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  1. Independent culture newsletter
  2. Foundation: The History of England, Volume I - History Extra
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It was possible to agree at that time with Montesquieu that the Polish Szlachta , or aristocracy, had remained as a bulwark against autocracy, which had been lost by aristocrats like himself through the centralisation of Bourbon power in France. Very recent history was the abolition of heritable jurisdictions. Before that law was passed, local aristocrats in Scotland had the power to try cases and raise armies, as the Government had just learnt to its cost.

Far from exporting divine right principles to England: Scotland, like Poland, had never become a centralised Renaissance monarchy. Similarly, in England before the Tudors, " It required the authority almost absolute of the sovereigns, which took place in the subsequent period, to pull down those disorderly and licentious tyrants, who were equally averse from peace and from freedom, and to establish that regular execution of the laws, which, in a following age, enabled the people to erect a regular and equitable plan of liberty".

A heritable jurisdiction might be conducted with equity, if presided over by someone like Montesquieu; but there is even less guarantee than there is in the judiciary of an autocracy. The convention that the kings could not raise taxes without parliamentary consent, Hume dates to the time of the usurpers of the House of Lancaster , who needed to bolster their shaky claim to the throne with warlord support. The reluctance of the House of Commons to fund the executive, led the otherwise absolutist Tudors to grant monopolies, force loans, and raise funds by other irregular measures.

These practices came to a head under the Stuarts, but they did not initiate them. This earlier era of Polish style aristocracy came about through the gradual implementation of Magna Carta; before which the kings had been more absolute, ruling by right of conquest. The early Normans in turn had subjugated the Saxons, among whom "the balance seems to have inclined [again] to the side of aristocracy" or oligarchy. He allows that the early Saxons and other Germans "seem to have admitted a considerable mixture of democracy into their form of government, and to have been one of the freest nations, of which there remains any account in the records of history"; but he cautions: "Those who, from a pretended respect to antiquity, appeal at every turn to an original plan of the constitution, only cover their turbulent spirit and their private ambition under the appearance of venerable forms".

Under the Saxons, there was never much freedom for the Ancient Britons. He saw in the patriarchy of the Tudors and Stuarts "the dawn of civility and sciences". It was also the time of the terminal decline of serfdom , free men having become of greater commercial value. Hume's fundamental theorem, quoted by Adamson, is that: "everything in the world is purchased by labour, and our passions are the only causes of labour".

His position is very close here to Adam Smith. The work contains several discursions on the fluctuations in the price of corn and other commodities through the eras. The events of no particular period can be fully accounted for, but by considering the degrees of advancement, which men have reached in those particulars. Ever a classicist, he saw the age of Augustus as a high point in civilisation, after which there had been an inexorable decline: "But there is a point of depression, as well as of exaltation, from which human affairs naturally return in a contrary direction, and beyond which they seldom pass either in their advancement or decline.

The period, in which the people of Christendom were the lowest sunk in ignorance, and consequently in disorders of every kind, may justly be fixed at the eleventh century, about the age of William the Conqueror ".

Foundation: The History of England, Volume I - History Extra

The Norman Conquest was the most destructive trauma that the English nation has endured. However this was followed by something even worse, during the next generation. Hume described the crusades, beginning in the reign of William Rufus , as "the most signal and most durable monument of human folly, that has yet appeared in any age or nation" chapter V. The storming of Jerusalem, 5 July , was attended by a wholesale genocide of Muslims and Jews chapter 6.

They threw aside their arms, still streaming with blood: They advanced with reclined bodies, and naked feet and heads to that sacred monument: They sung anthems to their Saviour, who had there purchased their salvation by his death and agony: And their devotion, enlivened by the presence of the place where he had suffered, so overcame their fury, that they dissolved in tears, and bore the appearance of every soft and tender sentiment. So inconsistent is human nature with itself! And so easily does the most effeminate superstition ally, both with the most heroic courage, and with the fiercest barbarity!

Hume seems to have had access to some version or other of the Koran, which he calls the "alcoran"; and he was aware of what is now remembered as the Golden Age of Islam. The results of the First Crusade were reversed during the following century. He contrasts Saladin with Richard Coeur de Lion : "this gallant emperor [Saladin], in particular, displayed, during the course of the war, a spirit and generosity, which even his bigotted enemies were obliged to acknowledge and admire.

Richard, equally martial and brave, carried with him more of the barbarian character; and was guilty of acts of ferocity, which threw a stain on his celebrated victories". Hume also writes that on one occasion, Richard ordered the massacre of defenceless Muslim prisoners, although "the Saracens found themselves obliged to retaliate upon the Christians by a like cruelty".


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Hume tells how, shortly after his great victory, Saladin's death was proclaimed: "he ordered his winding-sheet to be carried as a standard through every street of the city; while a crier went before, and proclaimed with a loud voice, This is all that remains to the mighty Saladin, the conqueror of the East". Saladin left his money to charity, "without distinction of Jew, Christian, or Mahometan".

