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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

Has become independent of the historian


In

that very important department of literature which stands midway between Belles Lettres and Science, the department of History, the century cannot indeed claim such striking and popularly effective innovations as in the departments of prose fiction and of periodical writing. Yet it may be questioned whether the change of this old kind is not in itself almost as noteworthy as in the other cases is the practical introduction of a new. What the change is was epigrammatically, if somewhat paradoxically, summed up recently by a great authority, Lord Acton. "History," the Cambridge Professor of that art or science said in his inaugural lecture, "has become independent of the historian."

It is possible to demur to the fact, but it is not difficult to explain the meaning. From the necessity of the case, the earliest history, at least in the West, is almost independent of documents and records. Thucydides and Herodotus wrote, the one from what he had actually seen and heard of contemporary events, the other partly from the same sources and partly from tradition of short date. Somewhat later historians of course had their predecessors before them, and in a few cases a certain amount of document, but never a large amount. When history, vernacular or Latin, began to be written again in the dark and middle ages, the absence of documents was complicated (except in the case of those early chroniclers, English and Irish chiefly, who merely put down local events)

by that more peculiar and unaccountable, though possibly kindred, absence of critical spirit, which, of the many things more or less fancifully attributed to the mediaeval mind, is perhaps the most certain. It is a constant puzzle to modern readers how to account exactly for the fashion in which men, evidently of great intellectual ability, managed to be without any sense of the value of evidence, or any faculty of distinguishing palpable and undoubted fiction from what either was, or reasonably might be held to be, history. But by degrees this sense came into being side by side with the multiplication of the document itself. Even then, however, it was very long before the average historian either could or would regard himself as bound first to consult all the documents available, and then to sift and adjust them in accordance rather with the laws of evidence and the teachings of the philosophy of history than with his own predilections, or with the necessities of an agreeable narrative. But the patient industry of the French school of historical scholars, at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century, founded this new tradition; the magnificent genius of Gibbon showed how the observance of it might not be incompatible with history-writing of the most literary kind; the national and natural tendency of German study adopted it; and shortly after Gibbon's own day the school of historians, which is nothing if not documentary, began gradually to oust that of which the picturesque, if not strictly historical, legend about the Abbe Vertot and his "Mon siege est fait" is the anecdotic _locus classicus_ of characterisation.


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