History of the World

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History of the World

Excerpt from History of the World

    By Walter Raleigh

    Originally published in 1614

    Reprinted in The Norton Anthology of English Literature

    Published in 1986

Walter Raleigh's (1552–1618) The History of the World was one of the most influential prose works of the seventeenth century. Though it focused primarily on the history of the ancient world, analyzing events only up to the second century bce, it expressed strong concerns about the English monarchy and the dangers of misrule. Raleigh argued that God had created an ordered and harmonious world in which human affairs should be governed by rulers who recognized God's ultimate authority. A monarch who held himself above the law of God threatened the world order and would bring ruin to his dynasty.

"Man … was an abstract or model, or brief story of the universal, in whom God concluded the creation and work of the world, and whom he made the last and most excellent of his creatures."

Raleigh worked on The History of the World while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In 1603 he had been arrested on a charge of treason for his alleged involvement in a plot to overthrow James I (1566–1625) and put the king's cousin, Arabella Stuart (1575–1615), on the throne. There was little evidence against Raleigh, and many of his supporters believed the charge had been fabricated by his enemies. Nevertheless, Raleigh was found guilty and sentenced to death. King James, however, ordered the sentence to be postponed indefinitely. Raleigh remained in the Tower until 1616, when the king allowed him to make a trip to Venezuela to look for gold. Provoking the Spanish during this unsuccessful expedition, Raleigh returned to London to find that Spain was demanding his execution for piracy. King James refused to authorize another trial, stating that this was impossible because Raleigh's original death sentence was still valid. In 1618 the king ordered Raleigh beheaded on the original treason charge.

His long years of confinement gave Raleigh the opportunity to further his studies and to write. Imprisonment in the Tower was nothing like incarceration in a modern correctional facility. The Tower, which still stands in London, was a walled fortress containing not only dungeons and prison apartments, but also a royal residence, the royal mint (where the country's coins were made), and even a small zoo. The Tower's less fortunate inmates might be chained up in small underground cells, or even be subjected to torture to obtain confessions of treason. But those who were considered less dangerous could live in relative comfort. As a man of wealth and high status, Raleigh was treated well at the Tower. He occupied a large apartment, where his family was allowed to join him and where he was able to keep his extensive private library. He spent his time investigating scientific matters, reading, and writing what he intended to be a multi-volume history of human civilization.

Raleigh dedicated this book to the king's son, Prince Henry (1594–1612), who considered Raleigh something of a father figure. Raleigh most likely hoped that the prince might intervene on his behalf with the king and thus secure his eventual release from the Tower. But when Prince Henry died in 1612, Raleigh abandoned the project. He wrote a long preface to the work and published it as an unfinished piece in 1614.

The History of the World began with the creation of the universe as described in the Bible, and it traced the history of the ancient world through the second century bce. In the book Raleigh presents history as a record of God's divine will. He argued that God intervenes in the affairs of humankind, rewarding just rulers and punishing unjust ones. Indeed, no monarch, according to Raleigh, stood above the law of God.

Raleigh also expressed the Elizabethan philosophy that a human being was a microcosm, or "little world," in which each part corresponded to a larger element of the universe (the macrocosm). A human body, for example, was like the earth: bones corresponded to rocks, blood corresponded to rivers, and hair corresponded to grass. Thoughts, feelings, and even stages of life, such as infancy or old age, also corresponded to parts of the universe. According to Raleigh, thoughts corresponded to the action of angels, while each stage of life corresponded to a planet of the solar system.

