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The If Only School of history

A commenter writes and I sub-edit to twist his meaning:

…history would have been rather different if the Black Prince had lived. Just as history would have been very different if Henry V had lived. History is decided by small events – individual choices (a choice is neither determined or chance – a choice is a choice, it cannot be reduced to something else) and luck (chance – such as getting ill, or dying in a shipwreck as Henry the First’s son Arthur did), not grand “historical forces”.

This brings up one of my bugbears, namely the If Only School of History. The If Only School states that “if only” event X had or hadn’t happened then disaster Y would have been avoided. For example:

  • if only the chauffeur had known the way, Franz Ferdinand would have survived and the First World War would not have happened;
  • if only the British hadn’t shot the rebels then the Irish wouldn’t have sympathised with them and Ireland would still be part of the UK;
  • if only Hitler had stayed a little longer then Elser’s bomb would have killed him and the Second World War would have ended much sooner;
  • if only the French hadn’t been so perfidious at Chesapeake Bay then America would still be British;
  • if only Harold hadn’t been in such a rush to get to Hastings then the Norman Conquest could have been prevented etc, etc.

Straight away there is an obvious problem with the If Only School. It assumes that if event X had not happened then things would have been better. It ignores the possibility that things might have been worse.

The truth is that you never know. You only get one history. You cannot know what would have happened had the world gone down another path. But I tend to assume that it would have been much the same. Why? Because there are millions of people in this world and they all have beliefs and something happening, or not happening, is unlikely to change those beliefs. Also, we have a certain level of technology. That too only changes slowly. When it does, of course, it has profound implications.

Of course, this is something of a numbers game. If there aren’t so many people about then the impact of one person’s decisions or one person’s luck can be much greater.

Getting back to my main point, take for instance, Sarajevo. Obviously, had the chauffeur taken a different turn that day the Archduke and his wife would probably have survived. But the great forces of history would still have been in play. Serbian nationalism would still have existed and posed an existential threat to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The German military would still have felt threatened by the build up of the Russian military. The German monarchy would still have been under threat from German republicanism.

Indeed, it may not have made any difference at all. The Austrians still had plenty to play with that day, assassination or not. The bomb throwing orchestrated – as it was – by Serbian intelligence still constituted an act of war and – as was subsequently shown – they needed little excuse to commence hostilities.

We can also take a look at similar situations down the years and see if different actions lead to significantly different results. Take, for instance, the ways in which monarchs have re-acted to the threat from republicanism:

  • Charles I was inflexible and there was a bloodbath
  • Louis XVI was very accommodating. And there was a bloodbath
  • Wilhelm II tried to focus his population’s attention on foreign adventures. And there was a bloodbath.
  • Nicholas II was inflexible. And there was a bloodbath.

And only one of them survived to not tell the tale. And he was lucky.

Did I say “lucky”? Am I admitting that luck plays a part? Not really. Actually, this example rather makes my point because Willhelm’s survival – lucky or otherwise – wasn’t of any great importance. For sure luck exists but it is more in the nature of waves on the sea rather than the great tides. The big changes may have happened in a different way at at different time but they would still have happened.

But there are other examples. Ask yourself why it was that all Medieval monarchs were such bastards? With one exception they were violent, dishonest, disloyal and untrustworthy. Indeed, the exception, Henry VI, rather proves the rule.

Yes, maybe, had Harold taken his time to assemble at Hastings he might have won the day but do we seriously believe that the invention of the stirrup or, if you prefer, the rise of mounted warfare, would not have had profound consequences for the structure of medieval society?

Of course accepting that we are subject to the great forces of history does leave us with the problem of where we as individuals come in? Why not sit back and relax as there is not much that any of us can do about it?

36 comments to The If Only School of history

  • Laird

    The idea of “alternate history” is popular in fiction, with time-travel stories being one species of it. Personally, I very much dislike alternate reality or time-travel stories (Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” being a notable exception), but the best ones end up coming to the conclusion that time is flexible but nonetheless immutable: despite the change of one factor the overall arc of history curves back to its original path and things continue much as they would have anyway. Such is your point about WW1: the time was ripe for a major conflict among the European powers and if not the assassination of Ferdinand then some other spark would have inevitably ignited it. Details may change but the grand sweep of history doesn’t.

