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Gibbon and Northernness

This paper was presented at a session honoring J.G.A. Pocock,
 American Historical Society annual meeting, January 2012


I love England (not Great Britain and certainly not the
British Commonwealth (grr)!" J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, 65

At least since 1965, when a book on Anglo-Maori relations in New Zealand appeared under his signature, and more recently in September 2011 in the London Review of Books, John Pocock has demonstrated intense interest in and sensitivity about how history and historiography have shaped the political culture of his native country. (1) There is recognition that names and words cannot be translated, thus for him Rangatiratanga is a subject for research and reflection. His celebration of the life and work of Judith Binney, an ethnographic-historical literary scholar, must be understood in this context:

Binney saw [land sales and confiscation] as mobilizing memory and prophecy into new histories, statements of the history of the dispossessed and threatened [they] found themselves living in. She insisted that myth was not just compensating fantasy, but made metaphorical statements of real experience, and her work became increasingly concerned with oral history as both memory and re-creation (p. 27).

In and through the maze of contexts that Pocock has worked out for the Decline and Fall there is information about the margins all around the Roman Empire, including the non-Roman northerners who lived beyond Britain and Gaul. Whether from major ancient texts such as Tacitus's book on Germany or his life of Agricola, or from historians such as Thomas Carte and Thomas Warton, Pocock analyzes the readings that Gibbon gave them, and holds in balance attention and distance in discerning the individual historical thought of the greatest of philosophical historians. The biographical perspective is also clearly worked out for Gibbon, that emigrant to Switzerland.

Gibbon's sensibility to the history of northern peoples, including his own, was certainly not that of a late-twentieth-century historian, and certainly not Pocock's. In what follows I hope to be able to discern what I have called "northernness" in the antiquarian works of Gibbon's contemporaries. Note Pocock's resolute, indefatigable effort to address the Maori by their own names and vocabulary. There is recognition that no translation can satisfy the ethnic parities needed for the deepest possible verbal-written exchanges. For cultures all around the Mediterranean and on the Channel,

Gibbon strove to write as correctly as possible, in Latin characters, the names of tribes, peoples, regions, rivers, mountains, and individuals — truly the mark of an anthropological historian.
At this point it is tempting simply to recount the construction of the concept of the North, and Northernness, as elements from antiquarian scholarship and literary scholars slowly came together from the late eighteen century down to G.M. Hopkins, W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Glen Gould; but this might result in projecting a cultural image or vision that would appear more explicit in the age of Gibbon than it actually was.

In their transcriptions of signs, letters, symbols on stone and often badly damaged manuscripts, antiquarians recorded and published things they did not understand, believing that each had meaning worthy of veneration. (See Pocock, III, pp. 183-93, 265.) The frontiers against barbarism were being pushed back, as ancient poetic lines came to be recognized as forceful, eloquent, and elegiac. The implication was that these lines in Old English, Gaelic and Celtic were the equal of verse by Dryden or Pope. We shall learn that Gibbon could never go that far; and though he may have known the boutade to the the immortal Homer's verse was as great as that of Sophocles, he did not share the emotional valence of the verse. Antiquarians recorded every tale, every artifact from their British cultures, true or not. Gibbon admired Camden, the "British Strabo," for exploding the myth about Trojan origins; and his opinion about the bards may have evolved, though in his later writing he may simply have kept what he thought to himself.

What to make of Gibbons's infrequent use of the name England? He mentions and praises the Union, and he describes the former Roman province in purely geographic terms. What we would call acculturation by the Romans, virtually disappeared for Gibbon during the Germanic invasions, a remark that strikes an almost fatal blow at any attempt to construct a cultural thread from Celtic to post-Norman times. If he praises at all, it is Britain not England.

And as for the bards as bearers of early culture in song and verse, Gibbon's first remark is:

The loose and obscure tradition has been preserved by the Venerable Bede. ... On this foundation a huge superstructure of fable was gradually reared by the bards and the monks: two orders of men who equally abused the privilege of fiction (XV, 44).

