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In print and on this blog I have written a lot about how I think the basic debate in the study of Greek warfare from 1989 to 2013 was about whether we should read Greek writers as giving faithful glimpses at a timeless unchanging practice of warfare, or as class and civic partisans whose stories about the good old days were just as wishful as the ones we hear today. People who like to talk about abstract ideas often link the second approach to words like deconstruction and postmodernism and names like Eric Hobsbawm and Jill Lepore. But they were not the only thoughtful people to realize this, and in October I found some similar thinking in an unexpected place.

Back in 1924, Sir Charles Oman revised his history of warfare in Middle Ages after being introduced to the works of Hans Delbrück. Have a look at his new account of the battle on the Marchfeld between Austro-Hungarian and Bohemian forces in 1278, in one of the chapters which he says he specially reworked in response to the German historian.

In endeavouring to ascertain the array of the Imperial army, we are confronted by even greater difficulties, mainly owing to the fact that the majority of the German chroniclers entirely, or almost entirely, ignore the part taken in the battle by the Hungarians, who must have constituted at least three fourths of the combined army. It is only fair to say that the one contemporary Magyar annalist who has described the battle, Simon Keza, is equally unjust to the Germans, whom he describes as merely looking on while the Hungarians did all the fighting. The combined army is described as drawn up in three or sometimes four divisions; but, on closer investigation of the sources, we find that some of the chroniclers who speak of only three corps are describing the Germans alone, and leaving the Magyars quite out of sight.

Sir Charles Oman, A History of The Art of War in the Middle Ages, revised edition (1924, reprinted Greenhill Books 1998) vol. 1 pp. 520-521 (on BookFinder)

Sir Charles Oman was an antiquarian and a teller of tales in the British tradition not a scientific historian in the German tradition, so he did not follow these ideas to their logical conclusion and rethink his trust that if a medieval chronicle just mentions the nobles and horsemen during a battle that must mean that the foot-soldiers did not do anything worth mentioning. He focused on common sense and telling a good story not on what we can and cannot know and how to use sources (and his books are really really good at telling a story, they keep you reading). But I think that this shows that the ideas which won in the last generation of debates about early Greek warfare were ideas which many thoughtful historians willing to challenge received wisdom could come up with.

These ideas about how to read sources won because they could answer more and harder questions than alternative ideas, not because of intellectual fads. And that gives me hope that my broad, all-sources approaches will win some of the arguments that scholars since 2013 have been having.

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