This worldview demonstrated the importance that Elizabethans placed on order. In his preface to the book Raleigh emphasized that bad rule threatened this order and resulted in God's punishment. He did not attempt to hide his critical views toward English kings who overstepped the bounds of their authority. He referred specifically to Richard III (1452–1485), who had seized the crown in 1483 from the legitimate heir, and who was suspected of ordering the murder of his young nephews in order to eliminate them as potential political rivals. Raleigh described Richard as "the greatest master in mischief of all that forwent him," and stated that his murderous acts made him "a spectacle of shame and dishonor both to his friends and enemies." Furthermore, God punished Richard by ending his life before the tyrannical king had a chance to enjoy his power. Richard was killed in 1485 at the battle of Bosworth Field, when Henry Tudor (later Henry VII; 1457–1509) led a revolt against him. Richard's dynasty was destroyed, and the Tudor dynasty—the last monarch of which was Elizabeth I (1533–1603)—was established.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from History of the World:

  • The History of the World is incomplete. Raleigh had originally planned an even longer and more comprehensive work.
  • The History of the World expressed the Elizabethan view of an ordered universe. Every person had a specific place in society, determined by God. As long as no one tried to step out of their divinely assigned role, society would run smoothly and England would prosper.

History of the World

That Man Is, As It Were, A Little World: With A Digression Touching Our Mortality.

Man, thus compounded and formed by God, was an abstract or model, or brief story of the universal, in whom God concluded the creation and work of the world, and whom he made the last and most excellent of his creatures, being internally endued [endowed] with a divine understanding, by which he might contemplate and serve his Creator, after whose image he was formed, and endued with the powers and faculties of reason and other abilities, that thereby also he might govern and rule the world, and all other God's creatures therein. And whereas God created three sorts of living natures, to wit, angelical, rational, and brutal; giving to angels an intellectual, and to beasts a sensual nature, he vouchsafed unto man both the intellectual of angels, the sensitive of beasts, and the proper rational belonging unto man, and therefore, saith Gregory Nazianzen, Homo est utriusque naturae vinculum: "Man is the bond and chain which tieth together both natures." And because in the little frame of man's body there is a representation of the universal, and (by allusion) a kind of participation of all the parts thereof, therefore was man called microcosmos, or the little world. Deus igitur hominem factum, velut alterum quendam mundum, in brevi magnum, atque exiguo totum, in terries statuit: "God therefore placed in the earth the man whom he had made, as it were another world, the great and large world in the small and little world." For out of earth and dust was formed the flesh of man, and therefore heavy and lumpish; the bones of his body we may compare to the hard rocks and stones….

His blood, which disperseth itself by the branches of veins through all the body, may be resembled to those waters which are carried by brooks and rivers over all the earth; his breath to the air; his natural heat to the enclosed warmth which the earth hath in itself—which, stirred up by the heat of the sun, assisteth nature in the speedier procreation of those varieties which the earth bringeth forth; our radical moisture, oil, or balsamum (whereon the natural heat feedeth and is maintained) is resembled to the fat and fertility of the earth; the hairs of man's body, which adorns, or overshadows it, to the grass, which covereth the upper face and skin of the earth; our generative power, to nature, which produceth all things; our determinations, to the light, wandering, and unstable clouds, carried every where with uncertain winds; our eyes, to the light of the sun and moon; and the beauty of our youth, to the flowers of spring which either in a very short time, or with the sun's heat, dry up and wither away, or the fierce puffs of wind blow them from the stalks; the thoughts of our mind, to the motion of angels; and our pure understanding (formerly called mens, and that which always looketh upwards) to those intellectual natures which are always present with God; and, lastly, our immortal souls (while they are righteous); are by God himself beautified with the title of his own image and similitude. And although, in respects of God, there is no man just, or good, or righteous … yet, with such a kind of difference as there is between the substance and the shadow, there may be found a goodness in man: which God being pleased to accept, hath therefore called man the image and similitude of his own righteousness. In this also is the little world of man compared, and made more like the universal … and that four complexions resemble the four elements, and the seven ages of man the seven planets; whereof our infancy is compared to the moon, in which we seem only to live and grow as plants, the second age to Mercury, wherein we are taught and instructed, our third age to Venus, the days of love, desire, and vanity; the fourth to the sun, the strong, flourishing, and beautiful age of man's life; the fifth to Mars, in which we seek honor and victory, and in which our thoughts travel to ambitious ends; the sixth age is ascribed to Jupiter, in which we begin to take account of our times, judge of ourselves, and grow to the perfection of our understanding; the last and seventh to Saturn, wherein our days are sad, and overcast, in which we find by dear and lamentable [regrettable] experience, and by the loss which can never be repaired, that of all our vain passions and affections past, the sorrow only abideth: our attendants are sickness, and variable infirmities [weaknesses]; and by how much the more we are accompanied with plenty, by so much the more greedily is our end desire, whom when time hath made unsociable to others, we become a burden to ourselves: being of no other use, than to hold the riches we have from our successors….

