HI′STORY. n.s. [ἱστορία; historia, Latin; histoire, French.]
1. A narration of events and facts delivered with dignity.
Justly Cæsar scorns the poet’s lays;
It is to history he trusts for praise. Pope.
History was one of the most popular genres of literature in the eighteenth century. Publishing statistics make the case: the English Short Title Catalogue lists over 22,000 items with that subject. Limiting the search to works with the word “history” in the title, history as the subject, and published within Johnson’s lifetime, still yields more than 3,000 items. To give another and somewhat more careful measure of the importance of history books in England at this time, historian Richard B. Sher finds that, of the 360 books of the Scottish Enlightenment first published in Britain, sixty-eight were on the subject of history, more than on any other subject. The range of these works is enormous: from schoolbooks to learned, antiquarian tomes; from histories of small towns and groups of people to histories of the world. The genre is also elastic, stretching easily into the particulars of biography on the one hand and into the generalities of universal history on the other.
In addition, of course, history writing from earlier periods was still available to eighteenth-century readers. Greek and Roman historians such as Suetonius, Tacitus, Livy, Herodotus, and Thucydides continued to be published often, and the earlier British historians were also conspicuous on the shelves of eighteenth-century readers: Sir Walter Ralegh’s History of the World (1614), Francis Bacon’s History of the Raigne of King Henry VII (1622), Gilbert Burnet’s History of the Reformationin England (1679–81), and the Earl of Clarendon’s posthumously published History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars (1702), for example, were still widely read at mid-century. Some of these works prefigure innovations in historical writing usually ascribed to the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, some trends in the evolution of historical writing are properly assigned to Johnson’s lifetime, and these may be described in terms of subjects, methods, scope, and style.