By Jack Lynch

This is the abstract to my dissertation as it appears in the final project.
Fifteenth-century humanists traded the old schemes of history, with their six ages or four monarchies, for a tripartite one with ancient, middle, and modern periods. By the late seventeenth century, however, their "modernity" had grown unwieldy, and Dryden's contemporaries questioned whether they were part of the same modernity as Erasmus and Shakespeare. What we call the Renaissance was then first treated as "the last age." As the still-unnamed age began to assume coherence, the eighteenth century used the new conception as a standard against which to measure its own achievements. What may seem at first the province of recondite specialists -- critics, antiquarians, historians, theologians -- was in fact essential to the constitution of a British character, for these specialists set the terms by which the modern nation was to be evaluated. John Dryden, Alexander Pope, the Wartons, David Hume, and Thomas Gray are all important here, but Samuel Johnson's works provide the best case study of the ways in which eighteenth-century thinkers conceived of the age of Elizbaeth as a period distinct from their own. In editorial theory and canon formation, in scholarship, in historiography, in church governance, in linguistic theory, and in literary criticism, eighteenth-century British thinkers turned to the age of Petrarch and Poliziano, Erasmus and Scaliger, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and Queen Elizabeth. In short, the eighteenth century defined itself by comparison and contrast with the last age. Each chapter explores an aspect of eighteenth-century British identity -- literary, scholarly, political, religious, and linguistic identity -- and shows how it depended on the culture of the age before.