The Revival of Learning: The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of
In "The Revival of Learning" I propose to explore
eighteenth-century English conceptions of what we now call the
Renaissance, arguing that eighteenth-century writers used the
previous two centuries to situate themselves and their cultural
products within a historical narrative. Cultural historiography,
by placing its practitioners within a larger scheme, is
self-constitution: British thinkers of the eighteenth century
used the Renaissance to understand themselves. At the center of
the dissertation is Samuel Johnson, the most perceptive cultural
historiographer of the century, through whose works flow the most
important currents of contemporary thought.
The Quattrocento revision of the classical and Christian
paradigms for periodization is most remarkable for the longevity
of its influence on historiography. The early humanists
themselves created the idea of the Renaissance by dividing their
new age from the ostensibly barbarous one that came before, and
provided the terms in which we still discuss medieval and early
modern history. By late in the seventeenth century, however, it
was a commonplace that this age had at last passed and another
had begun. By the time Rymer could refer to "the last age," the
tripartite scheme of antique, medieval, and modern required a
fourth term, and the Renaissance (though not yet so named) became
for the first time a distinct idea. I trace the development and
the uses of this new conception in England in the eighteenth
century. Most studies of Renaissance periodization have been
teleological, focused on the rise of our twentieth-century ideas
in Michelet, Burckhardt, and Pater. I look instead at the
earliest English attempts to talk about that age and the ways
eighteenth-century writers used historiography to understand
their own place in history.
The Introduction makes the case for the importance of such an
investigation and defends the centrality of Johnson in it.
Recognizing the need to defend a fairly traditional brand of
literary history from postmodern critiques, I suggest that
histories that are neither materialist nor Foucauldian can still
have important implications: that the history of historiography
can tell us how an age constructed itself, how it used the past
to authorize the present. Johnson's place, too, requires some
justification. The Dictionary, the edition of
Shakespeare, the Lives of the Poets, the
Rambler, Boswell's Life, and dozens of
miscellaneous pieces show him to be one of the most knowledgeable
readers of his day on the literature of the previous centuries
(among his contemporaries, only Thomas Warton can rival his
learning in the authors of the last age). But my dissertation is
not a reference work called "Samuel Johnson and the Renaissance,"
a catalogue of sources, analogues, and influences of interest
only to Johnsonians, but an examination of the larger
significance of the Renaissance in the literature of
eighteenth-century England. To provide some center to such a
potentially inchoate topic, however, I treat Johnson as Anthony
Grafton treats Scaliger -- as a paradigmatic figure at the center
of an age. He knew and commented on nearly all of his century's
most important ideas about the Renaissance, including those of
Dryden, Addison, Pope, Gray, Warton, and Gibbon, and contributed
much of his own. This focus on Johnson at once lends the
dissertation coherence and contextualizes his ideas among those
of his contemporaries, without, I hope, reducing Johnson to a
mere representative of his times: Johnson's vision of the
Renaissance is far from Addison's or Gibbon's, for instance, to
say nothing of Hume's. My contextualization of Johnson should
make these controversies as prominent as possible so as to
exhibit the full range of eighteenth-century notions.
Each chapter after the Introduction explores Johnson's attitudes
toward a Renaissance work, author, or genre, and looks at what
his views imply for a broader understanding of the Renaissance in
the eighteenth century. Specific works, then, illuminate larger
themes, just as Johnson's writings illuminate the works of his
contemporaries. I begin with a sketch of the Middle Age as it
was treated in two succeeding eras. Chapter 1, "History
Unfinished, History Defaced," explores the historiographical
rupture between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Renaissance
humanists themselves set the terms for most subsequent
characterizations of the Middle Ages, using two metaphors: the
Middle Ages as privation of learning (seen most clearly in
Petrarch) and the Middle Ages as corruption (represented by
Poliziano). Johnson and his contemporaries inherited these
paradigms and used them not only to understand the distinction
between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but also between the
Renaissance and the eighteenth century. Just as the
fifteenth-century humanists used this break to mark their place
in cultural history, those of the eighteenth century turned the
metaphors on their creators to mark their own: Dryden does it in
the Fables, Pope in the Essay on
Criticism, Warton in his History of English
Poetry, and Gibbon in the closing chapters of the
Decline and Fall. But in both the Renaissance and
the eighteenth century, these attitudes show up most clearly in
textual criticism. In the fifteenth century, the texts of
antiquity were examined anew and our modern conception of the
"classic" was born. At the end of the seventeenth century, some
of the works of the English Renaissance (Shakespeare's and
Milton's above all) received an editorial treatment previously
reserved for the classics, and for the first time underwent the
same scrutiny that Latin texts received (Johnson in fact likens
his textual practice to that of Poliziano, whose works he planned
to edit early in his career). Eighteenth-century readers
discovered in them a haphazard mixture -- anticipations of
ostensibly enlightened modern ideas and vestiges of medieval
ignorance. Their decision to emphasize one or the other tells us
much about their respective visions of cultural
Chapter 2 considers the rise of the "Tudor myth" and the
glorification of the age of Elizabeth, principally in
Shakespeare's British histories, which provided the eighteenth
century with a fund of legends about the Middle Ages and the
accession of the Tudors. Many eighteenth-century historians
regarded the Tudor period as a golden age, a time of nearly
perfect calm after the turbulent Wars of the Roses -- partly, of
course, by ignoring or repressing contrary evidence.
