Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon; drawing by David Levine

Apart from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon published only three distinct works: his Essai sur l’Etude de la Littérature, written in Lausanne, in 1758-1759, at the age of twenty-one, and published in London in 1761; his Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the Aeneid (1770); and his Vindication of the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of The Decline and Fall (1779). In retrospect, he was not particularly proud of any of these works, all of which were essentially controversial. He refused opportunities to reprint the first of them; he regretted the irreverent tone and “cowardly” anonymity of the second; and he expressed the hope that the third, having achieved its purpose, would be forgotten. The only work, apart from The Decline and Fall, by which he wished to be remembered, was his Memoirs, which he left incomplete at his death in 1793.

When Gibbon died, his closest friend, Lord Sheffield, whom he had named as his executor, took charge both of his body and of his papers. As executor, Sheffield was both possessive and efficient. He buried Gibbon’s body in his private mausoleum in his own parish church, under a florid epitaph by the famous Whig scholar Dr. Samuel Parr. Walled up and unadvertised, the tomb is now invisible and almost unknown. The fate of the papers was somewhat similar. Sheffield went through them with care, and having published what he thought fit, as the Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon (1796), buried the originals in his private archives. Confident that he alone knew Gibbon as he really was, he was determined that no profane scholar should reveal what he himself had thought fit to expurgate, supply, or adjust. In his will, he adjured his heir not to allow access to the papers, and in fact, in a whole century, only Dean Milman caught a privileged glimpse of them.

It was not till 1894 that the papers, having been bought from the last Lord Sheffield by Lord Rosebery, and by him presented to the British Museum, could be freely seen. The extent of Sheffield’s editorial work could then be appreciated, and a mass of new material became available to Gibbon’s editors and biographers. The biographers have used it; but the editors have so far confined themselves to the personal records of Gibbon’s life: the Memoirs, the journals, the letters. For the minor works of literature and scholarship we still rely on the printed texts published by Gibbon or Lord Sheffield.

Now we have a new edition based on modern textual scholarship. Miss Craddock entitles her work The English Essays of Edward Gibbon; but the title is somewhat misleading, and it is well to be clear precisely what is contained in this handsome volume. Of thirty-three items, it would be difficult to describe as many as eight as “essays.” These include the Critical Observations and the Vindication, already printed in Gibbon’s lifetime, and several pieces which he left in manuscript and which were printed, more or less completely, by Sheffield. The remaining contents of the book can be described as “working notes”: Gibbon’s comments on his reading, notes of historical problems or errors, corrigenda for The Decline and Fall, draft plans for further writing, entries in commonplace books, marginal and miscellaneous jottings. Almost all of these too were printed, in whole or in part, by Sheffield.

In fact, only ten items, all of them fragmentary, covering only some forty out of 600 pages, are altogether new, and of these fragments only one item (Gibbon’s marginal notes to Herodotus) was unknown to Sheffield (though many of these notes have been published by Lord Rothschild, the later owner of Gibbon’s copy of Herodotus). We can therefore say that what Miss Craddock has done is to unscramble the work of Sheffield. Sheffield labored to present the miscellaneous and fragmentary writings of Gibbon, in so far as he thought them significant, in an orderly and comprehensible form. That was the accepted duty of a faithful editor in the eighteenth century. Miss Craddock has labored to present a selected group of the same writings, restored to their original disorder, and then explained by bibliographical and other notes of great, not to say deterrent, learning. This, no doubt, is the accepted duty of a scholarly editor in the twentieth century.

However, provided that we know what to expect, we shall not be disappointed. Anything by Gibbon is worth reading. Even in the fragments we may be surprised by a new instance of his critical acumen and insight, or pleased to recognize in embryo a familiar passage, or footnote, of The Decline and Fall, or delighted by a sudden Gibbonian turn of phrase. And the two finished essays—the Critical Observations and the Vindication—are not so well known, or so easily accessible, that a new edition is not welcome. Besides, these controversial essays, like those fragments, are not only evidence of Gibbon’s historical method: they also illustrate the intellectual background of eighteenth-century England into which Gibbon never really fitted.


