Again with the historiography

Beginning of the school year again – sigh. This semester I’m teaching more Western Civ and Tudor/Stuart England.

As I write papers, I often find myself wondering how much coverage should be dedicated to the historiography. As I’ve said before, I never really know what the vast unwashed masses of historians think about a particular subject – only what a much smaller subset of them have written. And there is always the disturbing possibility that unpublished historians might apply common sense to a topic, which could easily contradict the published literature. Scientists would argue that even negative results need to be published, though it doesn’t sound like they follow their own advice very often. Thus you often wonder whether you’re wasting your time arguing for something that is “obvious” to the silent majority. I haven’t yet figured out which is worse: that the effort of your labors is greeted with a rebuttal, or with a shrug?

This uncertainty is particularly true with topical questions. It’s easy, for example, to find accounts and explanations of various events, but it’s much harder to find more than a single “in-depth” (definitions vary) analysis of a particular thematic subject, say, the “laws” of Vauban-era siegecraft, or a longitudinal study of a subject (beyond a single war or reign), or most topics in EMEMH for that matter. What’s a scholar to do?

First, I think we need to be a bit more systematic with our historiography. Unfortunately, publishers (in theory at least) don’t really want us to do this. If the Internet is to be believed, some editors see historiographical discussion as a waste of ink; undoubtedly that would be the only thing stopping my future book on Marlburian battle from rocketing up the New York Times Bestsellers list. To seriously analyze a historiography would also require scanning it all in and OCRing it before analyzing the text. Some might construe this as violating copyright. But, as physicists like to joke, let’s start by assuming a spherical cow.

The most common practice seems to be for a historian to summarize the literature in some multiple of a paragraph or page – this has become a veritable ritual in any literature involving the Military Revolution, for example. Summarizing a historiography in your own prose is sometimes necessary, but it is the ultimate in the “Trust-me-I’m-an-expert” game that we academics play. I hate that game.

What else can we do? We could start by including specific quotes from other published historians. Admittedly this is often difficult because we’re a long-winded lot, and a narration of the disputations can get pretty boring: “X said A, Y said not-A, Z says B…”. Not ideal, but we could at least throw in a few key phrases from an author or two. It helps if the historian we’re quoting is actually making an argument, with a clearly-stated thesis.

Perhaps our beloved word cloud could give us a hand, or we could look at which words are highly associated with each other (collocation). Heck, make a collage of all the keywords used to describe a topic. Maybe we need to do some network analysis on citations, like they do in the social/natural sciences – citation analysis, bibliometrics and the like. There are even some software packages that apparently do that. Just do something a bit more systematic.

Another option is to explicitly discuss the rhetoric used by other historians – Keegan’s “rhetoric of battle history” (or my “rhetoric of siege history”), for example. Are there consistent terms used to describe/explain a subject? Are there specific examples/authors/sources that are constantly cited? Are there particular metaphors that historians use when explaining an event or phenomenon? For example, what does it suggest that traditional military historians compare early modern sieges so often to dances, theater, and chess? And do these descriptors and metaphors vary from author to author (or country to country), or change over time?

And then there’s the thorny question of when to stop collecting more historiography. Undoubtedly even the most minutely-focused monograph might pass judgment on all sorts of historical conventional wisdom. Ideally, we have all those secondary sources text-searchable, either in Google Books or in your own database. But I think it’s best to start with certain types of works, those that have the most impact. Thus, we should focus foremost on accessible works. So start by analyzing works that are still in print or have been reissued. Look at works written by prolific authors, e.g. I came to Vaubanian siege warfare via Christopher Duffy’s Russia’s Military Way to the West. (This applies to primary sources as well as secondary.) The most systematic method would be to scan a bunch of notes/bibliographies from other secondary sources and see which titles pop up over and over. (I’ll leave it to others to decide whether that’s a “transformative” use or not.)

We should also look for works that are dedicated to the topic, using the most common synonyms (“laws of war”) and important peoples’ names (Marlborough, Vauban…). And we really need to pay attention to titles that are just begging to be cited by everyone and their brother: The Art of Warfare in the Age of _____. Knowing where to look also matters on the micro level. If you want to know what an author thinks about sieges ‘in the abstract’ for example, look in the art of war sections dedicated to summarizing the subject. You might be surprised at how different their abstract view is from the picture that emerges from the details in their narrative, or from the data in their own appendices.

However we choose to address historiography, we need to give our readers a sense of how many authors we are discussing. Has one solitary historian discussed the topic (and if so, does it get cited a lot?), or is it a topic touched on by most works in the field? If more than a couple of authors are involved, it’s helpful to group them into various schools or positions.  And it wouldn’t hurt to explicitly relate the size of the historiography to its importance: lots of works on topic X presumably signal importance, but does a small number of publications on topic Y indicate the opposite? I’m not so sure. Especially when that topic is widely exclaimed to be of critical importance to the period.

