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Changing Conceptions of National Biography: The Oxford DNB in Historical Perspective

Changing Conceptions of National Biography: The Oxford DNB in Historical Perspective

by Keith Thomas

The publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in September 2004 was an event of great literary and scholarly importance. In his Leslie Stephen Lecture, commemorating the founder of the original Dictionary of National Biography, the celebrated historian Keith Thomas surveys the many earlier attempts at collective biography, considers the


The publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in September 2004 was an event of great literary and scholarly importance. In his Leslie Stephen Lecture, commemorating the founder of the original Dictionary of National Biography, the celebrated historian Keith Thomas surveys the many earlier attempts at collective biography, considers the relationship of the Oxford DNB to them, and offers a preliminary assessment of it. The author, who has been chairman of the Supervisory Committee of the Oxford DNB since its inception, writes with intimate knowledge of the project.

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Cambridge University Press
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Cambridge University Press


The Leslie Stephen Special Lecture by
Sir Keith Thomas
Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford
Delivered in the Senate House, Cambridge
I October 2004

Sir Leslie Stephen was the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) and this is not the first of the lectures commemorating his name to be con­cerned with that great enterprise. It is an honour to stand where Stephen's co-editor and successor, Sir Sidney Lee, lectured in 1911 on 'Principles of Biography', and where, only nine years ago, Colin Matthew, founding editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, outlined the project whose publication we celebrate today.2

   Stephen's DNB was nothing if not heroic, in con­ception and execution. Between 1885 and 1900 sixty-three volumes rolled off the press at quarterly intervals. They contained the lives of over 29,000 people and they became the international benchmark against which all other attempts at national biography would be measured. Now, a century later, we have in the Oxford DNB a work which, at 62.5 million words, is nearly twice the size of its predecessor, and produced in two thirds of the time; a collective achievement, in which all involved can take justifiable pride.

   These two great monuments of learning can only be understood if they are seen as the culmination of several centuries of biographical effort; and, if only to moderate any tendency to excessive triumphalism on this occasion, I should like to begin by reminding you of what the Oxford DNB owes to its predecessors, before reflecting on the new work itself.

   Collective biography was a long-established practice when Stephen began his work. Typically, it took one of three forms: group biography, universal biography and national biography. The first of these, group biography, was a classical genre, exemplified in such works as Cornelius Nepos's lives of generals and Suetonius's lives of Caesars, and much practised in Renaissance Italy, with collected lives of popes, writers, artists and military leaders.1 It became a common literary genre throughout Europe, and in eighteenth-century Britain there were scores of collected biographies, whether of actors, admirals, bishops, botanists, dramatists, Gresham professors, learned women, physicians, poets or regicides. One obvious impulse behind this kind of writing was the desire of emerging professional groups to establish a pedigree for themselves. Another was the attempt of competing religious denominations to construct their own heroic canon. In the eighteenth century, ejected clergy, both Anglican and Nonconformist, Catholic martyrs and persecuted Quakers all had their collective biographies.2

   Some were works of what we would call scholarship. If we exclude John Foxe's Protestant martyrology, as not strictly biographical in character, the first carefully researched group biography in English was Anthony Wood's account of Oxford writers, Athenae Oxonienses (1691-2). Wood was highly partisan. He wrote to advance the honour of the University of Oxford, by showing the contribution its members had made to learning; and his Royalist prejudices were tendentiously expressed. But he was meticulous in his efforts to establish the precise dates of the key events in the lives of his subjects. He searched parish registers and institutional archives, and conducted an extensive correspondence. Though arranged chronologically rather than alphabetically, his lives were in many ways authentic forerunners of the DNB-style notice. The Oxford DNB's entry on Wood remarks that without his biographical records, 'half the seventeenth-century entries in the DNB could hardly have been written'. In the sources, Athenae Oxonienses is cited 1,464 times.

