Saturday, 6 August 2016


Historiography must be a really odd thing. Historians, it seems, can be more driven by ideology than by, well, given what I have said before, I hesitate to use to word ‘facts’, but if all the usual caveats applying, historical facts. Interpretation against a matrix of ideological concepts seems to be the way some history is done.

I, as no doubt many of you, will know the sort of thing. The most obvious example in my experience is the English Civil War, where you have Marxist concepts, such as the rise of the bourgeoisie, encountering revisionist concepts, such as that King Charles I was fairly useless as a monarch.

The thing that has always rather intrigued me is that few of these committed historians seem to allow that both sides could, in a sense, be correct. There is no particular reason, it seems to me as a naïve and un-ideologically committed non-historian, why the rise of the bourgeoisie could not run along in parallel with Charles I being a bit incompetent. Maybe that is why I stay a humble physicist. All this political commitments is a bit beyond me: your experiment works or it does not. An ideological commitment to it working cuts no ice in nature.

In the August 2016 edition of History Today, Professor Jeremy Black has a short piece about counterfactuals in history. Professor Black has a bit of a track record in advocating counterfactuals as part of the historical process. The idea, he suggests, is that the historian could be able to see the possible decisions that historical actors could have made, and, from the options available, obtain some idea as to what might have happened (or at least, what might have been perceived by the actor to be the likely outcome) and thus some idea of why the choice was made as it was.

My usual example of this is Prince Rupert at York. There he is, with a letter from his uncle which says, basically ‘save York, save my crown; lose York, lose my crown’. He has just out-maneuvered  the Parliamentary and Scottish armies that were besieging the place, and has to decide what to do next. He decided to fight, and lost Marston Moor. Rupert has often been condemned for this decision. But the question that a counterfactual analysis can ask is ‘what other options did he have?’

He could, of course, have stayed in York until his opponents marched away, but York had been besieged and there may not have been enough food and fodder for his men. The besiegers, after all, had eaten a fair bit during the siege, and the Royalist supply lines would have been rather tenuous with three enemy armies in the offing.

Rupert could have reinforced York with his foot and struck south with the cavalry. This would have almost certainly have led Manchester’s army to follow him to protect their bases in the Eastern Association. But that would still have left York besieged, by two armies. Rupert would almost certainly have had to return to relieve it again.

Another option was to do what he did, and fight. He could have delayed deploying and fought after the garrison had recovered a bit, but that ran the risk of his opponents recovering from their surprise at his being in York at all, and of Rupert’s army, which had been dashing around the country relieving places for a couple of months, getting stuck in York itself, which was not a great prospect, as already noted. Further to this, his army was largely borrowed, and the longer they were away from their bases, the more likely those bases would be captured by the enemy.

Even a quick look at his options (and Rupert at this stage does not seem to be someone who indulged in lengthy introspection and pondering of his options) seems to indicate that fighting, and fighting fast, was the most likely option to obtain his objectives, that of making York safe for the Royalists. Of course, it was a gamble, but the relief of York itself was a gamble, and it had, at least, paid off. A similar situation earlier in the year, at Newark, has similarly paid dividends. It is probably that Rupert knew, as well, that the King needed a quick victory before the resources of Parliament overwhelmed the Royalist cause.

A counterfactual analysis can therefore help in working out why an individual acted in the way they did. However, to return to ideology, there is in some ‘left’ history a view that history is deterministic. Rupert would lose anyway, because Cromwell’s army was made up of ideologically motivated proto-Marxists, and they were of the rising merchant class and would inevitably conquer the world. Something like that, I may be exaggerating a little. Counterfactuals turn that around and focus on the events and decisions which people made. History is contingent; it is not just the activity of forces over the ages which we are helpless to control.

In historiography, then, counterfactuals tend to be the weapon of the ‘right’ against the determinism of the ‘left’. Individuals can make a difference, they do have options. There is a constant input of decision made into historical process. And this is where wargaming might come in.