Another possibility is to ‘just ask historians.’ This seems a good idea in theory, but I’m not sure how it would work in practice. Possibly someone will develop a survey to administer to fellow historians, as mentioned in an earlier post – perhaps the Society for Military History should look into sponsoring a survey or two? Though I wonder what we should conclude from the rarity of such polling; that the example mentioned in the earlier post was performed by economic historians is also noteworthy I think. Personally I’m a little daunted by the effort needed to craft a questionnaire, identify and contact the responders, follow up to get a good response rate, and analyze the results. Nevertheless, such a survey would probably be a good measure of ‘public opinion’ – might be interesting to start with the state of the Military Revolution debate. That being said, I’m not really sure how we would deal with the inevitable contradictions between public opinion and what the ‘experts’ have said. What other response is there but to berate the respondents for not keeping up with the literature? Nor does this really answer the question of whether your research should respond to what the experts in your field think, or to what most historians, immersed in their own subfields, think. An interesting possibility, but lots of questions to resolve as well.

Thoughts? Good models to follow?

Taking notes in Devonthink

Short post as I have several research projects that need to finish up before school starts in two weeks.

With help from some code on the DT forum (and my programming wife), I finally managed to come up with a smooth workflow for taking notes. I have literally 1000s of PDFs that I need to take notes on – a quote here, a paragraph there, my disapproval noted elsewhere. DT comes with an Annotation script that will create a new document (linked back to the original) that you can then take notes in. I don’t use it because (as far as I can tell) you can only have one Annotation document for each PDF. Since I am a member of the Cult of The One (Thought, One Note), that won’t work for me.

So as I would come across a salient point in a PDF, I’d do the following:

  1. Copy Page Link for the page of interest
  2. Create a new RTF
  3. Name the file with a summary of the point being made
  4. Tab to the Spotlight Comment and type/paste the citation info (even though I still use tabs for provenance info, I always include the cite info in the comments)
  5. Jump to the body of the RTF to type ‘###’
  6. Select this ### string
  7. Add a Link from that ### back to the original PDF page. It’s always good to have original (co)ntext at hand.
  8. Then start typing my notes.

Needless to say, this takes many steps – I made it a bit shorter with macros, but not short enough. Read More…

Keeping ‘em honest

Article reporting on new study arguing that – wait for it…. – disciplines with more strict citation conventions tend to be better at providing verifiable evidence for their sources (ok, that’s my take on it at least).

From Inside Higher Ed: ‘through chains of sloppy citations, “academic urban legends” are born.’ The money quote for me:

“Don’t place your readers in the unfortunate or uncomfortable position of having to trust more than they already have to,” Corlett said. “That’s a matter of ethics.”

Fortunately history gets a shout-out for a tradition of citing conscientiously. But that only happens if we keep the (foot)notes! And if we make sure we know the details of a 20-year period before we start making claims about a 500-year period – that whole Country-Years to Pages ratio I talked about before.

And (early modern) historians have another ethical obligation now that most early modern publications are online. There’s really no excuse for the  2 [primary source] cited in [secondary source] citation anymore, unless it’s in a language you don’t read, or in an archival source you don’t have access to.

So be sure to go back to the original, because who knows when the secondary source you’re using is misinterpreting the original, maliciously or otherwise. And use the footnote feature – it’s not like you’ll be using superscript for anything else.

Erin go bragh (and bragh and bragh…)

Because we just can’t get enough of Cromwell and the Irish:

Cunningham, John. “Divided Conquerors: The Rump Parliament, Cromwell’s Army and Ireland.” English Historical Review 129, no. 539 (August 2014): 830–61.
Abstract:
This article reassesses the relationship that existed in the period 1649–53 between war in Ireland and politics in England. Drawing upon a largely overlooked Irish army petition, it seeks to remedy an evident disconnect between the respective historiographies of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland on the one hand and the Rump Parliament on the other. The article reconstructs some of the various disputes over religion, authority and violence that undermined the unity of the English wartime regime in Ireland. It then charts the eventual spilling over of these disputes into Westminster politics, arguing that their impact on deteriorating army-parliament relations in the year prior to Oliver Cromwell’s expulsion of the Rump in April 1653 has not been fully appreciated. The key driver of these developments was John Weaver, a republican MP and commissioner for the civil government of Ireland. The article explains how his efforts both to place restraints on the excessive violence of the conquest and to exert civilian control over the military evolved, by 1652, into a determined campaign at Westminster to strengthen the powers of Ireland’s civil government and to limit the army’s share in the prospective Irish land settlement. Weaver’s campaign forced the army officers in Ireland to intervene at Westminster, thus placing increased pressure on the Rump Parliament. This reassessment also enables the early 1650s to be viewed more clearly as a key phase in the operation of the longer-term relationships of mutual influence that existed between Dublin and London in the seventeenth century.

Do you read Spanish?

If you do, and if you were intrigued by the comments left by Björn in a previous post about Spanish siegecraft, you should check out a short article I published a few months back in the lavishly-produced Spanish popular military history magazine Desperta Ferro (moderno). The article surveys the nature of siege warfare in the Iberian theater during the Spanish Succession, and is based on yet more research from grad school, when I thought my dissertation would cover the sieges in all four theaters (silly me). Yet more research that never saw the light of day, till now.