    And since you’re raising “bugbears”, one of mine is the misuse of the phrase “proves the rule”. In that context “prove” means “test“, not “confirm”. It’s the same as in the phrase “proving ground”, an area where technology (cars, weapons, etc.) is tested. The existence of an exception does not confirm the “rule” being proffered; it calls it into question and forces you to re-examine whether the rule is actually a valid one. (It may be, but then you have to explain why the exception exists.)

    There. Got that off my chest. You’re welcome.

  • MadRocketSci

    I would have expected libertarians to be more appreciative of individual agency in history. Obviously at the extreme, without humans, there isn’t any human history, nor are there “vast historical forces”.

    One of the reasons why I am an engineer: Politics may be driven by people’s hindbrains and tribal allegiance, and what goes on today is so sphexically tiresomely similar to the monkey politics of bronze-age tyrannies or paleolithic tribes; but technology is an artifact. Every example of it was originally the deliberate creation of a few people who first understood what they were looking at, and what they could do with it. While there may be another inventor or scientist who would eventually come to the same realization, it is rare enough that individuals do matter a great deal.

    One example that comes to mind is Edward Teller realizing the importance of the western nations having the hydrogen bomb before the Soviets could develop the technology. Without his effort, in the face of the pacifist and somewhat socialist attitudes of the other scientists who had nuclear physics experience, the Soviets would have developed it first and life would not exist on the North American continent today.

    Even in some hypothetical ultra-high-population future where you have infinite grad students banging on infinite keyboards, and nothing can be said to be “original”, the learning (or rediscovery – that could still end up being faster!) of knowledge still expands your personal horizons and abilities, and your usefulness to your fellow man. If a company/a nation is looking for an expert on arcane topic X, knowing that it probably exists somewhere ‘out there’ is a lot different than knowing that they can dial up Bob the X-expert who can help them with urgent task Y, and that they can/cannot count on his cooperation.

    If there is any hope to escape some grim conservative vision of a “cycle of history” or “vast historical forces”, invention is it: Everything about our current era that doesn’t have to do with tribalism is unprecedented in human history.

  • What-if’s are a sensible part of historical enquiry; how can you tell whether actions were significant if you have no idea of any alternatives that would flow from their absence. Historical what-if essays can certainly be as silly as actual history – I’ve read some that seemed almost as silly as Marxist history (and some that were silly precisely because they were PC). They can also be done to excess; I forget which historian of Waterloo wrote that, after familiarising himself with the existing literature on it, he flinched when he encountered a sentence beginning ‘If’ or ‘Had’. But they have their place.

    Not losing control of sea access to Yorktown would still have left the British armies in North American in a difficult position with no obvious path to military or political victory. What-if’s ten or twenty years earlier would be more worth discussing. It is a proper task for a historian to distinguish the chance or decision that truly is an “if only” crux from events that, even if they’d gone the other way, would still have left the ultimate outcome quite likely.

    One point that the worse of the what-if’s I’ve read neglect is that you necessarily get less and less certain as you depart further from the known events; the first step in constructing an alternative timeline is pretty reliable but later ones have wider and wider error bars. A more serious error is neglecting how success instead of failure can itself prompt future failure as well as future success. If British policy had avoided asserting an unqualified taxing authority over the colonials, their future might have been more like Canada’s but the lesson that defeat gave to the UK would not have been learnt; people sometimes learn more from failure than from avoiding it.

    Why not sit back and relax as there is not much that any of us can do about it?

    Sitting back and relaxing can be boring – and risks being a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Burke remarked, “The only thing necessary for the victory of bad men is that good men do nothing.”

  • Duncan S

    Laird, thanks for posting the link to “All you zombies”. About 8 hours ago I was looking up the wikipedia entry for this story having last night watched “Predestination”, the movie based on the story.

  • Mr Ed

    Perhaps the oddest not so much ‘If only’ rather ‘But for’ incident I can think of is the Alejandrina Cox incident in mid-1973 in Chile, which led to Pinochet becoming Commander-in-Chief as his predecessor, who was a stalwart non-interventionist, the splendidly-named General Prats, lost his rag and opened fire on a housewife’s car after a road rage type incident, and quickly became a laughing-stock, contributing to his resignation.

    Had this incident not happened, and Prats remained, so might have Allende, and Chile would have had its own Ceausescu rather than the rather less effective East German-trained doctor in charge. Also, the UK would have had no help from Chile during the Falklands war (if it had happened, as the Argies were pecking at Chile in 1978), and what might have happened in the UK in the 1983 General Election?

