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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

David R. Lawrence

The Complete Soldier. Military Books and Military Culture in Early Stuart England, 1603-1645

History of Warfare, 53. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009. 439 pp. $203.00. ISBN- 978-90-04-17079-7.

The roughly two hundred military treatises and military histories written in English during the early modern era have cast a hypnotic spell over several generations of historians rather out of proportion to their historical significance. One discovers to one’s peril that these fascinating, eccentric and occasionally enigmatic books have attracted a devoted following among both professional and amateur historians. At a recent military history conference the present reviewer unwisely disparaged this genre of literature, uncharitably suggesting that the study of military treatises was a lackadaisical alternative to rolling up one’s sleeves in a proper archive. Between sessions, a good friend who has worked on eighteenth-century treatises upbraided me for the public display of such bigotry. My lame excuse was that military treatises before the age of the scientific revolution and enlightenment are much less reliable than those works of a later age. However, historiography might be turning in favor of the early modern treatises. As a result of postmodernist challenges, historians have reconsidered discourse as historical evidence. One result has been the recognition of a “public sphere”, a collective historical consciousness that revolves around popular discourse. Even one suffering from a “manuscript fetish” would admit that research into the public sphere is certainly intriguing. David Lawrence, perhaps without fully realizing it, represents how that historiographical trend can inform the study of war and society. He selects the roughly ninety military books that he deems emblematic of early Stuart England, and poses two questions: First, what was the readership of these books? Second, what role did military literature play in the education (and public discourse) of soldiering men in the decades up to and including the Civil War?

To be fair, one cannot ask of historical sources questions that are inappropriate to that type of evidence. Archival historians might be forgiven for sniffing that published treatises distort the realities of warfare rather than illuminate what exactly happened, particularly in battles. Sixteenth and seventeenth century treatises do not reflect mirror images of combat, either in how it was sustained (logistics, tactical management) or waged (techniques such as how to stem a flight or repair weapons under fire). In short, treatises and histories reveal only a fragment of military history, and a flawed fragment at that. David Lawrence, however, seems to be asking the right questions of treatises, unlike many of his predecessors who wrote upon this subject. Times have changed and maybe it’s time to re-examine these dog-eared pamphlets and books. The internet and especially Early English Books Online has now placed printed primary sources in the hands of anyone interested in history. History-writing has become democratized to an extent, and anyone capable of rudimentary prose can review scholarly books on Amazon. In addition to being crucified in print by a sadistic colleague, now one can anticipate being skewered on the internet by a philistine. Recessionary economic trends are thinning the ranks of professional historians employed by institutions of higher learning (especially in the United Kingdom), especially those who teach national history and on pre-twentieth-century topics. Medieval and early modern specialists, with their archival skills and historiographical expertise, are going the way of the brontosaurus, and without the accompanying blazing glory of a plummeting asteroid.

On the positive side of the ledger, the heightened accessibility of both primary sources and monographs broadens the audience for the discipline of history. A contemporary “public sphere” (created by electronics rather than cheap print culture) has emerged. So it is worth asking, as postmodernists do, about the nature of discourse and historical realities. What David Lawrence does is examine the specifics of the relationship between military “literacy” and the burgeoning print culture of the early seventeenth century. Although he does not cite the late Jan Glete, he contributes to our understanding of early modern “competencies” (a pronounced theme in Glete’s later works). Competencies develop in bureaucracies but are not explicit in the archival records of institutions. Rather, competencies reflect consciousness, often a collective, didactic consciousness, very much what early modern military treatises attempted to achieve. In drawing a contrast with earlier military tradition, Lawrence writes: “In this new military environment, individual martial skills were still required, but they were not to take precedence over corporate skills now being stressed in military books and manuals.” (373) Some of these competencies were technical, indeed mathematical. Formations had to be formulated, trajectories calculated, and distances computed. It is commonplace to associate the Renaissance of geometry and the mathematical sciences with rise of the artilleryman. Those skills of calculation and gauging were “competencies”, and Lawrence accordingly devotes a chapter to siegecraft. Not content to survey the literature, he anchors the discourse of the authors in the realities and practices of their military career. In short, Lawrence strives to square the ideal with the real.

The competency best delineated by Lawrence is the management of infantry. The increase the number of foot soldiers (a component of the original Roberts “military revolution” theory from 1955 picked up and amplified by Geoffrey Parker in the 1970s and 80s)[ 1 ] coincided with the growing complexity of their armament, particularly in terms of gunlocks. Drill books and manuals were a means by which an English-reading culture developed that competency. The author also constructs a fine chapter on cavalry training, a field deserving of deeper scholarly research, not the least in regard to seeking to learn what continuities existed between equestrian medieval traditions and early modern practice. This book confirms for theory what Peter Edwards [ 2 ] has established for practice, namely that horsemanship and cavalry played a more ubiquitous and decisive role in the conduct of the British Civil Wars than has been recognized. Lawrence’s thoroughness on equine matters is apparent from the extensive subheadings under “cavalry” to be found in the index.

Finally, the book suggests (but only hints at) another aspect of the historiography of the public sphere, that of representation and visual signs. Wisely, Brill has incorporated many illustrations into the volume (a common practice in Brill’s “History of Warfare” series, making the high price tag palatable). Frontispieces, diagrams, and depictions of battle share a vernacular of symbols and signs even across languages and cultures. Lawrence is particularly adept at cross-cultural influences, and visuals (motifs, emblems, icons, logos, and so on) offer raw materials for connecting the English art of war with its continental counterparts. The engravings of Hogenberg, Merian, and others provide a rich art historical tradition to military historians. The methodologies of Peter Lake, Kevin Sharpe and others provide paradigms for students of the visual representation of war.[ 3 ] The treatises we are discussing are visually representational sources of history as well as amalgams of texts and narratives. David Lawrence’s tome, the best so far on those “damnable little books”, therefore suggests several wider avenues of study.


[1] See Michael Roberts, The Military Revolution, 1560–1660 (Belfast, 1956); Geoffrey Parker, "The "Military Revolution," 1560-1660 – a Myth?," Journal of Military History 48 (1976): 195-214; Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, 1500–1800: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West (1988; 2nd ed. 1996).

[2] Peter Edwards, Horse and Man in Early Modern England (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007). See a review here.

[3] See Peter Lake, “Rethinking the Public Sphere in Early Modern England,” Journal of British Studies 45.2 (2006): 270-292; Peter Lake, The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England (Manchester University Press, 2007); and Kevin Sharpe, “The Image of Virtue: the court and household of Charles I, 1625-1642,” in David Starkey, et. al. (eds.), The English Court: from the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War (Longman, 1987).

See also a recent blog post about this matter.


Mark Charles Fissel

The Augusta Arsenal, Augusta, GA <>

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