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April 05, 2006

The trouble with histories of a single product: Gunpowder - Jack Kelly

Posted by Jeremy Black

Gunpowder: A History of the Explosive that Changed the World
by Jack Kelly
Pp. 270. Atlantic Books, 2004
Hardback, 14.99; Paperback, 8.99

Gunpowder is an accessible book that covers much despite its generous type and the small size of the pages. The book is in the school of Cod and other such works, using a single product to provide a rich narrative web. The major problem with this approach is that it can lead to an exaggeration of the importance of the particular subject in question. This is certainly true of Kelly's treatment of gunpowder. The emphasis on its impact is linked to a conventional account of European development in which cannon are seen as the cause of modernization, bringing down castle walls, favouring "strong centralized states", and helping build "the foundations of modern nations". Aside from exaggerating the role of cannon, the first workable internal combustion engines, this account would have benefited from a comparative context within which the question of why the same was not always true to the same extent with other gunpowder societies could be considered.

Furthermore, although gunpowder provided the basis for hand-held firearms, the technique of massed projectile weaponry was not new. In addition, for long, hand-held firearms were not self-evidently superior to longbows and crossbows. They were, variously, heavier, slower to fire, less accurate (and inconsistent in their inaccuracy) and less reliable. Aside from problems rooted in the mechanical properties of the weapons - the chemical nature of the gunpowder reaction, for example - the lacking of consistency in purity of the chemical reagents, was also an issue. On the battlefield, the relative immobility of cannon restricted their usefulness. New machines of war have often enjoyed an impact on the imagination greater than that on the battlefield, particularly if their use is accompanied by dramatic sounds and sights. This was true of the early use of firearms, as it was later to be of the tank.

Again, the role of gunpowder supplies was important in the War of American Independence, but the writing is overblown and unbalanced possibly reflecting Kelly's writings as a novelist:

Gunpowder had become the principal means of making war and the volatile fuel of social unrest only determination and a careful marshalling of available powder allowed the Americans to prevail.
In the case of the French Revolution, there is discussion of Lavoisier and of the digging up of barnyards in order to obtain saltpetre, but also extraneous material such as the details of how the Governor of the Bastille was killed, the passage concluding:
The show had begun.
More generally, an emphasis on technology can lead to an underplaying of the tactical and organisational factors crucial to its effective use. Furthermore, gunpowder weaponry can be seen as an agent, not a cause, of changes in warfare. Kelly is clearly an effective writer of popular history, his account is interesting, his range is impressive, and most of his details are accurate; but the willingness to contest an interpretation and to invite debate strengthens a book.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of Rethinking Military History (Routledge, 2004), Introduction to Global Military History (Routledge, 2005), and The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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