The History Woman's Blog

Re-reading old history books

Caroline Robbins’ classic.

Part of the joy of starting a new research project is that you get the chance to read a lot of new literature. I am currently reading about translation and conceptual history, book history and the history of English republicanism.

But I am also actively re-reading a lot of older historiography I first came across when I got my teeth stuck into seventeenth-century English republican thought for my MA and PhD theses. One of the books I have recently re-visited is Caroline Robbins’ Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman (1959), now a classic in its own right.

Of course, a lot of it was still familiar in a reassuring way. The authors it covers, John Milton, James Harrington, Henry Neville, Algernon Sidney, John Toland and Robert Molesworth, among many others – back then virtual strangers I was only slowly getting to know – have by now become old friends. 

Robbins’ narrative analysis about the transmission of English republican ideas from the mid-seventeenth-century to revolutionary America has burnt itself into my brain just like the narrative of J.G.A. Pocock’s monumental Machiavellian Moment (1975), which starts the journey of ideas in the Italian Renaissance, but still ends up where Robbins does, across the Atlantic.

Where Robbins’ work was a collective biography of English-speaking Commonwealth authors, bringing together brief life sketches of an extraordinary number of authors writing on cognate issues, Pocock’s work was the biography of an idea travelling continents.

However, the re-reading of any work after a long time also lets you see its flaws more clearly, in part because of the plethora of secondary literature that has been published in the meantime, criticising and revising the arguments as well as developing them further. (more…)