Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Diplomatic Arts: Hickes against Mabillon in the Republic of Letters

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Diplomatic Arts: Hickes against Mabillon in the Republic of Letters

Article excerpt

Great scholars are survived by the debates they engender. In 1709, two years after the death of Jean Mabillon, his friend, biographer, and fellow Benedictine, Thierry Ruinart, published a preface to the second edition of the monumental De re diplomatica. Ruinart recorded with pride that, since its initial publication in 1681, Mabillon's work had instructed and excited scholarship throughout Europe. Not only in France, but in Spain, Germany, Italy, and England learned men had read and responded to Mabillon's teachings on the diplomatic art. In Germany, Gottfried Leibniz had brought forth the first volume of his Codex juris Gentium Diplomaticus in 1693; five years previously, the Spanish Benedictine José Pérez de Rozas had published his Dissertationes on ecclesiastical and political history "ac ad rem Diplomaticam"; in France, Bernard de Montfaucon had produced a Greek paleography "Mabillonii exemplo excitatus," and in Italy the Roman professor Giusto Fontanini, assisted by Domenico Passionei, had recently published the Vindiciae Antiquorum Diplomatum, a work aimed squarely against Mabillon's Jesuit opponent, Bartholomy Germon.1 Finally, Ruinart noted, in 1705 two large volumes had emerged from the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, published by one George Hickes, and entitled Linguarum veterutn septentrionalium thesaurus.

In the Thesaurus Hickes (1642-1715) had praised Mabillon and his De re diplomatica often, and he held both up as models to be imitated by future scholars. But, as Ruinart had to admit, Hickes was simultaneously a follower and a critic of Mabillon. In particular, the Englishman expressed vehement disapproval of Mabillon's approach to forged documents. Hickes had devoted a lengthy passage in the preface to the Thesaurus to a critique of six "rules" proposed by Mabillon, noting their dangers, inconsistencies, and their failure when applied to known forgeries. Far from promoting the separation of truth from falsehood in antique documents, Hickes alleged, Mabillon had made it so easy to excuse falsehood that gross forgeries might escape condemnation. Ruinart, in response, recorded each of Hickes's objections and defended his master, arguing that Hickes had variously misunderstood, and overreacted to, Mabillon's approach to antique documentation.2

Within the "Republic of Letters" such episodes of dissension were normal, indeed desirable. Far lengthier critiques had been and would be written in response to Mabillon, above all by Germon, who insisted on the falsity of all extant Merovingian charters, and by Jean Hardouin, the numismatist who was developing a theory that almost the entirety of classical Latin literature had been forged in the later Middle Ages.3 The criticism made by Hickes nevertheless struck a nerve. Although Mabillon was said to have praised and recommended Hickes shortly before his death,4 he was also, according to Ruinart, planning to issue a response to the criticisms contained within the Thesaurus.5 Nor can it be said that, once dismissed, Hickes's animadversions were forgotten. Testament to their enduring irritation to Mabillon's disciples is the six-volume Nouveau Traité de Diplomatique of the Benedictines Charles-François Toustain and René-Prosper Tassin, which appeared in the course of the 1750s and 1760s, and included several references and extended refutations of Hickes's critique of Mabillon.6 Hickes's evident learning in the field of Anglo-Saxon documents gave him an authority that demanded his criticisms be rebutted, particularly when he argued that documents accepted by Mabillon as genuine were in fact forgeries. Yet this alone would not, one suspects, have earned Hickes the compliment of a vigorous refutation. The potentially damaging aspect of Hickes's criticism of De re diplomatica was his assertion that Mabillon had failed to devise adequate rules - or indeed any rules worthy of the name - for the discernment of true from false documents. Hickes's attack, in other words, came not from the camp of the extremists such as Germon and Hardouin who denied the veracity of entire archives, but from the perspective of a practitioner of Mabillon's antiquarian art, a self-styled cultor, who had found the great man's precepts wanting. …

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