Edward Gibbon : biography
Unusually for the 18th century, Gibbon was never content with secondhand accounts when the primary sources were accessible (though most of these were drawn from well-known printed editions). "I have always endeavoured," he says, "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."Womersley, Decline and Fall, vol. 2, Preface to Gibbon vol. 4, p. 520. In this insistence upon the importance of primary sources, Gibbon is considered by many to be one of the first modern historians:
In accuracy, thoroughness, lucidity, and comprehensive grasp of a vast subject, the ‘History’ is unsurpassable. It is the one English history which may be regarded as definitive. …Whatever its shortcomings the book is artistically imposing as well as historically unimpeachable as a vast panorama of a great period.Stephen, DNB, p. 1134.
The subject of Gibbon’s writing as well as his ideas and style have influenced other writers. Besides his influence on Churchill, Gibbon was also a model for Isaac Asimov in his writing of The Foundation Trilogy, which he said involved "a little bit of cribbin’ from the works of Edward Gibbon".
Evelyn Waugh admired Gibbon’s style but not his secular viewpoint. In Waugh’s 1950 novel Helena, the early Christian author Lactantius worried about the possibility of " ‘a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,’ and he nodded towards the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit."London: Chapman and Hall, 1950. Chapter 6, p. 122.
J. C. Stobart, author of The Grandeur that was Rome (1911), wrote of Gibbon that "The mere notion of empire continuing to decline and fall for five centuries is ridiculous…this is one of the cases which prove that History is made not so much by heroes or natural forces as by historians."
Later years: 1789–1794
The years following Gibbon’s completion of The History were filled largely with sorrow and increasing physical discomfort. He had returned to London in late 1787 to oversee the publication process alongside Lord Sheffield. With that accomplished, in 1789 it was back to Lausanne only to learn of and be "deeply affected" by the death of Deyverdun, who had willed Gibbon his home, La Grotte. He resided there with little commotion, took in the local society, received a visit from Sheffield in 1791, and "shared the common abhorrence" of the French Revolution.
In a letter to Lord Sheffield on 5 February 1791, Gibbon praised Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France: "Burke’s book is a most admirable medicine against the French disease, which has made too much progress even in this happy country. I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I can even forgive his superstition…The French spread so many lyes about the sentiments of the English nation, that I wish the most considerably men of all parties and descriptions would join in some public act declaring themselves satisfied with, and resolved to support, our present constitution".J. E. Norton (ed.), The Letters of Edward Gibbon. Volume Three. 1784–1794. Letters 619–878 (London: Cassell, 1956), p. 216.
In 1793, word came of Lady Sheffield’s death; Gibbon immediately left Lausanne and set sail to comfort a grieving but composed Sheffield. His health began to fail critically in December, and at the turn of the new year, he was on his last legs.
Gibbon is believed to have suffered from an extreme case of scrotal swelling, probably a hydrocele testis, a condition which causes the scrotum to swell with fluid in a compartment overlying either testicle.the term hydrocele specifies that the compartment is not connected to the peritoneal cavity, whereas the term inguinal hernia specifies a connecting passageway, however narrow. -ed. In an age when close-fitting clothes were fashionable, his condition led to a chronic and disfiguring inflammation that left Gibbon a lonely figure.After more than two centuries, the exact nature of Gibbon’s ailment remains a bone of contention. Womersley’s version here matches Patricia Craddock’s. She, in a very full and graphic account of Gibbon’s last days, notes that Sir Gavin de Beer’s medical analysis of 1949 "makes it certain that Gibbon did not have a true hydrocele…and highly probable that he was suffering both from a ‘large and irreducible hernia’ and cirrhosis of the liver." (emphasis added). Also worthy of note are Gibbon’s congenial and even joking moods while in excruciating pain as he neared the end. Both authors report this late bit of Gibbonian bawdiness: "Why is a fat man like a Cornish Borough? Because he never sees his member." see Womersley, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, p.16; Craddock, Luminous Historian, 334–342; and Beer, "Malady." As his condition worsened, he underwent numerous procedures to alleviate the condition, but with no enduring success. In early January, the last of a series of three operations caused an unremitting peritonitis to set in and spread, from which he died. The "English giant of the Enlightenment"so styled by the "unrivalled master of Enlightenment studies," historian Franco Venturi (1914–1994) in his Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment (Cambridge: 1971), p. 132. See Pocock, Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, p. 6; x. finally succumbed at 12:45 pm, 16 January 1794 at age 56. He was buried in the Sheffield family graveyard at the parish church in Fletching, Sussex.Gibbon’s estate was valued at approx. £26,000. He left most of his property to cousins. As stipulated in his will, Sheffield oversaw the sale of his library at auction to William Beckford for £950. Womersley, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 17–18.