  • Not losing control of sea access to Yorktown would still have left the British armies in North American in a difficult position with no obvious path to military or political victory

    Indeed, but not having their ability to be sea lifted out also would have meant it would have been extremely hard to inflict a strategic defeat on the British armies in North America (which is what Yorktown was), meaning the war would have gone on and on and on, as it would have probably been equally hard for the British to have inflicted a strategic defeat on the Americans. SO how would the war have ended? Hard to say, but most likely it would not have ended the way it did.

  • Stonyground

    The same ‘What if’ principle that applies to major world events seems to apply to the lives of individuals too. I’m sure that everyone reading this must be able to quote their own example of a small incident that changed the entire direction of their lives. In my case I changed my job and, as a result, came into contact with a guy who ran a karate club and persuaded me to take up the sport. There is no doubt that my life would have been entirely different, I met my wife through the connections that I made due to my involvement in martial arts.

  • I have seen more than two articles in generally credible news sources titled something like ‘The Most Important Figure Of The 20th Century You’ve Never Heard Of’ – and it’s Gavrilo Princip, the inference being no assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand = no WW1 = no WW1 then the Czar keeps his job and no WW2 = no WW2 then no Holocaust, no ME conflict. And no Bolshevik = no Cold War etc etc etc. I don’t claim to be a WW1 expert but I generally know the cascade effect of how it kicked off. And, generally, the major European powers in the early 20th century were squaring up for a huge fight. It’s absolutely preposterous to suggest that if the assassination of Franz Ferdinand didn’t happen, then nothing else could have set off that colossal powder keg. It’s a nonsense.

    There are moments in history when counterfactuals are genuinely intriguing because the road not taken could easily have been taken and it would have quite conceivably changed the course of history profoundly. Gavrilo Princip – nah, not so much.

  • terence patrick hewett

    I would have liked to have seen Julius Caesar up against William Duke of Normandy: I rather think Jules would have won.

  • Mr Ed

    Bear in mind, as the Sage of Kettering helpfully reminds the World, that the German declaration of war on France in 1914 was a pack of lies, so Princip or not, and he didn’t even murder a German royal, the bastards would have come up with another pretext, perhaps a few days or weeks later. And the German Ambassador to Russia handed over in error two different letters with different justifications for the declaration of war, so the whole casus belli thing was a farce.

  • “What If” history can be intriguing. I wrote a novel, Secret Murder, in which Leif Eiriksson’s colonization of North America had succeeded. It was set in Minnesota, because what’s Minnesota without Vikings?

    It’s a reasonable alternative history: there weren’t that many people involved, so with a little motivation (which I provided) it could have happened. Run it forward for a few hundred years, and what do you have?

    And (tiny stone that starts an avalanche) it was all because I was writing a mystery with a perfectly wonderful clue. Then some digging told me that particular clue was not available in Europe. So I picked the whole story up, and moved.

  • I would have liked to have seen Julius Caesar up against William Duke of Normandy: I rather think Jules would have won.

    My money would be on William the Bastard… the legions of the Jules’ era and the next century did far better against infantry armies than against heavy cavalry centric ones, and the Normans under William were a very good heavy cavalry army who charged at the gallop vs. an army with short swords and javelins but not much in the way of spears.

  • Eric

    James, I agree. The trigger for WW I was the Russian mobilization, and there are any number of things that might have happened to prompt the Tsar to take that step.

  • Eric

    My money would be on William the Bastard…

    You would think, barring huge disparities in numbers, 900 years of technical and tactical development would be telling.

    In any event, the Romans look more impressive than they actually were because the neighborhood wasn’t very tough. Whenever they came in contact with steppe horse archers they were hopelessly outmatched. I have to believe if people A are running from people B and conquer people C because they’re in the way, people B are probably much tougher than people C. By the associative property of military power 🙂

  • Whenever they came in contact with steppe horse archers they were hopelessly outmatched.

    Romans also had problems with Parthian and Sassinid cataphract cavalry. Norman cavalry was also quite well disciplined (compared to quite a lot of even heavier later mediaeval cavalry), as they were capable of tactical feints, etc.

  • Lee Moore

    I tend to the MadRocketSci view. It’s a bit odd for libertarians to be big on the progressive march of history cxxp.