Elizabeth I, the female paragon of masculine virtues, was often
singled out as the one to effect this settlement. Especially
during Anne's reign, but continuing throughout the century,
writers turned their attention to the relationship between her
character and her age. Historians such as Birch, Oldmixon, Hurd,
and many anonymous writers -- some scandalous, some laudatory --
were fascinated with Elizabeth, and her patronage of the arts
made her a frequent object of inquiry in literary histories.
Johnson, in spite of his ambivalence about Elizabeth's reign,
treats her (especially in the edition of Shakespeare, the
periodical essays, and the uncollected biographies) as both the
model learned lady and the embodiment of her age. He and his
contemporaries strive to understand the relationship between
Elizabeth in propria persona and the events of her
reign, giving her character a degree of attention accorded to no
other modern monarch.
Chapter 3, "Studied Barbarity," is an expansion of my article by
that title: it examines the idea of cultural progress and Edmund
Spenser's complicated place in eighteenth-century literary
culture. Ben Jonson best exemplifies a model of cultural
progress from medieval rudeness to modern refinement, and many
poets and critics after Dryden and Waller saw in Jonson a
vindication of Augustan poetic practice. But the descent of his
reputation over the course of the eighteenth century corresponded
with the rise of Spenser's, whose apparently barbarous design,
allegory, and versification frustrated proponents of cultural
progress such as Addison. Spenser, especially as he was defended
by Hughes and Hurd, forced eighteenth-century readers to question
the inevitability of a progression toward the decorum of their
own practices, producing the tension evident in the
Rambler, the Dictionary, the
Vision of Theodore, and the Lives,
especially Cowley. Only the most perceptive and
least doctrinaire of eighteenth-century readers and critics could
account for Spenser's mysterious attraction, and in so doing made
possible many of the insights of the Spenserians of the Romantic
Chapter 4, "A People Newly Awakened," explores a more
sophisticated variety of the idea of progress. It looks at the
eighteenth-century reception of the Renaissance as an educational
and scholarly movement, and relates the growth and development of
children to the growth and development of a culture. Europe as
an infant in the fourteenth century, growing to young adulthood
in the sixteenth and full maturity at the end of the seventeenth,
is a recurring image (and a dominant one in both Johnson's
edition of Shakespeare and Warton's History of English
Poetry), and provides an early English analogue for the
metaphor of rebirth. The suggestion of a single maturing
organism points up not historiographical rupture but fundamental
continuity between the Renaissance and the eighteenth century.
In scholarship, especially pan-European Latin scholarship, there
is no obvious break between the sixteenth century and the
eighteenth, and in his correspondence and the Journey to
the Western Islands, Johnson places himself within this
tradition. The metaphor of maturation also suggested to some
that Europe had passed its prime and had entered a decline -- a
familiar notion in scholarship on the Ancients-Moderns quarrel,
but given less attention as it appears among the advocates of the
early moderns who nevertheless saw their own era as a falling off
from a golden age.
