Revolutions of ink and gunpowder

[Cleaned up on the 20th, because I jumped the gun on the 2nd draft. All praise the mutability of the blogging medium, for only in this place can we correct our poor grammar and syntax and erase the evidence of our own carelessness!]

Oxford can be such a rich source of complaint that it could cause this blog to regress into a catalogue of daily irritations or institutional disorders. Instead, I will try and fill it with the better things Oxford can offer, if one is able to find them. Alas, a gripe has crept in. I will continue anyway.

My College hosts occasional meetings of the Oxford book research group which is an informal inter-disciplinary network of researchers with a shared interest in book history and related fields. On 22 November they hosted a seminar by Andrew Pettegree, head of the faculty of History at St. Andrews and director of the Universal Short Title Catalogue project, which is a colossal catalogue of European printing pre-1650.

What does any of this have to do with my own clearly stated interests in elite violence and martial culture? Well, early print output did include martial literature and practical works on military topics but a more fundamental similarity is that both martial culture and print culture have an awkward historiography of technological determinism.

Depending on who you read, the history of warfare is little more than a history of technology with a bunch of fighting and some largely superfluous political baggage thrown in. Charles Oman and J.F.C. Fuller produced stellar examples of this sort of narrative.1 Lynn White Jr. carried it along with his thesis on the stirrup.2 This mechanistic view has softened somewhat in recent years, but it was still an essential part of Michael Robert’s “military revolution” thesis, which has been adapted and expanded by later writers like Geoffrey Parker and Clifford Rogers.3 I am drawing a slight caricature here since Parker and Rogers aren’t total proponents of technological determinism but one can still see the conflicting ideas at work in Rogers’ perpetual debate with Kelly DeVries over the longbow.4

This is all familiar themes for students of the printing press who have a similar historiography that overly focused on the influence of technology rather than culture. While Elizabeth Eisenstein’s work is more complex and subtle than my gloss would suggest, it does place a great deal of weight on the technology as a determiner of social and political change.5 Recent work has gives a more measured view of the period and the place of the press, particularly as it related to reading habits, literacy, and the uncertainties of the market.6 Likewise, new studies of warfare have either removed the revolution theory entirely or have refined it such that it has lost much of its radicalism.7

With that background in mind, it’s interesting to look at the texts listed in USTC database in the “military handbook” category. The earliest text is by Robertus Valturius, De re militari (Verona: Johannes Nicolai de Verona, 1472), which is a fairly free adaptation of Vegetius, always a safe seller for the last 300 years.8 Versions of Vegetius make up the bulk of the military handbooks before 1500. Early printers were not normally the radical champions of new media that one sees in Eisenstein. Instead, the were commonly safe and conservative businessmen who avoided risks and printed what they were already sure would sell. Vegetius had the added appeal of variety and there was always room for another book called de re militari, with a different author attached.

Other classical writers, familiar to humanist readers from manuscript editions, and well established in popular reading of learned circles, were popular titles for early printers (in addition to the lucrative business of large-run, ephemeral material printed for civic authorities). Greek and Roman historians like Modestus, Frontinus, and excerpts from the accounts of the Roman wars, fall into the military handbook category as they were frequently read with that in mind.9

This is the sort of stuff you may expect to see in print during the period but there is a great deal that does not appear and very little of this material records the essentials of the “military revolution.” This traditional, conservative, selection of military writers were selected because they suited the learned, Latinate readership that may not have had much professional interest in warfare. Readers with a personal investment in martial culture learned the newest developments from other sources and manuscript texts that were produced and circulated privately (but not secretly). Books on new approaches to tactics, technology, strategy, personal arms and self-defence did not appear in print until quite late, relatively speaking.

While there is some evidence that the first printed books on swordsmanship appeared in Spain before 1500, these books, if they ever existed, do not survive. The earliest surviving print work on the mechanics of personal arms is by Pietro Monte, Exercitiorum atque artis militaris… (Milano: Giovanni Giacomo da Legnano e fratelli, 1509).10 It seems that this genre was not an easy sell for early printers and they appear in dribs and drabs through the first half of the 15th century. Albrecht Dürer planned to illustrate a book in 1512, but it only survives in manuscript.11 The first printed fencing manuals with illustrations appears in 1516.12 By 1531 the Frankfurt printer Christian Egenolff figured there was a viable market for this genre and he added a title on wrestling and one on armed combat to catalogue alongside books on battle-field surgery and craft manuals.13

This runs counter to expectations because illustrated manuals on personal combat had becoming relatively common, at least in Germany, by the late 15th century. These continued to stay confined within the manuscript medium well into the early 16th. Also, contrary to expectations, books on fencing don’t appear in numbers until well after the popularity of the new ‘demilitarized’ fashions of combat were adopted with enthusiasm. No one in England thought it was worth investing in this genre until the 1590s when  English translations of Italian and French books on the duel were already popular. The circulation of more advanced, or more elite, material in manuscript continued to be the norm well into the 16th century. This is likely evidence for a small, elite readership for that type of material and the close circles of professionals who had some use for it. Only when the new martial concepts became the established norm in European warfare does it appear in print.