However, even in the 12th century, there was a glimmer of light. Hume would have known about the Pandects as a law student, because Stair's "Institutions" are largely based on them, as are the works of Voet and Vinnius. However the association the English laity "formed without any necessity" between Roman and canon law : "prevented the Roman jurisprudence from becoming the municipal law of the country, as was the case in many states of Europe".

Nevertheless, "a great part of it was secretly transferred into the practice of the courts of justice, and the imitation of their neighbours made the English gradually endeavour to raise their own law from its original state of rudeness and imperfection". Thus Hume was writing the history of the Common Law of England from its origins through its continuing gradual absorption of the international Civil Law. Hume's nephew and executor, also called David Hume , wrote the " Commentary on the laws of Scotland respecting crimes " as a common law companion to Stair's great work.

However, he footnotes Locke, along with Algernon Sidney , Rapin de Thoyras and Benjamin Hoadley , as authors whose "compositions the most despicable, both for style and matter, have been extolled, and propagated, and read; as if they had equalled the most celebrated remains of antiquity". Sidney was a complex man. He was appalled by the death sentence on Charles I, but later wrote tracts justifying the deed. In , he was beheaded for alleged complicity in the Rye House plot to murder Charles II, after a notoriously unfair trial. Bishop Hoadley was another luminary of the whig establishment.

What Hume particularly objects to in Locke is his presentation of Robert Filmer 's "absurd" patriarchal theory of government as if it were something new. What these writers shared was belief in a neverland of ancient English freedoms, which the Stuarts had overthrown. Nor does Hobbes fare any better with Hume: "Hobbes's politics are fitted only to promote tyranny, and his ethics to encourage licentiousness.

Though an enemy to religion, he partakes nothing of the spirit of scepticism; but is as positive and dogmatical as if human reason, and his reason in particular, could attain a thorough conviction in these subjects In his own person he is represented to have been a man of virtue; a character no wise surprising, notwithstanding his libertine system of ethics. Timidity is the principal fault, with which he is reproached: He lived to an extreme old age, yet could never reconcile himself to the thoughts of death. The boldness of his opinions and sentiments form a remarkable contrast to this part of his character.

He died in , aged Hume follows this withering notice on Hobbes with a judiciously favourable review of James Harrington 's The Commonwealth of Oceana. After noting advances made by Boyle and Hooke in the mechanical philosophy , Hume says: "While Newton seemed to draw off the veil from some of the mysteries of nature, he shewed at the same time the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy; and thereby restored her ultimate secrets to that obscurity, in which they ever did and ever will remain".

Hume was no mathematical reductionist, like Hobbes. The only 17th-century Scottish philosopher, other than James I, that Hume applauds is John Napier of Merchiston, the inventor of logarithms. However Napier, Newton and James I are criticised for producing eschatological literature predicting the final days. Writings of this sort were a potent factor in the politico-religious ferment of the time.

Of these three alchemists, Hume writes: "From the grossness of its superstitions, we may infer the ignorance of an age; but never should pronounce concerning the folly of an individual, from his admitting popular errors, consecrated by the appearance of religion".

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He calls Francis Bacon "the greatest glory of literature in this island" at the time of James I. However, he also criticises Bacon, in contrast with the earlier Kepler , for treating Copernicus 's discovery of the solar system with disdain. Of Galileo , Hume writes that Italy had "too much neglected the renown which it has acquired by giving birth to so great a man". A more extended critique of these early political scientists can be found in "Hobbes" by George Croom Robertson. Hume allows Arthur , and even Woden , to have been shadowy historic figures, and he mentions the poet Taliesin Thaliessin.

He rates Alfred the Great beside Charlemagne as a man of letters: "Alfred endeavoured to convey his morality by apologues, parables, stories, apophthegms, couched in poetry; and besides propagating among his subjects, former compositions of that kind, which he found in the Saxon tongue, he exercised his genius in inventing works of a like nature, as well as in translating from the Greek the elegant fables of Aesop.

He also gave Saxon translations of Orosius 's and Bede 's histories; and of Boethius concerning the consolation of philosophy". Actually some of these works were commissioned by Alfred, not by him. None of the later writers of Arthurian romances get a mention. That is unsurprising. They were most but not all glorifying what Hume saw as a period of decadence and decline. So in some need of explanation is why he neglects to mention either Chaucer , Gower or Langland , or what is now called the Ricardian Renaissance. Nor does he mention Chaucer's model Boccaccio either, nor even Dante.

He does mention Petrarch , but the rest of the named Italians are of the generation of the High Renaissance : Tasso , Ariosto and Guarini.


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  7. What Hume found in these Italian writers of the 16th century was romances set in the darkest days of the crusades, featuring antiheroes, Christian or Muslim. He censured Shakespeare's "barbarism", but insisted that " Spenser , Shakespeare , Bacon , Jonson were superior to their contemporaries, who flourished in that kingdom France.

