- Walter Raleigh’s History of the World and the Historical Culture of the Late Renaissance by Nicholas Popper
Nicholas Popper’s book is that most interesting of things, a history of a history, and as such it has two goals: to tell the story of Sir Walter Raleigh and the way he composed his famous History of the World in the last years of his life, and to illumine the discourses of historiography of which the History is a part. In both historicizing Raleigh’s work and interpreting the late English Renaissance cultural practices of history from which it emerged, Popper accomplishes his goals with wonderful keenness. Raleigh remains an iconic figure of Elizabethan courtly life, and the story of his last days, locked up in the Tower with 500 books and the goal of writing a history of the world from its beginning to the present, is well known to scholars and indeed to any visitor to the Tower today. But his History is rarely read—there has been no edition since 1971—and in light of the impending 400th anniversary of its publication, Popper’s study is both welcome and necessary. It is of interest not only to historians of early modern England but also to literary critics, historians of philosophy, and art historians.
The first chapter, “Context,” succinctly lays out Raleigh’s biography and his vexed relationship with King James, to whom Popper says the History was primarily directed. Popper draws a vivid picture of the culture of history in Raleigh’s time: history as a discipline flourished and was considered by statesmen, who established archives to facilitate the production of histories, as [End Page 318] an important tool for governance. Raleigh’s writing of a world history can then be understood as an attempt to evince his mastery not only of scholarship but also of politics, a demonstration of his use-value for the new Jacobean administration. Here, as later in the book, Popper is particularly good at sketching the intellectual debates and controversies that emerged from the new emphasis on this historical culture: Annius, for example, was a dubious figure in the period because he wrote many influential histories covering periods and events not previously historicized, yet was only able to do so insofar as he forged many earlier histories which he claimed to discover (as Raleigh and others were aware, although they still considered him an appropriate source at times). But what emerges most strongly from this first chapter is the emphasis by various historians on causation: “Application of these tools ... [of scholarly research] enabled the construction of narratives that accurately portrayed processes of causation, rather than merely supplying moral exempla” (45). As Popper subsequently demonstrates, Raleigh’s own History activates and prioritizes the twin coordinates of causation and narrative.
Chapters 2 and 3 describe the source material for the two most significant branches of historiography that Raleigh addressed in his tome. One, geography, is a discipline that still exists today, although in the Renaissance geography mainly comprised attempts to establish the most accurate locations of Biblical events. Raleigh sometimes agreed with his peers as to the topography of the Holy Land, while at other times he drew upon his research and his own calculations and experience to propose new answers to geographical problems: Noah’s Ark, he wrote, was not located in Armenia as was thought but much further east, since “if we adde the consideration ... That NOAH planted a Vineyard, wee shall finde that the fruite of the Vine or Raysin did not grow naturally in that part of Armenia, where the resting of the Arke was supposed” (192). The other important branch of historical knowledge Popper describes here, chronology, no longer exists in any form like it did; chronology was mostly addressed towards establishing the time of the creation and the dating of Biblical events. A secondary task of the more radical chronologists was to put Biblical events in temporal line with other events reported by the pagan historians of antiquity. Raleigh...