Tag Archive | history of the book

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.

Publishing EMEMH in the 2000s – A quantitative survey

I’m exploring publishing trends in EMEMH. On with the numbers!

I’ve slightly revised the previous list of EMEMH books, and I’ve added a few more variables. The list (now promoted to its own page) includes statistics on 177 titles published from 2000-2011 in English on the subject. After the cut I’ll draw a few conclusions from an admittedly simple statistical analysis of this data. I’ll look at publishing and price trends, the publishers involved, the topics that are popular, etc. Some of the conclusions won’t be earth-shattering, but it’s nice to have some real data behind such generalizations.

Read More…

The History of the (Military) Book

Warning: Thinking out loud in progress! This post requires a fair amount of background knowledge on EMEMH, but so be it. I’m trying to maintain a balance on the blog between serious discussion, shop talk and Caturday photos.

Note: brackets [] indicate asides, parenthetical meanderings worthy of an academic.

I’m working on a chapter on Battle As Theory – an attempt to map out the general strategic conceptions (strategic culture) of the English in the late 17C, before I dive into the War of the Spanish Succession in detail. So I have collected a wide variety of military treatises and manuals on the period, and am going through them. I know enough about the history of the book to be dangerous (i.e. a little), so I have a few thoughts and maybe a question or two that might prompt some discussion as this relates to EMEMH. Fundamentally, the critical question I’m struggling with right now is a common one: what is the relationship between what was being published and what people of the time actually thought? How big is the gulf between what published authors claimed was normative vs. what was actually practiced, and how do we explain the gulf between the two when it exists? I don’t know how much I’ll explicitly address this in the final version of the book, but it’s important background understanding, and it gives me something to blog about.

Three strands of historiographical argument seem to be at play here.
First: for decades scholars have highlighted the important distinction between prescriptive manuals (e.g. how it was supposed to be fought) and the reality (how it really was fought). We have numerous reasons to think this. In military affairs it comes from the broad consensus on the messiness of combat – epitomized in the many saying about plans not surviving first contact with the enemy, Clausewitz’s friction and fog of war, and has been empirically illustrated by Keegan’s Face of Battle and my Vauban under Siege. Further, historians analyzing early modern manuals have found that some of them were written by hacks, or at least people who had no military experience, and who either made things up or just copied other works. In legal history, the old saw that one only passes laws banning things that people are doing (but shouldn’t be) reinforces the gulf. More broadly, social history has long pointed out that most of our publications on proper behavior consist of the elites informing the lower orders of how they were to behave. Fair enough.
Second: early modern scholars have also talked for a long time about the significance of the Ancients to early moderns (the ‘renaissance’ of the Classical world…), both military and non-military. Even contemporaries debated the issue, with the late 17C witnessing a broad debate over the relative superiority of the knowledge of the Ancients vs. that of the Moderns (mostly in France, but elsewhere too). I think Anthony Grafton and others have talked in a related vein about the 16C-17C development of a clear historicizing mindset among intellectuals – a mental recognition of temporal discontinuity, that the past of even 100 years earlier was different in important ways (it can of course be traced back to the Renaissance humanists and possibly earlier as well). [As far as the Ancients vs. Moderns debate goes, it seems to have been settled largely in favor of the Moderns as far as military technology is concerned (many acknowledging that gunpowder significantly changed the art of warfare) – though, and this is important to my imminent point, here too you have change within the period, from matchlock to flintlock, pike to bayonet, platoon fire… The Romans were generally acknowledged to have the edge as far as discipline and toughness was concerned – building those camps every night sounds like a real pain. And of course you still have exceptions, like the occasional Englishman still fighting a rearguard action defending the use of the longbow.] Just so, although I think the military case needs more explication than it has received at present. [I won’t comment on a very unsatisfying Journal of Military History article from a decade back on the topic]
Third: more recently, military historians have also started looking at ‘ways of war,’ particularly nation-based models for ideal and real war (an English way of war, a French way of war…). I’ve certainly found evidence of this belief.

