The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age

By Joseph M. Levine | Go to book overview

Chapter Ten
Ancients

1

It was a disgrace, therefore, universally deplored, that England had no national history to measure up to the classical precepts or ancient examples. Even William Wotton, who was unfailingly optimistic about the possibilities of modernity, could only look abroad for examples, while William Temple and the ancients, who were convinced that imitation must fail to match the originals, were nevertheless regretful that no one had really tried. At least England's rivals had made the attempt, and the classicizing histories of Mariana for Spain, Mézeray for France, and Buchanan for Scotland were well known in England in the original and in translation. Yet all that England could show were some old-fashioned chronicles such as the popular but rather jejune work of Sir Richard Baker, which kept appearing throughout the century in updated versions and was still being read (and lamented) during the battle of the books.1 Baker's Chronicle of the Kings of England, it was agreed, was woefully inadequate because it followed medieval rather than classical precedent in style and form. It jumbled together in mindless and disconnected fashion a random assortment of events, both large and small, without apparent sense or discrimination. It was also inaccurate.2 Needless to say, it could hardly be of any use to the statesman who needed to know the inner

____________________
1
Sir Richard Baker's Chronicle of the Kings of England appeared first in 1643, then in various enlarged editions, the eighth by Edward Phillips in 1684. William Nicolson described it as "the best Read and liked of any hitherto publish'd. But Learned Men will be of another Opinion": The English, Scotch and Irish Historical Libraries, 3d ed. ( London, 1736), pp. 73-74.
2
Thomas Blount caught more than eighty errors, large and small; see his Animadversions upon Sir Richard Baker's Chronicle and Its Continuation ( Oxford, 1672). Thomas Hearne agreed: Remarks and Collections, ed. C. E. Doble et al. 11 vols. ( Oxford, 1885-1931), 6:131.

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