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William Cave (1637-1713) and the Fortunes of Historia Literaria in England



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Wright, Alexander Robert 


This thesis is the first full-length study of the English clergyman and historian William Cave (1637-1713). As one of a number of Restoration divines invested in exploring the lives and writings of the early Christians, Cave has nonetheless won only meagre interest from early-modernists in the past decade. Among his contemporaries and well into the nineteenth century Cave’s vernacular biographies of the Apostles and Church Fathers were widely read, but it was with the two volumes of his Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Historia Literaria (1688 and 1698), his life’s work, that he made his most important and lasting contribution to scholarship.

The first aim of the thesis is therefore to build on a recent quickening of research into the innovative early-modern genre of historia literaria by exploring how, why, and with what help, in the context of late seventeenth-century European intellectual culture, Cave decided to write a work of literary history. To do so it makes extensive use of the handwritten drafts, annotations, notebooks, and letters that he left behind, giving a comprehensive account of his reading and scholarly practices from his student-days in 1650s Cambridge and then as a young clergyman in the 1660s to his final, unsuccessful attempts to publish a revised edition of his book at the end of his life. Cave’s motives, it finds, were multiple, complex, and sometimes conflicting: they developed in response to the immediate practical concerns of the post-Restoration Church of England even as they reflected some of the deeper-lying tensions of late humanist scholarship.

The second reason for writing a thesis about Cave is that it makes it possible to reconsider an influential historiographical narrative about the origins of the ‘modern’ disciplinary category of literature. Since the 1970s the consensus among scholars has been that the nineteenth-century definition of literature as imaginative fictions in verse and prose – in other words literature as it is now taught in schools and universities – more or less completely replaced the early-modern notion of literature, literae, as learned books of all kinds. This view is challenged in the final section of this thesis, which traces the influence of Cave’s work on some of the canonical authors of the English literary tradition, including Johnson and Coleridge. Coleridge’s example, in particular, helps us to see why Cave and scholars like him were excluded lastingly from genealogies of English studies in the twentieth century, despite having given the discipline many of its characteristic concerns and aversions.





Connell, Philip


William Cave, Republic of Letters, Literary History, Historia Literaria, Henry Wharton, Domenico Magri, Literature, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Parr, Daniel Waterland, Letters of Recommendation, Eusebius, Thomas Smith, Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Historia Literaria, Ecclesiastici, Apostolici, Primitive Christianity, Antiquitates Apostolicae, Biographia Literaria, Harleian Catalogue, Lives of the Poets, Practical Criticism, myriad-minded, Vincentius Placcius, John Hudson, Edward Bernard, Commendatory Letters, Photius, Erasmus, Jean Le Clerc, John Bale, John Leland, Jerome, William Whiston, St George's Chapter, Christian Thomasius, Abednego Seller, I. A. Richards, Louis Ellies Dupin, Lives of the Fathers, Jeremy Taylor


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC-Gledhill Studentship at Sidney Sussex College