Ancient influences on military men c. 1700
More thinking out loud, and a question in there somewhere.
I’m working on a section of a chapter on the influence of the Ancients on English strategic conceptions, and am wondering if anyone has written on the (likely) language skills of English officers c. 1700? Certainly the stereotype is that the vast majority of educated people back then could read Latin, since Latin was one of the keystones of proper education. But I wonder how likely it was that an English officer/general would’ve read someone like Livy or Polybius or Tacitus or Vegetius in Latin rather than in the available English translations? In particular, would any such reading have made an actual impact, e.g. read while an adult or as part of professional preparation, or would this have just been homework for Latin class by a teenage boy and forgotten as quickly as any homework? As a humorous aside, one preface to an English translation of a classical work noted the disapproval of “morose gentlemen” who didn’t want the work translated, since they didn’t want anyone else to profit from its knowledge without undergoing the lashings they had to receive when learning the language!
Methodologically, you have the differences between learning a language at one point in life and then forgetting it, the difference between aural, oral and written skills, comprehension and composition, understanding the bare literal meaning vs. appreciating the style… Undoubtedly many people knew classical allusions and stories (what they were most likely to get out of their education), even famous Latin phrases and aphorisms, but I wonder how many English officers had, as adults, the language skills required to read a few hundred pages of text and engage the ideas within. As even the scholar Gabriel Harvey admitted, “Aphorisms and examples will speedily make you great and admirable. Of longer discourses and histories there is no end. They tire the body and confuse the intellect and memory.” Perhaps a straightforward style was most accessible, e.g. Caesar’s Commentaries? Gruber mentions that Caesar was the most popular of the Ancients for his British officers. But there were many English commentaries on Caesar as well.
I expect that there were individual nobles who were intellectuals (as described in “Gabriel Harvey”) and really got into it, but I wonder how common this was. Presumably most didn’t hire personal tutors like Harvey, or had close relatives or friends who did? (BTW, where can I sign up for Harvey’s job?) Clearly you can find plenty of “intellectuals” (chaplains, diplomats and propagandists in our field of military history) who wrote inscriptions and poems in Latin, made classical allusions, compared Marlborough to Caesar and Alexander and Belisarius… But I’m surprised at how I almost never come across any classical allusions or references made by military officers in the thousands of letters I’ve read. Sometimes I think I’d like to go through all of Folard’s (and Puységur’s, and Santa Cruz de Marcenado’s) correspondence from the Spanish Succession to see if their fascination with Polybius and Caesar was mirrored in their daily thoughts on war. Was this a purely intellectual exercise, or did they actually think in those terms? On the other hand, you do see quotidian mention of ancient parallels among literary types and diplomats like Matthew Prior, and of course in the Renaissance humanists, but I’m a bit skeptical that most military men thought first about classical parallels. I seem to recall some historian writing about whether reliance on Ancient models denoted professionalism or a lack thereof (or maybe that was one of my mental musings?).
I think the influence of the Ancients also may vary by period and by place. England in the late 17C seems rather more isolated from Continental norms than it had been earlier or would be later in the Enlightenment.
The few sources I know that discuss the issue suggest, to my reading, that reading knowledge of Latin was far from universal. Childs provides some evidence of English isolation from Continental intellectual norms, e.g. that few of even the English upper classes could read French at the time (though presumably Latin would be more familiar than French). Gruber’s analysis of British officers’ libraries indicates that the period from 1650-1710 was notable for its English translations, not only what was published (ESTC lists them all) but also what was found in the seven officers’ libraries for which he could find inventories. Gruber’s tables in Appendix A1 and B2 show that the publication of Latin texts continued through the 18C, but I’m not sure whether his measures there are what I need. His table A1 shows that English and French editions were far preferred over Latin (as represented in the officers’ libraries), e.g. Latin editions were held in a maximum of 11% of the libraries over the course of the 17C, vs. a max of 54% for English and a max of 39% for French translations. From 1675 on, the Latin proportion dwindles to only 5% of the total. So this seems to suggest that Latin was not the standard language that British officers read in, certainly in the late 17C. I suppose one could count up all the editions in the various languages, but it would still be good (though likely impossible) to get a sense of the sales figures for each.
As for one of the main characters in my academic life, John Churchill First Duke of Marlborough, the evidence seems somewhat weak. The modern catalogue of the Blenheim papers has two appendices (22 pages) on printed works kept with the Blenheim papers (unclear if this was the extent of the Duke’s library or not; a later Duke of Marlborough sold his collection in the late 18C). In it are listed many works in French and several other European languages, but no more than six in Latin, and those tend to be literary works dedicated to the Duke. Skimming through the various biographies on Marlborough you see all sorts of speculation about his language skills. One story even has it that as a youth his favorite work was Vegetius in Latin! That would be ironic to say the least. Coxe, generally pro-Marlborough, was skeptical of this tale and speculated that if Churchill had been enamored with Vegetius, it was probably with the pictures!
One other avenue to approach is the history of education. Thanks to Google Books, I searched for histories of early modern English education, and found that the English tradition of grammar school education based around Latin was apparently in decline from the civil wars on through the early 18C: enrollment dropped in many places and a secular non-Classical educational model increasingly replaced the older Latin tradition. Latin still influenced education and was still taught, but it appears less dominant than we (non-experts) tend to think. But I’ll need to look at that issue in more detail. The real question isn’t what they were taught in the first 21 years of life, but what lessons they took with them for the rest of their lives. Not sure if there’s a systematic source for that or not.
The ultimate answer to my question isn’t critical to my argument. I will spend quite some time in the section analyzing English glosses on the classical authorities, but I’m just not sure how much I should discuss the English vs. Latin editions of the works. Any thoughts or recommendations?
- Childs, John. The British Army of William III, 1689-1702. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987.
- Gruber, Ira. Books and the British Army in the Age of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2011.
- Jardine, Lisa and Anthony Grafton, ‘”Studied for Action”: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past and Present 129 (1990): 30-78.
- Coxe, William. Memoirs of the Duke of Marlborough, with his original correspondance. London: George Bell & Sons, 1905.
- Green, Ian M. Humanism and Protestantism in early modern English education. Ashgate, 2009.
BTW, if you ever have similar types of questions, research or otherwise, let me know and I’ll post them here. I’m trying to build an EMEMH community after all.