Early Modern Infantry and History as Continuity and Change

It started with a tweet.

As an historian with a background in medieval history and who is currently researching the development of the European military-fiscal state of the seventeenth century, this tweet caught my attention for several reasons.

First, the question about the “specific moment” in history when everything shifted and a new world was ushered in is a commonly occurring query. I have been asked questions of this kind several times and never have I been able to give a straight answer, as in “this is the moment when everything changed.” The reason for this inability is simple: history is not a series of isolated events. It is a process. And as a process, changes and developments interlock and feed off each other. This is why the phrase “continuity and change” is a commonly occurring phrase in historical research. Because that is what history is. Continuity and change. At the same time.

Second, as is stated in this tweet, medieval warfare and early modern warfare are different from each other. The images used to illustrate the tweet is focused on weapons technology, which indeed did change during this period.

The early modern era sees the increased use of weaponry that are powered by gunpowder. This development led to changes in engineering, such as how to build fortifications. A medieval castle wall could withstand a siege where swords, ladders, crossbows, and even trebuchets, were used. However, a medieval castle wall is helpless against the firing power of a canon and so early modern fortifications needed to be built differently to withstand this kind of assault.

Third, the tweet mentions the differences between a medieval army and an early modern army regarding its infantry. If you ask me, this is where it gets interesting.

As I have stated previously here on The Boomerang, fighting a war is much more than just soldiers, guns, and ammo. War is a way of organizing a society. This is why we speak of societies being in a state of war. And no other time period in European history displays this more clearly than the early modern period.

The early modern period was a time of more or less constant war, the epitome of which would be the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) which caused major devastation to the European continent, the likes of which would not be seen again until World War II.

Early-modern warfare became the result of the economic system of the time—mercantilism. Mercantilism preached a positive trade balance which would be maintained through territorial expansion and government monopolies. Territorial expansion was achieved through colonization in other parts of the world and through war.

To be able to maintain a society more or less in a constant state of war, the state itself needed to be reformed. War during the early modern era differed from war during the Middle Ages in that it affected society as a whole on a larger scale.

Medieval warfare resembled armed gangs more than actual armies. The Battle of Hastings in 1066, which ushered in what is now called the Norman Conquest of England, is estimated to have involved no more than 17,000 men. This number includes all fighters on both sides of the battle.

During the early modern era, armies grew in size. The two armies that fought each other at the Battle of Lützen in 1632 involved more than 40,000 men, most of them infantry. Not only did this battle involve more than twice as many people as the Battle of Hastings; it was one of several battles of this size fought over a period of thirty years. The Battle of Hastings was a one-time event.

To sustain such a massive war effort, all society resources needed to be geared towards the military. And by resources I mean taxes, agricultural output, and manpower.

And by manpower I mean the infantry. Instead of having an army that consisted of men who all had a personal relationship to one another, the early modern army consisted of men who were conscripted without a personal connection to their commanding officer.

An example of how the early-modern infantry shaped society is Sweden during Charles XI (Swedish: Karl XI, r. 1660-1697). Charles XI created a system of infantry conscription (Indelningsverket) that remained in effect until 1901, permeating Swedish society on all levels. The purpose of Indelningsverket was for each village to provide the state with an infantry soldier, providing this man and his family with a tenant farm (soldattorp).

This solution is similar to how the tax-exempt nobility developed during the Middle Ages. But instead of a noble man providing his knightly services to a king, a farming village provides an infantry soldier to the state. Which leads us back to what I talked about at the beginning of this post—continuity and change.

To conclude, I would like to say the following.

History is a process where continuity and change work simultaneously. Yes, there are events that can be referred to as “historical,” when the development of society took a turn. However, an historical event is only historical when placed within its context. In other words, a specific moment when something changes can only be identified in relation to the over-arching process of which this event is a minor part.

If you’re curious about Myke Cole, check out his novels of military fantasy. I have read two of them so far and really enjoyed them. Also, even though I have dissected his tweet to a near-atomic level, I have the greatest respect for Cole and his work.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.





The Astonishing Authorship of Aphra Behn

On July 23, 2015, I posted the following on Book Riot.

