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Edward Gibbon


Edward Gibbon

From The Oxford Companion to English Literature:

 Edward Gibbon (1737-94), born in Putney of a good family. He was a sickly child and his education at Westminster and at Magdalen College, Oxford, was irregular; in his posthumously published Memoirs he paints a vivid portrait of the 'narrow, lazy and oppressive' spriti of Oxford, and of the 'idle and unprofitable' time he spent there.  He became a Catholic convert at the age of 16, perhaps thorugh reading Conyers Middleton and Bossuet, perhaps through reading the works of the Elizabethan Jesuit Robert Parsons, and was sent off to Lausanne by his father, where he was reconverted to Protestantism. There he continued to read voraciously, as he had done since boyhood, his 'blind and boyish taste for exotic history' maturing into serious study of French and Latin classics; he also became attached to Suzanne Curchod (later Mme Necker, mother of Mme de Staël), but his father persuaded him to break off the engagement and he returned to England in 1758 after an absence of nearly five years. In 1761 he published his Essai sur l'étude de la littérature, of which an English version appeared in 1764. From 1759 he served as a captain in the Hampshire Militia until he left again for the Continent in 1763; it was in Italy, while 'musing among the ruins of the Capitol' that he formed the plan of his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His improvident father's death left him in some difficulties, but he was able to settle in London in 1772 to proceed with his great work. He entered Parliament in 1774, voted steadily for Lord North, and was made a commissioner of trade and plantations, but his parliamentary career added nothing to his reputation. He was also elected to Dr. Johnson's Club in 1774. In 1776 appeared the first volume of the History which was very favourably received, although his chapters on the growth of Christianity provoked criticisms from those he mockingly dubbed the 'Watchmen of the Holy City'. To these theological critics Gibbon replied in 1779 in A Vindication of Some Passages in the XVth and XVIth Chapters. The second and third volumes appeared in 1781, but were less warmly received; he himself suspected he had become prolix through 'superfluous diligence'. He retired to Lausanne in 1783 to share the home of his old friend Deyverdun, who died not long afterwards. There Gibbon completed the work; he wrote as memorably of its completion as of its inception, describing his sense of freedom followed by a sober melancholy at taking 'an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion'. The last three volumes were published in 1788.  He returned to England and spent most of his remaining days in the home of his friend the Earl of Sheffield (John Baker Holroyd), who put together his remarkable Memoirs from various drafts and fragments, publishing them in 1796 with his Miscellaneous Works. The memoirs reveal Gibbon's sense of vocation as a historian, and record on several occasions his gratitude at having been born 'in a free and enlightened country'. The Decline and Fall is a work which responds to the full range of the culture of the Enlightenment, in both its English and its European aspects, and Gibbon has been seen as one of the last of the great Augustans. The standard edition of the History is by David Womersley (1994) and the standard biography is by Patricia Craddock; see also the life by D. M. Low (1937).

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a work by Gibbon, vol. 1 of the first (quarto) edition published 1776, vols. ii and iii 1781, and the last three vols. 1788.

This, the most celebrated historical work in English literature, falls into three divisions, as defined by the author in the preface, according to a plan that expanded during composition: from the age of Trajan and the Antonines to the subversion of the Western Empire; from the reign of Justinian in the East to the establishment of the second or German Empire of the West, under Charlemagne; from the revival of the Western Empire to the taking of Constantinople by the Turks. It thus covers a period of about 13 centuries, and comprehends such vast subjects as the establishment of Christianity, the movements and settlements of the Teutonic tribes, the conquests of the Muslims, and the Crusades. It traces in fact the connection of the ancient world with the modern.

Gibbon's great erudition, breadth of treatment, and powerful organization, render this a lasting monument, of substantial accuracy as well as elegance. His measured and dignified prose is cool, lucid, and enlivened by ironic with, much of it aimed at the early Church and the credulity and barbarism that overwhelmed the noble Roman virtues he so much admired. J. B. Bury's editions (1896-1900, 1909-14, 1926-9) are supplemented with notes incorporating subsequent research, but most of Gibbon's scholarship remains unchallenged. There is an edition by D. Womersley, 3 vols. (1994).

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