A historical wargame, of course, is a sort of a model of some sort of historical situation. The set up, and the existence of the battle at all, is not part of the decision matrix the gamers have control over, but the process of the battle is. We can and do play the ‘what-if’ game. What if Rupert had deployed a few hundred meters further back? What if the initial break in the Scot’s ranks had spread panic through the right wing? And so on. A wargame is an overall processor of these sorts of contingencies and decisions.

This is set against the ideas of Marxist determinists. The outcome of the battle, according to this view, is hardly relevant. What matters are the other factors, particularly the economic factors, affecting both sides. On that basis, with control of the navy and of London, Parliament wins. The rest is detail.

Without wishing to commit to the ideology of either side, it does seem to me that history is a lot more complex than the Marxists think.


  1. Hmm perhaps the existence of the battle or our belief that it happened is not part of the matrix but surely the decision to base a wargame on it and how we choose to set it up. Do we start the night before and include pre battle maneuvers whether on a map or on table, start when the first gun is fired or later when Rupert's is committed beyond the player's ability to alter his choices? More than that we have choices as to how to rate the troops and what sort of rules to use. Is their a combat bonus for being of a favoured socio-political leaning?

    In some wars, there may come a point near to insurmountable odds making the outcome of further individual battles irrelevant in the long run other than to force the strategically inevitable winner to expend more resources over a longer time.
    However, I agree history is always more complex than any ideology or academic school of thought would like.

    1. Of course, the context is vital - I prefer campaigns for this reason. Fighting against insurmountable odds makes sense in that context (or scenario, I suppose) but not in many others. I prefer this, but often don't have the time for it.

      We do have many choices in creating (or recreating) a battle. I suppose the trick is to work out which variables are most important, and which have less impact. And then, of course, our sources are biased in favour of the writer's class, politics and so on, although how much can be hard to tell.

      It is all rather confusing, really.

  2. I do believe that you are correct and many people seem to attach themselves to very simple solutions. "It must be this thing and this thing only, nothing else matters."

    But you maybe being a little unkind to historians and I think that particular schools of thought exist in all professions. It is difficult to challenge the established orthodoxy in any discipline or organisation on its home ground - especially if you are hoping to be working there next year.

    History I think will always be open to interpretation due to the incomplete available facts on any occurrence, the discovery of new historical sources, and most importantly the need to author exciting new books for us to read (that naturally show new insights) and to earn a few dollars. I get the impression that history, while very interesting, is not a highly paid profession.

    Perhaps if physicists get their act together and create a time machine we can sort it all out. :)

    Maybe I am just a little cynical from too many years of corporate and political spin and watching all the main actors move their positions from day to day.

    1. Time machine, and a huge supply of antibiotics. I'm up for that.

    2. Agreed, history is always open to re-interpretation. Each age asks its own questions of the past, and so gets different answers. Mostly in historiography, that interest is not in military matters, so most battle narratives are left to amateurs or dead white males from the early twentieth century.

      Ideology, however, can do weird things to the historical record, or at least circumscribe the questions and context of the investigation. On the other hand, no-one can grapple with the whole of a given era, so some selection and sense of what is important is necessary. An ideology can give a framework for that.

  3. Interesting post (it goes without saying). The ECW stuff is very strange - this is a period I have really only started studying in any depth within the last 5 years or so, and I have been astonished how much of the subject is drowned - or at least distorted - by the grinding of axes. The received history, such as it is, is centralised and standardised and polished by Reformation values and Victorian values, which seem to have handed us the idea that not being a Royalist sympathiser is unpatriotic. The wealth of history which has always existed at county level - which has long been classified as of little interest, not to say inconvenient - is only now beginning to be published in any widely available form. I have reached the point where there are certain standard works (which I obtained at some cost, some of them) which I would not keep on my shelves if it were not for that cost.

