My Beautiful Wickedness

So who is Gibbon and why does he aggravate historians?
July 11, 2007, 1:29 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

No, not the guitarist for Z.Z. Top and not that small Asian ape. (Just for you, Kat.) The other other Gibbon, the one whose version of the medieval period you see every time you look at a film. Gerald will fill you in about the serious stuff.

I will throw in that the man suffered from a bad case of swollen balls (no shit! it was both disfiguring and painful) and died as a result of peritonitis contracted during a surgery aimed at fixing the problem. So cut Gibbon a little slack already. He wrote 6 major books in a little under twenty years and managed to preserve a famously bawdy sense of humor while in excruciating pain.


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Didn’t Gibbon also have a huge impact on the founding fathers?

Comment by Nick Dupree

Yeah, and those swollen testicles didn’t go well with the tight pants of late 18th century formal wear…

Gibbon published his “Decline and Fall” between 1776 and 1788, so it is certainly possible that some of them read it during the time. Certainly the Framers had Rome on the brain – “Senate”, “Republic”, and the Capitol building is a Roman basilica. Jefferson and others certainly believed in the idea that Rome’s successes were due to its moral virtues and that it declined when those virtues did – but then that is an idea as old as Sallust.

I think it probably had more impact during the 19th century though.

Comment by Gerald

Like a lot of authors who experience great popularity, Gibbon confirmed the prejudices of the English elite about bodily self-restraint, fiscal prudence, moral and temperate living — this was a good way to distinguish the “real gentles” from the “new money” arrivistes who got their money in trade and who — it must be said — had more cash than many of the people propounding notions of fiscal restraint as a way to display “good breeding.” He also confirmed as timeless and transcendental the divisions between men (sense/reason/virtue/self-control/independence) and women (sensibility/luxury/emotion/dependence), savage and civil, well-born and mean that would give extra juice to an imperial country looking to define itself as a people vis a vis the “others” with whom they were coming into contact. (Kathleen Wilson’s *The Island Race* does a fabulous job of explaining how the British used gender to order empire and create a national identity, incidentally…) Cultural historians pinpoint the late 18th century as a time of big tectonic shifts in gender, race, and class ideology (no duh, that’s why the revolutions!), so it would make sense that Enlightenment people (being of a “patterns revealed over time in nature will allow us to detect timeless truths about how societies should best be organized and perfected”) would have turned to another big historical empire to try to get some sense of what they might expect from their aggressive expansion and some reassurance that things would be ok eventually. (After all, they were having some trouble in their provinces and marchlands in 1776, no?) You have to admit that Gibbons hands English elites a perfect fable that spoke more to the political and social needs of the readers (a projection of their fears and fantasies on the inchoate past, now with 100% more primary sources!) than to any sort of empirical capital-T Truth about the medieval period.

While Americans don’t like to think about this much, the former colonies were aggressively imperialist in leaning from the start. So, yeah, Gibbon was huge (publishing his series from 1776-1788) to both confirm their ideas about classical virtue/republicanism and to justify the systematic extirpation of Indian people in mid-continent. I’d have to check on their libraries, but given the astonishing way in which Gibbon circulated through the English-reading world, I’d be very surprised if the learned leaders of the day didn’t make this their bedside reading. I’d guess he’s more directly influential in the US in the early/mid 19th c, though — when a generation of boys who have grown up reading him act on the script he provides.

Comment by bridgett

His appeal to Rome is, of course, completely medieval.

Comment by nm

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