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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 September 2010

School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol E-mail:


Whilst Edward Gibbon's Memoirs of My Life comprise a notoriously complex document of autobiographical artifice, there is no reason to question the honesty of its revelation of his attitudes to geography and its relationship to the historian's craft. Writing of his boyhood before going up to Oxford, Gibbon commented that his

vague and multifarious reading could not teach me to think, to write, or to act; and the only principle, that darted a ray of light into the indigested chaos, was an early and rational application of the order of time and place. The maps of Cellarius and Wells imprinted in my mind the picture of ancient geography: from Stranchius I imbibed the elements of chronology: the Tables of Helvicus and Anderson, the Annals of Usher [sic] and Prideaux, distinguished the connection of events . . .

This seems a fairly direct comment on Gibbon's attitude to geography as a historian in that it is confirmed by various of his working documents and commonplace book comments not aimed at posterity and by the practice embodied in his great work that was thus targeted, the Decline and Fall. Taking Gibbon's private documents, the first manuscript we have in his English Essays, for example, is a tabulated chronology from circa 1751 when Gibbon was fourteen years old, which begins with the creation of the world in 6000 BC and runs up to 1590 BC, this being exactly the sort of material which could be commonplaced from the likes of Ussher and Prideaux. Matching this attention to chronology is a concern with geography, and indeed the two are coupled together as in his comment in the Memoirs. Thus in his Index Expurgatoris (1768–9), Gibbon berates Sallust as “no very correct historian” on the grounds that his chronology is not credible and that “notwithstanding his laboured description of Africa, nothing can be more confused than his Geography without either division of provinces or fixing of towns”. In this regard, Gibbon the author of the Decline and Fall was a “correct” historian, in that he was careful to frame each arena in which historical events were narrated in the light of a prefatory description of the geography of the location under discussion. This is most readily apparent in the second half of the opening chapter of the work, where Gibbon proceeds on what his “Table of Contents” calls a “View of the Provinces of the Roman Empire”, starting in the West with Spain and then proceeding clockwise to reach Africa on the other side of the Pillars of Hercules, a pattern of geographical description directly mirroring ancient practice in Strabo's Geography and Pomponius Mela's De Situ Orbis. But this practice of prefacing a historical account with geographical description repeats itself at various points in the work, as when, approaching the end of his grand narrative, Gibbon reaches the impact of “Mahomet, with sword in one hand and the Koran in the other” on “the causes of the decline and fall of the Eastern empire”. Before discussing the birth of Islam, Gibbon treats his readers to a discussion of the geography of Arabia, beginning with its size and shape before moving on to its soils, climate and physical–geographic subdivisions.

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1 Gibbon, Edward, Memoirs of My Life and Writings, ed. Cockshutt, A. O. J. and Constantine, Stephen (Keele: Keele University Press, 1994), 76Google Scholar.

2 The English Essays of Edward Gibbon, ed. Patricia B. Craddock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 5–8 and 110.

3 Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. Womersley, David, 3 vols. (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 1: 47–54Google Scholar.

4 Ibid., 3: 151; full geographical description is at 3: 151–4.

5 See Abbatista, Guido, “Establishing the ‘Order of Time and Place’: ‘Rational Geography’, French Erudition and the Emplacement of History in Gibbon's Mind”, in Womersley, David, ed. Edward Gibbon: Bicentenary Essays (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1997), 4572Google Scholar.

6 Clarke, Katherine, Between Geography and History: Hellenistic Constructions of the Roman World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

7 Hakluyt, Richard, The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, 10 vols. (London: Dent Dutton, 1927), 1: 19—this was the Preface to the second, 1598, editionGoogle Scholar. For more on this commonplace, see Mayhew, Robert J., “‘Geography is the Eye of History’: The Theory and Practice of a Commonplace, 1500–1950,” prefaced to William Camden, Britannia (1610), Thoemmes Press reprint (Bristol: Thoemmes, 2003), vxiGoogle Scholar.