    Harvey were at least equal to their contemporaries. The reign of Charles II, which some preposterously represent as our Augustan age, retarded the progress of polite literature in this island, and it was then found that the immeasurable licentiousness, indulged or rather applauded at court, was more destructive to the refined arts, than even the cant, nonsense, and enthusiasm of the preceding period". I put it on a shelf, admiring how impressive the books looked there.

    The sheer size of the work was intimidating; starting it seemed like a big commitment. Plus, the fact that it had been written in midth Century was a bit off-putting, as past experience with literature of this period proved the writing style to be a little inaccessible for my taste. I had occasion about a month ago to pick up Vol.

    I'm glad I did, since Hume does a fantastic job of succinctly summarizing in Vol. Hume was a writer of the Scottish Enlightenment and a rationalist par excellence, and it is entertaining to read the dismay with which he viewed the chaos of the early Anglo-Saxon period, when what we know today as England was comprised of the Heptarchy of seven kingdoms: Kent, Northumberland, East Anglia, Mercia, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex.

    There was almost constant warfare among the seven, with each striving to be primum inter pares. Just about every page is filled with accounts of ravaging and pillaging. In this culture, might made right and there really was no rule of law. Those among us who are of an anarchistic frame of mind would do well to read this to see how wretched life could be without the rule of law. The Conquest in changed everything: the Saxon aristocracy was replaced to a large extent with Normans and for the next two hundred years, a recurrent theme is a desire to return to "the good old days" of Saxon hegemony.

    Henry II comes off pretty well in this version as a king who brought a degree of stability to the nation's affairs.

    Revolution

    Speaking of "affairs," Hume paints Henry's wife, Eleanor, as a bit of a floozie, mentioning her occasional "gallants. King John was just as bad as he is portrayed in "Robin Hood. Throughout this first volume of Hume's work, the Church meaning the Catholic Church - the only game in town during this period was in almost perpetual conflict with the Crown. Hume takes a dim view of the Church, characterizing it as "superstition. He misses no opportunity to point out the far-from-holy machinations of the Holy See, repeatedly letting kings off the hook for pledges they had made to rule better.

    One of the things that strikes the reader immediately about this work is the rather liberal position the author takes in regard to commas. They are inserted seemingly willy-nilly and require a bit of adjustment in a reader with more conventional views on punctuation. Also, the word "farther' is used to denote degree as well as distance. The word "further" is not used at all. I was delighted with Vol. And I still have five more volumes to go! View 2 comments. Clearly, from Hume's perspective the early Anglo-Saxons were barbarians, the Norman kings of England were pure thugs no better than the popular view today of the Mafia, and the church at Rome was the evil empire.

    Reading Hume is very entertaining as long as you don't expect anything even remotely like respect for authority or for antiquity. I doubt he received many invitations to social gatherings. I can almost guess that he'll say something like, "the barbaric Scots stood astride a filthy ditch called Bannockburn to meet the vast army of vile English ruffians. One word to desribe it: "incredible. Appealed to all for its frankness. No not painting the wart on the King's nose. And why am I the only one to rate this book? Ok in parts, but who is to say that his version of history is true!?

    Apr 01, Anderstu rated it it was amazing. The wonderful thing about reading an old history is that you learn about two periods in one fell swoop: the period described and the period in which it is written. On top of that, I really appreciate Hume's obvious charm and wit and perspective.

    Foundation: The History of England Volume 1 by Peter Ackroyd

    His treatment of Beckett is interesting and refreshing. I can't help but categorize this with Decline and Fall.

    The most lasting impression is the value of an eighteenth century perspective, in two senses--first, the clarity. This is Reason, that is Yes! This is Reason, that is Superstition lookin at you, popes. Second, relatedly, the implicit understanding of why one writes a history or reads it. A serious scholarly work that will not only expose structures but also distill wisdom from the mess of chronicled facts. Reading it done reminds me of how unusual this project is. Not that it's not done now, but the examples I can think of are in bad faith and closed-minded rather than the alternative.

    Five stars means that not only would I recommend it, but if you don't like it I will draw unfavorable inferences, before I get back off my soapbox. I finally finished this one. I have been reading this one in the background since the beginning of the year. I decided when I was on the elliptical or the bike to read a book to maximize efficiency in my day vice watching the endless, meaningless commentary of our times English history is one of my favorite areas to read about since it covers so many ages.

    I love the Roman era. I find the Anglo-Saxon invasions interesting although the names kill me. The appearance of the I finally finished this one. The appearance of the Vikings, the colonizing Danes, and their subsequent decline are covered here in depth. Finally the advent of the Conqueror and the beginning of the Plantagenet line of monarchs and their crusades, quarrels, and injustices lead to Magna Carta. The book is a large volume and takes a significant time to finish. I do recommend it even though the Old English of the author can be quite tricky.

    Aug 16, Geoff Sebesta rated it it was amazing. I adored this book.

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    It put English and French history into perspective for me, and the chapters on Thomas of Becket and Henry II completely transformed the way I looked at that period. Keen ; pages. Elton ; pages.

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