Charting the Past: The Historical Worlds of Eighteenth-Century England

Charting the Past: The Historical Worlds of Eighteenth-Century England

by Jeremy Black


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Eighteenth-century England was a place of enlightenment and revolution: new ideas abounded in science, politics, transportation, commerce, religion, and the arts. But even as England propelled itself into the future, it was preoccupied with notions of its past. Jeremy Black considers the interaction of history with knowledge and culture in eighteenth-century England and shows how this engagement with the past influenced English historical writing. The past was used as a tool to illustrate the contemporary religious, social, and political debates that shaped the revolutionary advances of the era. Black reveals this "present-centered" historical writing to be so valued and influential in the eighteenth-century that its importance is greatly underappreciated in current considerations of the period. In his customarily vivid and sweeping approach, Black takes readers from print shop to church pew, courtroom to painter's studio to show how historical writing influenced the era, which in turn gave birth to the modern world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253037770
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2019
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 826,135
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is author of many books, including Plotting Power: Strategy in the Eighteenth Century ; Clio’s Battles: Historiography in Practice ; War and Technology ; and Geographies of an Imperial Power: The British World, 1688–1815. Black is a recipient of the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize of the Society for Military History.

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When history, and particularly the history of our own country, furnishes anything like a case in point, to the time in which an author writes, if he knows his own interest, he will take advantage of it.

Puff in The Critic (1779) (II, i)

THE RIDICULOUS PUFF'S EXPLANATION FOR HIS DECISION TO title his play The Spanish Armada in order to draw on public interest in that episode of 1588, following the Franco-Spanish invasion preparations of 1779, captures the decision of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, both playwright and opposition politician, to use this play within a play to satirize the world of the stage as well as the historical purchase of English nationalism. Sheridan also parodied Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1592), which had celebrated the defeat of the Spanish Armada as well as providing a murderous play within a play.

History not only provided specific analogies and parallels for those whose main concern was the present but also operated as education, in the broadest sense: the education of a realm and a nation, a country and a society, of individuals and communities. History also served as a survey of memory, as a record of the impact of the decisions (providential and secular, of the past and present), and as a foretaste of the future. Any and all choices on my part in covering these, whether in the space devoted to each, the order in which they are considered, or in the priorities of what is covered, will inherently suggest a significance. That significance may not be intended nor thought out, or may be both but rest unexpressed. That is not the intention here. Alongside consideration of other forms, there is a focus on the culture of print, not least because that created some of the most lasting impressions of the past (lasting, in particular, as books could be read and reprinted for decades and longer) and also was important to the development of a historiographical corpus.

In the eighteenth century, books were preserved in libraries and private collections, rather than discarded. Indeed, that characteristic of the period was far stronger than it is today, when there is a greater tendency for publications to be superseded, even denigrated, by what comes next. Furthermore, in the eighteenth century, both reprints and the deliberate reuse of material by writers and, indeed, by other authors ensured a greater degree of continuity with individual studies and between works. The accretional nature of developments, a deliberately accretional nature, was also readily apparent in other disciplines and in contemporary writings about them, for example law and medicine. It was from print that much ambient culture grew.

However, in focusing on the culture of print, there is a determination here to put, alongside the greats (for example, Gibbon and Hume), other writers who, while popular in their age, have been far less so for posterity. Many of the latter can be seen as hack writers, although this book will establish that that did not mean they were without talent, interest, or significance. This approach matches that taken for Ireland by Toby Barnard. He has emphasized the impact of "histories that were impressionistic and simplistic" and has argued that "what was valued and bought by a select few has tended to dominate reconstructions of the Irish past. ... Low rates of survival for the flimsy, cheap and ephemeral, coupled sometimes with a disdain for print that seems trivial have led to the avowedly popular being neglected if not totally overlooked."

Rather than seeing the world of print, however, as a contrast between the greats and the hacks, the lasting and the ephemeral, I would argue that there was a continuum. Moreover, the significance of individual works to contemporaries was far from clear. There was both a ready understanding of some contrasts in goals, means, and achievements and yet also an unfixed character, one in which assessment and classification were far from clear and only became apparent in hindsight. Advertisements and prefaces sought to assert particularity and significance, while reviewers (and competing works) attempted to place particular books and to clarify the field as a whole. Success, however, was limited, in part because there were not the clear means of hierarchical would-be determination seen today, with very few providers such as Amazon and its internet-driven and disseminated reviews.

