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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XII. Historians

§ 2. Ockley’s History of the Saracens

Yet this interest did not, as has already been seen, call forth, before Hume wrote, any history of England by a native historian that is worthy to be classed as literature; indeed, it was in itself adverse to the appearance of such a work, for it caused English history to be written for party purposes, and, consequently, no effort was made to write it in a philosophic spirit, or to present it in well devised form or in worthy language; it fell into the hands of hacks or partisans. Only one Englishman of that time wrote history in a style that, of itself, makes his book valuable, and he did not write English history. Simon Ockley, vicar of Swavesey, Cambridgeshire, who had early devoted himself to the study of eastern languages and customs, was appointed professor of Arabic at Cambridge in 1711. The first volume of his Conquest of Syria, Persia, and Egypt by the Saracens, generally known as The History of the Saracens, appeared in 1708, the second in 1718, with an introduction dated from Cambridge gaol, where he was then imprisoned for debt: he had in past years received help from the earl of Oxford (Harley); but that had ceased, and the poor scholar had a large family. Gibbon, who admired and used his work, speaks of his fate as “unworthy of the man and of his country.” His History extends from the death of Mahomet, 632, to that of the fifth Ommiad caliph, 705; it was cut short by the author’s death in 1720, after a life of incessant and ill-requited toil. The Life of Mohammed prefixed to the third edition of his History, which was issued for the benefit of his destitute daughter in 1757, is by Roger Long, master of Pembroke hall, Cambridge. Ockley based his work on an Arabic manuscript in the Bodleian library which later scholars have pronounced less trustworthy than he imagined it to be. His English is pure, and simple, his narrative extraordinarily vivid and dramatic, and told in words exactly suited to his subject—whether he is describing how Caulah and her companions kept their Damascene captors at bay until her brother Derar and his horsemen came to deliver them, or telling the tragic story of the death of Hosein. The book was translated into French in 1748, and was long held to be authoritative. As a history, its defects are patent, its account of the conquest of Persia, for example, is so slight that even the decisive battle of Cadesia is not mentioned; nor is any attempt made to examine the causes of the rapid successes of the Saracen arms: it reads, indeed, more like a collection of sagas than a history. Such defects, however, do not impair its peculiar literary merit.