    No doubt lots of “if onlys” are pretty silly, and the odds are that history would indeed have bumbled on much as it did. Or the alternative history proposed is rather unlikely*. But it’s hard to believe that what an individual does – particularly if he’s a general, or a political leader – is more or less irrelevant.

    Look at it from the other direction. We in our daily lives, and politicos making political decisions, and generals deciding this and that, tend to weigh different plans and consider the pros and cons. Perhaps the calculations are dodgy, but we have a go at them all the same. Are we all wasting our time ? Is history just gonna happen how it happens anyway ?

    * for example, from 2016 election night – “wouldn’t Trump have won more comfortably if he had toned down the batsh1t crazy stuff, stopped insulting people for no reason, and morphed into sane Trump ?” To which a pundit wittily replied – “No, that might have helped him against Clinton, but he’d have lost in the primary to batsh1t crazy Trump.”

  • bobby b

    Lee Moore
    November 12, 2017 at 1:08 am

    “ . . . wouldn’t Trump have won more comfortably if he had toned down the batsh1t crazy stuff, stopped insulting people for no reason, and morphed into sane Trump ?”

    Trump beat his opponents in the primary and then beat Hillary in the election BECAUSE he was batsh*t crazy, not in spite of it. If it had not been for his complete disregard for traditional concepts of proper behavior, we’d have President Clinton today. I cannot think of any Republican candidate who could have brought out the particular coalition of voters who pushed him over the top. I can think of saner candidates, and smarter candidates, and candidates who hewed to the conservative lines of thought as Trump never did, but I think Hillary would have beat them all.

    Trump, more than anyone else on the current stage, refutes the idea that the individual, or the individual action, pales before societal trends and movements.

  • Steve Turner

    I think you meant Henry the Seventh’s son Arthur (i.e. Henry the Eighth’s elder brother). Not Henry the First’s son who died. The latter had two who might have changed history; William who died young, and Henry Junior (the Young King) who died an adult.

  • Erik

    But there are other examples. Ask yourself why it was that all Medieval monarchs were such bastards? With one exception they were violent, dishonest, disloyal and untrustworthy. Indeed, the exception, Henry VI, rather proves the rule.

    Well-behaved monarchs don’t make history. Or more precisely, they make history with a regnal number and perhaps an ekename such as “the Quiet” or “the Fat”, and then the history book moves on to telling about the exciting bits. I’m not denying that the Medieval period was violent, but I think you’re still unfairly and selectively generalizing – when was America last at peace? Are the current breed of presidents and politicians anything but a byword for dishonesty themselves?

  • Paul Marks

    I do not know who wrote the comment – but they are right and you are wrong Patrick.

    Hegel and the later German Historical School (what we call the “Historicists”) were wrong – there is no “History” (just history) as a God, no inevitable consequence of the World Spirit marching in his Historical Stages in an inevitable sequence to an inevitable conclusion (whether the present with Hegel or the future with Karl Marx).

    If you not considering what the alternatives were (what a person should have done to get better results in a given situation) then you are not an historian – you are a chronicler, basically saying “and this happened, and then this happened, and this happened…..” not an historian, and that is not just military history – it is economic history (for example what policies should President Herbert Hoover have followed after the bust of 1929 to get better results?).

    “But that is hard – it is hard to work out what the results of different polices would have been, in peace or war”.

    Well no one said it was easy, yes it is hard – but if you want to be more than a chronicler (“and this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened…..”) that is what you do.

    The late R.G. Collingwood argued (for example in his autobiography) that either an historical figure “solved their problems” or one “could not understand what their plan was” – the trouble is that Collingwood was WRONG. It is perfectly possible to understand what someone’s plan was and for that plan to fail utterly. Whether it is the Battle of Trafalgar (the French Admiral) or a mistaken philosopher.

    The Oxford Realists (who Collingwood rebelled against – ending up a Fellow Traveller of the Marxists, although his brain disease may be involved in that) were correct – first one has the ordinary historical question “what did this person think?” then one has the philosophical question “and were they right?” If one just does the first question it is indeed a form of “history” – but it is the form of a chronicler, basically stamp collecting.

    To give a concrete example – one lays out what the plans of Herbert Hoover were (contra Collingwood Hoover failing to “solve his problems” does not prevent us knowing what his plans were) for example his pressure on employers to keep up real wages in the face of the bust of 1929.


