Day By Day

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Revisiting and Revising Agincourt

In keeping with my theme, oft expressed, that the "lessons of history" are many, varied, contradictory, and in a constant state of revision rather than being a repository of authoritative wisdom, I note the following piece in today's New York Times:

Historians Reassess Battle of Agincourt

Agincourt’s status as perhaps the greatest victory against overwhelming odds in military history — and a keystone of the English self-image — has been called into doubt by a group of historians in Britain and France who have painstakingly combed an array of military and tax records from that time and now take a skeptical view of the figures handed down by medieval chroniclers.
Read it here.

The article notes that some military historians now argue that Henry V had more troops, and the French far fewer, than traditional accounts would credit, that these revised figures are strongly disputed, and that a composite biography of the British troops infers that they had long been a cohesive fighting unit [almost literally a "band of brothers"] that had a strong corporate identity.

Most importantly, the article also notes that even when the facts of the battle are not in dispute, they have been reinterpreted in the light of current concerns. Rather than placing it within the context of a century-long conflict between British and French royal lines, revisionists now see Agincourt as an episode in a long English intervention in an ongoing French Civil War in which the English, whatever their victories on the battlefield, lost the confidence and support of their French allies by failing to protect them. The outcome of the Hundred Years War, in their view, was simply the result of the English being unable to implement a successful counterinsurgency strategy. The analogy to ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is obvious.

And so it goes. New information, new ways of organizing information, new perspectives, and most of all new contemporary concerns shape, reshape, and constantly revise historical understanding and the "lessons" that can be drawn from it.