For if there were any baiting place, or rest, in the course or race of man's life, then … the same might also perpetually be maintained. But as there is a continuance of motion in natural living things, and as the sap and juice, wherein the life of plants is preserved, doth evermore ascend or descend; so is it with the life of man, which is always either increasing towards ripeness and perfection or declining and decreasing towards rottenness and dissolution.

What happened next …

King James was intensely displeased with The History of the World, which he felt was too bold in its criticism of monarchs. James ordered that Raleigh's name and portrait be removed from all copies of the book before it could go on sale. Despite the king's negative response, however, The History of the World became the most influential history book in England during the early 1600s. It is considered an outstanding example of Elizabethan prose (non-poetry).

The defiant political message in The History of the World appealed to those in England who resented the monarch's power, such as Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). In 1641 civil war broke out between those who advocated for a strong Parliament and those who supported the traditional monarchy. In 1649 the Parliamentarian faction took control, ordering the execution of King James's son and successor, Charles I (1600–1649). Cromwell then declared himself head of the government. (The monarchy was not restored in England until 1660.) Raleigh became so associated with the idea of rebellion against tyranny that in 1658 the poet John Milton (1608–1674) published a collection of sayings about liberty and government, The Cabinet-Council, that he attributed incorrectly to Raleigh.

Raleigh's political views also inspired American revolutionary leaders in the 1770s. The American navy named one of its warships after him.

Did you know …

  • In his preface to The History of the World Raleigh bitterly thanked those who had imprisoned him, saying that his long confinement had given him the time to write.
  • The History of the World took one million words to cover only the period up to 130 bce.

Consider the following …

  • In The History of the World, Raleigh compared the infancy of human beings to the moon. Why do you think this correspondence seemed appropriate to seventeenth-century thinkers? Why would "the strong, flourishing, and beautiful age of man's life" be viewed as corresponding to the sun?
  • Raleigh expressed the view that mankind's purpose was to govern and rule the world. In other words, all of the world's resources—plants, animals, minerals—existed for the use of human beings. Do you think a twenty-first-century historian would be likely to agree with this view? How would you define humanity's role in relationship to other living things?

For More Information


Adams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1986.

Fecher, Constance. The Last Elizabethan: A Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.

Trevelyan, Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002.


Lawson-Pebbles, Robert. "The Many Faces of Sir Walter Raleigh." History Today, March 1998.


"Excerpt from The History of the World, 1614." http://www.towson.edu/%7Etinkler/prose/417.html#raleigh (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"General Characteristics of the Renaissance." http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/ren.html (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Sir Walter Raleigh." BBC: Historic Figures. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/raleigh_walter.shtml (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Sir Walter Raleigh." British Explorers. http://www.britishexplorers.com/woodbury/raleigh.html (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Vouchsafed: Granted; bestowed.

Gregory Nazianzen: Fourth century bishop, also known as Saint Gregory the Theologian.

Generative: Procreative; ability to produce offspring.

Similitude: Similarity; resemblance.

Complexions: Natural colors of the skin.

Ascribed: Attributed.

Baiting place: Site where the baiting of animals took place for entertainment.

Dissolution: Decomposition into fragments or parts.

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History of the World

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History of the World