So when you look at these English-language manuals from the late 17C, it’s easy to see all three of these historiographical arguments: frequent references to Classical history and commanders, discussion of particular national styles of war (in this case, the English trying to catch up to the Continental style of war, with France as the paradigm army, though not in Lynn’s ‘army style’ sense), and of course you always wonder about the extent to which their ideas were accepted and implemented on campaign (the manuals tend to emphasize the union of book knowledge and practical experience).

What I haven’t seen much discussion of, however, is how anachronistic these manuals are. It’s not just that the Ancients were still held up as models – military historians have been talking for awhile about the rate and nature of military change in the early modern period (military revolution vs. evolution…), and contemporaries frequently commented on the ever-changing nature of the military art as well. But what I noticed is that these manuals are also surprisingly anachronistic on a more limited time scale; they also present insights and military practices from 50-100 years ago as current. And we’re not talking just about military strategy or stratagems, which in some respects are timeless. Tactics too were mixed together in a source, even when they were outdated a decade or more earlier. My very first introduction to this asynchronous incongruity was when I looked at the details of siege capitulations and learned that evacuating garrison soldiers were supposed to march out with their matches lit even after they had abandoned their matchlocks for flintlocks (occasionally you see mention of pikes as well) – presumably this was a capitulation convention, but it certainly undermines the stereotyped claim that siege surrenders were these ritualized events where every term had to be carefully carried out, and raises the larger question of how many other of these details were mere vestiges. Later, I found a more significant oddity when looking at English treatises on siegecraft published in the 1690s-1700s: if you know much about the period, you know that Vauban perfected a more efficient form of siege attack from the 1670s onward till his death in 1707 [If you don’t know about this, read my book]. We assume (probably correctly) that new ideas take awhile to get into print, so you expect some time lag, but what was surprising to me is how long it takes for these ‘innovations’ to make their way into print, in the face of a desire by the public to understand current affairs. Vauban’s famed trench parallels were supposedly first implemented at the 1673 siege of Maastricht (also where the real d’Artagnan died), yet thirty years after Maastricht we can still find English siege manuals that reproduce the advice of French authors from before the 1660s (i.e. before Vauban implemented his improvements). Needless to say, they don’t even mention trench parallels, trench cavaliers and ricochet fire. So their ‘expert’ discussions of the siege attack present the judgments of French practitioners from 50 years earlier to explain siegecraft in 1707; a lot changed in those five decades. This discontinuity isn’t solely because the English were particularly ignorant about siegecraft – you can find some French engineers publishing treatises in the 1690s that also ignore Vauban’s famous three tactical innovations (and an Austrian manual c. 1700 as well). Manuals on drill and battlefield tactics are possibly even more outdated or fantastical – I vaguely recall historians (maybe Duffy) mocking the ridiculously baroque maneuvers some manual authors had their hypothetical companies go through, and the same is true for the proliferation of fortress designs as well [any research on the timing of the use of platoon fire/bayonets vs. when they were discussed in published manuals?].

This doesn’t even address broader questions that I don’t want to discuss here, e.g. how many of the historical examples cited by contemporaries were even relevant to the period, given intervening changes in military technology, logistics, organization and training – and did contemporaries even think about these things?

So why the difference between reality and published works, and why would they publish info that is decades old if their proclaimed objective is to provide their readers with a reference to current operations? Secrecy surrounding new techniques is one possible answer, although 1) there are various examples where tourists visited sieges and fortifications at the invitation of the besiegers, 2) cosmopolitan service meant one day’s ally might be the next day’s enemy, 3) French newspapers described these new features in their published accounts, and 4) participants certainly saw what was being practiced in front of their eyes – as we see from defenders’ siege journals, garrisons paid particularly close attention to the conduct of the trenches. Given Vauban’s many sieges, you’d think someone would’ve caught on and bothered to write it down, maybe even circulate it. Or maybe it’s as simple (and unenlightening) as “those who say don’t know and those who know don’t say”? To the extent that such books were intended to train an army to win a war (possibly a questionable assumption, but one that Gruber and Houlding make), you’d think someone in the government or army would want to coordinate this – though perhaps the proprietary nature of regiments/companies plays a role here? Maybe we’re bumping up here against the (false) assumption of rational self-improvement and modern professionalism?