    This policy was mistaken – because it depended on the false “demand fallacy” of economics that President Hoover believed in, President Hoover should have allowed real wage rates to fall to adjust to the post 1929 bust economy – thus the mass unemployment of the 1930s would have been avoided. There were have been a period of mass unemployment, but it would have been short as it had been after the bust of 1921 and every other bust in American history since the bust of 1819 – in each case Presidents had allowed real wages to fall to adjust to the bust, Herbert “The Forgotten Progressive” Hoover was the first President NOT to allow that happen.

    That is doing history (in this case economic history) rather than just been a chronicler.

    Although DO NOT GET ME WRONG there is value in being an honest chronicler.

    An honest chronicler will at least say “under Herbert Hoover the government put pressure on employers to keep up real wages, and the government also increased its spending (many of the schemes associated with Franklin Roosevelt were actually started by President Hoover – although with different names), and the government later massively increased tax rates both on imported goods and on the income of the rich”.

    Someone, such as Paul Krugman or Stiglitz who claims that Herbert Hoover and the American government followed free market polices in response to the crash of 1929 is neither an historian or a chronicler (or an economist either – for all their so called “Nobel Prizes”) the technical name for people like Krugman or Stiglitz is LIAR.


  • Paul Marks

    As for your specific example Patrick – you are PARTLY mistaken as a chronicler.

    Charles the First gave in to the pressure to call a Parliament – by being so flexible (not inflexible) he had conceded the key point, that only Parliament could impose new taxes (the very point that Bismark denied in 1861).

    Louis XVI made the same mistake – he called an Estates General. Hardly the act of absolutist monarch. As any absolutist would have told Charles or Louis – once you give your opponents legitimacy in this way (by calling a formal Assembly) you have put yourself in a very dangerous position. The first rule of absolutism is that you do NOT do this – that you quietly get rid of Parliaments or Estates General.

    As for Nicholas II – again a very weak man.

    He knew perfectly well that Russia was not ready for war in 1914 – yet he agreed (as a gesture) to a mobilisation of Russian forces in 1914 – thus giving the Germans the perfect excuse to Declare War (although the “two letters” show that the Germans would have Declared War even if Nicholas has reversed course and ordered a demobilisation).

    Why did Nicholas do that? He did that because the Minister of War and the Foreign Minister had a tantrum – literally, they shouted at him and behaved in an emotional manner.

    An inflexible man does not react to people shouting at him by changing his position and giving in to a policy he thinks is likely to lead to disaster.

    An inflexible man does not change his position (that is the “in” in the word “inflexible”).

    If Nicholas had reacted by saying to the two ministers “how dare you behave like this – I expect your letters of resignation right now” he would have been an “inflexible” man.

  • Paul Marks

    Of course Patrick could come back on the example and point out that the Germans would have found some other excuse to Declare War on Russia in 1914 even if there had never been a Russian mobilisation. After all the German Declaration of War of France was a pack of lies – so why not just make up a pack-of-lies about Russia in 1914 (“The German Empire is declaring war upon Russia due to your habit of abducting German babies and eating them in wild orgies” and……) so even if Nicholas had been an inflexible man it would not have made any difference…. If the Germans could say the French were bombing Bavaria (and so on) in 1914 – then they could make up that the Russians were abducting Germans and eating them (and use that as a reason for a Declaration of War) so nothing Nicholas could have done would make much difference.

    And, I admit (fully admit), that this would be a good counter argument for Patrick to use.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Being an engineer I am of course fascinated by the Polybolos, Ballistae and all the rest. But I believe that both Vespasian and Julius would have won the day through superior generalship.

  • Philip Scott Thomas


    You might want to have a look at what the estimable Michael Quinion has to say about the phrase ‘the exception that proves the rule‘. It may relieve you of some of the bugbearishness. 🙂

  • One of my favorite stories is the one that claims that in 1921 a Vienna newspaper ran a contest to find what was the most shocking headline they could possibly run.

    The winner was “Archduke still alive – World War fought by mistake.”

  • Laird

    Phillip, that’s an interesting article, but it doesn’t refute my point (in fact, it agrees with my definition of “prove”), and in any event that is not how the phrase is intended by most people (this instance included). Indeed, such examples as “No parking on Sunday” implying that parking is permitted on all other days is entirely consistent with my comment: it provides a specific exception which leaves the general rule intact. Quinion’s definition permits an inference of generality in appropriate cases, but most people use that phrase in quite the opposite way. My bugbear remains.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Adding to Laird’s point: “Proof” as in, “I always proof the yeast before I use it to make bread.” Yes, this uses “proof” as a verb, but the concept and meaning are the same.

