Beware Conventional Wisdom

Reading through Gavin’s interesting post on cavalry lancers, I’m struck yet again by how easy it is for us in the present to commit the common historical fallacy of assuming that in any given period contemporaries operated within a broad consensus. (that’s probably one of Hackett Fischer’s Historian’s Fallacies.) That there was a widely-accepted view on any given topic; that authorities dictated beliefs and practices. Undoubtedly this has to do with just how ignorant we really are of how people thought back then; the further back we go, the murkier it becomes. Of course, if we give it much thought, we realize that just about everything today is up for debate, and there’s little reason to believe the case would have been that different three hundred years earlier. But then the traditional historiography of the whole pre-modern period seems to just beg us to assume such unanimity: it was, after all, the Age of Absolute Monarchs and (for a while at least) the all-powerful Catholic Church, and there certainly wasn’t any agency below the rank of noble. But then everybody got science and enlightenment in the 18C, only to reject it all and turn Romantic and stuff. Or maybe that’s just how historians have simplified it for too long…

This expectation of consensus is certainly true in the case of early modern warfare. And yet it’s also absurd on so many levels, once we consider the relative impotency of most early modern rulers, the vast number of different conflicts raging across Europe, the variety of combatants engaged, as well as the stakes involved. Not only could such topics be a matter of life and death, which would invariably generate heated debate in councils of war and cabinets, but there was also status to be earned (and denied to your competitors) by winning, not to mention money to be made; even artisans could make a buck by selling their new-fangled idea to the military (ask Galileo or Da Vinci), which required pointing out how useless every other invention was.

Several specific military examples of the contested reality of early modern warfare come to mind. In addition to Gavin’s detailing of the 16C debate over projectile (reiter) vs. shock (lancer), we could mention J.R. Hale’s discussion of the 16C debate between Machiavelli and his fellow humanists regarding whether one should fight in the open field or instead rely on fortifications (see his “To Fortify or Not To Fortify”). Similarly, my Vauban under Siege book explored yet another military debate over differing interpretations of what a “good” siege was – was it a short one, or one that minimized both casualties and time, sacrificing whatever time was needed to spare unnecessary bloodshed? In all three of these cases, we can point to all sorts of historical literature that has blithely assured us that the 16C was the age of THIS, the 18C the age of THAT. In short, zeitgeist substituting for analysis, historians doing what they do best – overgeneralizing. As a result, it’s surprisingly refreshing to see some contemporaries admit that there was in fact no consensus on a particular issue, whether it be the merits of the longbow vs. the arquebus, or whether one should defend or abandon the covered way.

Beware the Whiggish Interpretation of Tactics – one that assumes a linear progress from worse to better. And be particularly leery if important tactical advances are attributed to a Great Captain.

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2 responses to “Beware Conventional Wisdom”

  1. Edwin Groot says :

    Ah! The great Captain….
    Once in a while I buy the dutch history magazine “het Historisch Nieuwsblad”, and a few months ago, dutch historian Erik Swart (who wrote about the government reforms in the States Army before Maurice, his thesis is still online Btw) mentioned he couldn’t find any reference of salvo firing nor countermarching in Maurice’s Army. He pointed me to an article in a yearbook of the dutch-flemish historian society, which was even worse for Maurice image.

  2. Gene Hughson says :

    Anyone who believes in linear progression from worse to better needs to be introduced to the 65 year period beginning with the Crimean War.

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