Edward Gibbon : biography
Edward Gibbon (27 April 1737 16 January 1794)Gibbon’s birthday is 27 April 1737 of the old style (O.S.) Julian calendar; England adopted the new style (N.S.) Gregorian calendar in 1752, and thereafter Gibbon’s birthday was celebrated on 8 May 1737 N.S. was an English historian and Member of Parliament. His most important work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. The Decline and Fall is known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organised religion.The most recent and also the first critical edition, in three volumes, is that of David Womersley. For commentary on Gibbon’s irony and insistence on primary sources whenever available, see Womersley, "Introduction". While the larger part of Gibbon’s caustic view of Christianity is declared within the text of chapters XV and XVI, Gibbon rarely neglects to note its baleful influence throughout the remaining volumes of the Decline and Fall.
Most of this article, including quotations unless otherwise noted, has been adapted from Stephen’s entry on Edward Gibbon in the Dictionary of National Biography.Original text:
Other writings by Gibbon
- "Lettre sur le gouvernement de Berne" [Letter No. IX. Mr. Gibbon to *** on the Government of Berne], in Miscellaneous Works, First (1796) edition, vol. 1 (below). Scholars differ on the date of its composition (Norman, D.M. Low: 1758–59; Pocock: 1763–64).
- Mémoires Littéraires de la Grande-Bretagne. co-author: Georges Deyverdun (2 vols.: vol. 1, London: Becket & De Hondt, 1767; vol. 2, London: Heydinger, 1768).
- Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esq., ed. John Lord Sheffield (2 vols., London: Cadell & Davies, 1796; 5 vols., London: J. Murray, 1814; 3 vols., London: J. Murray, 1815). includes Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Edward Gibbon, Esq.;
- Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon, ed. John Murray (London: J. Murray, 1896). EG’s complete memoirs (six drafts) from the original manuscripts.
- The Private Letters of Edward Gibbon, 2 vols., ed. Rowland E. Prothero (London: J. Murray, 1896).
- Gibbon’s Journal to 28 January 1763, ed. D.M. Low (London: Chatto and Windus, 1929).
- Le Journal de Gibbon à Lausanne, ed. Georges A. Bonnard (Lausanne: Librairie de l’Université, 1945).
- Miscellanea Gibboniana, eds. G.R. de Beer, L. Junod, G.A. Bonnard (Lausanne: Librairie de l’Université, 1952).
- The Letters of Edward Gibbon, 3 vols., ed. J.E. Norton (London: Cassell & Co., 1956). vol.1: 1750–1773; vol.2: 1774–1784; vol.3: 1784–1794. cited as ‘Norton, Letters‘.
- Gibbon’s Journey from Geneva to Rome, ed. G.A. Bonnard (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1961). journal.
- Edward Gibbon: Memoirs of My Life, ed. G.A. Bonnard (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969;1966). portions of EG’s memoirs arranged chronologically, omitting repetition.
- The English Essays of Edward Gibbon, ed. Patricia Craddock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972); [hb: ISBN 0-19-812496-1].
Oxford, Lausanne, and a religious journey: 1752–1758
Following a stay at Bath in 1752 to improve his health, at the age of 15 Gibbon was sent by his father to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was enrolled as a gentleman-commoner. He was ill-suited, however, to the college atmosphere and later rued his 14 months there as the "most idle and unprofitable" of his life. Because he himself says so in his autobiography, it used to be thought that his penchant for "theological controversy" (his aunt’s influence) fully bloomed when he came under the spell of the deist or rationalist theologian Conyers Middleton (1683–1750), the author of Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (1749). In that tract, Middleton denied the validity of such powers; Gibbon promptly objected, or so the argument used to run. The product of that disagreement, with some assistance from the work of Catholic Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), and that of the Elizabethan Jesuit Robert Parsons (1546–1610), yielded the most memorable event of his time at Oxford: his conversion to Roman Catholicism on 8 June 1753. He was further "corrupted" by the ‘free thinking’ deism of the playwright/poet couple David and Lucy Mallet;Pocock, Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon. for Middleton, see p. 45–47; for Bossuet, p. 47; for the Mallets, p.23; Robert Parsons [or Persons], A Christian directory: The first booke of the Christian exercise, appertaining to resolution, (London, 1582). In his 1796 edition of Gibbon’s Memoirs, Lord Sheffield claims that Gibbon directly connected his Catholic conversion to his reading of Parsons. Womersley, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, p. 9. and finally Gibbon’s father, already "in despair," had had enough. David Womersley has shown, however, that Gibbon’s claim to having been converted by a reading of Middleton is very unlikely, and was introduced only into the final draft of the "Memoirs" in 1792–93.Womersley, Gibbon and the ‘Watchmen of the Holy City’: The Historian and His Reputation, 1776–1815 (Oxford University Press, 2002), as cited by G. M. Bowersock in The New York Review of Books, 25 November 2010, p. 56. Bowersock suggests that Gibbon fabricated the Middleton story retrospectively in his anxiety about the impact of the French Revolution and Edmund Burke’s claim that it was provoked by the French philosophes, so influential on Gibbon.