Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dreaming of Cavalry, II: Riding the Land

So this is about the question, raised elsewhere, about whether the cavalry are a useful weapon of war or the  lifestyle of the landed elite. The answer, as it always turns out to be, is "Both!" Which you may have heard framed in terms of the aristocracy treating war like a fox hunt. Which it did.

And now I'm going to try to rehabilitate that way of thinking, and also let another corner of the profession (and the Eurasian continent) be heard from, in my own feeble way.

First, though, an apology. Sometimes I really envy my colleagues who have built up awesome databases of notes and references. Then I remind myself about all the effort that they sank into climbing the learning curve of dead software. Then I go back to envying them when I realise that I've failed to source some key anecdote. Such a time is this.

The point here is that I'm pretty sure that the following anecdote comes from Joanna Waley-Cohen, highlighting material to be published in The Sextants of Beijing. I don't know, because I didn't note the work I encountered it in, and Sextants is understandably on permanent one hour loan from the course reserve at the University of British Columbia library. (Though this might be an argument for buying a copy.) This is my excuse for flying free.

The anecdote goes like this: one day, the Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722) went out on a ride with his squabbling advisors. The emperor was known for riding his advisors hard during frequent inspection trips, although I do not find this criticism in the Wikipedia article, so take it for what it is worth. In this case, though, he had larger problems. The dynamics of court relations often pitted the proponents of various wisdom-teachings against each other. (Cf. Rites Controversy.) The Kangxi Emperor, who had a country to rule, was prone to getting impatient with this crap. So, as I say, he went for a ride with advisors, probably including a member of the Jesuit Mission to the Qing court.

They reached an open field on the outskirts of Beijing, where the Kangxi Emperor posed a series of questions to his advisors. This is where memory fails  me, because I don't remember how Professor Waley-Cohen formulated them, if, indeed, it was she. That being said, maybe my version clarifies my point better. Anyway, the fundamental question: how much rent could this field yield under the benevolent rule of the emperor?

The classic way in which the story would then be related would have the Emperor going around his circle. What does Confucius say about this? Buddhism? Taoism? What of the Jesuits? Here, however, the emperor did not pose his questions. Rather, he pulled out the astronomical sextant that symbolised the Jesuit learning. However, instead of training it on the stars, the Emperor rode around the field, taking sitings on various landmarks. He measured the area of the field, its distance from the city gate, its elevation with respect to the nearby river, and the height of the hill between it and the river. From these, the Emperor was able to calculate whether the land could be irrigated, and what its yield might be under various arable crops.

So there's my obsession with hydraulic control creeping into my version of the anecdote. It goes with older obsessions: about China's relationship with science; about the Jesuits' relation with science; about the Jesuits'  relationship with Eastern religion; about the Jesuits' relationship with Christianity. Or we could go another direction and highlight the way that this episode reinterprets the classic notion that astronomy belongs in the quadrivium because of that whole "great chain of being" thing where "as above, so below."* In the Emperor Kangxi's example, studying astronomy doesn't make you a better landlord because it elevates your mind with the contemplation of the higher things. It's because once you've learned astronomical technique, you can guess the rent of the land you're riding across by taking sightings on landmarks and doing approximate trigonometry in your head. Which is something, I think, that anyone who agree with the whole "great chain of being" model of the universe would take as self-evident, but which kinda makes my head explode.

But here, according to a smart person is where we should really go.

The actual question ought to be "What's this 'China' you're talking about?" Avoiding that fascinating but off-topic question, I will come back to the the picture, and a very small portion of Crossley's supporting argument.

It's Giuseppe Castiglione's Qianlong Reviewing The Troops. The Qianlong Emperor was the Kangxi's grandson, and Father Castiglione was a member of the Jesuit Mission at the Qing court. With that, the context and intention of the canvas falls into place, although if by chance you haven't seen it, I refer you to Titian's Charles V at the Muhlberg, here.

There are lots of interesting similarities and differences in these two takes on a mounted man as iconic emblem of rulership in the Western tradition of the painting as an eye of the lens. I'll confine myself (having already narrowed Crossley's sweeping thesis to a minor point) to a minor element of the composition: the choice of weapon: bow and arrow versus lance. Again, the (Holy) lance pretty much explains itself. So, on to the bow and arrows: Why does the Kangxi's grandson, wishing to express rulership in the realm of ideas**  in the idiom associated with the Jesuit learning,** do so with a bow and arrow? Because they're a classic inner Eurasian expression of rulership. The arrows sweep the scene, signifying the rider/ruler as hunter, possessor of the land, the agency that shoots volition.

Gaze, venery and control; geeze, I'm talking like some Nineties feminist thinker. (That being said, I maintain my right to an uncomplicated masculinity with that old chestnut about the ambiguity of the hunter/hunted roles.) The anecdote turns out to be about surveillance, real estate, hunting and seeing. Now I shall return to the  Abendland home of the Jesuit wu jen and see where these themes take me.

("Spear and magic helmet?" For the second time today, I ask, "srsly?" And not just because it reminds me of a girl and a vanilla latte.)

