The History of the (Military) Book
Warning: Thinking out loud in progress! This post requires a fair amount of background knowledge on EMEMH, but so be it. I’m trying to maintain a balance on the blog between serious discussion, shop talk and Caturday photos.
Note: brackets  indicate asides, parenthetical meanderings worthy of an academic.
I’m working on a chapter on Battle As Theory – an attempt to map out the general strategic conceptions (strategic culture) of the English in the late 17C, before I dive into the War of the Spanish Succession in detail. So I have collected a wide variety of military treatises and manuals on the period, and am going through them. I know enough about the history of the book to be dangerous (i.e. a little), so I have a few thoughts and maybe a question or two that might prompt some discussion as this relates to EMEMH. Fundamentally, the critical question I’m struggling with right now is a common one: what is the relationship between what was being published and what people of the time actually thought? How big is the gulf between what published authors claimed was normative vs. what was actually practiced, and how do we explain the gulf between the two when it exists? I don’t know how much I’ll explicitly address this in the final version of the book, but it’s important background understanding, and it gives me something to blog about.
Three strands of historiographical argument seem to be at play here.
First: for decades scholars have highlighted the important distinction between prescriptive manuals (e.g. how it was supposed to be fought) and the reality (how it really was fought). We have numerous reasons to think this. In military affairs it comes from the broad consensus on the messiness of combat – epitomized in the many saying about plans not surviving first contact with the enemy, Clausewitz’s friction and fog of war, and has been empirically illustrated by Keegan’s Face of Battle and my Vauban under Siege. Further, historians analyzing early modern manuals have found that some of them were written by hacks, or at least people who had no military experience, and who either made things up or just copied other works. In legal history, the old saw that one only passes laws banning things that people are doing (but shouldn’t be) reinforces the gulf. More broadly, social history has long pointed out that most of our publications on proper behavior consist of the elites informing the lower orders of how they were to behave. Fair enough.
Second: early modern scholars have also talked for a long time about the significance of the Ancients to early moderns (the ‘renaissance’ of the Classical world…), both military and non-military. Even contemporaries debated the issue, with the late 17C witnessing a broad debate over the relative superiority of the knowledge of the Ancients vs. that of the Moderns (mostly in France, but elsewhere too). I think Anthony Grafton and others have talked in a related vein about the 16C-17C development of a clear historicizing mindset among intellectuals – a mental recognition of temporal discontinuity, that the past of even 100 years earlier was different in important ways (it can of course be traced back to the Renaissance humanists and possibly earlier as well). [As far as the Ancients vs. Moderns debate goes, it seems to have been settled largely in favor of the Moderns as far as military technology is concerned (many acknowledging that gunpowder significantly changed the art of warfare) – though, and this is important to my imminent point, here too you have change within the period, from matchlock to flintlock, pike to bayonet, platoon fire… The Romans were generally acknowledged to have the edge as far as discipline and toughness was concerned – building those camps every night sounds like a real pain. And of course you still have exceptions, like the occasional Englishman still fighting a rearguard action defending the use of the longbow.] Just so, although I think the military case needs more explication than it has received at present. [I won’t comment on a very unsatisfying Journal of Military History article from a decade back on the topic]
Third: more recently, military historians have also started looking at ‘ways of war,’ particularly nation-based models for ideal and real war (an English way of war, a French way of war…). I’ve certainly found evidence of this belief.
So when you look at these English-language manuals from the late 17C, it’s easy to see all three of these historiographical arguments: frequent references to Classical history and commanders, discussion of particular national styles of war (in this case, the English trying to catch up to the Continental style of war, with France as the paradigm army, though not in Lynn’s ‘army style’ sense), and of course you always wonder about the extent to which their ideas were accepted and implemented on campaign (the manuals tend to emphasize the union of book knowledge and practical experience).
