Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Charlotte Roberts's "Edward Gibbon and the Shape of History"

Charlotte Roberts completed her B.A. in English at Cambridge University in 2006, and, following a year as a Henry Fellow at Harvard University, returned to Cambridge for her graduate study as a Benefactors’ Scholar at St. John’s College. She earned her PhD in 2012. Between 2011 and 2013, Roberts held a Junior Research Fellowship at Clare College, Cambridge. She joined University College London as a lecturer in 2013.

Roberts applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Edward Gibbon and the Shape of History, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Edward Gibbon and the Shape of History examines a duality that lies at the heart of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This work of eighteenth-century historiography, composed over two decades and six volumes, is a work of outstanding scholarship: Gibbon was the first historian to bring together painstaking research with narrative history on such a grand scale. At the same time, the Decline and Fall is exceptionally literary: rhetorically powerful and tonally sensitive, with moods ranging from the wittily acerbic to the elegiac. It is the relationship, and sometimes tension, between these two aspects of Gibbon’s work that informs my own reading of the Decline and Fall.

The duality is particularly well illustrated by Gibbon’s use of footnotes. Their volume and detail demonstrate how important it was to Gibbon to document his sources and authorities. Yet Gibbon’s footnotes also serve another purpose: providing an ironic commentary on his main narrative, and making insinuations that are all the more piquant for being concealed in the scholarly apparatus of his work.

Page 99 of my book discusses an example of these techniques. Describing the unearthing of the True Cross at Jerusalem in the reign of the Emperor Constantine, Gibbon refers in a footnote to two Catholic commentators, Baronius and Tillemont, as ‘historians and champions of the miraculous invention of the cross’. Gibbon’s use of the word ‘invention’ is impeccably scholarly. It is almost a direct quotation from Baronius, who, writing in Latin, uses the word ‘inventio’ to signify a discovery. However, in eighteenth-century and modern English an invention can also be a fabrication or a contrivance. With one word Gibbon thus fulfils two purposes: accurately quoting from an established scholarly authority but also undermining its validity. The discovery of the True Cross, Gibbon implies, is a deception promoted by greedy priests and an emperor anxious for symbols of power.

Gibbon was a religious sceptic, and his history of the early Christian Church deplores the persecutions prompted by seemingly purely verbal differences of creed. Nevertheless, he continues to exploit the expressive power of the linguistic surface in his own work. Gibbon derides those who create a ‘furious contest’ from the difference of a ‘single diphthong’ but he also understands how the addition of a single letter (from ‘inventio’ to ‘invention’) can transform ingenuous quotation into ironic critique.
Learn more about Edward Gibbon and the Shape of History at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue