Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tradition and Revisionism in Historical Hobbies and Professions

The 40th of Foot Light Company at Cliveden- Photo by Suzanne Shaw
History is always changing. In many ways, the past is a moving target- and historians always write with the lens of their own time. In the last fifty years, this has led to a pushback against so-called, "revisionist" historians. The general public often fears that historians try to, "change the past," in order to fit a modern political agenda. However, on the whole, this fear grows out of a misunderstanding of the job of the historian. The task of the historian is not the simple recitation of facts about history, but advancing our knowledge of the past. Thus, to call a historian a "revisionist" is not an insult, but a great compliment. If a historian has managed to revise how the general population looks at the past, they are fulfilling their purpose. However, that revisionism often meets with pushback, and many individuals resist thinking about the past in new ways. "Established wisdom," or "tradition," often views revisionist thinking with extreme skepticism. This occurs within the debates of historians at a professional level, but is also present in historical hobbies.

The picture above depicts the 40th regiment of Foot light company, a "progressive" reenacting unit depicting British soldiers in the American War of Independence. It is rather humorous to me that the term "progressives," used so pejoratively in historiographical debates, is used to describe a particular type of, "hardcore," or "serious" reenactor. The picture shows them doing controversial things in reenacting circles: giving fire while lying down, not arrayed in closed ranks, etc.  While many individuals have known that the British army did not fight in the way it was depicted so often in Hollywood films, this knowledge has become more widespread with the publication of Matthew H. Spring's book, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only. The guys in the 40th Regiment have obviously done their reading.

This text, in every sense of the word, is a work of revisionist history. Spring, "with the deftness and surety of a bayonet stroke," in the words of a particularly effusive reviewer, has killed the notion that the British army fought in rigid lines during the American Revolution. Despite this fact, few wargamers, reenactors, or historians have updated their information to reflect this incredible work of scholarship.

Part of this failure is ignorance- not everyone has read, or been convinced, by this book. However, part of this failure is "tradition," the sort of tradition which got the Catholic Church into trouble in the 1500s. Many reenactors, wargamers and historians have simply not updated their way of thinking about the British army because they been thinking the same way for 30 years. This sort of behavior reflects a lack of respect for history, and in my opinion, is inexcusable. A third part of this failure to update comes from lack of finances- not everyone can afford to make the changes required when new research is done on uniforms in reenacting, or purchase a new rulebook in wargaming. However, those who cannot afford change, but are aware of new ideas, are in a much better position to serve history well.

To return to the beginning- ideas about the past are constantly changing. Dr. Christopher Duffy rewrote his groundbreaking work on the Prussian army in the 1990s, because new evidence had come to light, evidence which led him to different conclusions. That is one of the great things about history- it is in a constant state of motion, and it requires thorough, ongoing research and reading to have an adequate understanding of the past.

So- whether you are a reenactor or a wargamer, a historian or an undergraduate student, a "progressive" or a "mainstreamer": my admonition is the same. I echo Augustine in saying: take up and read.

And in the interest of helping you with that goal, I am going to list the books which have been most instructive for me in becoming a journeyman student of Kabinettskriege era warfare.

Military Experience in the Age of Reason by Christopher Duffy

Redcoats by Richard Holmes

With Zeal and With Bayonets Only by Matthew H. Spring

Russia's Military Way to the West by Christopher Duffy

The Battle that Shook Europe by Peter Englund

A Revolutionary People at War by Charles Royster

Fire and Stone by Christopher Duffy

War under Heaven by Gregory Evans Dowd

The Capture of Louisbourg, 1758 by Hugh Boscawen

I highly recommend them to you.

Thanks for Reading!

Alex Burns


  1. I think I would echo many of your comments. My main area of interest lies in the early to mid 17th Century when I was brought up on stories of the invincibility of Gustavus Adolphus and the élan and impetuosity of Civil War Cavaliers. However, more detailed and recent analysis suggests that the Swedes prowess was somewhat short-loved due to the rigours of continuous warfare, while there was a lot more variation in the nature and make up of Civil War armies. Richard Brzezinski's TYW books for Osprey and Guthrie's Battles of the
    Thirty Years War, while not necessarily deeply academic books, do highlight how our understanding of the period has changed. And for the ECW, the Forlorn Hope rules give an admirable summary of the development of the armies over time drawing on the rather more serious work of a variety of "revisionist" historians who have added depth to our understanding. I guess the trick is to make sure there has been some sort of peer review of the history rather than simply taking it all as read.

    1. Martin- Thanks so much for your comment! I appreciate your insight into the 17th century, as my main focus is the 18th. Please stay in touch, and thanks for reading!

  2. Thank you for the booklist! I own a few already, but I'll track down the rest and read them.

    Best Regards,


    1. Thank you for the comment! Please feel free to let me know what you think after reading them.

      Best Regards,


  3. Thanks for the list. Looking down it I realise I have only read one of these, "Fire and Stone" by Mr Duffy. I have had a another, "Redcoats", on my to-read shelf since 2002 but not yet got around to it. A New Year soon - perhaps I'll make a resolution to read more.

    1. Good to hear from you Pierre! I've been following your own blog with great interest, as usual. Glad to know this post has generated some interest.