There will also be a consideration of other aspects of the culture of print, notably newspapers. These reached much of the literate population and were also read aloud, as well as made available in some milieus, notably taverns and coffeehouses. The lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 was followed by a major expansion in the press. This was centered in London, where the first daily, the Daily Courant, was founded in 1702. There was also the development of a provincial press. This ensured that, by 1760, most towns of any size had their own newspapers, while some towns, such as Bristol, Exeter, Norwich, Nottingham, and York, contained competing newspapers. Produced essentially by their editor and printer, frequently the same person, newspapers lacked a staff of reporters and had to respond to reader interests, however perceived. Historical pieces, like their geographical counterparts, provided good copy. More commonly, many items that in no way focused on history nevertheless employed points from it, either to provide interest or to support arguments. This reflected the extent to which the historical frame of reference did not appear redundant with time, which, significantly, was the case both with recent history, notably that of the previous century, and with more distant ages.

History, however, also very much extended beyond printing, let alone books, to other forms and audiences, from architecture to drama, sculpture to opera, taverns to processions, in many respects, far more so than today. It is mistaken to treat engagement with history as an engagement with publications. Indeed, the folk culture of eighteenth-century England was one in which history was the bedrock and the past very much a living presence.

It is best to begin with the beginning. Christening was a religious act and also a means of joining the newborn to an existing family and, in doing so, to establish and assert a range of links. Individuality existed within a context. Whereas the choice of name today is often unrelated to lineage and may reflect names that are liked or associations with popular entertainment or sport, that was not common practice in the eighteenth century. Instead, names very much captured the weight of the past, both secular and spiritual, and its role in establishing identity and carrying it forward. Compared to today, there was an overwhelming use of a small number of names. A political dimension was shown by the use and choice of many monarchical ones, for example, the Hanoverian George and Georgina, as opposed to the Stuart Charles, James, and Henrietta. Family names were crucial at every level of society. There was a tendency to name after parents. Correspondence about naming captured this search for the appropriate association. This correspondence was but a small fraction of the discussion that presumably was part of the process and that doubtless also followed the choice of name as it was explained (both to family members and to others) and commented on (favorably and unfavorably).


After christening came education. The formal process found much space for history, both sacred and profane, and more so than today. In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen has Catherine Morland complain that historians write "only for the torment of little boys and girls."

The informal aspect of education was also significant. In the family context, oral traditions continued to provide the key historical source, while diaries and letters provided new family history. Oral accounts frequently offered tales of the past, notably those of past members of the family and also of elderly present members. The latter accounts were generally told by or for these members at occasions of sociability. This practice, satirized by Laurence Sterne in his novel Tristram Shandy (1759–67), was important to establishing the family as a lineage, and a lineage linked with specific places and experiences. This linkage was a matter, variously, of pride, admonition, and warning, and it was significant in the development of local histories, notably such early county histories as William Dugdale's Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656).

Not only literary forms were significant. Eager to be promoted in the peerage, Ralph Montagu, a second son of a peer, was made first Earl (1689) and then Duke of Montagu (1705). In a typical gesture of decorative aggrandizement, he had his coat of arms and family tree carved on his staircase at Boughton House to promote the idea of an unchanging family succession. In his Itinerarium Curiosum, the antiquarian William Stukeley described visiting Thomas, Lord Coningsby, Lord Lieutenant of Herefordshire, a committed Whig, in his seat at Hampton Court, Herefordshire, and finding "many of his gallerys and passages ... adorned with the genealogy of his family, their pictures, arms." Coningsby also showed Stukeley "four or five vast books in manuscript being transcripts out of the record offices, relating to his manors, royalties, estates, and muniments." However, this research led Coningsby into a series of unsuccessful lawsuits over what he saw as his rights as lord of the manors of Marden and Leominster, rights he believed had been compromised by the tenants. This led Coningsby to print his rights to the Marden property.

Lineage was also a matter of interesting and stirring tales. For the English of the eighteenth century, the Civil War of 1642–46 was particularly significant, not least as it related to places as well as families and because so many had served in it.

Family lineage and lore, which had led to unpublished memoirs (for example by Robert Furse for his son in 1593), developed to become almost a genre of literature by the time of Sir Walter Scott. Inheritance issues were important to family narratives, and this was also seen in the novels of the period, as in Sarah Fielding's The Adventures of David Simple (1744), Tobias Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). Fatherhood shifted in its meaning and presentation, but both traditional notions (of preserving and commemorating lineage) and developing ones of the culture of sensibility encouraged an explanation of the past.

More generally, in the pre-Romantic period, those who were long-lived were regarded as of particular merit, and the cults of the young and of modernity were less prominent than in modern society. Individual and collective memory, and their expression, were the prime drivers of historical practice. The law gave weight to the memory of old members of the community. For example, the oral memory of the oldest members was important in determining customary rights and practices and in enclosure awards.