What I haven’t seen much discussion of, however, is how anachronistic these manuals are. It’s not just that the Ancients were still held up as models – military historians have been talking for awhile about the rate and nature of military change in the early modern period (military revolution vs. evolution…), and contemporaries frequently commented on the ever-changing nature of the military art as well. But what I noticed is that these manuals are also surprisingly anachronistic on a more limited time scale; they also present insights and military practices from 50-100 years ago as current. And we’re not talking just about military strategy or stratagems, which in some respects are timeless. Tactics too were mixed together in a source, even when they were outdated a decade or more earlier. My very first introduction to this asynchronous incongruity was when I looked at the details of siege capitulations and learned that evacuating garrison soldiers were supposed to march out with their matches lit even after they had abandoned their matchlocks for flintlocks (occasionally you see mention of pikes as well) – presumably this was a capitulation convention, but it certainly undermines the stereotyped claim that siege surrenders were these ritualized events where every term had to be carefully carried out, and raises the larger question of how many other of these details were mere vestiges. Later, I found a more significant oddity when looking at English treatises on siegecraft published in the 1690s-1700s: if you know much about the period, you know that Vauban perfected a more efficient form of siege attack from the 1670s onward till his death in 1707 [If you don’t know about this, read my book]. We assume (probably correctly) that new ideas take awhile to get into print, so you expect some time lag, but what was surprising to me is how long it takes for these ‘innovations’ to make their way into print, in the face of a desire by the public to understand current affairs. Vauban’s famed trench parallels were supposedly first implemented at the 1673 siege of Maastricht (also where the real d’Artagnan died), yet thirty years after Maastricht we can still find English siege manuals that reproduce the advice of French authors from before the 1660s (i.e. before Vauban implemented his improvements). Needless to say, they don’t even mention trench parallels, trench cavaliers and ricochet fire. So their ‘expert’ discussions of the siege attack present the judgments of French practitioners from 50 years earlier to explain siegecraft in 1707; a lot changed in those five decades. This discontinuity isn’t solely because the English were particularly ignorant about siegecraft – you can find some French engineers publishing treatises in the 1690s that also ignore Vauban’s famous three tactical innovations (and an Austrian manual c. 1700 as well). Manuals on drill and battlefield tactics are possibly even more outdated or fantastical – I vaguely recall historians (maybe Duffy) mocking the ridiculously baroque maneuvers some manual authors had their hypothetical companies go through, and the same is true for the proliferation of fortress designs as well [any research on the timing of the use of platoon fire/bayonets vs. when they were discussed in published manuals?].
This doesn’t even address broader questions that I don’t want to discuss here, e.g. how many of the historical examples cited by contemporaries were even relevant to the period, given intervening changes in military technology, logistics, organization and training – and did contemporaries even think about these things?
So why the difference between reality and published works, and why would they publish info that is decades old if their proclaimed objective is to provide their readers with a reference to current operations? Secrecy surrounding new techniques is one possible answer, although 1) there are various examples where tourists visited sieges and fortifications at the invitation of the besiegers, 2) cosmopolitan service meant one day’s ally might be the next day’s enemy, 3) French newspapers described these new features in their published accounts, and 4) participants certainly saw what was being practiced in front of their eyes – as we see from defenders’ siege journals, garrisons paid particularly close attention to the conduct of the trenches. Given Vauban’s many sieges, you’d think someone would’ve caught on and bothered to write it down, maybe even circulate it. Or maybe it’s as simple (and unenlightening) as “those who say don’t know and those who know don’t say”? To the extent that such books were intended to train an army to win a war (possibly a questionable assumption, but one that Gruber and Houlding make), you’d think someone in the government or army would want to coordinate this – though perhaps the proprietary nature of regiments/companies plays a role here? Maybe we’re bumping up here against the (false) assumption of rational self-improvement and modern professionalism?
Or, maybe the history of the book offers a better explanation than a purely military one? Maybe this difference between published manual and actual practice is best explained as attempts by publishers to just make a quick profit by republishing old works? Maybe it’s cheaper to recopy an old work than interview veterans/collate various news accounts? This seems strange, however, because the public clearly clamored for the latest news from the front, and manuals/map collections advertised their relevance for following the latest news reports and siege accounts, so you think somebody would notice the difference between 50 year old prescriptions and the latest siege details. Or maybe that particular genre (manual/treatise) wasn’t intended to serve the function we think it should today? Or maybe there was a huge circulation of manuscript manuals that the practitioners had which weren’t available to the general public in print? (Though I’ve only seen one or two English ms treatises from the Spanish Succession cited by other historians.) Maybe those that were outdated didn’t sell very well, but we don’t have evidence for sales figures to know this?
So, at the end of all these twists and turns, reasons, rebuttals, and rejoinders, I don’t really have a good explanation. We have texts published c. 1700 that have bits from various centuries, all cobbled together with little apparent concern for contemporary practice, much less our tidy expectation that each period has its own unique flavor (zeitgeist). Has anyone else written about this for EMEMH? What do you think? What else am I missing?
[Note: For my current book I’m more interested in the general question of military strategy (battle and its alternatives), but given what I know about siege warfare manuals, I’d ideally like to know how people responded to these broader art of war works. Since these 17C treatises are only a contextual chapter to my main focus on how the English talked about these issues in the Spanish Succession, I’m not worried. I can see exactly how the ideas from these 17C manuals were discussed in 1701-1713, but a better sense of the background would be helpful nonetheless.]
Potential future posts: how to figure out how others read military histories; thoughts on Gruber’s methodology of counting personal library holdings.
Suggested Readings (which I’m making my way through right now):
Danley, Mark. Military Writings and the Theory and Practice of Strategy in the Eighteenth-Century British Army. Ph.D. diss., Kansas State University, 2001.
Gruber, Ira. Books and the British Army in the Age of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2011.
Lawrence, David R. The Complete Soldier: Military Books and Military Culture in Early Stuart England, 1603-1645. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2008.