The Decline of a Discipline: David Womersley Revisits an Article, First Published in History Today in 1969, in Which J.H. Plumb Contrasts Edward Gibbon's Approach to the Study of History with That of the Modern Academic

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Jack Plumb pays Gibbon many compliments. In the first instance, he bestowed on the author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire the honour of marking the point when the writing of history became mature. Rising above the pulverising scholarship of the antiquarians and rejecting the siren voices of the pyrrhonists, Gibbon fused philosophy with erudition to create an historiography at once powerful and popular: 'After Gibbon, history was fully fledged. The success of his book brought ... a new depth to the understanding of European history amongst the educated elite.'

But Plumb also paid Gibbon a more subtle homage. The Decline and Fall begins by describing the Antonine era as a brief and precarious period of harmony and balance, which is followed by a long and complicated series of reversals and divisions. Plumb's idea of the history of European historiography followed this Gibbonian trajectory. After the perfection achieved by Gibbon, historical writing fell into decline. The very 'historical ferment' from which Gibbon had benefited began to undermine the possibility of an historiography both sound in scholarship and engaging to the public. The 19th century was inundated with historical material, as more state archives were opened to public inquiry. Although 19th-century historians tried to keep faith with the philosophical ambitions of their predecessors and to connect their writings with some large notion of 'the destiny of man', it was an increasingly uphill struggle.

A decline into mere professionalism was inevitable. Historians, now more engaged in technical skirmishes with each other than with the 'educated elite' (let alone the general public), retreated into ever narrower areas of specialism. However, the price of security was irrelevance, as Plumb observed: 'History, which is so deeply concerned with the past, has, in a sense, helped to destroy it as a social force, as a synthesizing and comprehensive statement of human destiny.' The result was that Gibbon's achievement had been reversed. Once again, the historian was threatened with burial beneath the dust thrown up by the antiquarians. Plumb rounded off his article by calling for a new Enlightenment: 'We need again a compulsive sense of the value of man's past, not only for ourselves as historians, bur also for the world at large. …