    Much of this handed-down stuff misses the point - it is possible that the Royalists' time was almost up anyway, whether or not they lost York or Marston Moor. For me, a parallel exists in the everlasting discussion of the Battle of Waterloo, on which I have read widely, though I would not claim any measure of expertise. Debate continues about (a) who actually won the battle (yawn), and (b) what might have happened if Napoleon had been victorious. To me, this is noise - if Napoleon had won at Waterloo then he would have been defeated shortly afterwards by the other Allied armies (his own was wrecked) and in any case the French people were heartily sick of being at war - they would have got rid of him sooner or later. In that context, the traditional arguments become irrelevant. London would not have a Waterloo station, but they would not speak French either.

    1. A lot does seem to depend on what and who you read. Gardiner, who is well worth reading on the ECW, had a Whig view of history, and was something of a Parliamentary sympathiser - the Victorian 'best possible democracy' thing. But the actual history was written by Royalists (e.g. Clarendon (also worth reading)) after the Restoration. So it is all rather complex

      History, though, is contingent, and it is the stuff of endless speculation. Who won at Waterloo? Both the Prussians and the Anglo-Dutch (and everyone else) needed each other to win. But I agree, it didn't really matter, and the Austrians and Russians were mobilising, and Europe was fed up of wars.

      Much like the end of the 30 Years War, really. Most protagonists ran out of steam, money, and population. Both peaces engendered something of a conservative reaction, too.

      But yes, mostly noise. Napoleon needed a nearly bloodless victory at Waterloo to recreate the mystique. He didn't get it. Rupert needed to defeat the three armies outside York, he didn't and may not have been able to. but understanding why is interesting.

  4. I do enjoy reading your blog, and this post is no exception.

    I don't doubt that some historians' work is driven by ideology, but the problem you are finding may be more one of perception engendered by the preference historians have for using a theoretical framework to aid their analysis. That said, I'm not much of a one for Marxist analysis anyway, even though some of the theories about how societal hierarchies are maintained do ring true.

    1. Marx, I'm told, is making a bit of a come back, now that people can read him without the weight of Leninist - Stalinist - Maoist - any-other-sort-of-ist ideology. At least it makes a change from neo-liberal neo-capitalism.

      But we do seem to get a great deal of mileage out of ideological approaches to history. The question of how the past shapes and is appropriated by the present is an interesting one.

    2. I have certainly noticed more Marxist analysis recently. It has its place in the theoretical toolkit, but then so do all the other theoretical approaches.

      My current project is very much erring towards looking at reinvention and co-option of the past for present purposes. I'm encountering rather too many neo-liberal, proto-capitalist Vikings in the data-set for my tastes!

    3. Obligatory joke:
      Q: How do you start a lefty race?
      A: On your Marx, get set....

      There was an interesting article on TV representation of Vikings and the Sagas in a recent History Today, in case you've not seen it. It did pass comment on the lack of beards, IIRC.

      But are you saying that the Vikings were only misunderstood, and we should have encouraged their fine entrepreneurial spirit?

    4. My favourite Marxist joke:
      Q: Why don't Marxists drink loose leaf tea?
      A: Because all proper tea is theft.

      I've not seen that article. Will have to borrow my friend's copy when he gets back off holiday.

      Vikings were certainly misunderstood, and you would have liked them if you met them socially. They were just doing their jobs, you know! It's more a case of the neo-liberal types misusing Vikings as poster-children for their economic practices. Of course, I'm not actually allowed to say that and copped a bit of flak for making a flippant comment about it on a TV programme a couple of years ago. Some people have no sense of humour ...

    5. Seems to me that the popular conception of Vikings and modern day bankers could well be conflated. The looting and pillaging are just done by computer now; presumably it is more efficient.

      And I think I've just co-opted the past to make a present day point. And I'm sure that the bankers are only misunderstood and would be quite nice if we met them socially.

      I mean, the Vikings only dropped in on Lindisfarne for a cuppa and a bit of cake, didn't they?

    6. I'm sure you're right. The Vikings turned up for a spot of Lindisfarne mead but the monks did not want to share. It all went downhill from there.