forgotten classic of ethnic theology, the Remains of Japhet (1767). Gibbon had been immersed in such arguments from childhood, most notably in the reconciliation of Oriental and Jewish chronologies. A universal chronology he composed around 1751 seems to confirm his sad boast that ‘the dynasties of Assyria and Egypt’ were his ‘top and cricket-ball’. Nor should we forget the nice symmetry of his boyhood encounter, described in the Memoirs, with the work of an earlier Pocock – Edward Pocock, or Pococke (1604-91), appointed by Laud himself to the chair of Arabic at Oxford in 1636: ‘Before I was sixteen I had exhausted all that could be learned in English of the Arabs and Persians, the Tartars and Turks, and the same ardour urged me to guess at the French of d’Herbelot, and to construe the barbarous Latin of Pocock’s Abulpharagius.’