The Race of Time
by Herschel Baker
University of Toronto, 128 pp., $3.75
Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox
by Rosalie L. Colie
Princeton, 573 pp., $12.50
The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic
by A. Bartlett Giamatti
Princeton, 380 pp., $8.50
Modern advance in the study of Renaissance historiography has concentrated mainly on Italy; the application of its results to English Renaissance historiography and literature has been curiously long delayed. This is strange, since the tracing of rhetorical themes in the English Renaissance has grown in recent years into a formidable output of studies. In this enthusiasm for rhetoric it seems to have been forgotten that history as developed in the Italian Renaissance was itself a branch of rhetoric allied to moral philosophy; that arising out of the emphasis on history there arose new schools of historical thought which transformed the old assumptions; that of all the Renaissance themes adopted in England in the sixteenth century the new emphasis on history was one of the most prominent. In England the old style of chronicle history still held the field throughout the century though humanist influences came flowing in. Hall and Holinshed are chroniclers; a humanist educator, like Ascham, advises study of ancient historians for their style, and Thomas Elyot in The Governour and Walter Raleigh in his History of the World quote Cicero on the moral value of history. Humanist emphasis on exemplarism—on history as moral philosophy teaching right conduct by taking historical personages as examples of virtues and vices (this was of course also a medieval tradition)—was taken for granted, and humanist imitation of ancient historians flourished. How far the more advanced types of critical historical thinking really penetrated English theory or practice in the period is a moot question.
In his lectures at Toronto, now published as The Race of Time, Herschel Baker attacks the subject of English Renaissance historiography through studying three main themes, illustrated from a very wide range of reading. Among the many historians discussed or quoted are Holinshed, Speed, Camden, Selden, Thomas More, Cotton, Hakewill, Raleigh, Francis Bacon, and Milton. First he emphasizes that the Renaissance historian was concerned to find the “truth” of history when it followed, since truths differed from opinions, that history tended to be strongly propagandist. Next he proves that the exemplarist view of history was dominant. Finally he discusses the “Form of History” and finds that there was a growing dissatisfaction with traditional historical methods and a search for new approaches. He has skillfully organized his rich material to make these three points, and the points themselves are well chosen and fundamental.
THE “TRUTH” OF HISTORY which had to be set forth under the Tudor dynasty was the truth of the providential rise to power of the Tudors. All English chronicles must move towards this end; if they deviated from it, the censorship stepped in. We hardly yet realize the power of the censorship in Tudor England; as applied to history writing it was devastating; Baker mentions the case of Fulke Greville, who aspired to write a history of the reign of Elizabeth but was denied access to the records by Cecil. The great official propagandist history was John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, basically a chronicle history …