The dearth of English military handbooks in the 15th century is usually interpreted as evidence that there was no interest in the new and revolutionary changes at work in Europe. This, at least, is the take from Webb and Eltis and it is the mechanical determinism common to early print history that gives the claim any appeal.14 If (according to the determinist theory) the printing press drove the Reformation then, by extension, the printing press must have driven other developments in the same pattern where change-follows-print. That does not appear to happen with military theory or practice.

At least, this is the pattern I am seeing in the USTC database. It’s worth spending a little more time on this probably because I am in the middle of writing a paper abstract for the USTC conference in June. This sounds sort of paper worthy doesn’t it?

Well, there are plenty of notes at least. Enjoy!


1 Charles C. Oman, A History of the Art of War: the Middle Ages from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, 1898) which appeared again in a two volume version from 1901. J. F. C. Fuller, The Decisive Battles of the Western World and their Influence Upon History. 3 vols. (Eyre & Spottiswoode: London, 1955). Both are products of their time and are still very relevant to the historiography. You can’t write a term paper off them, however. In an unlikely twist, one of Oman’s contemporaries, a writer with a military background that one would expect predisposed him to technological determinism, is largely free of that sin, but he never had much of a following and is rarely cited now, despite his value to the historiography: Hans Delbrück, History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History. 4 vols, tran. Walter J. Jr. Renfroe, (University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1990 [1st published 1900-20]).

2 Lynn Jr. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change, (Oxford University Press: London, 1964).

For criticism see Alex Roland, ‘Once More into the Stirrups: Lynn White Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change’, Technology and Culture, 44 (2003), pp. 574–585.

3 The original source of the theory was his 1955 paper delivered at Queen’s University, Belfast, titled “The Military Revolution 1560-1660” subsequently printed in Essays in Swedish History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967). While he is careful to point out that his acceptance of the theory is not unqualified, Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1989), is a supportive summary of the theory. For Rogers, see the next note.

4 The point of contention is the historical place of the long-bow in medieval warfare. See Kelly De Vries, ‘Catapults Are Not Atomic Bombs: Towards a Redefinition of “Effectiveness” in Premodern Military Technology’, War and History, 4 (1997), pp. 454–470, and C. J. Rogers, “The Efficacy of the English Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries,” War in History, 5 (1998), pp. 233-42. I didn’t know about this long-standing dispute until I presented a paper at a session with DeVries and Rogers. The question period got rather heated.

5 Elizabeth L Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, 2 vol. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1980). This was condensed and updated somewhat in later editions of The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2005).

6 The best critique is, naturally, Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance, (Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, 2010).

7 There are many to choose from but I think the most satisfying, if only for the introductory swipe at the entire theme, is Anne Curry, ‘Guns and Goddams: Was there a Military Revolution in Lancastrian Normandy 1415-50?’, Journal of Medieval Military History, viii (2010), pp. 171–88.

8 Birth and death dates for Valturius are variable so I won’t try and give them here. Two copies of this book are scanned and viewable online. One in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München. The other is hosted at the Biblioteca Virtual del Español.

9 I would like to add a nice note directing readers to a survey of this period but there isn’t one, at least not something comprehensive. You need to piece this together from other material like J. R. Hale, ‘The Military Education of the Officer Class in Early Modern Europe’, in J. R. Hale, ed., Renaissance War Studies (Hambledon Press: London, 1983) pp. 225–246, Fernando González de León, ‘“Doctors of the Military Dicipline”: Technical Expertise and the Paradigm of the Spanish soldier in the Early Modern Period’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 27 (1996), pp. 61–85, Henry J. Webb, Elizabethan Military Science: The Books and the Practice, (The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI., 1965), James Raymond, Henry VIII’s Military Revolution: The Armies of Sixteenth-Century Britain and Europe, (Tauris Academic Studies: London, 2007), and David R. Lawrence, The Complete Soldier: Military Books and Military Culture in Early Stuart England, 1603-1645, (Brill: Leiden, 2009), among others.

10 The ‘lost’ Spanish books and Monte are discussed in Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, (Yale University Press: New Haven, CT., 2000), 22, 322 n61. Monte and his book are discussed in detail in Sydney Anglo, ‘The Man Who Taught Leonardo Darts: Pietro Monte and his “Lost” Fencing Book’, Antiquaries Journal, 69 (1989), pp. 261–78.

11 Dürer’s work was published in facsimile as Friedrich Dornhoffer, ‘Albrecht Dürers Fechtbuch’, Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Aller Hochsten Kaiserhauses, 27 (1910).

12 This is Andreas Paurnfeindt, Ergrundung ritterlicher kunst der fechterey durch andre paurnfeindt freyfechter czu vienn in Osterreich, nach klerlicher begreiffung und kurczlicher verstendnuß (Vienna: Hieronymus Vietor, 1516).


13 In an odd twist of scholarship, Anglo mentions Egenolff in Martial Arts, but does not mention his heavy investment in the genre of practical and technical writing while William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture., (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1994), mentions Egenolff in the context of Kunstbuchlien, without mention of the fencing and wrestling books. It was only dumb luck that I spotted this well after reading both Anglo and Eamon.

14 This is certainly the interpretation of the English context argued in David Eltis, The Military Revolution in Sixteenth-Century Europe, (I.B. Tauris: London, 1998).


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