The Revolution will not be released in paper-back

Today’s frustrating reading experience comes from David Eltis, The Military Revolution in Sixteenth-Century Europe (London: I. B. Taurus, 1995). On it’s face, this is an argument in favour of back-dating the start of the “Military Revolution” thesis, argued in the first instance by Michael Roberts in 1955, as occurring in the early 17th century. Eltis may be correct in identifying the most significant changes in the practice of warfare back a century or so, but you feel like that’s almost a happy accident. Eltis gets where he was going despite himself.

I’m going to sound very uncharitable about this book mostly because it takes for its subject an area rich with potential and manages to do surprisingly little with it. The book is based (at point, word-for-word) on his 1991 Oxford DPhil thesis which had a more narrow focus on the English contexts of military change and early books of military theory.1 Instead, Eltis begins with a detailed dissection of Roberts 1955 thesis, an exercise made largely unnecessary since Cliff Rogers, Geoffrey Parker, and Jeremy Black had, at that point, done that work already, or at least, had built more comprehensive theories (not necessarily in agreement with Roberts, or each other) which formed the ‘state-of-the-art’ at the time. It doesn’t help that this dissection of Roberts is itself so broad chronologically and geographically, that I started to loose sight of the point.

When Eltis began chapter three by declaring that “In the course of the sixteenth century war was revolutionized” I felt like he had just contradicted himself.3 A great deal of the criticism placed on Roberts was that he failed to notice change and continuity in European warfare well back into the 14th century. For Eltis to state so glibly that it all started in the 15th looses some of its strength.

To be fare, Eltis is trying something fairly rare, at least for 1995, which is a sort of military-cultural approach where the mechanical determinism of most military theory is tempered with regional variations in political, economic, and social temperament, all relevant factors in the process of change and continuity. The problem is that Eltis keeps comparing apples and oranges or various types of incompatible citrus fruit in an attempt to track the source of change back to some identifiable source. His failure to do so suggests that there is no theory to encompass European military change, only regional change. If Eltis had stuck to the English context exclusively, he may have gotten on better. He also should have stuck with the study of English texts on military theory, but considering that his conclusions are little different from his predecessor, Webb, I’m not sure how much would have been gained.

Well, that probably reads to you as snarky as it does to me. I hope my vague embarrassment excuses me somewhat. All this reading can make a DPhil student a little short of fuse.


1 This is David Eltis, ‘English Military Theory and the Military Revolution of the Sixteenth Century’, (DPhil thesis, University of Oxford: Oxford, 1991). I don’t know who supervised Eltis. The thesis does not have an acknowledgements page, or any obvious reference to supervisors or examiners. The 1995 book suggests Maurice Keen, Gerald Harris, or Penry Williams as possibilities.

2 The Roberts essay, first delivered as a paper in 1955, was published in a collection as “The Military Revolution, 1560–1660” in Essays in Swedish History, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967). For the rest see Clifford J. Rogers (ed.), The military revolution debate, (Westview: Boulder, CO., 1995), Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1989), Jeremy Black, A military revolution?, (Macmillan Education: Basingstoke, 1991). Considering how little use Eltis makes of Black or Rogers, I get the feeling that the book was just a dusted-off version of the thesis with a salting of new material here and there, mostly in the introductions.

3 Eltis, 43.

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