Perhaps the article can best be summed up in the abstract:

Vauban y la guerra de los ingenieros por Jamel Ostwald (Eastern Connecticut State University). La imagen más extendida hoy día sobre la guerra de sitio en la Edad Moderna es la de una coreografiada y contenida partida de ajedrez en la que cada contendiente mueve mecánicamente sus piezas sobre el tablero según unas reglas estrictas, hasta que el rey es capturado sin apenas derramamiento de sangre. Sin embargo, a pesar de estos estereotipos contemporáneos, capturar una fortaleza alrededor del 1700 no era una operación mecánica que se desarrollaba con precisión científica. Más que seguir una fórmula concreta, los sitiadores de la Edad Moderna podían elegir entre un gran abanico de tácticas posibles y su misión era usar las herramientas a su disposición para tomar la plaza elegida tan pronto como fuera posible y al menor coste. Mapa de Carlos De La Rocha.

My own, English, summary: Sieges in Iberia were much more rudimentary, and desperate, than those in the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy.

The article includes a very nice map of the main sieges in the theater (drawn from the data in my Vauban under Siege), with graduated circles illustrating the location, side, duration, and result of the theater’s various sieges. Here’s my bare-bones 15-year-old attempt (with a few errors):

Spain siege lengths WSS

Hopefully an English version of the Desperta article (or at least the map) will come out sometime.

 

Define your start and end dates

I’m going through old Excel worksheets on siege data (it’s good to know you can open 20-year old Excel files).

Found this graphic, so I thought I’d throw it up here. In case you ever wanted a look behind the scenes of my dataset in the Appendices to my Vauban under Siege: Welcome.

This chart illustrates how spotty even secondary sources can be: sieges only have a limited number of possible start and end dates, yet historical narratives don’t find it worth their while to actually be consistent when they report these dates. Hence my need to develop a crazy-complex siege dataset: comparing multiple sources’ accounts of 100+ sieges, many of which had different stats, depending on whether you’re talking about the fortification under attack: fort(s), citadel, town.

Even after using a consistent method, the following graph should give you an idea of what’s available with English secondary sources on the Iberian theater (Kamen, Francis and Hugill mostly, along with a few articles):

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 7.07.03 PM

You can see that there was much more consensus among historians concerning the end date of a siege, when the town capitulated, contrasted with when to measure the ‘start’ of a siege. You can also contrast it with a related visualization of sieges lengths throughout the campaign season in a previous post.

The number of days’ difference between the stages on both margins (BA to OT, Capit to BL) are usually not very great, so the margin of error is relatively small. But ideally you’d go to the primary sources (or maybe a detailed Spanish account) to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Overall I suppose I’m pretty content: at least my Spanish dataset was comparing oranges (Valencian) to oranges (Sanguinello, aka blood oranges). Of course I’m still expecting Björn Thegby and Andy Tumath to provide us all with a more complete dataset some time soon.

* For those not in the know: BA= Besiegers Arrive, IS= Investment Started, OT= Open trenches, OF= Open Fire, Chamade= self-explanatory, Capit= Capitulation, Garrison Evacuation, Besiegers Leave. Each start and end date pair means something slightly different, depending on what point you’re trying to make. Just make sure to be consistent and have a good reason why you chose the particular start-end pairing you did. And, please, avoid definitively exclaiming that there was only one ‘true’ start and end date. The study of siegecraft has suffered enough already from such formulaic thinking.

New chapter on the War of the Spanish Succession

Following in the venerable blogging tradition of self-promotion, a new edited collection has appeared:

Murray, Williamson and Richard Hart Sinnreich, eds. Successful Strategies: Triumphing in War and Peace from Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Abstract:

Successful Strategies is a fascinating new study of the key factors that have contributed to the development and execution of successful strategies throughout history. With a team of leading historians, Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich examine how, and to what effect states, individuals and military organizations have found a solution to complex and seemingly insoluble strategic problems to reach success. Bringing together grand, political and military strategy, the book features thirteen essays which each explores a unique case or aspect of strategy. The focus ranges from individuals such as Themistocles, Bismarck and Roosevelt to organizations and bureaucratic responses. Whether discussing grand strategy in peacetime or that of war or politics, these case studies are unified by their common goal of identifying in each case the key factors that contributed to success as well as providing insights essential to any understanding of the strategic challenges of the future.

Befitting a group project initiated by the Department of Defense, 70% of the 13 case study chapters deal with modern military history. Thus my early modern chapter – “Creating the British Way of War: English Strategy in the War of the Spanish Succession” – is bookended by two Ancient examples (Themistocles, and the Roman Empire), one medieval (Edward I and Wales), and Prussia in 1806. Represent!

Two other notable details:

1. I will likely never publish anything in a book as inexpensive as this, $30 for the paperback. Sneaking an early modern in with a herd of moderns does the trick, I guess.

2. In (perhaps) a publishing first, I offer a pre-publication errata:

p101: “After a day’s deliberation, Louis accepted the will…” should in fact be after a week’s deliberation. That edit somehow got missed, most likely an error on my part.

So if you want my take on the War of the Spanish Succession from England’s grand strategic level, have at it.

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