From the “I-Don’t-Know-If-You-Care-But-Here-It-Comes” file.
The name of Edward Gibbon has come up on this blog and over on “My Beautiful Wickedness” as part of the Great Smelly Europeans discussion. I thought I might waste some time telling you who this guy was and why so many history types (especially Late Antiquity and Medieval scholars) would like to spit in his morning gruel.
Edward Gibbon has a decent claim to being the most important figure to come out of the English part of the Enlightenment. His biggest claim to fame is his six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which he published between 1776 and 1788. By the way, 1776 is kind of a big year for the British part of the Enlightenment since it also saw the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations only about a month after Gibbon’s first volume.
Now, to be fair to old Edward, we academic history types kind of owe him. In writing a massive work that combined a chronicle of events with social and political analysis of the causes of major changes he basically set the agenda for how western history has worked. He backed it up with lots of the primary source work historians have gone for ever since. This is a prime piece of Enlightenment writing. Reason applied to fact, no room for the weight of authority or the supernatural. Why people did things in human terms. It also contains thunderous prose, wicked turns of phrase, and vibrant depictions of major figures.
It also carries many of the prejudices of the Enlightenment – and therein lies part of the problem the problem. Gibbon draws a picture of the late Roman world as decadent and corrupt. This Roman world is locked in endless struggle with the uncouth, but vibrant, barbarians of Germania. The Roman world is finally laid low by its internal decline, and the major agent of thew weakening of Rome was – the Christian Church.
“The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister; … and the soldier’s pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity … the attention of emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country.”
The philosophes of the Enlightenment had no love for Christianity (or any revealed religion) generally, and they didn’t care for Catholicism in particular. Gibbon was educated in rational theology, but had a youthful flirtation with Catholicism before converting back to the Protestant ranks. Who knows if this had anything to do with his choice of prime villain? Certainly, his thinking was in line with the general ideas of the Enlightenment. The philosophes saw the Church as the major force retarding the growth of Reason, which they saw as the key to all human advancement, and they saw advancement as both possible and desirable.
The philosophes looked back with admiration at the what hey dubbed the “Classical Age” of the Greeks and Romans. They saw this as a time of rational advancement. Gibbon’s admiration for Rome is clear. So is his hatred of what brought all of that down – Christianity and barbarism. Gibbon gave us a powerful narrative that dominated scholarship for almost two centuries and that remains in the public memory. There was “the glory that was Rome.” It rotted from within due to the decline of its classical virtues. It was threatened from without by unreasoned barbarians. Christianity provided the final deathblow to classic Roman virtue. The barbarians – reacting to weakness -rushed in. Rome fell and the “Dark Ages” – a time of backwardness, superstition, and decline – fell across Europe until the Renaissance.
So what’s the problem?
Well, that story isn’t actually all that true. First, let’s look at the result of the “Fall of Rome.” We can really thank Gibbon and his pals for the whole idea of the “Middle Ages.” The “middle” of what? Well, the “middle” between that “glorious” classical past and what the philosophes saw as the “glorious” modern period. The Middle Ages were the long centuries in between, an era dominated by the enemy of Reason – The Roman Catholic Church. A empty dark blotch on the upward progress of man.
I thought this was really summed up well by the on-screen prologue of the movie Kingdom of Heaven. The screenwriter talked about Europe of this period – somewhere around the 1180s (Baldwin IV, the leper king depicted in the film, died in 1184 and the Saladin’s victory at Hattin and the reconquest of Jerusalem took place in 1187) – as superstitious, backward and poor. 12th century Europe was exploding; new intellectual movements, increasing trade, growing cities, political and social change. Frankly, if western Europe were as benighted as this traditional view maintains, the mind boggles at how it successfully interjected itself into Palestine for so long. The fact is that the Middle Ages wasn’t a single time period – it was complex and compelling. It had its warts, but what period doesn’t? Still, Gibbon and his crowd have done such an excellent job of blackening the reputation of this period that this set of misconceptions is still showing up in popular entertainment (okay, the movie didn’t do that well – you know what I mean) even after decades of work by Medievalists trying to set the record straight.
The rest of the story also needs revision. I mentioned Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire in an earlier blog. Heather is pulling together decades of work on Late Antiquity to try to re-evaluate the Gibbon-descended narrative of what happened to the Roman West. He presents a very compelling – and exhaustively researched – case for a very different story. In this story (Heather would not, I think, claim it as solely his own) the Roman world isn’t in “decline.” It has problems, but again, what society hasn’t. The Empire enters the crises of the late fourth and fifth centuries strong, but flawed. The barbarians in this story are not the unreasoning primitives of earlier (and of Roman) accounts. Centuries of interaction with the Roman world have changed these Germanic tribesmen. Rather than unremitting hostility, their relationship with the Roman world was more symbiotic. Then came the Huns – right at a point of particular political weakness in the Western Empire’s leadership. The Eastern Empire is rather concerned with its own problems and with the rise of a new Persian state. Accidents, Roman flaws, Barbarian strengths, all of these had to combine in just the right way to explain this more complicated and compelling story of how the west changed.
So, I think it is fair to say that the attitude of many modern historians toward old Edward is equally complicated. He played an important role in shaping, even creating, what we do. He also got some things very wrong, sometimes due to the limitations of what he could know and sometimes due to his own ideological blinders.
Which makes this all a very human story, and that is what history is all about.