There is a famous passage in Gibbon, or more likely quite a few of them, where he pours out contempt on the barbarism of Greek Rome, its superstition, is narrow dynastic disputes and barbarian adventurers, its vehemence of doctrine and ruthless factionalism of ecclesiastical controversy, its truculence and treachery and all the sum of middle-age obscurantism, which civilized rationalism, like that of Gibbon, would soon wash away.
Now Gibbon was a great historian and a great master of the English language; his quaint 18th century faith in rationalism, progress, and enlightenment, and his antipathy for Greek and Latin Christianity are small price to pay to sit under his instruction.
More: to imagine a Gibbon bereft of his prejudices is to imagine a Gibbon bereft of his wit, the soul of his masterful prose; one might as well wish for a Michael Jordan that is meek and mild rather than pitiless competitor. Nor could we, without his bigotries, enjoy the great irony that Gibbon’s scorn animates the vigor of his History; that what he tells us is a boring monotony of ecclesial insolence, royalist intrigue, and popular puritanism, he nonetheless shows us is vivid and sprightly tale, memorable in the strange annals of that inexpressible creature called man.
Hume, too, evidences that marvelous 18th century naivety. Near the beginning of his History of England, at the dawn of the Anglo-Saxon age, the great Scotsman holds forth in solemn warning. The reader should beware what comes next:
Wars, therefore, and revolutions and dissensions were unavoidable among a turbulent and military people; and these events, however intricate or confused, ought now to become the objects of our attention. But, added to the difficulty of carrying on at once the history of seven independant kingdoms, there is great discouragement to a writer, arising from the uncertainty, at least barrenness, of the accounts transmitted to us. The Monks, who were the only annalists during those ages, lived remote from public affairs, considered the civil transactions as entirely subordinate to the ecclesiastical, and besides partaking of the ignorance and barbarity, which were then universal, were strongly infected with credulity, with the love of wonder, and with a propensity to imposture; vices almost inseparable from their profession, and manner of life. The history of that period abounds in names, but is extremely barren of events; or the events are related so much without circumstances and causes, that the most profound or most eloquent writer must despair of rendering them either instructive or entertaining to the reader. Even the great learning and vigorous imagination of Milton sunk under the weight; and this author scruples not to declare, that the skirmishes of kites or crows as much merited a particular narrative, as the confused transactions and battles of the Saxon Heptarchy. In order, however, to connect the events in some tolerable measure, we shall give a succinct account of the successions of kings, and of the more remarkable revolutions in each particular kingdom.
There follows an able account of Gregory the Great and the sending of Augustine on his fateful journey to become the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Hume’s “despair of rendering [events] either instructive or entertaining to the reader” is shown immediately to be misplaced.
Some pages later comes the account of Kingdom of Northumberland. In this instance I will simply let the reader judge of whether that land in that age, so sadly sunk in ecclesiastical ignorance and barbarity, was indeed “barren of events”:
Adelfrid, king of Bernicia, having married Acca, the daughter of Aella, king of Deïri, and expelled her infant brother, Edwin, had united all the counties north of Humber into one monarchy, and acquired a great ascendant in the Heptarchy. He also spread the terror of the Saxon arms to the neighbouring people; and by his victories over the Scots and Picts, as well as Welsh, extended on all sides the bounds of his dominions. Having laid siege to Chester, the Britons marched out with all their forces to engage him; and they were attended by a body of 1250 monks from the monastery of Bangor, who stood at a small distance from the field of battle, in order to encourage the combatants by their presence and exhortations. Adelfrid enquiring the purpose of this unusual appearance, was told, that these priests had come to pray against him: “Then are they as such our enemies,” said he, “as those who intend to fight against us”: And he immediately sent a detachment, who fell upon them, and did such execution, that only fifty escaped with their lives. The Britons, astonished at this event, received a total defeat: Chester was obliged to surrender: and Adelfrid, pursuing his victory, made himself master of Bangor, and entirely demolished the monastery; a building so extensive, that there was a mile’s distance from one gate of it to another; and it contained two thousand one hundred monks, who are said to have been there maintained by their own labour.
Notwithstanding Adelfrid’s success in war, he lived in inquietude on account of young Edwin, whom he had unjustly dispossessed of the crown of Deïri. This prince, now grown to man’s estate, wandered from place to place, in continual danger from the attempts of Adelfrid; and received at last protection in the court of Redwald, king of the East-Angles; where his engaging and gallant deportment procured him general esteem and affection. Redwald, however, was strongly solicited by the king of Northumberland to kill or deliver up his guest: Rich presents were promised him, if he would comply; and war denounced against him in case of his refusal. After rejecting several messages of this kind, his generosity began to yield to the motives of interest: and he retained the last ambassador, till he should come to a resolution in a case of such importance. Edwin, informed of his friend’s perplexity, was yet determined at all hazards to remain in East-Anglia; and thought, that if the protection of that court failed him, it were better to die than prolong a life so much exposed to the persecutions of his powerful rival. This confidence in Redwald’s honour and friendship, with his other accomplishments, engaged the Queen on his side; and she effectually represented to her husband the infamy of delivering up to certain destruction their royal guest, who had fled to them for protection against his cruel and jealous enemies. Redwald, embracing more generous resolutions, thought it safest to prevent Adelfrid, before that prince was aware of his intention, and to attack him while he was yet unprepared for defence. He marched suddenly with an army into the kingdom of Northumberland, and sought a battle with Adelfrid; in which that monarch was defeated and killed, after revenging himself by the death of Regner, son of Redwald. His own sons, Eanfrid, Oswald, and Oswy, yet infants, were carried into Scotland; and Edwin obtained possession of the crown of Northumberland.
Edwin was the greatest prince of the Heptarchy in that age, and distinguished himself, both by his influence over the other kingdoms, and by the strict execution of justice in his own dominions. He reclaimed his subjects from the licentious life, to which they had been accustomed; and it was a common saying, that during his reign a woman or child might openly carry every where a purse of gold, without any danger of violence or robbery. There is a remarkable instance, transmitted to us, of the affection borne him by his servants. Cuichelme, king of Wessex, was his enemy; but finding himself unable to maintain open war against so gallant and powerful a prince, he determined to use treachery against him, and he employed one Eumer for that criminal purpose. The assassin, having obtained admittance, by pretending to deliver a message from Cuichelme, drew his dagger, and rushed upon the King. Lilla, an officer of his army, seeing his master’s danger, and having no other means of defence, interposed with his own body between the King and Eumer’s dagger, which was pushed with such violence, that, after piercing Lilla, it even wounded Edwin: But before the assassin could renew his blow, he was dispatched by the King’s attendants.
The great historians of the 18th century fancied themselves civilized men, sophisticated men, and indeed they were. But the irony of their ingenuousness is more than merely endearing: it undergirds the power and subtlety of their history. Their very artlessness is the key to their historical art. It turns out that some men who had long supped on the cuisine of progress, science and rationalism, but not yet endured the dissolution of learning and literature that this morbid fare eventually wrought, were best able to render, in lapidary form, the very lively history of Christian antiquity.