Things You Might Have Missed, October 21, 2020

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:
    1. Dhuoda of Uzès, laying out court values for how aristocrats interact with each other in a 9th century Christian royal court.
    2. ‘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.
    3. 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 don’t have a good picture for all of these fellows, but the internet is for cat pictures, so via the British Museum, here is a Ptolemaic Period cat figurine (332-220 BC), found in Naukratis, Egypt carved in limestone.

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?”).

Via the British Museum, another Egyptian cat figurine, this time in copper-alloy and much older, likely dating to the 26th dynasty (664-525 BC), found in at Thebes, Egypt. Interestingly, the cat depicted seems to have had pierced ears with earrings; the punch-holes on the ears where presumably small ornaments would have been attached are visible on the figurine (this is, by the by, a fairly common thing in ancient sculpture. These attachments, which were often made of valuable metals, almost never survive though, having usually been extracted and melted down).

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!

42 thoughts on “Things You Might Have Missed, October 21, 2020

  1. How about that long-promised series on military doctrine? Still thinking about writing it?

    1. Oh yes, absolutely. We are going to talk about doctrine. Just trying to find the right context for it and the best way to approach it. It’s a tricky subject, after all.

  2. I really like your blog, but I find it hard to find the posts I’d be interested in, a lot of clicking & scrolling is required. I think a simple chronological table of contents would be a great help.

  3. “Exhibit low confidence in matters about which you are not an expert” – that should be a government slogan 🤣

  4. I hope the time off helps!

    Something I’ve been wanting to ask since I read through your “Fremen” series, but keep forgetting to early enough in comments on Fireside Fridays, is:

    Do we know anything much about the cultures of the “Fremen” groups on the Roman frontiers, beyond Caesar or Tacitus? I mean, sort of “lived culture” rather than just “well, they exhibited La Tène material culture…” – modes of settlement and production, how transhumant they were, what their social organization looked like, etc?

    (Wikipedia seems to be rather silent on this question, and finding a more authoritative answer is likely beyond my Google Scholar skills…)

    (Oh, also, your blog is great. Informative and thoroughly enjoyable. Fantastic work.)

    1. Broadly speaking? No, not really. We have what we can glean from the Greek and Roman sources – which have their problems, as you know from the Fremen series – and we have the material culture. We can make some guesses based on linguistics and sometimes early medieval literature helps us fill in some blanks (we have a decent sense that Germanic inheritance was partible, for instance, because the later Germanic kingdoms have partible inheritance initially).

      In a lot of cases, we’re left filling in the blanks, as best we can, by analogy to similar cultures or later practice. It’s not great, but since no Gallic or Roman-period Germanic literature survives, we haven’t much choice.

      1. Got it.

        That’s a real shame. I would dearly love to know what their lives were like, and I imagine their literature would provide a useful perspective on the Romans, as well.

        Thanks for the reply.

    2. Some information can be gleaned from lawcodes – or what was written down of them – of post-Roman barbarian kingdoms: Saxon, Frankish, Longobard and so on. Details like wergild and the structure of a clan offer some insight into the internal workings of these societies. Others try to approach this issue by projecting a mentality recorded (supposedly or not) in the myths onto people who would’ve believed in them.

      1. The point about the surviving lawcodes is really interesting – thanks for that. Is there a standout exemplar that comes to mind?

        1. I’m sorry to say, but the particular book I had in mind while writing that post appears to have no English translation, so I cannot give a recommendation. As far as I recall it mostly used Longobard codes as exemplary, with the other Germanic kingdoms used for more specifical examples. In general – the existence of a clan, the kinship-in-the-seventh-generation approach the inheritance, the wergild as a limiter of vengeance as a means of justice and the increasing role of a tribal king in this system – that stuff kind of allows to imagine the social (and, to an extent, mental) tapestry in which such a person lived.

          1. Ah, ok. Well, regardless, thanks for the methodological pointer, and for the broad strokes suggestions. All very helpful.

            And Bret, below, thank you as well for the Rosenwein suggestion – I will definitely check it out.