We may think of Gibbon as typical of eighteenth-century England, but that is because we see so much of eighteenth-century England through him. In fact he created his own position; and in order to create it, he had to challenge the existing literary and scholarly establishment. In his first work, his Essai sur l’Etude de la Littérature, he had taken up his position between the érudits and the philosophes of France: he had, implicitly, challenged the new dictators of French literature, the Encyclopaedists. In his second, the Critical Observations, he took up his position in England and challenged the new dictators of English scholarship, “the Warburtonians.”

William Warburton, bishop of Gloucester, was a strange character such as occasionally arises, even in our days, to disturb and discredit the calm world of scholarship. Of humble origin, he had risen, by lucky contacts and his own abilities, to wealth and eminence, but he had never acquired the politer usages of the society which he had invaded; and once recognized as a scholar, he set out, by uninhibited self-assertion and denigration, to establish a personal tyranny in the Republic of Letters. In truculent language, he declared his own conjectures to be “discoveries,” his arguments to be “proofs,” and all who dissented from him to be an envious and third-rate generation, unworthy to be his contemporaries. In this career of literary swashbuckling, Warburton was followed by a few faithful sycophants, of whom the most notorious—“the Warburtonian” par excellence—was the man whom he chose to be his own archdeacon, Richard Hurd. Hurd magnified Warburton’s genius in order to find room for himself in its shade. His patron’s mere amusements, he wrote, had contributed more to the understanding of literature than the combined efforts of Aristotle and Longinus. After Warburton’s death, Hurd (now himself a bishop) published his letters and thereby prolonged for a few years the fame, or notoriety, of both.

Warburton’s most ambitious work was an enormous but incomplete book, The Divine Legation of Moses (1738), in which he ascribed to Moses a divinely inspired political system. Gibbon read the Divine Legation in 1761 and was unconvinced by in In 1770 he was still sufficiently irritated by Warburton’s pretensions, and by their apparent success, to write a refutation of one section of it. This was the section in which Warburton (as Gibbon believed) travestied the greatest of Roman poems by representing Virgil as an initiate of the Eleusinian mysteries, and the visit of Aeneas to Hades in the sixth book of the Aeneid as a farfetched allegory of that supposed initiation.

Gibbon’s Critical Observations are his first published work in English and the first example of his distinctive style. Documented by exact scholarship, they are animated by a robust common sense, a distaste for subtle hypothesis, and a conviction that great poetry spurns sophistry. To discover a system of politics in the Aeneid, he declares, is perverse: it “required the critical telescope of the great Warburton. The naked eye of common sense could not reach so far.” “His Lordship’s chymistry (did his hypothesis require it) would extract a system of policy from the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.” “Let us for a moment lay aside hypothesis and read Virgil.” Once, Gibbon admits, he was himself tempted to explain an ode of Horace with the aid of an equally elaborate hypothesis. “My ideas appeared (I mean to myself) most ingeniously conceived. I read the Ode once more and burnt my hypothesis.” Having thus undermined Warburton’s theories at their base, he then drew on his reserves of exact scholarship and effectively destroyed them in detail.

What provoked Gibbon to attack Warburton? He himself wrote afterward that it was “the love of Virgil, the hatred of a dictator, and the example of Lowth”—that is, of Robert Lowth, bishop of London, who had previously been attacked by Warburton and had successfully demolished him. But this answer seems to me incomplete, for it takes no notice of another document which lies outside this collection. For two years later Gibbon made another assault on “the Warburtonians” in the person of Warburton’s toady, Archdeacon Hurd.

In this same year, 1770, Warburton had founded a series of lectures on the Prophecies of the Christian Church, and had appointed Hurd as the first lecturer. In 1772 Hurd published his lectures and Gibbon wrote to him, again anonymously, a long and reasoned letter of refutation. Hurd had assumed that the Book of Daniel had been written, as it pretended to have been, in the time of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. Gibbon argued that it had been written 400 years later, in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes—that being the time when the prophecies, hitherto precise, become vague and incorrect. Hurd replied civilly, defending his position, but there is no doubt that Gibbon was right.


