Can’t military and diplomatic historians all just get along?

It seems we are fated to be yin and yang. The descent into armed conflict, the domain of military historians, represents the palpable failure of diplomacy, the subject of study for diplomatic historians. Yet ultimately the futility of the military historian’s war-mongering forces an inevitable return to negotiation, and some sort of peace. The circle completes itself.

I guess we need each other after all.

For those wishing to take more of a walk on the diplomatic side, Brill has a new edited collection on diplomatic and legal history that might fit the bill:

Lesaffer, Randall, ed. The Twelve Years Truce (1609): Peace, Truce, War and Law in the Low Countries at the Turn of the 17th Century. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2014.

The Twelve Years Truce of 9 April 1609 made a temporary end to the hostilities between Spain and the Northern Netherlands that had lasted for over four decades. The Truce signified a crucial step in the recognition of the Republic of the Northern Netherlands as a sovereign power. As the direct source of inspiration for the 1648 Peace of Munster the Truce is a crucial text in the formation of the early modern law of nations. As few other texts, it reflects the radical changes to the laws of war and peace from around 1600.
The Twelve Years Truce offers a collection of essays by leading specialists on the diplomatic and legal history of the Antwerp Truce of 1609. The first part covers the negotiation process leading up to the Truce. The second part collects essays on the consequences of the Truce on the state of war. In the third part, the consequences of the Truce for the sovereignty of the Northern and Southern Netherlands as well as it wider significance for the changing laws of war and peace of the age are scrutinised.

Table of Contents:

Introduction … 1
Randall Lesaffer

Part 1 Truce and Peace

1 The Twelve Years Truce … 7
Paul Brood

2 Preparing the Ground … 15
Alicia Esteban Estríngana

3 The Act of Cession, the 1598 and 1600 States General in Brussels and the Peace Negotiations during the Dutch Revolt … 48
Bram de Ridder Violet Soen

4 The Anglo-Spanish Peace Treaty of 1604 … 69
Alain Wijffels

Part 2 Truce and War

5 Left ‘Holding the Bag’ … 89
Peter Borschberg

6 The Tactical Military Revolution and Dutch Army Operations during the Era of the Twelve Years Truce (1592–1618) … 121
Olaf van Nimwegen

7 ‘Une oppression insupportable au peuple’ … 152
Tim Piceu

Part 3 Truce and Law

8 The United Provinces … 181
Beatrix C.M. Jacobs

9 How ‘Sovereign’ were the Southern Netherlands under the Archdukes? … 196
Georges Martyn

10 The Early Doctrine of International Law as a Bridge from Antiquity to Modernity and Diplomatic Inviolability in 16th- and 17th-Century European Practice … 210
Carlo Focarelli

11 From Antwerp to Munster (1609/1648) … 233
Randall Lesaffer, Erik-Jan Broers and Johanna Waelkens

12 ‘La dernière ancre de leur finesse’ … 256
Bernd Klesmann

13 The Treaty of London, the Twelve Years Truce and Religious Toleration in Spain and the Netherlands (1598–1621) … 277
Werner Thomas

The Amateur Side of the Hill

Consider this a historian-in-action thought piece, where I speculate on method, and whether I am convinced by an argument (that I haven’t read) based solely off of tea leaves offered by the author. And no, historians never ever make such summary judgments based off the slightest of evidence. Gripping (griping?) stuff.

Apropos a recent post on footnoting and historical evidence, I read an interesting yet odd interview of historian Tom Reilly (author of Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy and Cromwell was Framed) about his crusade to rehabilitate Oliver Cromwell (and his warts). Here’s the blog link - there’s a pop-up ad that you probably want to ignore, and you might want to check/clear your cookies after you’ve left the site if you have lingering doubts.

