Edward Gibbon


Notes : Edward Gibbon grew up in London and received part of his irregular education at Westminster and Magdalen College Oxford, where he spent fourteen months from 1752 to 1753. In retrospect he considered this period to be ‘idle and unprofitable’. After having converted to Roman Catholicism, he was placed under the care of a Calvinist minister in Lausanne, where he continued to read voraciously and adopted a regular pattern of study in a wide range of subjects. Gibbon was readmitted to the Protestant faith at Christmas 1754. He became conversant with French language and literature. Both exercised a great deal of influence on his work, and Gibbon succeeded in writing in English and French. In Lausanne he also made the lasting friendship of Georges Deyverdun and attended the parties of Voltaire. After having travelled through Switzerland and France, Gibbon returned to England in 1758. He held a commission in the Hampshire militia from 1759 to 1762. In 1763 he spent some time in Paris, where he met Diderot and d’Alembert. From there he travelled to Rome and first felt inspired to write about the decline of the city while studying the antiquities. He returned to Britain in 1765, was dependent on his father and retained his commission in the militia. It was after his father’s death in 1770 that Gibbon managed to concentrate on his magnum opus, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, and the first octavo volume was published in 1776. The work covered the period from the second century A.D. to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and thus explored the connection between the ancient and the modern. It established Gibbon’s reputation as a philosophic historian in an age in which the rigorous examination of sources was not yet practised. Even though Gibbon’s treatment of the growth of Christianity was responsible for a controversy in which the author was challenged by orthodox critics to such an extent that he felt the need to write a “Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters” (1779), his work was favourably received by his contemporaries and his distinction as a prose stylist was widely acclaimed. “The Decline and Fall” was completed in Lausanne, where Gibbon settled again in Deyverdun’s house 1783 after he had withdrawn from his work in politics as a Member of Parliament and as lord commissioner of trade and plantations, which he had carried out since 1774. In 1793 he returned to England in order to spend time with his friend Lord Sheffield, who edited Gibbon’s “Memoirs” after the author’s death in 1794. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall” was reprinted approximately sixty times in a wide range of full-length and abridged editions.

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