Although the language of the controversy was courteous, Gibbon clearly hated Hurd, and Hurd, in due course, returned the hatred. In his Memoirs Gibbon described Hurd as “base and malignant,” the servile assassin hired by Warburton to attack his enemies, while Hurd confidently declared that Gibbon, after his death, would have no admirers. The controversy with Hurd should, I suspect, be seen as an extension of the controversy with Warburton: together, they show Gibbon taking up his position in the fierce intellectual debate of eighteenth-century England. On one side are the clerical dogmatists, who may not have agreed among themselves, but who shared an intolerant, even persecuting temper; on the other are the skeptics, the latitudinarians, the “deists”: men like the liberal bishop Richard Watson, the “infidel” clergyman Conyers Middleton, the anti-Warburtonian scholar Samuel Parr. All these were Cambridge Whigs.

In retrospect, Gibbon might regret his attack on Warburton. “Warburton,” he would write, “was not ridiculous.” But at the time the insolence of “the Warburtonians” had been one aspect of an intellectual intolerance which Gibbon hated in others too. It is against this background that we must interpret his antipathy to Dr. Johnson, whose “bigoted though vigorous mind” was “greedy of every pretence to hate and to persecute those who dissent from his creed”; and the same background colored, in retrospect, his recollections of his own brief period as an undergraduate in Tory Oxford.

A few years later this same background was illuminated, and inflamed, by the publication of The Decline and Fall. Gibbon afterward expressed surprise at the ferocity of the reaction to his first volume. Had he realized (he wrote) that his countrymen were still “so fondly attached even to the name and shadow of Christianity,” he would have written more cautiously. However, when he found himself attacked, and his good faith impugned, he decided to hit back and finally to silence all his critics. By now he was absolutely sure of himself, and having been attacked personally, and on his own ground, he could afford to let himself go. He therefore suspended his customary “grave and temperate irony” and launched his last and most devastating work of controversy, the Vindication.

Has there ever been such a literary massacre as Gibbon’s Vindication? It ended all controversy about his scholarship. It is still a pleasure to read. The victims may have been worthless, the whole question has long been extinct, but the verve and vigor of the writing—the flashing wit, the remorseless hammer blows, the sheer virtuosity of annihilation—preserve it. Above all there are those splendid metaphors. There is Gibbon’s preliminary description of his undertaking: “this hostile march over a dreary and barren desert, where thirst, hunger and intolerable weariness are more to be dreaded than the darts of the enemy.” There is the delightful metaphor of the “theological barometer,” of which Cardinal Baronius and Conyers Middleton constitute the two extremities, “as the former sunk to the lowest degree of credulity which was compatible with learning, and the latter rose to the highest pitch of skepticism in anywise consistent with religion.” But above all I enjoy the successive appearances of those two “staunch and sturdy polemics,” brandishing their “rustic cudgels,” “the confederate doctors” of Oxford: Dr. Chelsum of Christ Church and his ally, the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, Dr. Randolph.

Chelsum and Randolph are indeed the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the Vindication. They make a noble entry, each solemnly expressing his indebtedness to the other; and indeed, says Gibbon, “the two friends are so happily united by art and nature” that if one had not pointed out the valuable communications of the other,

it would have been impossible to separate their respective property. Writers who possess any freedom of mind may be known from each other by the peculiar character of their style and sentiments; but the champions who are enlisted in the service of Authority commonly wear the uniform of the regiment. Oppressed with the same yoke, covered with the same trappings, they heavily move along, perhaps not with an equal pace, in the same beaten track of prejudice and preferment.

