The Transition in English Historical Writing, 1760-1830

The Transition in English Historical Writing, 1760-1830

The Transition in English Historical Writing, 1760-1830

The Transition in English Historical Writing, 1760-1830

Excerpt

English historical writing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries merits attention on two grounds. In the first place, if this period, especially the years between Gibbon's last volumes (1788) and Hallam Middle Ages (1818), was not fertile in great historians, it saw a successsion of works of respectable merit, and a distinct revival after 1800. Secondly, it marks the transition from the "rationalist" ideals of historical writing exemplified by Hume, Robertson and Gibbon to the very different ideals of the nineteenth century. In tracing this change, which it is the main purpose of the present essay to do, it is easier to set a terminal date than to find an exact beginning. By 1830 the basic elements in the nineteenth-century conception of history -- romantic enthusiasm for the study of the past, nationalist zeal in portraying it, and the use of "scientific" methods in ascertaining the facts about it -- had already found considerable expression among historians. Moreover, shortly after this date at least, the public records, fundamental sources of historical study in the last hundred years, were first adequately cared for and their importance properly realized. Meantime, also, the Tory view of political history, which had received classic exposition from the pen of Hume, was being definitely superseded by a Whig interpretation which became almost equally classic in the Victorian era.

But when we turn to seek the beginning of the change which had gone so far by 1830, one great difficulty presents itself. Students of literary history have long recognized that . . .

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