The Fell Gard Codices

The Image of the Historian

March 23rd, 2013

I’ve been reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire off and on for some time now. I’m well into volume 2, somewhere around page 1500 (out of about 2500). One thing that’s only recently occurred to me is how much the book seems to have shaped the idea of the historian in at least the English-speaking world. That is, there’s a sense of Gibbon as a scholar that comes across in the work — not just who he is, but how he operates — which I think created an archetypal idea of ‘historian’ for many readers.

I’m not talking here about the actual facts of Gibbon’s life, or about what he wrote of himself in his autobiography. What I’m saying is that as one reads the Decline and Fall one has a sense of Gibbon-the-author, and of how he put the book together. You pick up that sense from asides, from footnotes, from hints in the text. And this sense (I think) created a general idea of what a ‘historian’ is like; or at least what that image used to be. This is distinct from the reality of what a historian is, and from the question of what a historian should be. All I’m saying is that I think the book shaped the popular notion of ‘historian.’

To judge by the book, Gibbon is a studious, serious collator of texts, who judiciously and critically evaluates the work of his predecessors. He tends to prefer analysing texts to analysing physical objects, and doesn’t describe place much at all; in fact, he may not even have visited the places he writes about. He is erudite and learned, but also class-conscious and hierarchical. He presents information as though there were no debate even possible. He avoids grand theories in favour of narrative (something very different from what the historian’s become today). And makes no bones about accepting his society’s values over those of the society he studies, or indeed of any other society. But also has a stunning mastery of English prose, and a knack for sensing and describing character in history. Plus a wit that manifests itself in sometimes sententious and sometimes cutting asides. Above all, perhaps, he is passionately engaged with the matter of his work, carrying on debates and handing down verdicts in extensive footnotes.

Some of these things are good, some are bad. But together they do make reading his work a powerful experience. And, as I say, may have helped to foster the image of Gibbon as the historian par excellence.

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