Saturday 4 July 2015

Intellectual History

It is possible that I am simply going to repeat myself, or at least state things which most people would say ‘Of course’ to. On the other hand, sometimes stating the blinking obvious is a good thing to do.

I suppose the first thing I want to suggest is that things, generally, go in fashions. There might be, for example, a fashion dressing your soldiers up in fancy red uniforms to march into battle. There might not, in fact, be any particularly good or bad reason for doing this. It might be that red is a martial colour in your culture, and thus seems to be a good option for trying to instil some valour, ardour or some such into the troops. Your enemy might have a different culture, wherein, say, red is the colour of cowardice and blue is that of valour. They might, thus, be very willing to attack your red clad troops, but flee from the odd blue bedecked regiment of cavalry that you have permitted just for a spot of variation.

Fashions, however, change. These changes can be brought about by a variety of causes. For example, a fair bit of European army kit changed when those armies were fighting in places that were not Europe. Light infantry, irregulars, and different sorts of swords and so on were all incorporated into military equipment and tactics as a result of experience beyond the home shores of the culture.  This is, of course, not unique. The Romans pinched their sword from the Spanish, after all.

Fashions are more than simply in dress, equipment or tactics. I have very briefly tried to suggest that ideas have an impact on how warfare is conducted. The particular example I had in mind was the ‘star’ fortress style, particularly associated with Vauban but used extensively before then. The idea is of course usually explained fairly simply as a response to the increased firepower of cannon in besieging armies. The instrumental requirements of a form of fortification which could resist cannon fire more effectively led designers to build lower walls, packed with earth, and with open fields of fire. A round tower simply could not match the modern fortress in ability to block the attackers and blunt their force.

Except, of course, that often old style castles could, and did, resist modern siege weapons. One problem, at least, facing would be besiegers, was that of actually getting the siege weapons into place. This was a huge logistical problem. Once arrived, there was the problem of siting the weapons so they could be effective and, of course, of ensuring the supply of the besiegers, in terms of food, water, weapons and men. A siege of even a simply medieval style castle was no joke, as some of the problems encountered in the English Civil war demonstrate.

But another issue in the design of castles must have been that of the intellectual changes brought about by the renaissance. While medieval castle builders did, indeed, use mathematics to calculate, for example, how many steps were needed in a spiral staircase, star style fortresses needed some more advanced ideas about geometry. Indeed, if these were not forthcoming, there arose some slightly odd shapes. For example, the defences of Berwick on Tweed are irregular. This might be due to the lie of the land, to the inadequacy of surveying or to someone who was a bit dangerous to let loose with a compass and set square. Of course, one might suggest to Her Majesty that that was how it was meant to be all along, and it is perhaps fortunate that the defences were never seriously tested, but the idea was there of something pleasingly geometric in shape, and that comes from the interest in mathematics of the renaissance.

Of course, warfare is not the only place where one sees this. Galileo was interested in geometry, and there is evidence that his concepts were based on the idea of geometry. Spinoza, too, thought geometrically, as least, insofar as his Ethics is written like a geometry text book. Euclid was viewed as the ultimate in comprehensive proof, and people attempted to emulate him. The idea of geometry, thus, permeates a fair bit of intellectual culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it would be a rash historian indeed who suggested that it did not affect military theory and practice.

We can possibly push on a little further with this notion. The military text books of the day were rather obsessed with order and geometry, with nice diagrams explaining how to array a certain number of men in blocks so many deep and thus how wide they should be. Montecuccoli, for example, suggests an octagonal infantry battalion at one point, for battalions at the ends of the battle line. This is a sophisticated sort of formation, and it indicates, from the text, that he is interested in geometry, and would seem to me to need seriously trained soldiers to carry it out without getting into severe disarray.

The point is that Montecuccoli, as a theoretician as well as a general, we thinking geometrically, as part of the culture in which he was educated. To think geometrically is simply to be part of the intellectual culture of the day. That is not to say it was used uncritically, although that accusation could be aimed at some of the text books. It was simply part of how things were thought about.

There were reverse influences, as well. Asking a theoretician to design a fortress could have impact on the development of mathematics, geometry and architecture. I seem to recall that Durer was one such, although I think he pre-dated the star style fortress. Nevertheless, he can be seen as a transitional figure, designing shorter, stubby towers packed with earth to resist cannon fire, an idea taken up by Henry VIII in the defence of English shores.