Thereafter Chelsum and Randolph never reappear but to be flattened by some resounding blow. Together they are convicted of swallowing “two obsolete legends, the least absurd of which staggered the well-disciplined credulity of a Franciscan friar.” Together we see them entrenching themselves, in defense of the credibility of Eusebius, “in a very muddy soil, behind three several fortifications, which do not exactly support each other.” In the end Chelsum is knocked out by a quotation from Molière’s Tartuffe, Randolph by a reference to the national council of Egypt, “and I still think,” remarks Gibbon, “that an hundred bishops, with Athanasius at their head, were as competent judges of the discipline of the fourth century, as even the Lady Margaret’s professor of divinity in the university of Oxford.”

After the Vindication, Gibbon had no further need of controversy, and the successive volumes of The Decline and Fall, setting out his full historical philosophy, absolved him from debate with his contemporaries. But what was he to do when the last of those volumes had been published? At first he rejoiced in his freedom. He relaxed in his library and read again, for pleasure, the Greek classics. It was then (it seems) that he re-read, and annotated, the Histories of Herodotus. But as he read, ideas came constantly to his mind, and soon he was writing new notes and envisaging new books. He thought of writing distinct historical essays which, in due course, could be published together. One such essay, or rather series of observations, arose directly from Herodotus. It was on the alleged circumnavigation of Africa in ancient times. Another more ambitious essay was on the history of the house of Brunswick which, after ruling for several centuries in Italy and Germany, was now established on the throne of Britain. Gibbon’s long essay on “the Antiquities of the House of Brunswick” is not important in itself; but it is interesting because, in writing it, he found himself insensibly led toward a new and vaster project. The man who led him in this new direction was the great Italian archivist, Ludovico Muratori.

In the early eighteenth century, when the Dukes of Brunswick sought to reconstruct their history, they employed for that purpose two of the most famous librarians of the time: Leibniz for their German, Muratori for their Italian line. Gibbon inevitably used both these predecessors, but as a scholar he preferred Muratori who had already served him as “my guide and master in the history of Italy.” Leibniz was admittedly one of “the first philosophical names of his age and country,” but, said Gibbon, “his reputation perhaps would be more pure and permanent if he had not ambitiously grasped the whole circle of human science”: he was like “those heroes whose empire has been lost in the ambition of universal conquest.”

Muratori had not “aspired to the fame of historical genius”; he had moved “in the narrow circle of an Italian priest”; but he was “philosophical” in detail and all censure was disarmed by his modesty and by the vastness of his single-handed achievement: he had revealed the sources of medieval Italian history, and in his Rerum Italicarum Scriptores he had collected and edited the whole range of the historians of Italy from AD 500 to 1500. While he was writing his essay, Gibbon was also compiling his Memoirs with their notable tribute to the busy “Benedictine workshop” of the monks of St. Maur, so different from the torpid routine of the Fellows of Magdalen college. Inspired by these examples Gibbon, in the last year of his life, conceived the noble ambition of publishing the Scriptores Rerum Anglicarum from the beginning to 1500: of being, at least by inspiration, “our English Muratori.”

Of course he did not propose to do it himself. But he found, or thought that he had found, the ideal editor to work under his direction. This was the Scottish antiquary and historian John Pinkerton, who had been introduced to him by Horace Walpole. Together, Gibbon and Pinkerton planned the work. It was to appear in several volumes and Gibbon would write the preface to each volume. Meanwhile, being in England, he wrote the prospectus. His plan was to return to Lausanne and there to read through the whole series of English historians in chronological order. In fact he never left England. The prospectus itself, according to Sheffield, was “a sketch interrupted by death”; and after his death Pinkerton shrank from the task, declaring that, without Gibbon’s help, it would be impossible. The systematic publication of the English chronicles had to wait for another half-century, till the organizing energy of the great Victorian archivists created the Rolls series, and Gibbon had to be content with his achievement as the author of The Decline and Fall. To that great work these miscellaneous writings are, as it were, additional footnotes. But Gibbonian footnotes, as every reader knows, are a literature in themselves.

This Issue

October 18, 1973