  5. As soon as I discovered your site I went back and read ALL your old posts. Shame on your newer readers who haven’t done the same. 🙂

  6. I had never met Dhuoda before. It’s fascinating to put her advice up against Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier from the Italian Renaissance, and see how much more complicated the job has gotten by the early modern period.

  7. Hey can I possibly bug you to fix an old mistake? In this old post, you say

    The benefit to increasing thickness is not linear, but actually exponential (roughly to the power of 1.6), so these increases in effective thickness can have huge impacts.

    But, that’s not an exponential function! The function x ↦ x^1.6 is not an exponential function but rather a power function, which is much smaller. If you just want to be rough you’d say it grows polynomially, not exponentially. Exponential functions, which look like x ↦ b^x rather than x ↦ x^k, are much larger.

    (Note that if you just want to say that something grows faster than linearly, without worrying about polynomial vs exponential or whatever, you can just say it grows superlinearly!)

    I realize this is old and you are unlikely to want to go back and edit it as a result, but, well, it’s bugging me so I figured I’d ask. 🙂 Thanks!

  8. I’ve found the archives by month and the tag wordcloud, but am I missing a contents page which groups individual series by topic?

  9. I’m looking forward to your proposed posts on fabric production. The amount of work that goes into producing fabric (woolens, cottons, linens, silks) is similar to that of producing steel, but involves more people (especially women and children).

    1. Women would bring their spinning with them while they walked some place so they would not waste the time walking — they could keep on spinning.

      Perhaps it’s similar in terms of number of articles, but there are a lot more articles of clothing that of steel.

      1. Before she can spin the fibre needs to be prepped. Sheep need to be shorn, the fleeces sorted and washed and teased/carded. Dyeing can happen at any point once the fleece is clean. For linen the flax had to be grown, harvested, retted and scutched. Singles can be used for weaving, but if plyed yarn is desired plying is harder to do on a spindle than spinning is. I have seen speculation that the first “spinning” wheels were used for plying, not spinning.

        Once the thread is spun there is the weaving. So many types of looms, so many weave patterns. Plus nalbinding (true knitting is relatively recent) and cordage.

        1. Definitely – even in modern times textiles are neglected. I have no idea what percentage of war production in WW2 went into textiles, but it must have been significant – armies and navies need uniforms, socks, flags, tents, bandages, charge bags for artillery, parachutes, vehicle covers…

  10. “Simple solutions that promise to cut through the complexity of conflict often conceal rather than resolve complexity.”

    And this is a very good reason for the existence of professional wargaming. It helps to reveal those things concealed by complexity, and can bring out the human, rather than simply technical, dimension, if done right. Pace Graham Longley-Brown, Successful Professional Wargaming – highly recommended.

  11. I just wanted to tell you that I found your blog via your comments on TwentySided while you were writing the Sparta series, and I have since spent multiple delightful evenings reading your LotR, Sparta, How Did They Make It? series and other miscellaneous articles you linked to throughout the former (like the myth of the Lonely City). It has been a great read throughout, especially the times where you took the time to highlight the human element you were talking about! Not everyone finds this rather neglected perspective on the average Joe or Jane of past societies boring. In fact, it is the perspective I love reading the most, since it is so rarely portrayed in media at all!

    1. It’s fun to see the occasional hit coming from TwentySided! I actually read that blog for the gaming commentary (and you may notice that the ideas of occasional guest MrBTongue have filtered into some of my own thinking).

  12. Very interested to see the rec for “Shattered Sword” – I’ve just finished it and it’s excellent. Reminded me very much of Andrew Gordon’s “The Rules of the Game”, except that it focusses more on “built strategy” in the sense of equipment design, rather than signals and command philosophy.

    1. The other thing that makes “Shattered Sword” so interesting and useful is that it provided information, from things like primary sources, that proved that much of the well-known, established narrative about Midway was wrong, and provided reasons why some of the myths had gotten established. Some of them came from things like classification (which enabled some narratives to persist because the information to refute them was still classified) — but others had to do with the motivations of the people providing the stories.

