I read the news today, uff da, Pt. IV

Just finished the first week of classes, and it looks like I’ll shoot for one post per week as a reasonable pace. I’ll try to schedule it for every Monday, to get in a rhythm. Comments always welcome.

Concluding our discussion of early modern intelligence.

So, what to do with all this intelligence left behind by our early moderns? Most obviously, we can mine such intelligence reports for the details relating to any specific event: the siege of Stevensweert, the battle of Ramillies, or what have you. But we can also generalize a bit. To wit:

What person X could have known at a specific point in time. As the long-running debate over advanced knowledge of Pearl Harbor suggests, this is a rather difficult issue. As historians, we can’t read the same document in the same way that our subjects did (assuming we can read it at all!). Not only do we lack much of their background knowledge and assumptions, but we cannot easily replicate the environment in which the documents were read. Imagine that you are not a pointy-headed academic or history nerd, and that you are not lounging in your study looking over these intelligence reports. Instead you are the Duke of Marlborough, exhausted after a long day in the saddle, having had discussions all day with field deputies, foreign officers of various stripes (likely in French rather than English, which you speak and read but can’t write well) as well as deputations from a nearby town. You also sent orders to a dozen different posts along the way. You return to your quarters and are greeted by a packet of letters: one from your trusted subordinate Cadogan, informing you of the situation at Antwerp, another from the Dutch pensioner Heinsius discussing the latest negotiations for German mercenaries, a third from your friend Godolphin on political matters back in London, and a few others regarding promotions, requests for reimbursement, and an account from a spy in the French camp. Bleary-eyed, how much attention could you give to each of these? How much attention did he? Presumably he didn’t analyze them with quite the same leisure as we might today, but ultimately we would like to know how he built these bits of information up into a comprehensible whole. This gaping historical gulf makes it a challenge to put ourselves inside their heads.

What we can saw with certainty is that these intelligence reports were kept and taken back to England; they’re in the British Library after all. [I’m not really sure why, but I’m not going to complain either.] But were they consulted more than once by Marlborough, or by his secretary Cardonnel? How were they used? What connections were made between them? Which details resonated with special significance, and which were dismissed as irrelevant or unreliable? Were some letters read more carefully than others? The striking paradox is that we actually know more about who used them later on: his wife Sarah, later biographers of the Duke like Coxe and his descendant Winston Churchill, even recent historians whose names are on the check-out list on the front of the archive volume folder.

Who was responsible for what? What kinds of info was person X dealing with, and what does that tell us about his responsibilities? What does, for example, Marlborough’s correspondence suggest about how involved he was running the daily operations of the Allied army, or running British diplomacy on the Continent?

95% of the time, these are the type of questions historians ask of intelligence. Nothing wrong with that. But if your specific focus is the history of intelligence (its gathering, its use), or if you want to ask more abstract questions about early modern information, you need to take a broader view. How could one meta-analyze these types of intelligence sources? Possibilities that come to mind:

Intelligence networks. Who communicated with whom, how frequently, and on what subjects? Between the various correspondents, who was deciding, who advising, who carrying out orders? What hierarchy can we glean from these sources?

The types of information that were considered important. This meta-analysis is much easier to perform, but its main difficulty lies in the massive quantity of information available. Patterns to explore could include: in-theater vs. out-of-theater info; military vs. ‘civilian’ info (political, personal); info pertaining to the different branches of military service; logistical vs. operational vs. tactical info… Encompassing newspapers, we might ask questions such as: was there meaning to the order in which stories were printed (by region, by chronology…)? What information did a commander (or reading public) expect, and what does that tell us about what they thought was important for military success?

The distinctions between public and private knowledge, secrecy and a public’s “right to know.” One of the striking aspects of contemporary published newspapers is the detailed information set out for public consumption. This includes information that would fall under the modern umbrella of “national secrets”: numbers of troops and ships, destinations, logistical details, even reported projects and intentions, both of the enemy and of one’s own armies. You certainly don’t see similar reporting in the press today, begging the question: why not? One possible explanation is that ‘security’ wasn’t a priority back then, although we can find plenty of contemporaries who complained about such reports. Perhaps the English and Dutch public’s “right to know” trumped such concerns over publishing sensitive information? Or maybe the information wasn’t timely enough to be considered a threat?

The problem of information overload. It gets even more overwhelming for historians when we start adding in the various published campaign accounts (of which there were many), and the later memoirs which drew upon memory and these other sources. My sense is that the War of the Spanish Succession, from the English perspective particularly, is the beginning of a modern glut of information — but there I go again, claiming “first!” I realize people have been complaining about information overload since Antiquity, but there is a huge quantitative difference between the English materials on the Nine Years War and that for the Spanish Succession – although the British Civil Wars might have been comparable. Having been in the French and Dutch archives as well as the English, I can attest that the English wrote (and especially published) far more on the war than their Continental peers. Sometime I’ll try to do a quick-and-dirty quantification of the primary sources to support this claim. Undoubtedly the volume of sources continued to increase throughout the 18C, making the problem of overload even more pressing and persistent.

Regardless of our analysis, the growing mountain of documents never shrinks. And at some point you have to say “enough!” In my last archive jaunt I reached this point of diminishing returns rather serendipitously. After several days of looking through bundles and bundles of newsletters, I felt a bit overwhelmed: so much information, so little time, and so little idea of how to use it (at least without sinking a massive amount of effort into it). And then, as if Clio herself recognized my overloaded psychological state, she put before me this hint, written in 1710 by an English resident at The Hague to his master: “I would be glad to procure you from foreign countryes such advices as might be worthy your knowledge but as I have writ to Mr. Tilson, having eneadour’d to do it, I have found most of the correspondents are good for nothing, their informations not being much different than what serves for our Dutch Gazettes. I will however, continue my endeavours to procure you some better intelligence than those.” Not only did this admission allow me to close the bound volume without a tinge of guilt, but it also provides another window into one contemporary’s opinion of the relative merits of archival vs. published accounts.

Questions: Did contemporary policy-makers and analysts really take the time to collate and compare widely varying reports from various quarters, or did they just have their impressions confirmed by whichever information reaffirmed their preconceptions? I’d appreciate your thoughts on early modern information overload, what it meant for contemporaries, and how we should deal with it.


Bély, Lucien. Espions et ambassadeurs au temps de Louis XIV. Paris: Fayard, 1990.

Arthurson, Ian. “Espionage and Intelligence from the Wars of the Roses to the Reformation.” Nottingham Medieval Studies 35 (1991).

Alsop, J., “British Intelligence for the North Atlantic theater of the War of the Spanish Succession.” Mariner’s Mirror 77 (1991).

Marshall, Alan. Intelligence and Espionage in the Reign of Charles II, 1660-1685. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

de Leeuw, Karl. “The Black Chamber in the Dutch Republic during the War of the Spanish Succession and its Aftermath, 1707-1715.” The Historical Journal 42 (1999): 133-156.

Croxton, Derek, “‘The Prosperity of Arms is Never Continual’: Military Intelligence, Surprise, and Diplomacy in 1640s Germany.” The Journal of Military History 64 (2000): 981-1004.

Storrs, Christopher, “Intelligence and the Formulation of Policy and Strategy in Early Modern Europe: The Spanish Monarchy in the Reign of Charles II (1665-1700),” Intelligence & National Security 21 (2006): 493-519.

Smith, Geoffrey. Royalist Agents, Conspirators and Spies: Their Role in the British Civil Wars, 1640-1660. Ashgate, 2011.



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