    Another: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” I suppose most of us automatically register this as meaning “the eating proves the pudding is good,” but that “assumes a fact not in evidence,” as we laymen say. The natural reading would be that the test of the pudding is how it tastes going down, given that “prove” or “proof” can take the meaning test (possibly along with a slightly different meaning).

    However, what is a mathematical proof if not a testing to show the validity of a mathematical conclusion?

  • Julie near Chicago

    So, Ellen, is your novel available for the proving, er, reading? It sounds quite interesting.

  • mickc

    But surely some form of Thatcherism would have happened even without Thatcher? The tide was flowing that way. Happily Thatcher was there to ignite it….but the charge was already present. It may not have been as fortunately explosive without her…but it would certainly have burned quite brightly….

  • Snorri Godhi

    Normally, i am averse to compromise, but in this case i think it safe to say that the truth is somewhere in between: accidents can have a huge influence on history in the short term, but in the long term, there are greater historical forces at play. WW1 is a good example for this general principle (and credit to Taylor for the related black humor).

    I should perhaps be more specific as to what i mean by “historical forces”. Jared Diamond gave a few examples of such forces in Guns, Germs and Steel*. Technological progress is another such irresistible force.

    Yet another historical force is the growth of the State, and that brings me to a favorite historical example: the French Revolution. Like it or not, l’Ancien Régime was doomed because the French State had grown too intrusive, as Tocqueville observed in his book on the subject. An early death for Rousseau or Robespierre would have not changed the course of history in the long term.

    * I believe that i have already described Diamond’s book on Samizdata as a mixture of genius and idiocy; and refreshingly PC-free once you get past the 1st chapter.

  • Julie near Chicago
    November 12, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    So, Ellen, is your novel available for the proving, er, reading? It sounds quite interesting.

    Quite available. It’s on Amazon — Secret Murder by Ellen Kuhfeld. There’s a collection of short stories, Minnesota Vice by Ellen and Mary Kuhfeld. Both available as e-book or paperback. You might also (if a medievalist) check out The Chronicles of Deer Abbey by Margaret of Shaftesbury (Mary Kuhfeld under another pen name). You can dig them all up by going to Amazon, selecting “Books” and searching for “Monica Ferris Presents”.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Great! I’ll just run on over there. Thanks, Ellen.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    Paul, I read a book once which claimed that some future trends were knowable. For instance, looking back into history, the author thought that Medicine was one area of an economy which had expanded in the past, and would expand in the future also, no matter how much people tried to stop it. I think the book was called ‘Wealth and Poverty’, but I forget the author’s name.

  • Laird

    Nicholas, the book is by George Gilder, but I don’t remember that particular point. It’s been a long time since I read it, though.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    Laird, he wrote more than one book, and it could well be in one of the others. But the name, George Gilder, does ring a distant bell.

  • Rich Rostrom

    History is a mixture of Grand Forces and critical events, many of the latter driven by individuals, some of whom are Great.

    There are historical events clearly traceable to a Great Man. The Mongol conquests, for instance: Temujin personally created the Mongol military system, which then rampaged from the South China Sea to the Danube.

    Other events are are traceable to lesser personalities. European history in particular has been kicked around by accidents of monarchical inheritance. For instance, in 1450-1520 there were several interdynastic marriages among the Christian kingdoms of Iberia, all but one of which failed because of accidents to one of the spouses. One such marriage would have united Castile with Portugal instead of Aragon, at a time when Portugal’s expeditions to Africa and the Indies were proving very lucrative. Had Castile been a partner in that, there would have been no interest in Columbus’s blue-sky alternative.

    Other historical events or trends have no obvious single progenitor or cause. The east-to-west settlement of North America by Europeans seems overdetermined. The balance of resources practically dictated the outcome of the American Civil War. No one man or incident caused Japan to degenerate into militarist insanity in the 1930s.

    The success of Christianity in converting first the Roman Empire, and then the whole of northern and eastern Europe wasn’t an accident. Something drove that process, which lasted a thousand years. Likewise Buddhism’s success in such disparate societies as Japan, Mongolia, Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Viet Nam must reflect some underlying force.

    Sorting this out is the alternate-history game. And as noted, it’s very hard to generate a rigorous narrative after the initial events. And one big stumbling block is that AH has to be plausible and realistic, unlike reality.