Chapter 5 studies the relationship between the Renaissance and
the Reformation. For orthodox Anglicans, Elizabeth established
the true religion, a delicate via media between
Roman superstition and Calvinist iconoclasm. When, after 1660,
English orthodoxy found itself seeking a similar path among
threats from Catholics, Dissenters, Deists, and Evangelicals, the
age of Elizabeth, especially as represented in the works of
Hooker and other Anglican divines, exerted a powerful attraction,
and reinforced the English self-image as a reasonable middle
ground between extremes. Ecclesiastical historians such as John
Strype, Gilbert Burnet, and Thomas Ward made sixteenth-century
church history an essential part of modern theology for many
writers. William Law, it is true, had little historical
grounding; but William Wake, for instance, was very consciously
historical. The prevalence of these sixteenth- and
seventeenth-century theologians in the Dictionary
(Hooker, for instance, is the tenth most quoted writer in the
entire work) suggests their importance for Johnson. His most
personal writings (the Prayers and Meditations) show
in miniature what his conversation, sermons, and other public
writings show: an attention to the history of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries to find a path for both the individual
Christian and Christianity itself.
Chapter 6, "The Ground-Work of Style," examines the development
of the English language and the English sense of nationhood. In
the Dictionary, Johnson calls for a diction free
from "Gallick" impurities, and suggests as a model the writers
from Sidney to the Restoration, "the Wells of English undefiled."
The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries thus became
England's linguistic golden age, just as the Renaissance
apotheosized Ciceronian Latin over medieval barbarism. The
analogy goes further still, putting the modern French in the
position of the medieval barbarians threatening to poison English
wells -- an attitude that appears even in the less jingoistic
Britons, who often appreciated the works of the Scaligers, de
Thou, Montaigne, and others. For many, English national identity
and linguistic identity were mutually dependent and equally
insular, and both looked backwards to the Elizabethan age.
Chapter 7, "Renaissance Lost," provides some symmetry by
returning to the themes of chapter 1: an age's creation of a
historiographical break between itself and what came before.
This chapter considers the break at the other end of the
Renaissance -- the seventeenth century -- when, for the first
time, the Renaissance became "the last age." Milton achieved a
liminal position between the two ages within a few decades of his
death, and allowed eighteenth-century historiographers to connect
the traditional political signs of periodization with the
literary and historical productions that formed the basis of a
developing cultural historiography. Milton's controversial
involvement in the events of the Civil War and Interregnum
allowed, even required, eighteenth-century literary historians to
reconsider the grounds on which the boundaries between eras are
marked. Johnson's Life of Milton stands at the
center of a heated eighteenth-century debate, and the controversy
provides a number of contradictory answers to the questions about
the relationship between history and aesthetics. Milton, partly
through Johnson's controversial account of his life and works,
was instrumental in developing a historically grounded conception
of literature, even as proto-Romantic bardolatry worked to turn
Shakespeare into the genius who transcended history.
Note: This represents my earliest bibliography. A fuller one reflects additions since it was put
As my concern is partly the history of scholarship, a distinction
between "primary" and "secondary" texts is difficult to maintain.
I avoid the problem by putting all texts in a single alphabetical
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Father Paul Sarpi.'" The Bulletin of the John Rylands
Library, 48 (Spring 1966), 255-67.
- Addison, Joseph. The Freeholder. Edited by
James Leheny. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.
- -----. The Miscellaneous Works of Joseph
Addison. Edited by A. C. Guthkelch. 2 vols. London:
G. Bell and Sons, 1914.
- Alkon, Paul K. "Johnson and Chronology." In Greene
Centennial Studies: Essays Presented to Donald Greene in the
Centennial Year of the University of Southern California,
edited by Paul J. Korshin. Charlottesville: Univ. Press of
Virginia, 1984, pp. 143-71.
- -----. Samuel Johnson and Moral Discipline.
Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1967.
- Alter, Peter. Nationalism. Second edition.
London: Edward Arnold, 1994.
- Alves, Robert. Sketches of a History of
Literature. London, 1794.
- Ascham, Roger. The English Works of Roger
Ascham. Edited by James Bennet (i.e., Samuel Johnson?).
- -----. English Works. Edited by William Aldis
Wright. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1904.
- Atkinson, A. D. "Donne Quotations in Johnson's Dictionary."
N&Q, 196 (September 1951), 387-88.
- Bacon, Francis. The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and
Morall. Edited by Michael Kiernan. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard Univ. Press, 1985.