8 Under the different rubric of a “spatial turn” in historical studies, similar trends are discussed at greater length in Withers, Charles W. J., “Place and the ‘Spatial Turn’ in Geography and History,” Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (2009), 637–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Jardine, Lisa, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance (Macmillan: London, 1996)Google Scholar; Brotton, Jerry, The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)Google Scholar; and Burke, Peter, The European Renaissance: Centres and Peripheries (Oxford: Blackwells, 1998)Google Scholar.

10 MacLean, Gerald, ed., Reorienting the Renaissance: Cultural Exchanges with the East (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Singh, Jyotsna, ed., A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwells, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Greene, Jack P. and Morgan, Philip D., eds., Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)Google Scholar, essays in part 3.

12 Pocock, J. G. A., Barbarism and Religion IV: Barbarians, Savages and Empires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Subsequent page references are given parenthetically in the text.

13 Such an “imagined geography”, with the motor for historical changing resting with nomads on the steppes, re-emerged in the influential geopolitics of Halford Mackinder a century after Gibbon: see Kearns, Gerry, Geopolitics and Empire: The Legacy of Halford Mackinder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Pocock is also as ever self-reflexive, for contemporaneous with the fourth volume of Barbarism and Religion comes his autobiographical essay, “The Antipodean Perception”, in The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 3–23, which discusses the role of Pocock's own spatiality as a New Zealander and an exile in the construction of his historiography.

15 For a discussion of this, see Mayhew, Robert J., “Where Was Enlightenment? English Problems, English Answers”, Journal of Historical Geography 27 (2001), 436–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Kidd, Colin, “Europe, What Europe?”, London Review of Books 30/21 (6 Nov. 2008), 1617Google Scholar.

16 Pocock, J. G. A., “Historiography and Enlightenment: A View of Their History”, Modern Intellectual History 5 (2008), 8396CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Porter, Roy and Teich, Mikulas, eds., The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This suite of work about Enlightenment at different spatial scales is cogently summarized in Charles Withers, W. J., Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, part 1. That this otherwise exhaustive study does not touch upon the questions of geographical historiography to which Pocock has devoted an entire volume shows just how many connections are being drawn and remain to be drawn in this arena.

18 Robertson, John, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples 1680–1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Subsequent page references are given parenthetically in the text.

19 On geohistory in the Annales school and as a broader trend in historiography and its relation to geography, see Baker, Alan R. H., “Classifying Geographical History”, Professional Geographer 59 (2007), 344–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Friedman, Susan, Mark Bloch, Sociology and Geography: Encountering Changing Disciplines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 See in particular Young, B. W., “Enlightenment Political Thought and the Cambridge School,” Historical Journal 52 (2009), 235–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also the comments in Fisher, Richard, “‘How to Do Things with Books’: Quentin Skinner and the Dissemination of Ideas,” History of European Ideas 35 (2009), 276–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 For example, Mayhew, Robert J., Enlightenment Geography: The Political Languages of British Geography, c.1650–1850 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, explicitly draws on Pocock's conception of an “English Enlightenment” in its conclusion, whilst Withers, Charles W. J., Geography, Science and National Identity: Scotland since 1520 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)Google Scholar, draws on Roy Porter's work on science and Enlightenment in national context in constructing his history of Scottish geography. The seminal collection on this topic, Livingstone, David and Withers, Charles, eds., Geography and Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)Google Scholar, both drew heavily on Porter's work in its introductory framing of the issues at stake and featured an “Afterword” by Porter himself.

22 There are close parallels between Robertson's handling of the category of geography and that developed by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann for the history of art in Toward a Geography of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

23 See Latour, Bruno, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987)Google Scholar; and idem, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

24 A key text summarizing the vast literature in this field is Livingstone, David N., Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Ogborn, Miles, Indian Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Safier, Neil, Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Subsequent page references are given parenthetically in the text.

26 See also Ogborn, Miles, Global Lives: Britain and the World, 1550–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

27 Tang, Chenxi, The Geographic Imagination of Modernity: Geography, Literature, and Philosophy in German Romanticism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Subsequent page references are given parenthetically in the text.

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