18th Century Historians Began to Study Past (not Just Present) Eras
When 18th century writers are arraigned for their defective appreciation of the Middle Ages (the great stumbling block) and remote periods general, their critics forget the historical positions of the men they criticize. To write history in the 18th century was something very different from what it had been before, and this in several ways. First of all the mere lengthening of the historic retrospect had enormously increased the field of historical survey. A writer of the 18th century looked back on nearly as much as we do ; he had behind him the recent modern period, the long Middle Ages, the barbarian epoch, those of Greece and Rome. And it was honourable to the men of the 18th century that they did not shrink from the task of writing on this immense expanse of history, imperfectly as they were prepared for it. It seems to be sometime forgotten that most of the historical writing of the ancients, and a good part of that of the modern up to the 18th century, had been the writing of contemporary history, or history of a quite recent past. This is true of Herodotus (when he is not merely a traveller telling travellers stories), of Thucydides, of Polybius, of Sallust, of Tacitus of Guicciardini, of Fra Paolo, of Davila, of Grotius, of Clarendon. Contemporaneous history may bring out some of the highest qualities of an historian -- perspicacity, weightiness of judgement and language, skill in narrative, and so forth. But one quality it does not need and cannot display, insight into a remote age differing in culture politics, and religion from those amid which the historian lives. Yet it was precisely the history of remote ages which the writers of the 18th century boldly undertook to treat. That they often failed is not surprising. It would have been a miracle if they had succeeded.
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