A self-proclaimed “amateur”, Reilly portrays himself pitted against politicized Irish academics, pedants who snipe at his citations rather than engage with his irrefutable evidence that Cromwell was dishonorably framed for murder. An interesting idea, though admittedly only one recent example in a series of revisionist histories seeking to rehabilitate Bad Guys of History. Unfortunately I don’t have the expertise or knowledge to settle whether Cromwell really ordered (or allowed) hundreds of Irish civilians to be slaughtered at Drogheda (you out there Wayne Lee?). For broad context I’d probably start with The Massacre in HistoryThe Age of Atrocity (pp 251ff discuss Reilly’s claims as it turns out) and Theatres of Violence. Nor have I taken the time to do much research on either Reilly or his books. That doesn’t, however, prevent me from wildly speculating about the ideas at stake. I am particularly intrigued by the broader issues raised in the interview and the publisher’s (Chronos Books) website.

If you’ve read the above-linked interview, you too may have quickly been put on guard after an initial anodyne question about the origins of Reilly’s interest in Cromwell (he lives in Drogheda, site of the most infamous of the Cromwell “massacres”). By the second question the interview quickly descends into an attack on those damn academics: “Describe how difficult it was for an amateur writing in the current formally academic controlled climate.” Hey, that’s my People! As someone who’s complained far too often about the dominance of amateur popular military history in his own research area, I hadn’t really considered there would be people complaining that published non-fiction works were vetted by experts in the field. Score one for the publishers-as-gatekeepers side, I guess.

In response to this question about the difficulties of an academic-controlled publishing climate, the interviewee spent a surprising amount of time complaining about the last thing I would have expected: the difficulty of footnotes. Turns out his press editor insisted he go back and add footnotes for all his sources, requiring him to imitate a variety of footnote formats from other books. My initial thought was that he should justifiably complain if his press didn’t provide him with a style sheet. But more eye-catching was that he interpreted the arcana of footnotes as a painful and unnecessary introduction to the “bewildering world of academia.” Looks like history publishers get criticized no what matter what they do: for not including enough footnotes, or demanding that they include any at all. One more point for the publishers-as-gatekeepers.

The rest of the interview focused mostly on Reilly’s take on the politicized Irish historical community (or at least some of them), and how they were peddling myth as national identity. Reilly certainly wouldn’t be the first to make this charge. At the end of the interview, I was still a bit confused about his specific argument, so I looked for some context by checking Wikipedia and the press website, which has a sensationalist summary of the (self-published) book:
…”amateur historian Tom Reilly again throws down the gauntlet to professional historians everywhere. This book contains original and radical insights.
Breaking the mould of the genre, for the first time ever, Reilly publishes the contemporary documents (usually the preserve of historians) so that the authentic primary source documents can be interpreted by the general reader, without prejudice.”

Odd. In general, I certainly second his desire to see more quoting of sources and less politicization in academic history. But in this case the tone of both interview and publisher website strike me as rather counter-productive. Unless you want to sell controversy of course.

All of which leaves me with numerous questions I’d pursue if I had the time. Many of the questions that immediately come to mind leave me a bit skeptical of Reilly’s case as soon as I voice them. Does the fact that English writers were “much more circumspect” about Cromwellian massacres than Irish authors provide evidence that the Irish authors were wrong, as Reilly apparently believes? More strangely, have historians been jealously hoarding shiny primary sources from the general public, like some fire-breathing dragon? On this I’m pretty certain the answer  is “No”: many of you know that it’s those who donate documents to the archives, and the electorate who doesn’t want to pay more taxes to publish these documents, that deserve most of the blame for those documents that are hidden. Every historian I know would love for all such documents to be freely available, and I can’t imagine there are many Irish historians who would protest greater dissemination either. Where Reilly interprets footnotes as an arcane secret language which only a cabal of professional historians and their acolytes can decipher, academic historians see them as quite practical attempts to actually encourage transparency.

More effort would uncover what exactly the academic historians’ critiques of Reilly’s works were, but his rebuttal to one review sounded uncomfortably like one of my second-year methods students who still thinks primary sources present a crystal-clear window to the past:

‘None of this is convincing’ said the Irish Times. ‘This is a painfully bad book’, said Dr Jason McElligott and he followed up with, ‘and it is tempting to suggest that its main use will be to teach students how not to conduct research, assess evidence or write prose.’ I [i.e. Reilly] was stunned. ‘But, the evidence, I cried. Look at the evidence’.

