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

By Joseph M. Levine | Go to book overview

Chapter Twelve
Ancients and Moderns

1

With the appearance of the Thesaurus, the rehabilitation of medieval English history reached its apogee. Unfortunately, Thwaites died tragically young in 1711, and Hickes, worn out, in 1715. Thwaites had further ambitions but Hickes was pretty much done with the "septentrional" enterprise and returned to his earlier mission of defending the primitive purity of the Episcopal church against all comers. The AngloSaxon cause was left in the hands of a few students, who tried to carry on, but the odds were against them. The fact is that the powerful partisan motives that had first given birth to the enterprise, the political and religious quarrels that had turned men back upon the national past in the seventeenth century, were beginning to wane in the more stable conditions of the new century. It became much less pressing to feel, as Nicolson had done when he wrote to Wanley in 1705, that "next to what concerns the preservation of our Established Religion and Government, peace here and salvation hereafter, I know nothing that hath greater share in my thoughts and desires than the promotion of Septentrional Learning."1 Meanwhile, the gathering forces of ancienneté were making it more and more difficult to sustain an enthusiasm for erudition of any kind, but especially for medieval learning. The quarrel between the Saxonists and the classicists which resulted was thus another episode in the battle of the books.

Of course the tension had been there all along. Hickes himself had felt the need to defend his Saxon interests against the scoffing of the wits

____________________
1
Nicolson to Wanley, Aug. 20, 1705, in Letters to and from William Nicolson, ed. J. Nichols , 2 vols. ( London, 1809), 2:650-52.

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