Then, unwilling to delight simply in his philosophical skepticism, Gibbon remarks: "A people dissatisfied with their present condition grasp at any vision of their past or future glory" (III, 42). This is more than aphorism, less than a social-scientific law, and is probably an unidentified commonplace. That he does not name the people or the culture renders his remark all the more categorical.

If all antiquarians shared the same pre-Romantic perspective, they did not have the same pre-suppositions. Some Catholic antiquarians dug deeply into Medieval religious sites while lamenting the iconoclasm of the Reformation. Protestant antiquarians seemed more intrigued by the synthesis of belief and nature, pagan or Catholic. (2) Gibbon made little attempt to be thorough in his research about early cultural life in the British Isles, and he does not write reverentially about any site or manuscript. For him, Arthur's table and the ritual surrounding it were certainly a myth. His focus remained on literacy and the literary. Not a few travelers were following the footsteps of Dr. Richard Pococke from the 1750s in Scotland, to Johnson's and Boswell's somewhat nostalgic travels there in the 1780s, the years when the bulk of the Decline and Fall was written and published.

But before turning to the antiquarians whom Gibbon read and respected, let us consider some passages about the Scots (Caledonians). References to these regions are infrequent in Books I-XXIV, except for one paraphrase from Appian:

The master of the fairest and most wealthy climates of the globe turned with contempt from gloomy hills assailed by the winter tempest, from lakes concealed in a blue mist, and from cold and lonely heaths, over which the deer of the forest were chased by a troop of wild barbarians (I, 5).

The Romans, for Gibbon, were anti-Northern.

Always seeking more than one source for whatever he writes, having just cited Appian he observes that this is also "the uniform imagery of Ossian's poems, which , according to every hypothesis, were composed by a native Caledonian" (I, 5). The Roman historian has described Scotland in exactly the same terms as a bard. Lack of time prevents us from comparing Appian, Ossian, and Tacitus on the regions north of the Rhine and the Danube, but they are very similar. The Germans have sacred forests, but apparently the Scots just have forests (IX, I, 247), a difference that Gibbon does not choose to explore. They had, of course, sacred trees and forests.

With flash-backs and -forwards required by joining a series of distinct narratives, the next element is British — a Britain whose natives are described as reliant on "little vessels" — this in a note about Saxon piracy in A.D. 371, which flashes back to Caesar's adoption of "little vessels" for the invasion. Before adopting them, the Conqueror had been astonished by them (XXV, p. 41) as he established Roman powers on the island, which Gibbon describes thus:

From the coast of Kent to the extremity of Caithness (Scotland) and Ulster, the memory of a Celtic origin was distinctly preserved in the perpetual resemblance of language, of religion, and of manners, and the peculiar characters of the British tribes might be naturally ascribed to the influence of accidental and local circumstances (XXV, p. 43).

The later Germanic invasions, not the Roman conquest and occupation, almost completely broke the cultural threads on the island; but Celtic culture survived as remnants, particularly in the north.
In the note that follows, Gibbon says that, in the Agricola, Tacitus remarks on how the complexions of some British tribes seem Germanic or Spanish, and that it was Julius Caesar who had noted their uniformity in religion. Caledonia, north of the Antonine wall (just north of Glasgow and over to Edinburgh) would remain something different from the other British regions, as summed up in the passage from Bede cited above. After quickly describing the fate of the Picts, Gibbon continues:

The Western part of Caledonia irregularly rises into wild and barren hills, which scarcely repay the toil of the husbandman and are most profitably used for the pasture of cattle. The highlanders were condemned to the occupations of shepherds and hunters ... (XXV, p. 43)

As Roman powers weakened to the south, these northerners descended as robbers and pillagers, prompting Gibbon to remark: "A philosopher may deplore the eternal discord of the human race, but he will confess that the desire of spoil is a more rational provocation than the vanity of conquest" (XXV, p. 46). and so it was from the age of Constantine to that of the Plantagenets.