The Astonishing Authorship of Aphra Behn

B2002.15Aphra Behn (1640–1689) is the first woman in the Western world known to have made her living as a writer. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf states that all women who earn their living writers owe a debt of gratitude to Aphra Behn.

If you would like to read the rest of the article, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Hwaet! The Thousand-Year History of the Audiobook

Arguably the most famous word in English literature, hwaet is the first word in the eight-century poem Beowulf. The actual meaning of the word is up for debate, but regardless of which side you choose, the word is some kind of exclamation to indicate the initiation of the telling of a story. Hwaet is there because Beowulf was meant to be heard.

In a recent psychological study, published in Frontiers of Psychology and discussed by Rachel Smalter Hall on Book Riot, it is stated that listening to literature is the least efficient way of learning, compared to reading silently to yourself or reading out loud. According to the authors of the study this would have consequences for people living in the twenty-first century now that technological advances have changed the way we consume literature, from reading silently to listening to audiobooks.

It would appear then, that the human mind is not wired to absorb information by way of listening. What the authors seem to have overlooked is the historical perspective of the audiobook. Throughout history, literature was meant to be heard, not read.

Why did people listen to literature, rather than read it themselves?
There are several answers to this question.

It was a matter of literacy.
A population where almost 100% of adults are literate is a late phenomenon in human history. For example, during the early Middle Ages, those who were literate were mainly men and women belonging to the Church or a monastic order. Priests, monks and nuns were more likely to be able to read and write than a king or a queen. Later on, literacy spread among the social classes with the expansion of education and increased social mobility. Still, most people could not read. And those who could read did not necessarily know how to write. And among those who could both read and write, as in the case of merchants, many knew only how to write numbers and not letters. Moreover, there was a difference between sexes—men were more likely to know how to read and write than women.

All Saints North Street fönster 3
An example of women who were literate. Margaret Blackburn reading from a prayer book (c. 1420). The Blackburns were a prominent merchant family in York.
Church of All Saints North Street,York, England.
Photo: EH Kern.

It was a matter of availability.
Not until the introduction of the printing press during the fifteenth century did books become available on a wider scale in Europe. Before the printing press, books were copied by hand on parchment. Those who copied books were mainly monks who spent much of their time creating beautifully crafted illuminated manuscripts.

Royal 10. E. IV, f. 3v K043854
Pages from the manuscript Royal 10E IV, France late 13th century.
Source: Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library.

It was a matter of cost.
Because books were written by hand and decorated to become like pieces of art, owning books was something mainly for those who had money to spend. This continued to be the case even after the breakthrough of printing in the seventeenth century.

Initial letter in Leviticus/ויקרא‎, Vayikra/Wayikra, France, 1277–1286.
Source: Additional 11639, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library.

Literature continued to be read out loud well into modern times. Charles Dickens gained popularity from publishing his stories as serials that people read out loud to each other since not everybody could afford to buy a copy themselves. Charles Darwin wanted his novels read out loud to him rather than reading them himself. As late as the 1920s, professional reciters went on tour, reading literary works to the public.

In her Book Riot article, Rachel Smalter Hall questions how the results of the study were measured. Supposedly, the participants listened to a text but were quizzed on it in writing. Hall points out that this method could result in a misrepresentation of what the participants have learned since different parts of the brain are involved when listening or reading.

Hall’s doubts regarding the results fall in line with medical and linguistic research on reading. Medical research has shown that reading is a cognitive skill that needs to be learned and practiced, similar to playing an instrument. Linguistic research has shown that when reading a complicated text silently, our mouths and tongues move as if we are reading out loud.

Listening to literature is not a phenomenon brought on by technological advances in the near-past but an activity that has engaged human beings through thousands of years. If humans are less likely to learn from listening than from reading, I’m surprised that we have made any progress.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Rachel Smalter Hall “Are Audiobooks Worse than Real Books? Let’s Ask Science”
Sousa et al (2013) “The Way We Encounter Reading Material Influences How Frequently We Mind Wander,” Frontiers of Psychology.
The Independent “Listen! Beowulf Opening Line Misinterpreted for Two Hundred Years”
Medievalists.net “The Status of hwaet in Old English”
Modern Psykologi “Vad var det jag sa? Martin Ingvar om den svenska skolkrisen”