So here's the blurb for Richard Blome's The Gentleman's Recreation (1689):

The gentleman's recreation

in two parts : the first being an encyclopedy of the arts and sciences ... the second part treats of horsmanship, hawking, hunting, fowling, fishing, and agriculture : with a short treatise of cock-fighting ... : all which are collected from the most authentick authors, and the many gross errors therein corrected, with great enlargements ... : and for the better explanation thereof, great variety of useful sculptures, as nets, traps, engines, &c. are added for the taking of beasts, fowl and fish : not hitherto published by any : the whole illustrated with about an hundred ornamental and useful sculptures engraven in copper, relating to the several subjects

Blome is a book that I spam about the Internet a great deal, precisely because of his format. What, exactly, is the conceptual unity between the two volumes? How can a general cyclopedia of the arts and sciences lead to something as specific as an extended discussion of horse care and field sports, plus a Popular Mechanics' eye-view of hunting gadgets at the end? It sounds like a mess, linked by nothing more than a vague flail at a theme, "these are two things that gentlemen like." Or, more accurately, here is one thing that gentlemen like, and another thing that they should like if they were more interested in improving themselves and less interested in chasing foxes. Right?

Wrong. Unfortunately, Blome is only available through Early English Texts Online, and the skies would fall and the Heavens darken if that curated digital garden were ever opened to the hoi polloi. So you may be expecting a semi-random stream-of-conscious jog such as Howlett, here, opening with a discussion of the different kinds of deer and arriving by p. 42 at a primer of infantry tactics on its way to music followed by fowling. It's not. It's a classic attempt to move on from the global to the specific, such as these endless examples that I string out here,  here or even here and here. My point being that it is more common than not to start by framing the problem with the appropriate kind of general knowledge before moving on to the specifics, that manyof these authors invoked or at least pointed to "science" as a means of gaining fuller understanding of the joys of hunting, fishing and gardening, and that my search techniques have yet to turn up an equivalent to Blome. Drat!

So why do I think that Blome's approach is important? Because his "cyclopedia" starts out with the big sciences, including astronomy. This is the same trick as the Kangxi Emperor, with much the same import. You can learn a great deal about a piece of terrain using "astronomical" techniques of survey. The thing is that Blome than moves on to hunting. Which is when you --ride across the terrain. As I've framed the imperial anecdote, the point of doing all these observations on the landscape of the kind that you learn to do with the planets is so that you can learn about the economic value of this particular landscape.

Now put yourself in the place of a young country gentleman tally-hoing across a field in pursuit of a fox. Do you want to know what rent this particular field or copse or meadow brings in? Of course you do! You're a real estate speculator. That is as close to the definition of "gentleman" as you're going to get from any utilitarian economic analysis of what a "country gentleman" is. Hunting is fun, sure. But it is also an opportunity to see the country and take cognisance of investment opportunities.

Now put yourself in the place of this same gentleman, only one who has gone to war, as Howlett's stream of consciousness correctly assumes that you will end up doing. You're riding across the countryside, now in pursuit of enemies rather than the inedible. Do you want to know what rent this particular field or copse or meadow brings in? Actually, you do. The rent is a reasonable proxy for the amount of forage that the field will bring in, and knowing about forage is the basics of logistics in early modern war, and we all know who studies military logistics....

I'm on record as seeing cavalry as vital because it takes on the reconnaissance and screening missions. What I want to make clear is just how much of these roles flow from the cavalry simply in terms of riding the land. It's not just being there and seeing. It is the cultural and epistemic basis upon which what is seen is made legible, economically, militarily, and to the state. The equestrian class used to be trained to ride, see, and shoot. To turn the view of the hunter into useful information. (I shall also talk about Washington-the-surveyor eventually.) That's important. Very important, it seems to  me.

What I've so far kind of dropped is the instrument-assisted aspect of this. I've left it mysterious as to how I intend to get to the standard British fieldpieces of WWI, Jutland, and Fourier optics. That's because blog postings ought only be so long. (Yes, I do, in fact, know that.) It's also because I have to retrace the steps of some research again, and if I can't find the paper/site I want to reference next week, boy, will there be egg on my face!

*Here's the Google Books version of the most-gestured-at book in intellectual history. Click on it for the cover, at least. Or maybe I'm being mean, but what I remember about Lovejoy's (srsly) Great Chain of Being is being told by Stephen Straker that I should "probably" read it one day. And that so should he.

**Crossley 234-8, 243-4, 275.

**I couldn't find a self-explanatory link, although the one pointed to here is interesting. So I'll amplify. The Kangxi Emperor's main military challenger in Inner Eurasia was the Dzungar leader, Galdan Khan. The crucial military confrontation between the two was the Battle of Jao Modo, where Jesuit-cast artillery played an important role. some books in which to follow up are this and this.


  1. Try this one more time. Chapter 14, Machiavelli, 'The Prince'.

  2. Chapter 17 in Rufus Goodwin's translation, it turns out. And you're right, very apropos. I hope I added some depth of perspective to the old cliche, though.

    Get it? "Depth of perception." I slay me.