Dynasticism, in many senses, was also an important element in autobiography, in that the determination to pass on wisdom and experiences, in order to affirm values, was of significance. Thus, Edward Nares (1763–1841), later regius professor of history at Oxford from 1813 to his death, presented his manuscript autobiography as a history written for the benefit of his children, rather than as a journal written for his own amusement:

Since life is above all things precarious, and God only knows how long I may live, and as I have at present children so young that though it should please God to spare their lives, I may not live to see them come to maturity; and as it is reasonable to think that when they grow up they will be anxious to know who they are descended from; and yet may have none to tell them. For these reasons, and no other, I have resolved to put together such particulars of my life and connections as may satisfy their enquiries, and serve to inform them who and what their father was, as far as such knowledge can be honestly and correctly communicated by frail man.

The autobiographical approach to dynasticism was seen in many other artistic and literary forms. These included the retention of family correspondence as an aspect of history by heirloom. There was also the commissioning of portraits and the preservation of those of previous members of families. A similar end was achieved by means of commissioning pictures of houses, whereas those of horses more clearly served the memorialization of hobbies.

Family education has left less material than formal processes of education. Some books, however, were written as if part of it. For example, Oliver Goldsmith was very successful with A History of England in a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to his Son (1764), while William Russell (1741–93) had a great success with his History of Modern Europe, in a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to his Son (1779–84). He explained: "The author's aim was, to strike a medium between the dry chronological method of Pufendorf and the desultory, but captivating manner of Voltaire. For this purpose the epistolary form was chosen, as best calculated to preserve the chain of events, without subjecting the writer to the necessity of omitting, or of throwing into notes, those interesting anecdotes and occasional reflexions, which many consider as the chief merit of history." Russell added: "Modern History not only furnishes the principal subjects that find a place in polite conversation, but also the knowledge of those which enable the young nobleman or gentleman, who has studied the ancient Classics, to enter on public business." Russell also published a History of America (1779).

Edward Weston (1703–70), a former civil servant and a committed supporter of the Church of England (he was the son of a bishop), published a series of anonymous works as if a country gentleman giving advice. His Family Discourses by a Country Gentleman (1768) deployed history in the service of his charge about the threat of papal power to Britain. To many, this was not a threat that had disappeared with the defeat of Jacobite plans in 1746 and 1759, although others disagreed. Controversies over present issues were read back into accounts of the recent and distant past, and discussion of the latter was then used to support and assert positions in these controversies.

History played a major role in the education both of the influential and of the political nation, and its educational value was frequently cited. In 1728, Daniel Dering wrote to his close friend John, Viscount Perceval, concerning the education of the latter's heir, later John, 2nd Earl of Egmont, and a prominent politician: "With his history will it not be proper to read Chronology, and with his English History at large I fancy after every reign it would do well to look over in such an abstract (for instance as Pufendorf's) the contemporary reigns in France and the Empire [Germany]." Two years later, the boy reported to his father: "I have read very near three volumes of Tyrells history of England, and one of Wicquefort, besides a great deal of Livy and another Roman historian."

These letters indicate the need to read very widely in apparently unpromising archival sources in order to establish individual and more general reading histories and patterns. Tutors' accounts are of particular value. In 1731, the tutor of the young Simon, 2nd Viscount Harcourt, noted in Angers: "His Lordship has finished eight volumes of Rapin's History of England in French, and I hope will be able to finish also the full history of France this winter. For his reading here has chiefly consisted in history." Harcourt was in France in order to improve his knowledge of French. What was significant was that, in common with other young people, he was reading history. Well aware of their Norman roots, the Harcourt family was also to be friendly with George III.

In 1744, Benjamin Holloway, tutor to John, later 1st Earl Spencer, wrote to Spencer's great-grandmother, the demanding Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough: "A large and comprehensive knowledge of history seems expedient for a person of quality. This contributing to lay a good foundation for a superstructure, not of political wisdom only, but of common prudence also, with great and ready insight into affairs and events public and private. And in order to read the historians, not loosely, as if one was in the regions of fairy-land and romance, but with distinction of place and time, the aids of geography and chronology are to be borrowed of the mathematics."


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Table of Contents


List of Abbreviations

1. The World of History

2. Purposes, Narratives, Methods

3. A Historical World of Partisan Strife: The Early Eighteenth Century

4. Contrasting Approaches: Burnet and Astell

5. The Unstable Past: Dissenters and History

6. History Suited to Mid-Century Struggle

7. From the New Reign to the Crisis of Empire, 1760-1776

8. Empire as Historical Narrative: Gibbon and the Descent of Civilizations

9. History in the Age of Burke

Conclusions: Bringing the Past into the Present

Selected Further Reading


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