Saturday 4 January 2014

History and Horizons

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.


  1. The reporting is a problem, certainly. Usually, if the event was significant, there is some degree of certainty that it happened (i.e. sources agree, or are supported by other evidence), but where exactly it took place (e.g recent archeological failures on the assumed river crossing point at Bannockburn), what it is called (all sorts of issues - linguistic and connected with the distances involved) and what exactly are the boundaries (exactly which bits, on what dates, constitute the official Battle of Eggmuhl is an example I had recent exposure to). So what it was, just when it was and what exactly we are referring to may be a matter of debate.

    There are also persistent distortions created by "official" narratives, and maybe by an audience expectation - I have only recently started doing much reading on WW2, since I have only recently come across English-language histories which are not impaired by their partiality, and which are not set out in patriotic language. Is this because some key players have now died? Have attitudes changed/mellowed?

    Similarly, i have yet to see a contemporary biography of Wellington which does not contain the word "hero" - there seems to be a reluctance, or an unconscious inability on the part of historians to abandon the received view. Paradoxically, even the denigration of certain earlier historians (Oman is an example) because their methods and approach now appear dated has in itself become something of a received view. Don't get me started on valueless cross-referencing, which is a modern academic obsession which frequently adds only irritation and blame shifting...

    1. I think as battles got more complex the problem of defining the limits of the battle got more difficult. The Greeks simply ran away or set up a trophy. After say, El Alamein, Monty did not say 'right lads, we've won the battle, have a few days rest and tidying up; then we'll see what to do next'. The battles flow more into the whole campaign, so we can't really neatly pigeon-hole them.

      I think each generation rewrites its history in the light of its current problems or cultural obsessions. My favourite account of WW2 is actually in the notes for Runequest (yes, you did read that right) where a battle is described against the forces of chaos. It is called 'I fought we won'. I'm no expert at all on WW2, but the opening of Russian archives (and Eastern European ones more generally) has helped to balance accounts, I believe.

      As to Wellington, I could speculate that the UK's obsession with the European Union could to be blame. Wellington took on Europe and won, after all. Possibly, the biographies focus on his skills as a defensive commander. His political career is a lot more patchy. But probably, overall, he was a winner, which always looks good on a general's CV.

    2. To clear up any accidental ambiguity, my reference to "contemporary biographies" meant "contemporary with Wellington" rather than "contemporary with me"! 19th Century works on the Possibly Non-Ferrous Duke all read like attempts to gain public (and Establishment) acceptance by saying the right things. I include Jac Weller's more recent eulogies in this group, since Mr Weller seems to have lost a century or two somewhere along the line.

    3. I doubt if there are any biographies from the 19th Century about Nelson which are not in the heroic mould, either, though. Or, for that matter, not many today.

  2. Strikes me that a lot of reputations built on contemporary opinions would change if they were viewed through modern (or post-modern) eyes. I remember my old history teacher (in the '70s) becoming almost apoplectic at how it was wrong that Edward II was considered a bad king in his day not for his blatant homosexuality but for the fact that he enjoyed doing manual work alongside ordinary people. Nowadays one would be seen as acceptable, the other a distinct positive.

    My old Uncle Bill served through WWII in the Coldstream Guards and later commandos. He was a regular, joined in 1937 and, like most old soldiers who have 'done their bit' didn't talk about it much, so I was agog whenever he did open up.
    He once told me that during the retreat to Dunkirk, he fired 45 rounds from his Boyes anti-tank rifle at a Tiger tank, but they all bounced off.
    Here was someone who had fought in France in 1940, and I wouldn't have been so rude as to contradict him with a trivial fact like the Tiger wasn't introduced until 3 years after that. Obviously his recollections were coloured by what he learned later, so you could say that the memory had become corrupted, but does that cast doubt on the other details?

    It's interesting to note the number of battles which turn out not to have been fought on the site where they traditionally took place. Confusion still reigns over the site of Bannockburn. They find Bosworth is in the wrong place. Dunnichen is apparently on the other side of a mountain from where we thought it was. Tony Robinson has now moved Hastings. Wouldn't you think, with important events like these, people would at least remember where they were?

    1. I guess that everyone has their own views as to where things were, and whether people we good or bad rulers. I mean, no-one is going to win book awards writing 'actually, Bosworth was where we always though it was', are they?

      On the other hand, everyone knew where the battles were, so there is no real point in giving exact details; 'over there' was probably sufficient....

      Memoirs, and memories, are unreliable, but not that unreliable. Bill probably did shoot at a tank, after all, which, in itself, might be an interesting and useful fact for someone wondering about infantry / tank combat in the early war. I suppose that, as with everything else, you have to triangulate - look up his unit's war diaries, find other memoirs and so on.

      As for Edward II, he was mainly done for by his favourites and not actually apparently wanting the job as king (who would, after all?). The lack of 'good lord-ship' is usually pointed to as to why he was a failure - couldn't control his favourites, couldn't protect England from the Scots, only just survived rebellion by the deeds of others who he later executed (OK for treason, but still...).

    2. Well yes, just the point. Uncle Bill's unit was there and held the line for a while. He wasn't the sort of chap to shoot a line either, so I don't doubt the essence of the story was true. (He got religion in a big way after the war.) I also very much doubt that your average infantry squaddie of WWII could identify any type of German (or British, for that matter) tank on sight. But it does make you wonder about details remembered and recorded after the event though, in any period.

      Apropos the departure time of Wellington's chicken leg at Salamanca, I have always been fascinated by how many diarists diligently recorded the exact time of the first gun to be fired at Waterloo - with a variation of up to three hours.

      Sorry to be vague; my comment about Edward II was more about the teacher than the king. He was obviously more concerned with his own agenda than teaching objective history.

    3. Interesting point, that 'objective history'. A lot of people would argue that there can be no such thing.

      Uncle Bill's history is, on that reckoning, entirely valid, as is the history your teacher was promulgating. As are my points about Ed II.are all these equally valid?

      I think the problem is we have both facts (this happened) and interpretation (it meant this), but they are linked together. If the news is the first slice of history, then who would you trust? The London Times? The Manchester Guardian, BBC World Service, Voice of America? (My cold war short wave radio listening is starting to show through).

  3. Sadly, it is much more complex than that."
    Isn't just about evrrything? I'm not sure how many wargamers are actually all that interested in what lies behind their games. Also sadly, my guess based on observation would be a single digit percentage.

    But to get back to the point I feel (as much or more than think) that the farther we get into a digitized, telecommunications , mechanical everything, world, the less respect we have for the past and the intelligence and capacity of past cultures and the harder it is for us to relate to them and to intermediate observers.

    1. Oh, yes. I'm starting to think that the real problem with current culture and society is a lack of thinking. I don't think most wargamers are interesting in answering the question 'what are you doing when you wargame?' in any way except 'having fun', which is fair enough.

      I think that modern communications etc are a two edged sword. They give us easy access to sources and new communities (such as this one), but also make us assume that communications etc are more or less everything. Google, I suspect, stops us from figuring things out for ourselves.

      I think it does take a great deal of effort to understand the past in any meaningful sense, and each age is less impressed by the past that others may feel it should be. I think it was John Aubrey who described Hamlet as being an old and silly play, not worth acting, certainly alongside the excellent Restoration comedies he went to see.

      I'm currently reading a book which so far, has pointed out that the scientific revolution pre-dated the emergence of modern history by 200 years, meaning that history was rather derided in the meantime as being unscientific. Whether it is scientific now is, of course, moot.