      And, except possibly for Morrison, it’s the most readable book about anything having to do with WWII navies, which is very much to its credit. A fun read, as well as a valuable one.

  13. For look at modern problems with *stasis* let me recommend “How Democracies Die”. Nothing that contradicts the writing here but they also emphasize the dangers of constitutional hardball, actions which are within the law but against tradition.

    1. The problem with that book, as with so many products of the contemporary academy, is that it’s written by inhabitants of a world in which essentially everyone is a liberal Democrat. You have to look outside the academic mainstream to find alternative perspectives. It’s a little like Civil War historiography from 1900 to 1960, where the academy settled on a copperhead perspective, so that even Northern professors assured us that “Sambo” was basically happy and the conflict highly evitable, if not for incompetence and irresponsibility on both sides. You have to go outside the academy (e.g., Bruce Catton) to find actual Union supporters.

      For a balanced discussion of the recent history of “Constitutional hardball,” from the fringes of the academy, try, e.g., here.

      1. I remember reading that post when it came out but I don’t see anything in Adler’s writing suggesting that an escalating cycle of tit for tat won’t eventually end in disaster if it continues. I suppose the notion that this has been going on for a while is evidence against its danger. But the nature of escalating cycles is that something has to break eventually. I worry that Democrats are going to respond a judicial nomination they regard as unfair with a court expansion that will be regarded by many people even outside the Republican party as illegitimate.

        But in contemporary US politics I’m even more worried about the way in which voter enfranchisement is becoming an ever more partisan issue.

        1. I agree with that, but “How Democracies Die” considers not an escalating cycle of tit-for-tat, but the unique evil of Republicans. (At least, based on the reviews I read: based on said reviews, I didn’t review the book.)

          1. Which means that by that logic, we’re doomed, as a Unique Evil would not mind the escalation.


  14. Bret:
    Apparently I was remiss about reading last week, so now I have caught up with recent ones. I am still working my way through older posts, but here is one question from this Oct 21 post:

    Caption to Eqyptian cat figurine with missing earrings: almost never survive though, having (suggest delete though as it reads oddly after nonessential clause/?

    I especially enjoyed the Oct 30 post about the stasis and survival of democracy. Here are a couple possible typos:

    which may or may actually have -> may not actually have
    community in these sorts -> under these sorts

  15. Just binged most of your blog this week – I wanted to say that it’s fantastic how you manage to take all of these really high-level discussions and break them down into something easily digestible for someone like me not particularly versed in these fields.

    I was wondering whether you could have any recommendations on reading material on how states centralize power after going over your Lannister posts; you’ve mentioned before that “in the absence of castle-busting cannon”, castles tend to help decentralize power, so I was wondering how that process of centralization is kick-started, especially in the absence of said cannon, as in what happened in mainland China with the empires. What I’m unclear on is how the central power gains enough initial strength/wealth to acquire those first cannon to bring their weakest vassals to heel.

  16. Unrelated to the direct topic, but are you familiar with Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome by Rose Mary Sheldon? Just finished reading it, and while I think she may have gotten a little far into the weeds for her overall purpose in the discussion of the geographical considerations that went into placing installations on various limites, there was a lot to chew on. It definitely got me thinking a lot about intelligence activities (military and otherwise), and that’s a topic I’d love to put into the queue of posts you might someday write.

  17. I just read your Fireside Chat with your view of the (then) upcoming 2020 election. I might have found it compelling without the past year of seeing the Biden administration play exactly the same “we won, you lost” games that you denigrated Trump for. Good for Biden for saying he would represent all of us whether we voted for him or not, but the proof is in the pudding. Any regrets?

    1. I don’t read Biden’s policy record so far as being winner-take-all. His signature piece of legislation passed a 50/50 Senate 69/30.

      I have my quibbles with Biden’s decisions so far (he wants to spend a lot more money than I am comfortable with, but then again that is what he ran saying he would do, so…) and the implementation has frequently been less stellar than I’d like, but for the most part he has attempted to do in office exactly what he said he would do.

      So no, no regrets so far.

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