- William Camden: A Life in Context
William Camden (1551-1623) was an English scholar of formidable attainments and enormous influence. His Britannia, first published in 1586, affected how generations of subsequent British writers examined their country. His Annales of Elizabeth I's rule established what were to be seen as the central issues of that queen's reign for centuries, and, at least in the hands of his translators, laid the foundations for the legend of Good Queen Bess. Camden also edited various medieval historical documents, and wrote a Greek grammar, a guide to funerary monuments in Westminster abbey, and many letters and poems. In a 1948 article on Camden, Sir Maurice Powicke determined that "A great book might be written about Camden, his life and his works, his wide circle of friends and correspondents [End Page 1367] and his humanity. It would be a very difficult book to write." Powicke's lapidary comments and Camden's range of achievements efficiently deterred subsequent historians. In this sympathetic and important study, Wyman Herendeen begins by quoting Powicke's warnings, and responds to his challenge. As the title suggests, Herendeen aims to place Camden within the various milieus in which he lived and worked; his book is thus both a study of Camden and of central elements of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean intellectual life.
Herendeen divides Camden's life into three sections: his education, including four years at Oxford, which he left apparently dissatisfied, and without a degree, but having won the admiration of contemporaries including Richard Hakluyt and Henry Savile; the remainder of his achievements in the reign of Elizabeth, when he taught at Westminster School (becoming headmaster in 1593), published the first five editions of the Britannia, and was elected Clarenceux King of Arms in 1597; and his work under James I, including the Annales, and his establishment of the first chair of civil history at Oxford. Herendeen convincingly justifies the second break by showing that the change of rulers made a significant difference to Camden's working conditions. Whereas under Elizabeth, Camden and his fellow denizens of Westminster enjoyed Burghley's patronage, in James's reign historical investigation became increasingly politicized, and therefore suspect. But Herendeen also draws attention to the continuities in Camden's life, including his interest in education in the broadest sense, his efforts to forge a career as a "scholar-as-free agent" (499), rather than a courtier-scholar, and above all his enduring experiments with ways of writing about the past. Herendeen highlights Camden's humility in alerting his readers to his tentative conclusions, and describes his writing as pluralistic and polyvocal, characteristics that he attributes to the discussions of the Society of Antiquaries as a whole, where members were expected to bring varying ideas and interpretations to the table. His detailed discussion of the Britannia, much longer than the section on the Annales, is particularly fruitful in this regard. He argues persuasively for an "absence of closure" (206) in the work, which invited addition and revision: "in many respects the Britannia was not a literary text for its admirers, it was the Renaissance version of a list serve or a chat room" (205). Herendeen shows that the wealth of Camden's subject matter and the variety of the ways in which he wrote about them render simple labels such as historian or antiquarian inadequate.
This is a large and elegantly-written book that will provide future scholars of Camden and his environment with plenty of grist. The absence of a bibliography, however, and the notes placed at the end of each section, will provide some obstacles. The notes are deliberately spare, sometimes frustratingly so, and it is a surprise to see no mention of some recent important analyses of Camden's publications, including William Rockett's and Christiane Kunst's studies of the Britannia, and Patrick Collinson's work on the Annales. Herendeen's context for Camden is largely and explicitly English (although he certainly acknowledges Camden's Europe-wide reputation) and...