The Idea of Perfect History
by George Huppert
University of Illinois Press, 215 pp., $7.50
Among those gaps in knowledge to which Francis Bacon draws attention is the absence of any “just story of learning.” What are the antiquities and originals of knowledge? What have been the flourishings, oppositions, decays, depressions, oblivions, removes, “and all other events concerning learning throughout the ages of the world”? History, says Bacon, has not yet concerned itself with these matters, with the rise and fall of what we would call civilizations. Later he speaks of “imperfect” and “perfect” histories. Imperfect are memorials or “naked” accounts of events; imperfect, too, are antiquities, or monuments and other fragments of the past scrupulously collected. There could be, however, a “just and perfect” history, though in defining this he becomes unclear.
The Advancement of Learning was published at the beginning of a new century, in 1605; its author seems unaware that in France in the century just ended there had been a great historiographical movement profoundly concerned with the rise and fall of civilizations throughout the ages of the world, which sought to use every kind of historical discipline in the effort to evolve “l’idée d’une histoire accomplie,” or a new, universal, all-inclusive, “perfect” kind of history.
George Huppert’s book explores the writing of history in sixteenth-century France, a neglected field in the history of historiography. Huppert is not the first to point out this gap, as he acknowledges. There is a chapter on “The French Prelude to Modern Historiography” in J. G. A. Pocock’s book The Ancient Constitutions and the Feudal Law (recently reissued in paperback) and George Nadel has pointed to the “untilled field” between the overcultivated areas represented by Machiavelli and Voltaire.
The French writers now brought to the notice of historians of history were largely trained jurists, drawn from the influential magistrate class. They represent in France the importance of the legal tradition in the development of interest in history; Andrea Alciati had carried to France from Italy the latest legal-historical techniques. The historians were monarchists, whether Catholic or Huguenot in their religious views; they were interested in theories of monarchy and largely belonged to the liberal, tolerant, “politique” group which sought to override religious differences through loyalty to a liberal conception of monarchy. Huppert argues that the recognition of their work has been delayed because it was suppressed and temporarily forgotten in the rigidity of the reaction against liberalism, called “disorder,” in the repressive and absolutist climate of seventeenth-century France. Yet their writings survived and surreptitiously fed the streams leading to Bayle, Voltaire, and the historiography of enlightenment.
This is a convincing thesis and fits in with what one knows of other aspects of the culture of sixteenth-century France and of other traditions stemming from that wonderful age that were broken and obscured by the religious wars in which the century finally went down in chaos, and still further forgotten in the determination of the new century to obliterate the confusions of the past by imposing a superficial order.
Outstanding among the representatives of …