But there is further reflection and puzzlement. Having recounted the violence and contrasted it with the "civilized and peaceful servitude" in Roman Britain, Gibbon states that "the highlanders are the same people whose generous humanity seems to inspire the songs of Ossian" (XXV, p. 46). We shall return to this conscious contrast or paradox observed by Gibbon, but it is important to try to interpret why, at this point, he chose to discuss the Attacotti, cannibals who perpetrated extreme violence in Gaul according to Jerome and who, according to Camden, were Scots. Having expressed horror and disapproval at their eating the "most delicate and brawny parts" of their victims, Gibbon asks the reader to reflect on the differences between the vision of a barbarous society and the present-day commercial and literary town of Glasgow: "Such reflections tend to enlarge the circle of our ideas, and to encourage the pleasing hope that New Zealand may produce, in some future age, the Hume of the Southern Hemisphere" (XXV, p. 47). Gibbon would not seek to elucidate the contrasting images: savage behavior versus generous humanity. he would not accept the outlook of curiosity and sympathy shown by the antiquarians whom he was reading. Instead, he leapt from past to present, in order to express pride in the "town" of Glasgow. The attitude toward the artifact — pre-Romantic and curious — did not captivate him.

Gibbon revisits most of these issues in Book XXXVIII, in his narrative of the Saxon conquest by which the arts, religion, laws, and language "so carefully planted by the Romans were extirpated by their barbarous successors" (XXXVIII, 164).

Relying on John Whitaker and Thomas Carte, (3) Gibbon narrates the Saxon consolidation of power and adds Nennius, to recount, in a non-committal way, an Arthurian moment. This "romance" came to be known as far away as Greece and Italy, making the diffusion more important than the story itself. Gibbon concludes:

The light of science and reason was rekindled [presumably we are in the seventeenth century]; the talisman was broken; the visionary fabric melted into air, and by a natural, though unjust reversal of public opinion, the severity of the present age is inclined to question the existence of Arthur (IV, 163).

There is just a hint of ironic nostalgia here, as the consequences of reason are stated, but not in a triumphalist tone. After the earlier condemnation of the bards, Gibbon decided to include more about them and he warmed to them.

The Saxons put an end to Latin as they conquered and pillaged. Thanks to the bards, Celtic would barely survive in remote northern regions such as Wales. These companions of the Druids did not transmit laws or history in their songs, to drum up courage. Their demands for payment from rich and poor alike were excessive. Wales was known to be inhabited by naked warriors whose courage in battle remained primitive and irrational (IV, 168). Differences between the North and the South on the island diminished drastically as Saxon power became consolidated.

Gibbon sought not only to hold at a distance the fundamental attitudes of the antiquarians; he also refused, until later in his history, to enter into the intense controversies that divided them. Somewhat courteous to the living antiquarians, but snide toward those who were deceased (there are exceptions, Camden being one), it is interesting to reflect on his introduction to the MacPhersons, John and James, antiquarian ethnographers who were not related:

In the dark and doubtful paths of Caledonian antiquity I have chosen for my guides two learned and ingenious highlanders, whom their birth and education had particularly qualified for that office (III, 43).

After the names, the titles of their works, and the dates, Gibbon adds, about John, that:
he was a minister in the isle of Skye: and it is a circumstance honorable for the present age that a work replete with erudition and criticism should have been composed in the most remote of the Hebrides (III, 43).

