Thursday, December 10, 2015

Description of the World - Part 24

Garrett Mattingly, The Armada (You don’t understand an event until you’ve read at least a second account of it because until you have, you can’t begin to distinguish the interpretation from the thing interpreted. Following this advice can be a chore but reading this version of 1588 was not. Mattingly’s style is engaging and as a professional historian specializing in the period he obviously knows what he’s talking about. I was going to write that one thing I appreciated about his book was the way in which it related the quarrel of Philip and Elizabeth to what else was going on in Western Europe at the time, especially the French wars of religion. When I consulted the book to make sure that I spelled Coutras right, as in Battle of Coutras, the smashing and unexpected victory of the future Henry IV over the Catholic royalists in 1587, I ended up reading Mattingly’s spirited description of the battle. Stylistically it reminded me of Froissart—the battle itself was something like an all-French reprise of Agincourt: “The flower of the court had accompanied M De Joyeuse [the royalist commander] on his journey to Poitou. More than six-score lords and gentlemen served as troopers in his first rank, most them accompanied by their own armed servants. So the lances with which the duke had insisted they be armed were gay with pennons and bannerets and with knots of colored ribbon in honor of noble ladies, and there was a great display of armor, as much armor as anyone ever saw in combat any more, even to cuisses and gorgets and visored casques, and every conspicuous surface chased and inlaid with curious designs, so that d’Aubigne wrote afterwards that never was an army seen in France so bespangled and covered with gold leaf.”  It’s not much of a spoiler to add a second quote about the end of the battle “…the duke of Joyeuse was cut off by a clump of horsemen as he tried to escape. He flung down his sword and called out, ‘My ransom is a hundred thousand crowns.’ One of his captors put a bullet through his head.”

Christopher Duffy, Siege Warfare: the Fortress in the Early Modern World 1494-1660 (Covers everything from the advent of the Italian trace right up to the time of Vauban, the Frenchman whose name became synonymous with forts and sieges. The details of the elaborate works may only be of interest to buffs, but their enormous expense has a lot to do with the growth of nation states and the development of modern finance. I note parenthetically that of all the geniuses whose IQs were estimated by Francis Galton Hereditary Intelligence, Vauban came dead last.)

James F. Dunnigan, How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare (Since this book came out in 1982, its practical value is probably not much greater than Duffy’s book on Siege Warfare. Dunnigan used to design war games for an outfit called Avalon-Hill, but he also routinely consulted with the actual military. I used to enjoy simulation games myself, if only because of the maps involved; but I was lousy at playing them. I recall getting comprehensively thrashed by a Japanese-American mathematician my friends and I rather unkindly called Hiroshima Nagasaki because he was a conscientious objector whose walls were covered with blueprints for tanks and, unlike me, a master at war games. I played Rommel in the one game I ventured against him. HN played the allies. There was one moment in the encounter, where we both realized that if I threw double sixes, so much for the Suez canal. I didn’t.) 

George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Relations since 1776 (Herring uses various literary tags for his chapter headings. I think a reasonable epigraph for the entire book might be “O it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it as a giant,” both in view of the ways in which we have and the ways we haven’t used it as a giant. In the days when I published a little magazine called Indoor Ornithology, I was planning to use two maps side-by-side on the cover of an issue, a map depicting the gradual conquest of Italy by the Roman State and map of the American conquest of North America. That never happened due the illness that ended the magazine’s run, but the contrasting maps make a good compare/contrast exercise. People who demur at the idea that America is an imperial power generally do so by ignoring the imperialism of the young nation. It’s true that after the Spanish American War and our absorption of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, we lost our relish for overt colonization; but its cheating not to count what went before.)

T.J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC) (My impression is that there is no consensus on the early history of Rome. Since the Renaissance began to question Livy’s traditional narrative—a secular version of It Ain’t Necessarily So—but centuries of revisionism and archeology leave much unclear, at least to me, for example, whether Rome was ever under Etruscan control, whether the Kings were expelled or demoted to a harmless sacral function like the King Archon in Athens, and what was the nature and significance of the Gallic catastrophe of 390? I look forward to reading Mary Beard’s take. Meanwhile I guess I’ll continue to hum that old Roman spiritual Amazing Geese. At Pagan Christmas we sing it along with the Greek favorite Orestes Fideles.)
E.T. Jaynes, Probability Theory: The Logic of Science (i understand that this book, which was published posthumously, has a considerable underground following among scientists, statisticians, and logicians. I acquired it after running across rumors about it and made an attempt to read it, not the only time I ever slogged through a work that was obviously over my head. In probability as in quantum mechanics, the equations look much the same even if the interpretation put on them and the whole subject is radically different. In any case, the equations aren’t the problem, even for someone of my mediocre mathematical attainments. Still, you don’t have to be jockey, a trainer, or a horse to handicap a horse race, and you don’t have to be a professional statistician to recognize that we’re in the midst of an on-going controversy about how to draw inferences and even what a probability actually is. In that spirit, I tend towards the Bayesian persuasion as does Jaynes, though my I think I was more persuaded by Keynes’ book on the subject than by this one.)

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