   The second kind of biographical enterprise was universal biography. The idea of collecting the lives of all the notable people who had ever lived was formulated by the scholarly polymaths of early modern Europe, who sought to classify and organise knowledge at a time when the printing revolution was producing a deluge of undigested information. They did so by compiling vast encyclopaedic dictionaries of literary, historical and geographical learning. The first great international success was Le Grand Dictionnaire Historique (1673) by the French priest, Louis Moréri, which, expanded by others, grew until it filled ten folio volumes. After it, came the great eighteenth-century encyclopaedias: Diderot and d'Alembert in France, Zedler and Brockhaus in Germany, Encyclopaedia Britannica in Scotland. Many of these works had a biographical element, but the Huguenot Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1697) was distinctive in being organised biographically and backed up by a crushing weight of documentation, with footnotes on the page, footnotes on footnotes, and sometimes footnotes on footnotes on footnotes. In one of the two rival English translations of this work (1734-41), the editors inserted an additional 900 British lives, most of them well documented and written by the phenomenally industrious antiquarian, Thomas Birch, whose role in the development of British biography is crucial.3

   Thereafter, there were several English attempts at compiling universal biography in the continental manner.4 The results were largely derivative in content, but they helped to develop collected concise biography as an art form. The New and General Biographical Dictionary, put out by a group of booksellers in 1761, was efficiently presented, and went into several later editions, culminating in that of 1812-17, when the industrious Alexander Chalmers added nearly 4,000 lives, rewrote over 2,000 and revised the rest, making a grand total of over 9,000 lives in 32 volumes. This became the standard English-language universal biography, despite competition from the ten volumes of John Aikin's General Biography (1799-1815) and the twelve volumes of the New General Biographical Dictionary (1839-48), planned by the High Churchman Hugh James Rose and seen through by his brother Henry John and the antiquary Thomas Wright. The Roses' first six volumes made a stately progress from 'A' to 'C', the second six scampered from 'D' to 'Z'.

   Sidney Lee would dismiss both Rose and Chalmers as 'inadequate',5 but he made no mention of the much more ambitious venture by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which, under pressure from its President, Lord Brougham, embarked in 1842 on their Biographical Dictionary. It never got beyond the letter 'A', because it bankrupted the Society. But in quality it surpassed all its predecessors. It used standard sources to give 'some account of all persons who have lived and done anything for which they ought to be remembered';6 and it did so in a concise, unvarnished way, with authorities cited at the end of each notice. Its contributors came from Europe as well as Britain and were mostly based in universities or museums. Leslie Stephen said that its English lives offered the best existing model for the DNB.7 Had the project been completed, it would have occupied some 150 volumes. As it is, the seven volumes devoted to letter 'A' lie in the stacks of the Bodleian Library, some still awaiting the paper knife.

   In Britain, universal biography never got beyond more or less competent syntheses of existing knowledge. In France, by contrast, the encyclopaedic tradition launched by Moréri and Bayle generated a series of increasingly formidable works, culminating in two stupendous monuments. From 1810 onwards, the bookseller, Louis-Gabriel Michaud, aided by 300 specialist collaborators, many of great distinction, produced a Biographie Universelle, markedly royalist and anti-revolutionary in tone, but, in the forty-five volumes of its second edition (1842-65), impressive enough to achieve world supremacy in the genre, despite a strong challenge, involving litigation, from its rival, the Nouvelle Biographie Générale from the publishers Firmin Didot, in forty-six volumes (1852-66).8

   French domination in the field of universal biography caused much irritation on this side of the Channel, particularly as the Biographie Universelle seemed to contain a superfluity of obscure Frenchmen, while being very weak on the British. 'Think of the difference between our books of reference and those of the French', lamented Matthew Arnold in 1864, 'between our biographical dictionaries (to take a striking instance) and theirs.'9 It is easy to understand why it was a new universal biography, to supersede the French ones, which Leslie Stephen's munificent publisher, George Smith, wanted him to edit, until Stephen persuaded him that the project was too ambitious and that he should opt for a national dictionary instead.

   This third category, national biography, was closely related to the emergence of nationalist sentiment. As Ernest Renan famously observed, every nation needs its great men and its heroic past.10 It also needs a literary canon. In sixteenth-century England, the antiquaries, John Leland and John Bale, compiled lists of English medieval writers and their works, in order to 'advance the honour of the realm' by showing how many learned persons their country had produced.11 In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the same task was attempted for Scotland by Thomas Dempster and George Mackenzie, and for Ireland by Sir James Ware.12

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Former President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and of the British Academy, Keith Thomas is one of the most distinguished historians in the world.

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