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Walter Ralegh’s "History of the World" and the Historical Culture of the Late Renaissance

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

Imprisoned in the Tower of London after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, Sir Walter Ralegh spent seven years producing his massive History of the World. Created with the aid of a library of more than five hundred books that he was allowed to keep in his quarters, this incredible work of English vernacular would become a best seller, with nearly twenty editions, abridgments, and continuations issued in the years that followed.

Nicholas Popper uses Ralegh’s History as a touchstone in this lively exploration of the culture of history writing and historical thinking in the late Renaissance. From Popper we learn why early modern Europeans ascribed heightened value to the study of the past and how scholars and statesmen began to see historical expertise as not just a foundation for political practice and theory, but as a means of advancing their power in the courts and councils of contemporary Europe. The rise of historical scholarship during this period encouraged the circulation of its methods to other disciplines, transforming Europe’s intellectual—and political—regimes. More than a mere study of Ralegh’s History of the World, Popper’s book reveals how the methods that historians devised to illuminate the past structured the dynamics of early modernity in Europe and England.

368 pages | 18 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012

History: European History, History of Ideas

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


“Popper’s book . . . is a detailed and fascinating analysis of the History of the World. Its virtues are the way in which Popper uses Ralegh’s work to reflect upon a number of key aspects of late Renaissance culture, above all the status of history but also politics, travel, and counsel.”

Renaissance Quarterly

“Popper’s book is fascinating and compelling. The energy alone required to delve so deeply into esoteric historiographical debates is admirable, and Popper not only plumbs but animates the depths of such debates. The reader emerges with an understanding not only of Raleigh’s History but also of the broad political and intellectual culture that surrounded it.”

Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies

“Popper carefully locates Ralegh’s History in the high summer of the ars historica and reminds us why contemporaries and many later readers were so impressed.”

English Historical Review

“This is historical scholarship at its most edifying and satisfying. Nicholas Popper paints a vivid picture of Ralegh as explorer not of distant lands but of remote times, putting a staggering range of ancient texts to the service of pressing needs--personal, national, and international. An exemplary history of an exemplary history.”

William Sherman | author of Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England

"Sir Walter Ralegh took five hundred books with him when he went to prison in the Tower of London. While confined he used that library to write a history of the world that has been read ever since. Nicholas Popper imaginatively followed in Ralegh’s intellectual footsteps to produce the subtlest and most in-depth analysis of the History that has yet been written. History mattered in early modern England and this book shows us why."

Peter C. Mancall | University of Southern California

"In this learned, lively, and original book, Nicholas Popper offers a detailed and penetrating analysis of Walter Ralegh’s historical ideas and practices. At the same time, he recreates the larger world of Renaissance historical culture, and he sets Ralegh’s work into its context in a way that brilliantly illuminates both."

Anthony Grafton | author of Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West

"This deeply researched and insightful study of Ralegh’s motivations and methods in composing his History of the World sheds vivid new light not only on Ralegh and his providential interpretation of the past, but also on the central place of history in early modern European political counsel and practice. Popper guides us with admirable lucidity and expertise through early modern debates on chronology, geography, and methodology at a time when new sources and experiences were unsettling traditional authorities and received opinion."

Ann Blair | author of Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age

"At long last, a truly comprehensive analysis of the most ambitious universal history—both sacred and profane—envisaged in Early Modern England. Armed with a thorough familiarity with the sources upon which Sir Walter Ralegh drew, as well as with a keen appreciation of the centrality of history to early modern culture, Nicholas Popper’s masterful examination of the context and content of the History of the World is destined to become the standard account."

Mordechai Feingold | author of The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
General Notes and Abbreviations

1. Context: Ralegh and Historical Culture
2. Sources: From Scripture to the Stars in Early Modern Chronology
3. Reading: Antiquarian Methods and Geographical Learning
4. Narration: Providence and Human Movement
5. Presentation: Political Practice and the Past
6. Reception: The Afterlife of the History of the World


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