It does not seem to occur to Gibbon that, in the Hebrides, an antiquarian might happen to be under the spell of a Northern natural and cultural environment. It would be James MacPherson, not John, who after growing up at Ruthven, Inverness, and attending the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, decided to make the really quite difficult "field trip" to Western Inverness and the islands of Skye, North and South Uist, and Benbecula, to search for manuscripts in Celtic. Pocock suggests that Gibbon was a "closet Ossianist," but it must be noted that Gibbon never recognized the push-pull of influences between the glorious Southern Latin culture that he adopted, and the Northern oral cultures from which he had escaped. We lack the time to explore what Switzerland might have fit in that scheme of places. He notes with pleasure that a lesser ritual among the Welsh bards continued down into the reign of Queen Elizabeth; but he seems unable to make the leap and to recognize that their songs might have been as eloquent and moving as Homer's verses about Achilles. Whitaker's research to find English words that had been assumed by the "Germans" prompted numerous controversies and, as Gibbon puts it, "those illiterate Pagans preserved and established the use of their national dialect. Almost every name, conspicuous in either the church of state, reveals its Teutonic origin, and the geography of England was universally inscribed with foreign characters and appelations" (XXXVIII, p. 165). Note his use, for the Saxons, of the word "dialect," rather than "language."

Let us turn to two historians who were Gibbon's contemporaries, for a brief comparison of their understanding and appreciation of Northernness. Both were read and quoted by Gibbon; and, like him, for understanding Northern culture, they relied on the researches of antiquarians. As it had been in the recovery of appreciation for old French literature, and as it would be in the Sturm und Drang, the central questions were whether the totality of what could be said in Latin, could also be said in the vernacular, and whether vernacular poetry could move the human heart.

Pocock has already called upon Thomas Carte — an Oxford-educated Jacobite historian born near Bristol, an editor of Jacques-Auguste de Thou, and a passionate plotter — to testify (through his History of England, 1747) about Druids and their songs:

The use of letters was not known in the world till several hundred years after the institution of the Druids, as well as of the Curetes, who not being able to give their disciples any instruction in religion or learning, or any rules for their conduct, in writing, were forced to put them into verse; the measure whereof was a great assistance to the memory. The Druidical compositions of that kind ... were admirably contrived for this purpose. They were all adapted to musick, every word being harmonious; the strongest and most expressive repeated in a beautiful manner; and all of them ranged in an order established by rules, well known and universally received in such compositions" Each verse so connected with and depending on those which either preceded or followed it, that if any one line in a stanza be remembered, al the rest must be called to mind, and it is almost impracticable to forget or mistake in any. 'The British poetry, as well as language, hath a peculiarity which perhaps no other language in the world hath; so that the British poets in all ages, and to this day call their art Cyfrinach y Berdd, i.e. the Secret of the Poets. Knowing this art of the poets, it is impossible that any one word of the language, which is to be found in poetry, should be pronounced in any other manner than it is there used; so that without a transformation of the whole language, not one word could be altered. (Pocock, IV, 69)

After citing his antiquarian sources, Carte concludes: "... the Cambrian language, notwithstanding the strictness of its rules, hath as great a scope and use of words as in any other tongue...."
Reading the "ancient British poets" would confirm this. Pocock's reading leads to more general issues of historical thought; but for our purposes, Carte shed light on a shift of perceptions about Northern cultures that proceeded slowly from curiosity-inspired research, and an application of acquired knowledge about one ancient language, to others. The antiquarian, the Reverend Walter Harte (1709-1774), described the ways in which the ancient Greeks couched in verse their laws, which were then sung to the people. Gibbon compliments Harte for his studies of ancient agriculture.

My second example is the Reverend Thomas Warton (4) (1728-1790), son of the vicar of Basingstoke in Hampshire, and educated at Trinity, Oxford, where he would remain his whole life. He wrote satirical verse about colleagues and was a donnish prankster; yet he wrote the history of his college and its buildings. He taught ancient-Greek poetry, produced an edition of the poems of the pastoral poet, Theocritus (1770), visited ruins with his friends (among them Samuel Johnson), became fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, wrote a critical study of the Faerie Queen, edited Milton, wrote about Reynolds's painting, and published a poem entitled The Grave of King Arthur before undertaking to write the History of English Poetry, the first volume of which appeared in 1774. Gibbon praised this first volume for combining "the taste of a poet, and the minute diligence of the antiquarian" (XXXVIII, n. 141).

