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Sir Walter Raleigh – First World History of the Modern Period

“The best guide to the historic point of view of the generations which ushered in…the modern period is furnished by History of the World which Sir Walter Raleigh wrote toward the close of his life, late in the 16th century. Raleigh was not a historian by choice, but was led to his task as a diversion during the time of his imprisonment. The work as far as he completed it is in five books…”

“It will appear that Raleigh did not carry his history beyond the early Roman period, yet, even so, it is a very bulky book, comprising more than 800 pages…an actual bulk far exceeding the extant portions of Diodorus. Raleigh very generally names his authorities in the margin, but even had he failed to do so, it would be easy to understand the sources on which he must have drawn. Obviously he depended largely upon the Bible for the early history of mankind, and for the rest he had access, no doubt, to the dozen or so of classical authors [discussed in earlier posts].”

“Naturally enough, the pages of Raleigh seem archaic to the modern reader, yet passages are not wanting which show the shrewd practical insight of the courtier and statesman. As a whole, the work had sufficient interest to be reprinted in 1687, a century after the author’s death. Indeed, until this time there was practically no world history in the field in competition with Raleigh’s that had been written since classical times.”

“It is a curious commentary on the life of post-classical times and of the middle ages that between the world of Diodorus, written just before the beginning of the Christian era, and the work…of Sir Walter Raleigh, written 1,600 years later, there was no world history produced that is strictly comparable to either. Nor did the 17th century produce any marked change in the situation as regards the literature of world history.”

Historiographical Note: The “modern period” is generally reckoned as beginning roughly c. 1500 A.D., or at about the time of the Reformation in Europe, the event which perhaps most visibly represents a final break with the earlier “medieval period”.

Excerpted from: The Historians' History of the World: Prolegomena; Egypt, Mesopotamia edited by Henry Smith Williams, Volume 1, 1907. (19-20)

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