The evidence doesn’t back up the Military Revolution thesis: Jeremy Black (2011)

Museums have a relationship to history, a relationship that’s been explored in some depth.

In Theorizing Museums (1996), there’s a reference to Timothy Mitchell’s observation that in nineteenth-century Europe, the museum exhibit was constructed as a simulation of external reality, with a clear sense of separation between the reality and the representation. A European museum-goer viewing the exhibit would be involved in the imposition of a pattern, a way of naming and defining, which was characteristic of European colonialism. Mitchell demonstrates this with museum representations based upon the nineteenth-century colonization of Egypt.

Reading about military affairs is similar to the experience of museum-goers consuming culture. The person reading the text is involved along with the author of the text in the imposition of a pattern, a way of naming and defining.

In his discussion of the value and limitations of the Military Revolution thesis, Jeremy Black (2011) focuses upon the imposition of patterns with regard to warfare.

The author insists that military history need not be Eurocentric: Among drawbacks to the Military Revolution thesis is that it has focused on Western Europe while ignoring Eastern Europe and other parts of the world, and has focused on a particular technological development, namely “the general availability on a large scale of gunpower weaponry” during the early modern period generally understood as 1450-1790.

Black asserts, as well, that the fighting charateristics of individuals arms, such as muskets, pike, cavalry, and cannon, have operated very differently depending on circumstances.

Black champions precision in language usage

The case for the Military Revolution thesis in the early modern period “remains not proven at best and dubious at worst,” according to Black, who suggests that the concept has become widely used in part becaues of its ambiguity, being employable with a variety of meanings with regard to definitions, causes, and consequences of organized violence.

Black notes that references to military and political progress are of limited utility unless language is used with precision: The concepts of military ‘progress,’ and political ‘progress,’ require precise definitions. The point is significant because assumptions about political ‘progress’ tend to figure predominantly in definition and discussion of military developments.

In grammatical terms, notes Black, Military Revolution signifies a revolution that is military in kind, whereas the term has been used to denote a revolution concerning the military with the revolution understood as concerning core aspects of war making. Thus ‘revolution in the conduct of war’ might describe the standard thesis.

Frontier warfare

With regard to frontier warfare, Black refers to the role of Native assistance in ensuring the success of frontier warfare in North America, noting that the same applied to Portuguese warfare in Angola. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the same is true of Crusader warfare in the Baltic states in the early thirteenth century.

With regard to the role of the frontier in the history of warfare, Black turns his attention to Chinese warfare as a significant component of global military history. He remarks, with regard to discussions of ‘progress,’ both military and political, that in the case of China, “progress is a problematic concept.”

There were, he remarks, no clear-cut sides in seventheenth-century China, a situation akin to the role of ‘barbarians’ in the defeat of imperial Rome and in fighting in the fourth and fifth centuries. The Manchu conquest of China “involved redefinitions of cultural loyalty in which distinctions between Chinese and ‘barbarian’ become less apparent and distinctions less rigid.”

Black adds that the lasting success of the Manchu state could be explained to a large degree “by its syncretic character (drawing upon and adapting to different traditions).”

Cultural dimensions of conflict

Black asserts that evidence does not back up the Military Revolution thesis. Nonetheless, the thesis and debate related to it has helped in research and discussion of the period. Now is the time, he says, “alongside additional valuable work based on this approach, to advance new concepts.”

In particular, he calls for a focus on the cultural — rather than solely on the technological — dimensions of military service, organization, and conflict.


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