I have, of course, got rather confused with the complexities of communities, horizons, individuals and, in the final analysis, how history itself fits into this. This sort of thing is, of course, dabbling my toes in the philosophy of history. As I have quite enough trouble with considering epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and the philosophy of wargaming (in so much as the latter exists outside this blog and the ravings of my poor overheated brain), I do not really want to start pondering history too much. But the logic of the things I have been writing about is pressing some sort of description upon me.
Firstly, we have an event at a given time. Say this is a battle. Now, it is possible that some people might dispute that such an event took place. This is increasingly the case the further back in history one goes. Was there really a battle at Meggido? Well, quite likely, but you would not find it too difficult to find someone who seriously doubted it. Was there a battle at Stalingrad? I find it hard to believe that anyone would seriously argue that it was a construct of the human shaping of reality.
So, this is our first point. Something happened at a point of time, in a certain place. The reasons why it happened depend on the context of the time and place. For example, the context of the Russian front in the Second World War, which itself arose from the peculiar theories of Hitler, and so on. This is, if you like, our first horizon or set of horizons. What did the people involved in the event know, not know and, perhaps as importantly, what were they not interested in? I am coming to the opinion that what people (specifically in this case, generals and similar) do not know or are not interested in, is as important as what they do know. Hence the focus upon horizons.
Secondly, there is the horizon of the person or people who wrote about the event. These can be many and various, and depend on the context of the writer. Some documents might be the diaries of those units involved. These might detail movements, casualties, orders and so on, but do not give a huge quantity of other information. Memoirs might add context, but, depending on who wrote them and when may have some difficulties concerning accuracy. These might consist of simply forgetting the precise sequence and timing of events, or more self-serving comments about who ran away and why.
Now, these things, diaries, memoirs, reports from headquarters, letters to Parliament, whatever, actually form the data for our historical enterprises. As already suggested, they are not unproblematic. Some may well be downright contradictory; we have discussed here briefly the question of Wellington’s lunch at Salamanca. The exact timing is disputed, but could be important. Similarly, with, say, Cromwell’s reports to Parliament, we have to try to distinguish what happened from his Puritan and theological interpretations of what happened. I dare say that no-one would really believe that God really made the Royalists stubble, but we do have to try to figure out what he meant.
Thus, we have to try to interpret these documents (and anything else, such as archaeology, which might turn up). We have to assess how accurate a report might be, how well it fits in with other reports. Is there an overall narrative that we can discern in these documents, a story which seems to fit most of the facts? And then we have to note the bits which do not fit this narrative. We may not be able to account for them, but we have to acknowledge their existence. In terms of science, we simply have to leave the facts on the shelf for the moment, acknowledging that we cannot fit them in to our narratives, our theories or models.
Then we hit the third set of horizons which, in many ways is the most difficult and complex. We, as historians (however amateur) have our own horizons. We know some stuff; we are not interested in other stuff. We might go through all our sources and simply note the bits about unit strengths and the development of battles, and ignore all the boring social history stuff that may come along with it. If that is the case, then we may be missing and excluding things which may be important to the development of the campaign, or, at least, to assessing the reliability of the source.
There is a more difficult aspect of our horizons yet. We are members of our culture and society, with sets of experiences which are mediated by that. Our education, for example, is heavily influenced by the society in which we live. As an example, Sir Charles Oman could pretty well assume that his readers would have a smattering of Greek, Latin, French and German, and to be sufficiently educated in the classics so as not to need the parallels labouring to them. This is probably not the case, these days, and most modern books supply translations, if, indeed, they bother with the original language.
Thus the historical investigator has his own horizon to grapple with. We are not interested in some of the things our sources are interested in, and we are interested in some things that they were not. Tacitus, for example, could quite happily make up speeches for barbarian generals. He had no chance of ever knowing what was actually said; in fact, his critique of Rome is often placed in their mouths. But we, as (post-) modern citizens, expect to be told what they did say. We have, therefore, to try to understand the context of the writer before we can interpret what they are writing.
We also have to try to understand our own context. For example, medieval Christian writers were, on the whole, horrified that St Augustine had a concubine and fathered a son. Modern writers are usually horrified that, while trying to make an advantageous marriage, he simply sent the woman (who is unnamed) away and never saw her again. The point is that the difference in response shows differences in assumptions between the writers, let alone between them and the culture in which Augustine lived.
I am sure there is much more to be written about this, but I shall leave it there for the moment. But the point is that we do have a tendency to build our history (and hence our wargames) on masses of assumptions about ourselves, our sources and their relationship to what happened in history. Sadly, it is much more complex than that.