Geography as the eye of enlightenment historiography: Robert J. Mayhew

Modern Intellectual History 7 (3):611-627 (2010)

Abstract

Whilst Edward Gibbon's Memoirs of My Life comprise a notoriously complex document of autobiographical artifice, there is no reason to question the honesty of its revelation of his attitudes to geography and its relationship to the historian's craft. Writing of his boyhood before going up to Oxford, Gibbon commented that his vague and multifarious reading could not teach me to think, to write, or to act; and the only principle, that darted a ray of light into the indigested chaos, was an early and rational application of the order of time and place. The maps of Cellarius and Wells imprinted in my mind the picture of ancient geography: from Stranchius I imbibed the elements of chronology: the Tables of Helvicus and Anderson, the Annals of Usher [ sic ] and Prideaux, distinguished the connection of events. . . This seems a fairly direct comment on Gibbon's attitude to geography as a historian in that it is confirmed by various of his working documents and commonplace book comments not aimed at posterity and by the practice embodied in his great work that was thus targeted, the Decline and Fall. Taking Gibbon's private documents, the first manuscript we have in his English Essays, for example, is a tabulated chronology from circa 1751 when Gibbon was fourteen years old, which begins with the creation of the world in 6000 BC and runs up to 1590 BC, this being exactly the sort of material which could be commonplaced from the likes of Ussher and Prideaux. Matching this attention to chronology is a concern with geography, and indeed the two are coupled together as in his comment in the Memoirs. Thus in his Index Expurgatoris, Gibbon berates Sallust as “no very correct historian” on the grounds that his chronology is not credible and that “notwithstanding his laboured description of Africa, nothing can be more confused than his Geography without either division of provinces or fixing of towns”. In this regard, Gibbon the author of the Decline and Fall was a “correct” historian, in that he was careful to frame each arena in which historical events were narrated in the light of a prefatory description of the geography of the location under discussion. This is most readily apparent in the second half of the opening chapter of the work, where Gibbon proceeds on what his “Table of Contents” calls a “View of the Provinces of the Roman Empire”, starting in the West with Spain and then proceeding clockwise to reach Africa on the other side of the Pillars of Hercules, a pattern of geographical description directly mirroring ancient practice in Strabo's Geography and Pomponius Mela's De Situ Orbis. But this practice of prefacing a historical account with geographical description repeats itself at various points in the work, as when, approaching the end of his grand narrative, Gibbon reaches the impact of “Mahomet, with sword in one hand and the Koran in the other” on “the causes of the decline and fall of the Eastern empire”. Before discussing the birth of Islam, Gibbon treats his readers to a discussion of the geography of Arabia, beginning with its size and shape before moving on to its soils, climate and physical–geographic subdivisions.

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Robert Mayhew
Seton Hall University

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