Edward Gibbon and the Crusades

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Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) was very much a man of the Enlightenment and his view of the crusades is evident from his verdict of his own work where he stated, “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion” (Gibbon, p 112 l. 7). Nonetheless, his political leanings were decidedly conservative, highlighted by both his distaste for the democratic movements so popular in his time as well as his agreement with Edmund Burkes dismissal of the rights of man.

Childhood

Edward Gibbon was born in 1737 in Putney in the English county of Surrey. He was one of seven children although he was the only one of them who was to survive infancy. His family was reasonably wealthy due to his fathers substantial inheritance. Despite being the only one of his siblings to survive infancy, Gibbon was not an entirely healthy child. Much of his childhood was spent indoors and this is where he developed a passionate love of reading and studying.

By the age of fourteen Gibbon was already reading extensively and his choice of reading material is perhaps an indication of his future career. Among the books he devoured were: Laurance Echards A Roman History (1713), William Howels An Institution of General History (1680–85), and several of the 65 volumes of the acclaimed Universal History from the Earliest Account of Time (1747–1768). A year later Gibbons father sent him to enroll at Magdalene College, Oxford where he was, interestingly, enrolled as a gentleman-commoner.

Gibbon Meets Voltaire

In 1753 Gibbon was again sent away, this time to Lausanne in Switzerland. It was during his stay here that he first became acquainted with Voltaire whose notorious negative views of the crusades undoubtedly would have had some influence on the young Gibbon. He was to eventually move back to England where from 1774 – 1783 he sat, rather eventfully, in the House of Commons. It was during this period that he wrote his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which appeared in 1776.

Nonetheless by 1783 Gibbon settled back in Lausanne where after publishing the final volumes of The Decline and Fall in 1788 he went on to publish both his memoirs and his History of the Crusades some six years before his death in 1794.

Influence

Gibbons work has subsequently received a great deal of praise. His style, full of poignant epigrams and subtle irony was wide ranging in influence and replete with insightful analysis and reflection. Consequently his work has been an influence for many writers who have come after him.

Moreover, his approach to his work was fairly unique for his time in the sense that he always sought to stick to primary sources rather than second-hand accounts as far as possible. In his memoirs he wrote how he, “… always endeavoured to draw from the fountain-head; that my curiosity, as well as a sense of duty, has always urged me to study the originals; and that, if they have sometimes eluded my search, I have carefully marked the secondary evidence, on whose faith a passage or a fact were reduced to depend.” In this respect we could arguably consider Gibbon to be one of the first modern historians.

His disregard of his contemporaneous historians led Gibbon to seek his own particular approach. He was therefore inclined to willingly accept the influences of a diversity of sources such as, for example, both the Protestant and Scottish Enlightenment movements as well as the Parisian philosophers. While it is true that many of Gibbons conclusions have been criticized, his work on the crusades has, on the whole, heralded enough praise that he must be considered one of the most important historians to have contributed to the scholarship on this subject.

Notes

Burke supported the American rebellion, while Gibbon sided with the ministry; but with regard to the French Revolution they shared a perfect revulsion. At first (1789–1790), Gibbon cautiously withheld his condemnation of the latter (David Womersley, “Gibbons Unfinished History,” in Gibbon and the Watchmen of the Holy City, 195–196