Thinking in old money…

I’m currently in the research phase of work toward my next novel, and therefore am ploughing through a number of histories about the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent Congress of Vienna.   A couple of which (no, I won’t name names) have turned out to be excruciatingly boring.

To put it mildly.

On the other hand, the tome under current consideration does have all sorts of information about the weather and the fall of shares in the Banque de France and things like that.  Things that provide a wealth of details which will inform the background and give an accuracy to the feel of the work.


However, one thing that drives me utterly bonkers is when a historian views the past entirely through the lens of 20/20 21st century hindsight and fails to ‘think in old money’.

By which I mean that he or she fails to understand life as it was lived in the past–how far their money went, what they ate, how they heated their houses and how dashed cold they would be, how much could one purchase for a shilling.  Or they fail to think through how a society functioned when all transportation was horse-drawn.

(Or in other words, every journey we would take by car had to be taken on foot or on horseback or by carriage…)

There’s the manure issue, for one thing.  It’s reckoned that in 1800, London housed at least 100,000 horses.  Now, I’ll be honest, I’m still trying to imagine what they did with all that horse manure.

Because that’s 12-16, er, drops per horse per day.  So that’s roughly 365,000,000 cubic metres of manure per year.  What did they do with it all?

In two years, the horses of London would have produced enough to cover the surface of France.  Think about it.

But back to the book I’m reading.

This one focuses on France in 1814 when the Allied troops–Russia, Austria, Prussia and Britain–invaded France, took Paris, and Napoleon was forced to abdicate.

Well, the author is fairly full of admiration for the way Napoleon dashed all over the place in spring 1814, first fighting the Prussians who were advancing from the east, then zipping off to fight the Austrians who were advancing from the south-east.  And whilst his was a pretty ragged army by that point, full of inexperienced soldiers, he pretty much won all the battles.  Or at least managed not to lose too badly.

But the author is convinced that Napoleon should have advanced on the Allies and pushed east because had he done so, he wouldn’t have lost Paris and he would have won the war against these alleged incompetent Allies.


But here’s the problem with that scenario.  Horses.

Because you see, that (besides an army of 550,000 men) is what he lost in his disastrous invasion of Russia.  Yes, that’s right, he lost 175,000 horses in Russia.

The men, he could replace, so to speak.

The horses, he couldn’t.  Particularly not the highly trained cavalry horses.

And it was this, more than anything, which determined the course of the final phase of the war, or what happened in 1813-14.

Napoleon couldn’t advance too far to the east because he didn’t have the horse-power:  He didn’t have the horses to pull all the heavy cannons.  He didn’t have the horses to pull the thousands of supply carts to feed the army.  He didn’t have the horses so his army could forage in the countryside–if they didn’t forage, the army didn’t eat.  He didn’t have the horses for cavalry.  (And if you don’t have cavalry, you don’t have scouts to ride out to see where the enemy is or survey the land, so you’re crippled by lack of information.)

And having lost the horse-rich territories of Germany, by 1814, Napoleon hadn’t the means to repair these losses.  Though with the Russian and Prussian armies marching through there, the horse-fairs of northwestern Germany were disrupted too.

By early 1814 Napoleon did decree that all the remaining private horses in France should be taken from the farms for the army and the land should henceforth be farmed manually, this hardly answered as it provided only 29,000 animals.

Plus, a farm horse may be able to pull a cart with little trouble, but it can hardly replace a cavalry mount.  It’s the wrong size for one thing.  Speedy it’s probably not.  It won’t have the stamina either.  And then there’s the battle training…

So there you have it.  All the speculation as to what Napoleon should have done or might have done in order to retain power is a total nonsense because he didn’t have the horses.

Whereas the Russians…the Russians had horses galore.  And it was the Russians who took Paris and it was the loss of Paris (Napoleon’s powerbase) that brought him to abdicate.

And that’s thinking in ‘old money’.


2 comments on “Thinking in old money…

  1. Sandie Zand says:

    Ha! Now I’m going to be not only wondering where the horse poo went but also wondering why nobody has solved the riddle to date.

    M… this is your Quest! You *must* find out where it went.

    (perhaps they carted it off to farms and suchlike??)

    I admire you historical researchers. I wouldn’t have the staying power… and/or I would become *seriously* distracted along the way and the original work would never get done.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      We were discussing whether they carted it off to farms…but wouldn’t Berkshire and Kent been awfully well fertilised within a short period of time?

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