Hey folks! I am, as I mentioned last week, taking this week off in an effort to catch up on my sanity and also some grading and writing I need to be doing. But I didn’t want to leave you with nothing, so I thought I might use this as an opportunity to direct some eyes back to some of my earlier posts that – speaking statistically from my analytics – most of you probably haven’t read (presumably mostly because your ranks keep swelling and these are mostly earlier posts).
First off, I want to highlight from this past winter my series of primary source analysis posts, the “A Trip Through...” series. Now I certainly get the sense from the comments and feedback that a lot of you are mostly focused on the concrete, technical sort of history that focuses on things like technology, demography, material culture (like armor or weapons), patterns of production and so on. And fair enough, that’s where my research focuses too. It can be a valid way to investigate the past.
But I hope if anything a lot of these series on those topics have revealed how much the human element matters as well. We’ve talked about this, for instance, in how cereal production is as much shaped by human assumptions and social structures as it is by technology or biology. We’ve also seen how human (or orc) psychology, human social organization and human decision making can influence and even outweigh the advantages of technology or superior tactical systems. All of which is to say that if you want to understand the concrete systems and technologies of the past, you also have to work to understand the mindset and worldview of the people who used them.
And quite frankly the best way to do that – practically the only way – is by reading their words (attempts to retroject modern systems of understanding the human mind in the past tend to yield poor results, by the by – such efforts often import a great number of modern assumptions without realizing it). That said, getting the most out of reading a historical text is something that has to be learned through practice (it is a great deal of the training that goes into training a historian). Consequently, the “A Trip Through…” series is all about walking through a text (in translation!) and talking about the ways that a historian can pull historical meaning out of it. They can – and should – be read both as comments on their topics and authors, but also as useful examples of the application of the historian’s craft to a short text. There have been five of these so far:
- A Three-piece set on the values of medieval mounted aristocrats (read: knights, but also knight-like aristocrats from places that aren’t western Europe), from the writings of three members of mounted, medieval aristocracies:
- Dhuoda of Uzès, laying out court values for how aristocrats interact with each other in a 9th century Christian royal court.
- ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad setting out one version of mounted military manliness, rooted in the military culture of 6th century Arabia, but also prized as a great warrior-poet subsequently.
- Bertran de Born, laying out another version of mounted military manliness, rooted in the military culture of late 12th-century France.
- We also looked at Thucydides, laying the foundations for the international relations theory of ‘Realism’ in his history of the fifth-century BCE Peloponnesian War (in which he participated).
- And also Cicero, discussing natural law theory, on which the modern concept of human rights is based.
I also want to highlight, if any have missed it, an early series I did looking at the ever-popular topic of war elephants, which I wrote on back in the summer of 2019 (back before, my analytics tell me, most of you all started reading)! This is another topic, much like our recent looks at farming and iron-production, where biology, zoology and occasionally some basic physics inform the historian’s craft, but also where the way that elephants are actually employed – even as the elephants don’t change – changes from society to society because of the value and symbolism placed on the elephants. That series ran in three parts, a first part on the battlefield role of war elephants, a second part on their drawbacks (framed through the question of “why didn’t Rome use war elephants much?”) and then a third part on the potentially powerful symbolism of war elephants (framed through the question of “why did their use remain for so long in India?”).
Finally, something I didn’t make, but also wanted to recommend: this latest episode of the Net Assessment podcast over at War on the Rocks which was mostly about the idea of a “No First Use” commitment or doctrine for nuclear weapons. For those who are unfamiliar, a ‘no first use’ policy would be a commitment to only using nuclear weapons in response to someone else using nuclear weapons first. It is an idea that has had strong popular support for a while now and really just sounds good in practice.
What this conversation is really quite good at is drilling down past the vague, fuzzy ‘good’ feeling about the policy to look at why, despite its strong popular support, it hasn’t been implemented (and probably won’t be). It is a really good example of how ideas that sound good in theory often don’t work well in practice when exposed to complex systems like foreign policy. Or, as Clausewitz put it (drink!), “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is hard.” Simple solutions that promise to cut through the complexity of conflict often conceal rather than resolve complexity. All of which is a very good reason to exhibit low confidence in matters about which you are not an expert, a dictum I would like to have stamped on every social media site for all time.
That’s all for this week. I’ll see you all next week!