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Reconsiderations on History and Antiquarianism: Arnaldo Momigliano and the Historiography of Eighteenth-Century Britain

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 57, Number 2, April 1996
pp. 297-316 | 10.1353/jhi.1996.0020

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Journal of the History of Ideas 57.2 (1996) 297-316

Quando mia figlia era molto piccola si divertiva a entrare nel mio studio e a chiedermi con finta gravità: "Signore papà che cosa hai concluso?" La sua domanda mi è tornata in mente molte volte più tardi, e mi ritorna nella mente anche oggi. Concludere non è facile, in qualsiasi lingua. E io per natura preferisco proporre problemi.

--A. Momigliano, "Epilogo senza conclusione"

The question is: can we save for ourselves and for our successors this immemorial tradition, this long-standing delight, of talking to past historians as if they were our senior colleagues?

--A. Momigliano, "Polybius Between the English and the Turks"

More than any other historian of this century, Arnaldo Momigliano shaped our understanding of the evolution of Western historiography from the ancient to the modern world. Fundamental to this continuity, as Momigliano saw it, was the revival in the Renaissance of the classical division of history into two distinct genres. The first (often called, without further qualification, "history") is the narrative of public events organized in linear and causal fashion; the second, antiquities, is a more diverse body of writing that neglects political narrative for philosophical, literary, topographical, and other concerns. After the Reformation antiquarianism took on new tasks in response to the religious controversies of the age, but it remained distinct from the narrative tradition. Only in the eighteenth century did a convergence begin that has finally been completed in the historical methods of our own time.

This identification of the eighteenth century as the time when historical narrative and antiquarian research converged gives Momigliano's views their particular interest to students of this period. His terms, however, are always far wider than any single century. In fact his argument constitutes a genealogy of modern historical method, since the merging of the two traditions -- first witnessed in the erudite historiography of Edward Gibbon -- was a precondition of modern practice. On these foundations, a modern historical discipline has grown up in which systematic research has become indivisible from the task of representing the past in narrative, with the consequence that the ancient separation of history and antiquities has at last been transcended.

This essay is intended as a sketch of an alternative approach to the study of historical thought and writing in eighteenth-century Britain. In my view an essential point of departure is the interest of eighteenth-century writers in the structures and experiences of private life, their desire to explore the inward lives of individuals and the everyday life of societies. This revaluation of private life challenged the classical conception of history in fundamental ways, resulting in a fruitful tension between the social and sentimental interests of the age and its inherited view of history. At stake, in the very broadest terms, was the need to find forms of historical narrative that met the needs of a commercial society and recognized the values and activities of a non-aristocratic audience.

In the eighteenth century antiquarian erudition was far from the only genre bordering on the territory of political narrative. Conjectural history, religious history, history of manners, history of sciences and of literature, biography, memoir, and novel all defined themselves in relation to a traditional conception of history and claimed the attention of readers for their own rival narrative spaces. More particularly, these related genres ranged themselves against history's strict identification with public life, with all the assumptions about audience, gender, and intellectual authority that accompanied the public domain. Without ever displacing the national narrative in the hierarchy of literatures, these other genres offered a variety of alternative histories whose common ground was their resistance to the assumed priority of politics.

For a generation Momigliano's dialectic of history and antiquarianism has served as an organizing principle for a good deal of teaching and writing on early modern historiography. It is time, I believe, for a revaluation of this conceptual scheme. The wider consideration of genres I am urging would greatly enlarge the framework of discussion and give us a sharper sense of the interests of eighteenth-century historians and their audiences.

Historiography and Antiquarianism

Momigliano's attention to the antiquarian roots of modern...


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