So much in so little
I just finished my final grades for the semester, leaving me a few precious days to prepare for my month-long research jaunt at the SHD (Archives de Guerre at Vincennes for old-timers like myself) – after I finish up several other outstanding tasks, of course. I’ve got three research projects going on – the battle book, a book chapter on French siege capitulations, and an upcoming paper (presumably an article/book chapter at some point) on the French view of battle. So my archive research will resemble a scattergun approach. To the extent that I have a focus, I’ll particularly be getting photos of French discussions of the Spanish theater’s battles, since the helpful Mémoires militaires series covers Flanders, Italy and Germany, but not, for some reason, Iberia.
I’m looking forward to having all my sources and “books” at my fingertips in the reading room: all the Mémoires militaires volumes and contemporary memoirs/correspondence, all of “my” scanned primary sources and many scanned sections of “my” secondary sources, not to mention all the archival guides and inventories. But to be honest, I’m hoping I won’t have time to consult them in the reading room proper, as I plan on being a photographing machine. But at least I’ll be able to almost immediately introduce my new archival photos to their brethren via the SD card slot (always have extra memory cards, and batteries). All courtesy of DTPO and the tiny MacBook Air of course:
But back to grading. One of my student seminar papers (seminar: England in Glorious Revolution) reminded me of an English periodical I didn’t yet have in my Devonthink database. The periodical in question is interesting because it is one of the few types of documents that is guaranteed to give you nothing but opinion. Its title is The British Apollo, or, Curious Amusements for the ingenious, first published in 1708 (available on Google Books). It copied the format of John Dunton’s earlier Athenian Mercury from the 1690s: lots of anonymous readers’ questions answered by the “experts” on staff. The questions range the gamut, from religion to science to sex to you-name-it. The very first page, for example, has the editors answering three questions: why Negroes have black skin (they disavow the old “punishment from God” idea), why the sound of files and saws annoy us (I’m assuming like fingernails on a chalkboard), and why we feel like falling when we look down from tall heights. And there are over 500 pages of similar questions, pithily answered with just a bit of attitude.
So I was looking through it for discussion of warfare – that this is a general-interest periodical and isn’t focused on war makes it useful as a gauge to broader public perceptions – and I came across this:
Q. Worthy Sirs, I beg the favour of you to resolve the following query. Who has been most serviceable to the World, the Priest who found out the use of Gunpowder? Or the Soldier who invented the art of Printing? And you’l oblige your Humble Servant, T.L.
First take a moment to admire the nicely parallel contrast of the respective inventors’ professions with their inventions. I assume the interrogator is referring to Roger Bacon as the “inventor” of gunpowder, though I don’t know who the soldier would be, since Gutenberg was a goldsmith AFAIK. Unless they were already giving the Chinese proper credit for both, which I doubt.
Now, stop and imagine what the response might be – what’s our instinctual reaction, what would we answer today? And then read on:
A. We shall demonstrate as briefly as we can, the good and bad/ill Effects of these Inventions; the more satisfactorily to answer your Question. And First, The expeditious manner of publishing large Volumes by the Art of Printing, has undoubtedly given vast Encouragement to the Study of all Sorts [of] Learning; since the extravagant Charges of paying Scribes for copying Manuscripts, is hereby taken off, and much greater numbers may be had, for much less Money; by which means, the Books, publish’d in one Country, are spread over another; and Knowledge, formerly confin’d to one part of the World, become Universal. But on the other hand, the same Opportunity has encourag’d the Propagators of Hersey and Schism, Rebellion, and all other Vices, to scatter their malignant Doctrines about the Universe; to sow the dangerous Seeds of Animosity and Sedition, to raise new Sects, and open new Divisions, even to the shaking the very Columns of Religion and Humanity: An Evil, that in our Opinions has very much over/counterbalanced the Good of the invention. Now, let us consider the Consequences which have attended the use of Gun-powder; and we shall find that instead of encreasing, it has lessen’d the Effusion of Blood, and mighty heaps of former slaughter. We hear nothing, in our times, of the Hundred Thousands that so often fell in ancient Battles; we have now a cleaner Art of War, and move with more dispatch, and far less havock; by which it plainly appears, that this Invention has prevented the spilling great Quantities of Human Blood; and consequently [is] preferable to the former; whose dangerous effects have often prov’d it fatal to both to our Religion and Government.
So many interesting things in this, and so little time. So I’ll simply provide a list:
- Their ultimate answer of book vs. gunpowder isn’t, I’d suggest, quite what your average 21st century reader might expect the answer to be. One of my favorite parts of history is how often one is struck by the gulf between what we expect vs. what we find – most of the time it’s as much about our assumptions differing from theirs as about any greater knowledge we might have – and what we learn about contemporary views based off this gulf.
- Apparently all periods and places didn’t consider the spread of knowledge as an essential good, even in the age of the Scientific Revolution. Gotta watch out for those dangerous ideas.
- Interesting how most of the impact of printing comes from spreading from one country to another, vs. spreading knowledge (foreign or otherwise) downward within a country. (It might be worth mentioning that the British Apollo, like most other periodicals/papers of the period, explicitly refused to discuss domestic politics – certain information doesn’t belong in the public sphere.)
- One can easily play the “Contextualize this!” game that historians like to play. Which types of people were seen as most benefitting from print? What recent events were the authors thinking of when they worried about the impact of print? What does their discussion of the Art of War tell us about how they viewed military history? Sounds like one of my homework assignments.
- How were such documents to be read? Were they intended as sincere responses, or is there a certain contrariness to them? Given the popularity of English satire in the period, one can never be quite certain…
- And for the military historians in the audience: did contemporaries consider gunpowder as constituting a military revolution?
- What do we think of their argument about the relationship between more gunpowder and fewer casualties: causation, or just correlation?