An Aryan Descent: Race, Religion, and Universal Civilisation in E. A. Freeman’s 'A History of Architecture' (1849)

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Abstract

This paper considers the historiographic and methodological approach of E. A. Freeman’s A History of Architecture (1849). It is argued that Freeman’s training as a classicist and historian, as well as his position outside the English architectural establishment, enabled him to devise a novel method of analysis that situates his History as a species of the new, ‘scientific’ approach to the study of history that was then emerging in the English academy. As a historian – rather than an architect, or architectural historian per se – Freeman was exposed to Continental, and especially Germanic, modes of critical analysis during his time as a student at Oxford in the early 1840s, in particular through the lectures on modern history by Thomas Arnold.

The historiographic conception of cultural ‘unity’ that Freeman acquired from Arnold became the basis of his analysis of architecture, as he traced the ascent of Aryan culture through ancient and modern times via a detailed consideration of the development and meaning of built form in human history. In so doing, Freeman’s History embodies many of the prejudices of his age, such as a general disdain for ‘inferior’ non-European cultures and civilisation, and a firm belief in the morally superior and socially progressive force of Christianity. Within this schema, ‘true’ Christian forms, such as the Gothic architectures of Northern Europe, emerge as the height of human creativity and moral expression. This ‘Teutonic’ achievement is considered superior because it is understood to confirm the ‘unity’ thesis by its material manifestation of a certain ‘sprit’ or ‘pervading principle’ associated with an innate mentalité, thus connecting Gothic architecture, through the mists of time, to the very origins of Aryan genius.

Racially inflected and religiously distorted, Freeman’s History is nonetheless forcefully and confidently argued under the banner of the new critical method, emerging as a shot across the bows of those, such as the ecclesiologists, who would want to monopolise debate on the history and meaning of architecture in the Victorian age. Above all, it may be seen as the first modern, systematic history of world architecture in the English language, with a greater and more widespread influence than previously thought.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2017
EventWorld Histories of Architecture: The Emergence of a New Genre in the Nineteenth Century - University of Leiden, Leiden, Netherlands
Duration: 29 Nov 20171 Dec 2017
https://www.lorentzcenter.nl/lc/web/2017/917/info.php3?wsid=917

Conference

ConferenceWorld Histories of Architecture: The Emergence of a New Genre in the Nineteenth Century
Country/TerritoryNetherlands
CityLeiden
Period29/11/171/12/17
Internet address

Keywords

  • architecture
  • Freeman
  • Arnold
  • race
  • Aryan
  • history
  • Britain

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