Report from West Point, part 2

Ok, welcome to Part 2 of “Report from West Point.”  This will be shorter, as I can’t take all the time in the world these days…It’s summer, after all, so there is no slowing or stopping…I’ll begin by summarizing and observing on the first day’s presentations, by Clifford Rogers; the subjects covered medieval warfare and various aspects of the military revolution.  Rogers’ presentation was, as always, first rate, and gave me a tremendous amount of material to use for teaching medieval warfare, and medieval studies in general.  The pedagogical demonstration used the Battle of Agincourt as the set-piece, since, as he noted, it forms a useful baseline for the Military Revolution, and if you know Agincourt you know late medieval militaries.  The main items which ensure an interactive study like this succeeds are these: a question which drives the whole lesson, in this case “why did the French lose?”, tying the question to themes and analytical structures (such as generalship, limited/total war, levels of war, war and society, etc.), and making sure your students know what critical skills they are learning in the writing and tactical exercises, rather than leaving it simply on a piece of paper (lesson plan, syllabus) and not making it explicit.  West Point lessons tend to be in four parts: Intent, Warno, Questions, and Review.  Of his observations on ancient and medieval warfare, two struck me in particular: advantages in metallurgy spelling the end of the longbow, and the rise of gunpowder weapons “chang[ing] the essence of courage.”  That last seems to me to be one of those great links between the pragmatic and the cultural sides of military history, which are all too often left unlinked.

Regarding the Military Revolution, I have to say that I’m far more convinced now than before that such a thing happened.  Rogers, as anyone who knows his writing is aware, has developed what he refers to as a “Punctuated Equilibrium” Evolution Model for Military Change, 1300-1648.  It is divided into five stages:

1. Age of the Horse, 300-1300

2. Infantry Revolution, 1302-1346     (Battles of Coutrai, Bannockburn, Crecy)

3. Artillery Revolution, 1430-1450-1494   (Normandy, Guienne, Dinant, Granada, and Naples)

4. Artillery Fortress Revolution, 1520-1540   (Trace italienne, bastons, Malacca[?])

5. Manpower Revolution, 1609-1648     (Maurice of Nassau, Gustavus Adolphus, drill)

Now, before you throw up your hands at such a neat periodization of complex change, bear with it for a moment, as it pays off to a large extent.  Rogers points out the rather sudden reduction of siege length that accompanies the ‘artillery revolution,’ as folks stopped lobbing things over walls, and started launching them at walls.  On the other hand, you can observe the length and difficulty of siege going up dramatically again as the Italian fortifications come into being and spread north of the Alps–there’s lots of battles between c. 1420 and c. 1520, but then incidence of battle drops sharply.   And manpower increases sharply after 1600 (though my own observation is that, while armies can be larger than their medieval predecessors, that is generally not so noticeable until Louis XIV’s wars).  Rogers’ counter to my parenthetical observation (which is somewhat influenced by Jeremy Black’s skeptical take on the “MR” is that the “revolution” doesn’t occur at the point of full development, but at the point of inflection–a fair observation, I think.

There were various other observations on the interplay of social and military forces (which Rogers likened to a double-helix; Kaeuper might have said “alternating current”), but on the whole I went into the lecture somewhat skeptical, and came out rather convinced.  The fact remains that people were doing things very differently by 1490 than they were in 1302, and categorizing these changes, even if you don’t like the term “military revolution” is a useful way of understanding and teaching the subject, and I would venture to say in approaching the medieval military world in its own terms–for medieval folk were very conscious of changing tactics, weapons systems, and armor.  You just have to be clear to your students what you mean by “revolution”!

Anyway, that’s one day’s report.  I might get to another post this evening, depending.  We’re off to the presidential library at Hyde Park in a little bit, and we’ll be doing our World War II lectures there.

One Reply to “Report from West Point, part 2”

  1. Two comments:
    1. I love that this post was “short.”
    2. I like the link between military history and cultural history that you pointed out. Good stuff, that.

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