• Robison Wells

The Obviousness of Agincort

As mentioned, I make models. And while they have always typically been modern (mainly the two world wars) I recently got into making a diorama of the Battle of Agincort. I landed in this by accident, having bought a box of knights on a whim and then wondered what to do with them, but then got sucked into the history. That's something I love about this hobby: there are so many stories you get to recreate.

Let me tell you a little about the Battle of Agincort. It was toward the end of the Hundred Years War between France and England. Henry the Fifth was marching through France after a successful season of fighting, but was in bad shape and needed to return to England as soon as possible. His fighting force was down to around 6000 men, 5000 of whom were archers and 1000 infantry. The French, on the other hand, were just gathering their strength. They had 25,000 men, including 10,000 knights. England was heading for the coast to escape and France was trying to cut them off. And they finally came face to face at Agincort.

The French had chosen the battlefield, having corralled the English, so you would have thought they'd have picked a better spot that suited a cavalry attack on the flanks. Instead, they chose a narrow strip of land between two thick forests. This was probably due to the fact that they had overwhelming numbers and the English were already weary. The French got cocky.

So the English lined up: from forest to forest they put a long line of archers--and not just archers, but armed with famous English longbows, which were the considered the most cutting-edge technology of their time. Their bows were powerful enough to pierce armor and had the range to fire at the French long before the French could fire back. The English then put out sharpened wooden stakes in front of their lines to repel the French horses.

Well, wouldn't you know it, it rained. Heavily. The plowed fields were turned into thick mud. So, on St. Crispin's Day (October 25th) when the French began their attack, they charged sloppily and slowly through the mud. The English longbowman calmly fired volley after volley until the knights broke and fled. Then the French infantry came, and the same happened.

In the end, the French had lost 6000 men, many of whom were the nobility. As many as 2200 French were captured. The English? They lost 112 men.

So what won the battle that day? Was it the French cockiness? Was it the English longbow? Was it the luck of the mud? A good number of historians have made careers of arguing their specific theory of what happened and why. But will that lead us closer to the truth?

In his book "Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer," Duncan Watts says that "What appear to us to be causal explanations are in fact just stories—descriptions of what happened that tell us little, if anything, about the mechanisms at work."

Would it change your opinion if you knew that the English slaughtered thousands of captured prisoners during a lull in the battle and it terrified the remaining French? Would it change your opinion if you knew that historians can't agree on even where the battle took place let alone the number of real casualties (or the size of the armies at the beginning)? Would it change your opinion to know that the French were plagued by dysentery? Shakespeare, in the play Henry V, placed all of the win squarely on two things: the king's shoulders (his chivalric, noble behavior and inspiration) and on divine providence; referring to the rain, he wrote "Oh God, thy arm was here."

Watts continues: "Common sense is wonderful at making sense of the world, but not necessarily at understanding it."

Watts states that "when we challenge our assumptions about the world—-or even more important, when we realize we’re making an assumption that we didn’t even know we were making—-we may or may not change our views. But even if we don’t, the exercise of challenging them should at least force us to notice our own stubbornness, which in turn should give us pause. Something is wrong with the entire argument of 'obviousness'."

There's a lot in the world today that seems obvious. There are a lot of conflicts that appear to have obvious sources and obvious solutions. Let's challenge those assumptions and look a little deeper.

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