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  • A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder *
  • Alex Roland (bio)
A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder. By J. R. Partington. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp. xxxiv+381; figures, notes/references, index. $19.95.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616) suffered three gunshot wounds at the battle of Lepanto (1571), one of which permanently maimed his left hand. When he wrote his masterpiece some thirty years later, he spoke through Don Quixote his own judgment on gunpowder: “Blessed be those happy ages that were strangers to the dreadful fury of these devilish instruments of artillery, whose inventor I am satisfied is now in hell, receiving the reward of his cursed invention.”

Cervantes would have been appalled to witness the historiographic spectacle of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when scholars competed with one another to establish their country’s priority in the invention of gunpowder. Seeming to believe that great honor attached to the individual and the nation that visited this technology upon the world, these scholars selectively misread the historical record to suit their purposes.

Partly to correct their distortions, the distinguished British chemist J. R. Partington (1886–1965) undertook to study the origins of gunpowder. Pursuing his topic with scrupulous respect for the evidence, Partington demolished the chauvinistic claims for priority in the invention of gunpowder without establishing clearly where the credit—or the blame—really resides. He demonstrated instead that the origins of this technology are irretrievably lost in the mists of history, intertwined with the development of other incendiary technologies.

His title stresses the relationship with the larger topic of incendiaries. Gunpowder is not so much an explosive as a chemical mixture that burns with such rapidity as to build up explosive pressures in confined spaces such as gun barrels. Greek fire was another such incendiary device bent to military purposes. First appearing in the historical record during the Muslim siege of Constantinople in 678, Greek fire quickly established a reputation that distinguished it from the flammable compositions that had been known in warfare as far back as biblical times. As used by the Byzantines, Greek fire could be shot in a flaming stream, like modern napalm, and it continued to burn when immersed in water. Both features made it particularly terrifying and effective as a naval weapon. The secret of its preparation disappeared before the Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204.

Partington’s classic study reappears in this welcome reprint edition enhanced by an informed and useful introduction by Bert Hall. Hall’s appreciation of Partington’s work explains why we are in his debt and what we should beware of when consulting him. Among Partington’s strengths were a penchant for rigorous, impartial research, largely in primary sources. [End Page 131] Partington wrote this study while working on a still larger project, a four-volume history of chemistry that remained unfinished at his death. He was therefore well versed in the literature and conversant with the broader topic in which he chose to frame this study.

Partington’s style of history was not analytic or interpretive by today’s standards. It was great-man history that traced the evolution of ideas through a succession of written texts. Partington read his texts critically and insightfully, but his organizational scheme was chronological and geographical. He basically reported everything he found in time and place. The treatment allowed him to debunk many historical myths without substituting his own interpretation. The result is something of a source book, a thorough yet antiquarian inventory.

Professor Hall warns, however, that even for this limited purpose Partington must be taken with a grain of saltpeter. On Greek fire, Partington argued the now discredited positions that the weapon was based on distilled natural petroleum and that it probably did not contain saltpeter. He was uncharacteristically credulous in his reading of Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus, two medieval authors often supposed to have understood gunpowder. He ascribes to a late-thirteenth-century Syrian author a method for producing potassium saltpeter, but the evidence is inconclusive. Though Partington cites sources in Greek, Latin, German, French, and Italian, he had neither Arabic nor Chinese, two languages critical to the topic he...