Barbarism and Religion: Volume 4, Barbarians, Savages and Empires: Barbarians, Savages and Empires (Vol. 4)

Colin Kidd writes:

Pocock’s conception of Europe as an open-ended ‘peninsula of the Eurasian land-mass’ is one of the keys to appreciating his vast, multi-volume project on Edward Gibbon and his contexts. The subject matter of the sequence, titled Barbarism and Religion, is not simply Gibbon’s masterwork, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88): it expands beyond Gibbon to include the world of possibilities that were open to him, such as the types of narrative to which he was exposed or might have written. Pocock’s main aim is to erase the conventional caricature that Gibbon was ‘a neoclassical rhetorician, reiterating in a stately silver-Latin English the humanist vision of Rome’s history’. Although Gibbon’s book begins in the late second century, his real topic is the triumph of medieval barbarism and religion which followed the decline of Rome. In the first two volumes Pocock located Gibbon in the contexts of the multiple Enlightenments of 18th-century Europe which helped to shape his outlook – the Huguenot Enlightenment, the Scottish Enlightenment and England’s forgotten clerical Enlightenment – but he went on to show how the standard historical narrative of the Enlightenment era traced the rise of commerce and refinement from the age of medieval barbarism and religion. Gibbon’s contemporary originality was to have filled the gap between classical antiquity and the Enlightenment’s own remote origins.

(LRB 6 November 2008)

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