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:

In addition to having all my sources searchable (either full-text or by metadata or by hierarchical folder), I set up Favorites and Smart Groups on the far right to make it easy to jump to oft-used folders.

In addition to having all my sources searchable (either full-text or by metadata or, at least, by hierarchical folder), I set up Favorites and Smart Groups on the far right to make it easy to jump to oft-used folders. And a single document to track all my orders.

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:

British Apollo Q&A

British Apollo Q&A. This detail takes up about 1/6 of a page.

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?

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8 responses to “So much in so little”

  1. Martin Jourdan says :

    I have just sent my thesis on Marlborough, Master of Logistics for examination. Martin Jourdan > > jostwald posted: “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 co” >

  2. Edwin Groot says :

    Sounds interesting Mr Jourdan, as I was under the impression that the UP were mainly responsible for the logistics in Marlbourough’s Army 🙂

  3. Erik Lund says :

    Good sweet and learned Reverend Doctor:

    I would afservate that in your lofty Empyrean, the view of Grub Street is quite obscured, by the lowly & gray Clouds of Commerce. You have been, in so many words, led astray, indeed, troll’d. This “answer” is glibly contrived, to serve for Wit, to beguile the jaded Tastes of the worldly.

    • jostwald says :

      Not sure what exactly to make of your comment. As usual, I’ll take it to its logical conclusion, even though I probably shouldn’t.

      Wit (even satire), and what will turn a profit, are culturally dependent. Profit-seekers generally try to tailor their message to the broadest audience possible, which means trying to publish things that they believe will resonate with their intended audience in some way. (Can we learn nothing about U.S. politics from watching Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, or reading The Onion?) They draw upon current references and make allusions to common cultural wisdom – hence the difficulty translating much comedy (beyond the physical) to other cultures and other languages. Therefore such publications reflect various cultural beliefs and values even when they might be joking, or when they’re trying to turn a pound. So whether the individual authors of the British Apollo actually believed what they wrote is, to me, besides the point. What they wrote was, however, something that was quite plausible to the reading audience, or it wouldn’t have made sense, and they wouldn’t have written it that way (if they cared about selling lots of copies). Published wit gives us insight into a culture as much as manuscript archival documents that adopt a serious tone.
      So I assume you’re not saying we shouldn’t bother interpreting published or comedic sources because the author’s quest for profit “invalidates” them somehow? Versus, say, another favorite of yours, manuscript letter-writers seeking recompense and protection by acquiring a patron.

      This particular bit of wit, interestingly enough, repeats what other contemporaries said in a much less witty context, e.g. the belief that gunpowder has led to less-bloody wars, or the belief that certain ideas are dangerous and should therefore be suppressed (recalling that formal censorship in England ended only in 1694, excluding the civil wars). To me, that’s confirmation of the utility of this kind of source in giving us a taste of the zeitgeist (at least among a subset of the population).

      The British Apollo is stylistically closer to some of the cultural periodicals (e.g. Le Mercure galant, the Tatler…) than the more “straight-news” English papers. That being said, it’s not just randomly-composed, throw-away, absurdist comedy – some of the hundreds of questions display little to no wit and cite various authorities ancient and modern, other questions display a lot o’ wit; various poems and straight news stories are strewn throughout the paper as well. None of that, to my mind, invalidates the idea that a historian can use this kind of source to see how contemporaries thought about a particular issue, how they could conceptualize it, or how they talked about it. If nothing else, the mere fact that these ideas were published (even if they were totally original to the author) and were therefore available to a broad audience, offers the distinct possibility that the idea found purchase in other heads (whether or not that was the original author’s point of view). Assuming anybody read the paper.

  4. Erik Lund says :

    Peter Gay is dead. Bummer.

    Also, upon further relflection on my first response, I don’t think that scare quotes are an Eighteenth Century device Rhetorical. Edit button, please 🙂

    So, reading this answer, I was immediately struck by the forcing of the structure [good person invents bad thing; bad person invents good thing.] Bacon was a Cistercian friar, making “priest” a little strained, even if he was eventually ordained. (Wikipedia article long! Erik not read to end!) The “soldier” who invented the printing press (Caxton?) is even more strained.

    Then, I think, the answer throw themselves. The irony of condemning the printing press in a printed periodical is bad enough, while the counter-arguments are just so obvious, undermining themselves. Printed true doctrine drives out printed heresy, or otherwise we’re admitting that the Devil wins in the end, right? This means, I very strongly suggest, that these arguments should not be taken seriously. They are quite deliberately sophistic –Jesuitical, even.

    So what is the paper aiming at, here? I hope that no-one minds if I label this as, read uncritically, an anti-Donatist argument. I’m sure that there is more likely jargon at hand, both modern and c. 1708, but Donatism is the prototypical schism, and brings Augustine into the field, the spiritual father of Protestantism, as it liked to perceive itself.

    So, are the authors taking, slyly, a very seriously heretical position? I doubt it. We really need to know the context. If I had to guess, it’s going to turn out to be a response to a 5 November sermon on the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot.

    • jostwald says :

      Go with the anti-Donatist angle. If it helps, the question was apparently asked in June 1708. I guess we just need to figure out which context is most appropriate.

      My personal method of interpretation (I’m sure there’s a fancy word for it somewhere) doesn’t assume that every time somebody makes an argument, they can see all the possible counter-arguments and must therefore actually be saying something quite different from what they said on the surface. Or that the existence of a common belief depends on the validity and soundness of an argument which references that common belief. I can’t even imagine what such a world would look like using that standard. But maybe that’s because I can’t see the counter-arguments. 😉

  5. Gene Hughson says :

    “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.”

    I wonder how our descendants will view the fears of Musk, Hawking, et al re: artificial intelligence.

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