Or, maybe the history of the book offers a better explanation than a purely military one? Maybe this difference between published manual and actual practice is best explained as attempts by publishers to just make a quick profit by republishing old works? Maybe it’s cheaper to recopy an old work than interview veterans/collate various news accounts? This seems strange, however, because the public clearly clamored for the latest news from the front, and manuals/map collections advertised their relevance for following the latest news reports and siege accounts, so you think somebody would notice the difference between 50 year old prescriptions and the latest siege details. Or maybe that particular genre (manual/treatise) wasn’t intended to serve the function we think it should today? Or maybe there was a huge circulation of manuscript manuals that the practitioners had which weren’t available to the general public in print? (Though I’ve only seen one or two English ms treatises from the Spanish Succession cited by other historians.) Maybe those that were outdated didn’t sell very well, but we don’t have evidence for sales figures to know this?

So, at the end of all these twists and turns, reasons, rebuttals, and rejoinders, I don’t really have a good explanation. We have texts published c. 1700 that have bits from various centuries, all cobbled together with little apparent concern for contemporary practice, much less our tidy expectation that each period has its own unique flavor (zeitgeist). Has anyone else written about this for EMEMH? What do you think? What else am I missing?

[Note: For my current book I’m more interested in the general question of military strategy (battle and its alternatives), but given what I know about siege warfare manuals, I’d ideally like to know how people responded to these broader art of war works. Since these 17C treatises are only a contextual chapter to my main focus on how the English talked about these issues in the Spanish Succession, I’m not worried. I can see exactly how the ideas from these 17C manuals were discussed in 1701-1713, but a better sense of the background would be helpful nonetheless.]

Potential future posts: how to figure out how others read military histories; thoughts on Gruber’s methodology of counting personal library holdings.

Suggested Readings (which I’m making my way through right now):

Danley, Mark. Military Writings and the Theory and Practice of Strategy in the Eighteenth-Century British Army. Ph.D. diss., Kansas State University, 2001.

Gruber, Ira. Books and the British Army in the Age of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2011.

Lawrence, David R. The Complete Soldier: Military Books and Military Culture in Early Stuart England, 1603-1645. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2008.

The fragility of sources

While on sabbatical, I’m working on my second book, this time on the Duke of Marlborough and the English cult of battle. So when I come across a minor point that I find interesting, I’ll post it here in the hopes it might engender some thought, or even discussion and comment.
First up: I’m working on a chapter on English strategic culture by examining the military manuals/treatises and histories published in the 17C, especially from 1660 on. So I’m reading Thomas Venn’s Military and maritine discipline from 1672, and in one of its many dedications I come across the following justification of the work:
“It is true there have been many Books printed of this Art in our past ages, and some in our present…. I shall set out… what I intended for my private use, but being (as I have declared) requested hereunto, and now fearing that most of our books are consumed by fire, I am further perswaded to put these introductives into publick view.” Printed in margin: “When London was burnt, 1666. Set. 3d. &c.”
Now we all know about the loss of archives and libraries from WWI and WWII, and in historical methods courses we always talk about how documents disappear over time [see chart at end], but I never really thought about connecting the general principle to documents in my period, and particularly to the Great Fire of 1666.
I haven’t read a lot on the history of the book, nor have I focused much on England in the 1670s. So has anybody written specifically on this topic in our period, particularly before the mid-18C? It seems to raise all sorts of questions: Were country estates safer libraries – is that where a lot of our extant sources come from? Does this help explain the publication timing of reprints/new editions? In short, how important is this kind of catastrophic event in understanding what contemporaries had to read? We’re now spoiled with EEBO, EECO and Google Books, but if we look closely, we discover how hodgepodge a collection they really are – a scan of a 1691 second edition of a 1662 original from library X here, a scan of a first edition reprint from library Y there… I get the sense that we know far more about what contemporaries were saying (in print at least) than many contemporaries did. This of course makes it a bit more difficult to figure out what the “average” John Bull read.

Factors affecting Primary Source Availability