- Bate, Jonathan. The Romantics on Shakespeare.
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.
- Bate, Walter Jackson. Samuel Johnson. London:
Chatto & Windus, 1978.
- Birch, Thomas. Memoirs of the Reign of Queen
Elizabeth, from the Year 1581 till Her Death. 2 vols.
- Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson,
LL.D. Edited by G. B. Hill, revised by L. F. Powell.
6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1934-64.
- Brack, O M, Jr. "The Death of Samuel Johnson and the
Ars Moriendi Tradition." Cithara, 20
(November 1980), 3-15.
- -----. "Samuel Johnson Edits for the Booksellers: Sir Thomas
Browne's 'Christian Morals' (1756) and 'The English Works of
Roger Ascham' (1761)." Library Chronicle of the University
of Texas, 21:3 (1991), 12-39.
- Bronson, Bertrand H. "Personification Reconsidered."
ELH, 14 (September 1947), 435-63.
- Brown, Marshall, ed. The Uses of Literary
History. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1995.
- Brown, Stuart Gerry. "Dr. Johnson and the Old Order."
Marxist Quarterly, 1 (1937), 418-30.
- -----. "Dr. Johnson and the Religious Problem."
English Studies, 20 (February-April 1938), 1-17.
- Browne, Thomas. Christian Morals. Edited by
Samuel Johnson. London, 1756.
- -----. Christian Morals. New York: Kraus,
- -----. Religio Medici. Edited by R. H. A.
Robbins. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972.
- Brownley, Martine Watson. "Samuel Johnson and the Writing of
History." In Johnson After Two Hundred Years,
edited by Paul J. Korshin. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania
Press, 1986, pp. 97-109.
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Understanding in Literary History. New Haven: Yale Univ.
- Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance
in Italy: An Essay. Translated by S. G. C. Middlemore.
London: Phaidon Press, 1951.
- Burke, John J., Jr., and Donald Kay, eds. The Unknown
Samuel Johnson. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
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Church of England. 3 vols. London, 1681-1753.
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Edited by Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, and Rhonda L.
Blair. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989-1994.
- Bury, J. B. The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into its
Origin and Growth. New York: Macmillan, 1932.
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Humanism. Second edition. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto
- Butt, John. Biography in the Hands of Walton, Johnson,
and Boswell. Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press,
- Cannon, John. Samuel Johnson and the Politics of
Hanoverian England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
- Cassirer, Ernst, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman
Randall, Jr., eds. The Renaissance Philosophy of
Man. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1948.
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Transactions of the Samuel Johnson Society of the North
West, 11 (1980), 1-14.
- Chadwick, Owen. "The Religion of Samuel Johnson."
Yale University Library Gazette, 60 (1986), 119-36.
- Champagne, Roland A. Literary History in the Wake of
Roland Barthes: Re-defining the Myths of Reading.
Birmingham, Ala.: Summa Publications, 1984.
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Johnson. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1968.
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Scholarship. Glasgow: Jackson, Son, & Co., 1945.
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Printing the History of the Council of Trent ."
The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 45 (March
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1599-1798. London: Routledge, 1990.
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Concerted Profusion of Essays and Studies in Honor of Otto
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England. 2 vols. London, 1741.
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MLN, 63 (December 1948), 512-15.
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The Hague: Mouton, 1971.
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Edited by H. H. S. Croft. London, 1883.
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Erasmus. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1978-.
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Translated by Lester K. Born. New York: Columbia Univ. Press,
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Edited by J. H. Waszink et al. Amsterdam:
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York: Holt, 1940.
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Centuries of Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton
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Johnson's Library: A Facsimile Edition. Victoria: English
Literary Studies, 1975.
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l'histoire litteraire. New York : Garland Pub., 1985.
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Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition. New
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Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. Cornell Univ., 1939.
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the Roman Empire. Edited by J. B. Bury. 7 vols. London:
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1453-1517. New York: Harper, 1952.
- Gilmore, Thomas B., Jr. "Johnson's Attitudes toward French
Influence on the English Language." Modern
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PMLA, 80 (March 1965), 51-61.
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- -----. The Politics of Samuel Johnson. Second
edition. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1990.
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ELH, 55 (1988), 421-42.
- -----. "Locke's Theory of Language and Johnson's
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