Edward Gibbon, ‘Essai sur l’étude de la littérature’

A critical edition

Volume: 2010:07

Series: SVEC

Volume Editors: Robert Mankin

Publication Date: 2010

Pages: 384

ISBN: 978-0-7294-0997-1

Price: £75


Before he had even conceived of the Decline and fall of the Roman Empire there was another Edward Gibbon, a young expatriate living in Switzerland and writing in French. In the Essai, a work of remarkable erudition and energy completed by the age of twenty-one, Gibbon reflects on the present state of knowledge in post-Renaissance Europe – what he calls littérature.

The first publication of the Essai since 1761, this critical edition sets Gibbon’s work in its intellectual context. A detailed introduction examines the biographical, cultural and historical background to this text: the young writer’s perception of European intellectual life as he observed it from Lausanne, his relation to the Encyclopédie and the French académies, the fate of erudition, and the modern organization of learning in books. An extensive commentary completes this edition, providing invaluable annotation of each chapter, including the important but little-known sections on religion that were replaced by Gibbon in the final text.
As current debates revisit the meaning of Enlightenment, readers will find in this edition of Gibbon’s Essai a new approach to the intellectual networks and tensions that lie at its heart.

Guide to this edition
Circumstances of writing
Character of the text
‘France’: a context
From Belles-Lettres to littérature
The rise of the author
Religions of the mind
Textual apparatus
Essai sur l’étude de la littérature
• To Edward Gibbon
• Avis au lecteur
• A l’auteur
• Essai sur l’étude de la littérature
Textual commentary


Essays in Criticism

Mankin’s superb edition of the Essai, one of the greatest products of a truly international Republic of Letters, allows a great work of criticism, a civilised and civilizing text, to come back into fructifying circulation.

Les Lettres romanes

L’ouvrage de Mankin propose une lecture très fouillée du texte de Gibbon avec de nombreuses incursions dans d’autres œuvres de l’auteur comme l’Histoire de la décadence et de la chute de l’Empire romain et les Mémoires. Il s’appuie sur des références multiples en soulignant notamment la modernité de la demarche historiographique de Gibbon dès les années 1760, bien avant la publication de l’Histoire de la décadence et de la chute de l’Empire Romain.


Mankin’s edition is a remarkable effort to try and elucidate the genesis and status of the Essai, in the light both of the contemporary history of ideas and publications, in France and in England, and of Gibbon’s own intellectual development […] This volume has the scrupulous precision of the whole SVEC collection, and the Voltaire Foundation must again be praised for its continuous and rare support of erudite research on the Enlightenment period. With the profusion of Mankin’s references and sources, and the way he succeeds in making them resonate through Gibbon’s text, this critical edition proves a very rewarding read for all of those interested in the intellectual history of the eighteenth century.

Voltaire Foundation

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