I was going to start talking about the influence of ideas on tactics, such as the caracole, but I am starting to think that this piece is both long enough and both arguable enough and not radical enough, so I shall have to leave it there and return to the Curious Case of the Caracole another time.


  1. Berwick in Tweed is an interesting example - in fact I was there on Thursday, parked in the long-stay provision right up against the the northern section of the wall (though inside the glacis). I was, of course, threatened by batteries in bastions on both flanks. My familiarity of the defences at Berwick is due more to my having walked around them many times with varying manifestations of my family than to an intimate familiarity with the history of the works, but there are a few constraints in evidence, which must be typical of most fortresses:

    (1) The River Tweed, and a couple of hills, are kind of fixed in place, so have to be worked around.

    (2) Each period of work to enhance or modernise the fortification would have to fit around, on top of or in front of what had been there in earlier, less enlightened times

    (3) Resource is a key issue - I look at drawings of the works of Lille, and i think that Vauban was either starting from scratch, having cleared the area, or was simply showing off (or taking the piss), but he must have had a massive budget available. Berwick seems more like a succession of cut-and-shut, stick a bit on, repair the last lot of damage, and do it by Thursday. In other words, making the best of what they were stuck with.

    The 30YW period seems to have coincided with a late Renaissance idea that if you produced enough mathematical diagrams and high-flown (though frequently daft) theory, which was the natural standpoint of a thinking gentleman, then it somehow masked the fact that warfare was brutal and moronic and not a fit exercise for anyone at all, especially gentlemen.

    The evolution of the fortress with the development of powder weapons is definitely a fascinating study, and demonstrates some remarkable intellects at work, but the constraints imposed by what was there before and how much money and time they had must have produced some very dirty compromises. Vauban was maybe special, amongst other reasons, because he had a lot of clout and a free hand to do anything he wanted.

    I feel I have added little to your discussion here, but I look forward to the explanation of the Caracole, which always seems to me more like a masonic ritual than anything someone would have attempted under fire.

    1. Yes, I love Berwick too, and have explored those ramparts many times. I have a great suspicion that the irregular shapes of the bastions are as much a symptom of doing things on the cheap as an actual design fault. 'Build a fortress in the latest fashion; don't spend a lot'.
      I remember reading somewhere (Steel Bonnets?) that a governor of Berwick sent Elizabeth a note that the fortifications were in need of repair and redesign to make them secure and attaching an extensive price list for the work. Elizabeth's reply was basically "Here's a quid. Strengthen the magazine roof."
      I think Vauban at Lille just had a blank cheque and licence to show off.

    2. I suppose that one advantage we have over 16th Century architects is that we can get an ariel view, so it is easy to see the irregularity. I think that it is much harder than we imagine to mark out a bastion on the ground, and then persuade some day-labourers to dig along the line. After all, any fortification is better than none.

      Mind you, it does seem to be a constant in history that all the fortifications, everywhere, were falling, down, needed vast quantifies of money spending on them and were not fit for purpose. One might some special pleading on the part of governors.

      But the renewal of interest in geometry and the evolution of 'star' fortresses is linked, even if only coincidental, i think.

  2. I would have thought fashion was more evident in the decorations and style of gateways rather than in the basic trace of black powder fortresses.

    From what Duffy says there were plenty of flights of fancy and "systems" in published works of the period but examples on the ground were more pragmatic mixtures adapting to place, budget and existing defences. Vauban's works included.

    Granted it could have been fortuitous that the renaissance of geometry occurred at the right time. Though it aided both attack and defence. I'm not saying fashion had no place in war, just that we might find it in other places* than in the bastioned trace.

    * Zouaves spring to mind as I'm watching Gettysburg!

    1. Agreed, but the evolution of star fortress styles (despite the flights of fancy) we linked to the geometric style of thinking of Galileo and Spinoza. That is, geometry was part of any gentleman's education, so when designing some fortifications, a gentleman could have a good go at it and produce something technically plausible and pleasing to the eye. it is possible that practice lagged behind a little.

  3. My favourite item of military fashion is the beret. Apart from tank crews (who would never wear one now in action), there really isn't that much to recommend it as headware and yet nearly every military in the world uses it.

  4. But ... the idea of the beret is surely the competition to see who can wear it at the correct rakish angle. The bigger the angle, the more likely promotion?