Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Richard Knolles (c. 1550–1610)
[Richard Knolles, who was of a good Northamptonshire family, was born at Cold Ashby—one of the numerous Ashbys of that county, between Naseby and Crick—in an uncertain year. He took his degree at Oxford in 1564, and was elected to a fellowship in Lincoln College. Sir Roger Manwood, the well-known Kentish lawyer, installed Knolles as master of a free grammar school which he had founded at Sandwich, and in this office the historian of the Turks spent by far the greater part of his life. The huge and remarkable book which made him well known in his own time, and has gained him a posthumous fame secure, though somewhat second-hand, must have occupied him, in point of preparation, for many years. But it does not seem to have been formally begun till after the death in 1592 of Sir Roger Manwood, when his son Peter, afterwards Sir Peter, as Knolles records in his first preface, “moved him” to it. It was published in 1603, the second edition appearing in 1610, and the third in 1621, details not discreditable to the book-buying habits of our ancestors, for the volume, though very handsome and illustrated with delightful portraits of Sultans, contains more than fourteen hundred closely packed folio pages. Knolles died in the year of the publication of the second edition.]  1
FOR one person to whom Knolles is known in his own work, he is probably known to hundreds by the panegyric, a little exaggerated perhaps, of Johnson in the Rambler, by the affectionate notices of Byron, and by the reference in Thackeray’s Virginians. He has been decried by other authorities of less importance and less judgment, and it may be admitted that to have a thorough appreciation of him, it is perhaps necessary to have read him, as Byron certainly and Johnson probably did, in early youth. Not that both his matter and his style do not deserve praise from the sanest judgment; but his immense volume, bestowed upon subjects of inferior interest and importance, may give a little pause to the critic and very much to the idle or the busy reader. The main body of Knolles’s book covers a period of not much more than two hundred years, and at a rough estimate this part is by itself as bulky as the whole of Gibbon’s History. This immense space, given to what Johnson himself calls “a remote and barbarous people, to enterprises and revolutions of which none desire to be informed,” does not invite the explorer. Yet Knolles has very great merits. It must be remembered, of course, that when Johnson said that “none of our writers can justly contest his superiority,” the number of “our writers” who had with great literary power undertaken history on the large scale was very small. Raleigh and Clarendon were about the only authors who could contest the primacy with Knolles, and though to us it may seem that the former in parts, and the latter as a whole, is far above the historian of the Turks, some fight may be made for Johnson’s view. Knolles has not the magnificent purple patches of the History of the World, nor the monumental description of incident and character to be found in the History of the Rebellion, but he is much less unequal than Raleigh, and his sentences are almost entirely free from the labyrinthine intricacies of Clarendon. He belongs, indeed, to (and with his greater contemporary Hooker is nearly the last of) those writers of English prose who, modelling themselves chiefly on Latin, achieved between the middle and the end of the sixteenth century a style far less full of movement and colour than the styles of their immediate successors, but also free from some technical blemishes and extravagances into which those successors frequently fell. And, besides this merit as a mere writer, he has a greater and rarer merit as a writer of history. He has his obscure and complicated matter perfectly in hand, he has evidently digested it in his own mind before attempting to present it to the reader, and there is consequently about his book a sense of order, ease, and proportion which is often wanting in the work of far more brilliant pens, of deeper scholars, of men of wider and more original historic view. He has also very considerable narrative power, and knows how to keep the reader’s interest up—a gift not so common in the historian as it should be. He belongs, from his period, almost inevitably to what may be called the “speech” school of history, and his speeches are naturally among his most laboured passages. But this was the trick of his authorities and of the time, and it is not unsuitable to his general style of dealing, And the same may be said of his set pieces of moralising (such as that on the death of Amurath given below), inferior as they are to the great “patches” alluded to above, which we have of a similar kind from the hand of Raleigh or his coadjutors. Altogether Knolles may be pronounced, according to the standards and requirements of his time, a singularly complete historian, and a great craftsman, if not exactly a great artist, in literature.  2
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