Edward Gibbon Additional Biography


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

0111206561-Gibbon_E.jpg Edward Gibbon (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), Gibbon is most renowned for his thesis that Christianity played a leading role in the Roman Empire’s fall. His views on Christianity ran from skepticism to outright denial of its central claims. In openly expressing such views, he risked falling afoul of England’s Blasphemy Act of 1698. To avoid prosecution, he adopted the protective coloring of a dispassionate literary style, indirect expression, and artful construction of passages designed to disguise—though not fully conceal—his cynical attitude toward Christianity. Speaking of this technique in his autobiography, he wrote that he learned from the Provincial Letters of Blaise Pascal “to manage grave and temperate irony, even on the subjects of ecclesiastical solemnity”—more accurately, especially on religious subjects. In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818), George Gordon, Lord Byron later wrote, appropriately, of Gibbon’s treatment of Christianity, that it constituted “sapping a solemn creed with a solemn sneer.”

Gibbon’s stratagems succeeded, for he was never prosecuted, nor were his works officially censored. He was subjected, however, to furious theological criticism from clerics, who had little difficulty penetrating his flimsy literary veil. Gibbon’s ill-concealed cynicism about religion is most apparent in such passages as this ironic “explanation” of...

(The entire section is 534 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Edward Gibbon came from an old and wealthy Kentish family. His father, also named Edward, was a member of Parliament from 1734 to 1747 and was a colonel in the Hampshire militia. The future historian was the only one of seven children who survived infancy, and for a long time it was doubtful whether or not he would live through childhood. A weak child who suffered from undiagnosed leg-aches in his youth, the younger Gibbon grew, through physical inaction, to an extreme obesity, enduring, throughout his later years, the severe pains of gout. As a result, his life was for the most part sedentary, devoted almost completely to intellectual pursuits. He never married, though his studies were broken by one short love affair. His services as a member of Parliament in 1774 and again in 1782, and as a commissioner of the Board of Trade from 1779 to 1782, plus a tour of duty in his father’s militia regiment, were the only significant interruptions to his constant studiousness.

Gibbon’s formal education began in a day-school at Putney and continued at Dr. Wooddeson’s school at Kingston-on-Thames, and reached the university level at Westminster. He entered Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1752, after a two-year retirement at Bath, and there spent what he termed “the most idle and unprofitable months” of his life. At Oxford he developed an interest in Catholicism. When his father discovered his intention of becoming a convert, he was summarily removed and put under the tutelage of a Calvinist minister in Lausanne, Switzerland. There he gave up Catholicism, learned French (which became his “second native language”), and turned to the serious study of Latin....

(The entire section is 681 words.)


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Cosgrove, Peter. Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999. Discusses Gibbon’s philosophy of the role of the historian in interpreting the past.

Craddock, Patricia. Young Edward Gibbon: Gentleman of Letters. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Craddock, Patricia. Edward Gibbon: Luminous Historian, 1772-1794. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. A two-volume biography, well researched and thorough.

McKitterick, Rosamond, and Roland Quinault, eds. Edward Gibbon and Empire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Places Gibbon in his philosophical and historiographic context.

Parkinson, R. N. Edward Gibbon. New York: Twayne, 1973. Presents a summary of the changing critical opinion of Gibbon’s work over two centuries.

Porter, Roy. Edward Gibbon. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1988. Part of the Historians on Historians series; a contemporary historian of the eighteenth century assesses Gibbon’s work and influence.

Womersley, David. Edward Gibbon and the “Watchmen of the Holy City”: The Historian and His Reputation, 1776-1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Explores the interaction between author and reader of history in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Interesting study of Gibbon’s reception in his own day.

Womersley, David, ed. Edward Gibbon: Bicentenary Essays. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 1997. A collection of essays assessing Gibbon’s importance as a historian.