The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 1. Cause of late development of good Historical Writing; Rymers Foedera
AS for good [English] historians,” Voltaire wrote in 1734, “I know of none as yet: a Frenchman [Rapin] has had to write their history.” His criticism was just, and, before him, both Addison and Bolingbroke had noted the backwardness of English literature so far as history was concerned. Yet there was no lack of interest on the part of the educated classes in the history of their own nation, for, during the first half of the eighteenth century, several histories of England appeared which, in spite of gross defects, found many readers. Nor is this interest difficult to account for. Closely connected with the conservatism of the national character, it had been fostered by the conflicts through which the nation had passed in the preceding century; for, in these conflicts, great respect was shown for precedent; in the struggle with Charles I, though it was temporarily subversive of ancient institutions, the parliamentary party made constant appeals to historic liberties, while the lawyers and judges on the king’s side found weapons in the same armoury and cited records in support of the exercise of arbitrary authority. The process of subversion was sharply checked, and reverence for the ancient constitution was exhibited by the invitation to Cromwell to assume the crown. More lately, the revolution of 1688 had been a vindication of historic rights, conducted with a punctilious observance of time honoured procedure. Principles involved in these conflicts still divided the nation into two opposing parties, and whigs and tories alike were eager to find such support for their opinions as might be derived from history. Whigs, for example, would turn to Oldmixon or Rapin, tories to the History of England by Thomas Carte, the nonjuror, which though written without literary skill, was superior, as regards the extent of the author’s researches, to any English history of an earlier date than that of the appearance of his first two volumes (1747, 1750); his fourth and last volume, which goes down to 1654, was published in 1755, the year after his death; his Life of James, Duke of Ormond (1736), a tedious book, is of first-rate importance, especially as regards Irish history. The general interest in English history had been vastly strengthened by the appearance of Clarendon’s History, which has been treated in a previous volume as belonging essentially to the class of contemporary memoirs, and it had been encouraged by the publication, at the expense of the state, of Foedera et Conventiones (1704–35), edited by Thomas Rymer and Robert Sanderson, in twenty volumes, a collection of public documents of great value for most periods of our history before the seventeenth century, the last document included in it being dated 1654. This work laid a new foundation for the writing of history on a scientific basis, from documentary authorities; its value was thoroughly appreciated by Rapin, who used it in his History, and, from time to time, published summaries of its contents which were translated into English under the title Acta Regia (1726–7).