Warton loved the lost world of chivalry (he cites the works of Lacurne de Saint-Palaye), monastic orders, popular superstitions and folk customs (Fairer, 30). He had his critics: George Mason said that "reading Warton was more like wading than reading ..." At first glance, Warton seems Gibbon-like in the way he assembles his material and constructs a double narrative, one on the top and one on the bottom of his pages.

Many pieces of the Scottish bards are still remaining in the high-lands of Scotland. Of these a curious specimen, and which considered in a more extensive and general respect, is a valuable monument of the poetry of a rude period, has been given to the world, under the title of the works of Ossian. It is indeed very remarkable, that in these poems, the terrible graces, which so naturally characterize and so generally constitute, the early poetry of a barbarous people, should so frequently give place to a gentler set of manners, to the social sensibilities of polished life, and a more civilized and elegant species of imagination. Nor is this circumstance, which dissarranges all our established ideas concerning the savage stages of society, easily to be accounted for, unless we suppose that the Celtic tribes, who were so addicted to poetical composition, and who made it so much their study from the earliest times, might by degrees have attained a higher vein of poetical refinement, than could at first sight or on common principles be expected from nations, whom we are accustomed to call barbarous. (Dissertation I)

The major themes still missing in what would become the Northernness of Sir Walter Scott and his successors, were the natural environment, the great uninhabited spaces, the lyricisms about rain, mist, and ice. As in post-Herder Germany, the Romantic poets and painters would perform this task of integrating the land and the people.

With the relations between antiquarian research and regional identities firmly grounding historical writing, James MacPherson, Thomas Carte, Thomas Warton, and Edward Gibbon approached with different emphasis what I have called the paradox of how a barbarous society could have a civilized literature. Pocock notes that Gibbon changed his attitude about the Germans, and that he praised the Prague of Emperor Charles IV. A recognition of a changed attitude regarding the cultures of the North in the western islands off Europe, may be inferred in his praise of Glasgow. But no further would he go toward the celebratory views of the antiquarians.

I have taken a somewhat different road to Scotland than John Pocock. He has discerned the major mountainous contexts which make the Decline and Fall a joy to read. Pocock finds that this great work did not play a role in the construction of the Anglo-British historical narrative. I would like to suggest that Gibbon consciously or unconsciously helped to keep down the underbrush of regional-historical cultures by not recognizing, or barely recognizing, the greatness and glory of historical-mythical Northernness, which in any event would have been peripheral to his grand theme; Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Having stated that I would not used that anachronistic word, Northernness, I have used it. Some of you may have wondered whether it is a word at all. The O.E.D. finds one usage in 1853 by Elisha Kane, and a second one by C.S. Lewis in 1939. Like all concepts, nothing really fits squarely into a single meaning. Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Germanic, Swedish, Danish, and English — along with the Normans and the Bretons — make distinct claims to uniqueness. These are the names of real and unique things. In each, there is an intensity in the passion underlying all artistic expression. Some abandon their native cultures; others are like John Pocock, who keeps living in his New Zealand culture and sustains it with all the intellectual powers of a phenomenally powerful mind. Just how the project — known as the "great white whale" — to study all British political-historical thought, became transformed into the study of Gibbon ... ah, that is another story.



1. The Maori and New Zealand Politics. This paper is written with the sincere intention of honoring my distinguished friend, John Pocock. Since I have not mastered the immense bibliography on Gibbon, I have no way of knowing to what degree I have merely explored the obvious and the well-known; therefore I shall never seek publication except, perhaps, to include it on our website. All citations are from the J.B. Bury edition of 1909, by chapter, which ought to facilitate finding passages in the Wormersley edition. Citations to Pocock are by volume and page. The New Zealand Journal of History, 26,1 (April 1992): 28-53. London Review of Books, 33, n.17 (Sept. 8, 2011): 26-27.

2. Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape (Oxford, 2011), passim.

3. Pocock, IV, passim; P. Hicks, Neoclassical History and English Culture (London, 1996), pp. 159-69; D.N.B., X, p. 332.

4. D. Fairer, Thomas Warton's History of English Poetry (London, 1998), Introduction.