If one of my students were to respond to the Irish Times‘ critique by saying “But look at the evidence,” I’d probably suggest to that student that in order to rebut a criticism that you didn’t assess the evidence properly, you should do more than just reaffirm your contention that the evidence is self-evident – perhaps discuss what types of evidence were available, and evaluate their reliability. For that matter, I’d tell the hypothetical student that the historical evidence for an emotional topic like a massacre can be interpreted “without prejudice” only with great difficulty. I’d even suggest the student consider the possibility that those human beings creating those documents (hidden or not) might themselves have had opinions and prejudices of their own that deserve investigation, frames of reference that might influence what (and how) they remembered events. I have no idea if Reilly does just that in his books, but his alternation between martyrdom and bomb-throwing radical makes me wonder.

As an academic historian, my confusion and frustration about l’affaire Reilly is perhaps best summarized in the following three sentences from the interview:

“There is no need for footnotes, because the documents are there for all to see.”

To play the pedant, I’ll assume Reilly’s unfamiliarity with academic history means he doesn’t realize that even with transcribed documents, you still need some method of indicating their location for other researchers that might want to return to the original, or ask an archivist to make a copy.

“I didn’t want to hide behind a reference/footnote that I have interpreted on behalf of Joe and Josephine Public. I included them so people can interpret them themselves.”

I too have long sought to provide contemporary quotations whenever possible, although here too I hope Reilly recognizes that his statement is rather methodologically naive if taken at face value. It’s impractical for any historian, amateur or academic, to expect the primary sources to ‘speak for themselves’ in a clear voice, particularly when those primary sources are of varying degrees of reliability, when they contradict each other, and since they were often created for different purposes than those which historians use them for. Interpretation unavoidably requires specialized knowledge (open to “amateurs” who take the time to study the issue), and it requires serious effort, as well as an appreciation of all the decisions the historian must make before he/she “understands” the past:

  • The selection of which extant documents are worth consulting (and why) requires contextual interpretation.
  • Deciding which types of archives and documents are relevant to your research (and the exact framing of your research question), is itself interpretation.
  • Numerous aspects of every document – from the genesis of the document to the author’s reliability to paleography to vocabulary to allusions to context to genre conventions – will necessarily require interpretation by those with specialized knowledge.
  • Any evidence you extract from those documents will be of no import unless you frame them within a particular argument or historiography, which is again a matter of interpretation.

What’s my point? Ultimately Reilly may be 100% right in every detail and every claim, though it’s quite possible that no conclusive answer is even possible (barring exhumations, and even then). But from what little I’ve read so far, I’m not the least bit surprised that academics have reacted negatively to his work. At first glance, all these impressionistic bits raise flags for this academic historian.

One of the tactics used by more unsavory revisionist historians has been to focus on some small, discrete historical event within a larger historical phenomenon, question the standard historical interpretation by producing some document (or challenge opponents to produce their “smoking gun”), charge that there is a conspiracy to keep the “proof” from the public (often despite acknowledging in passing that there has in fact been a long debate over the matter), and leave the implication that the larger event of which this was a part couldn’t have been all that bad if this specific incident wasn’t nearly as bad as we’ve thought. I have no idea if Reilly is intentionally doing this or not, and freely admit I’m in uber-speculation mode here. I would, however, be interested to hear his take on English activity in Ireland in the 1640s-1650s more broadly, or even on Essex/Mountjoy in Ireland (under Elizabeth), or William of Orange in the 1680s-1690s.

Any thoughts on the Cromwell debate, or the broader issues raised about scholarly vs. popular history?

Update: Just saw that Reilly posted his actual argument on the Trumpet of Sedition blog, which I’ll probably get around to reading sometime, and maybe even retract this blog post, or not.

Spanish mutinies in an earlier age

Adding to Geoffrey Parker’s classic account of mutinies during the Dutch Revolt, a new article from latest issue of Journal of Military History turns back the clock a bit.

Sherer, Idan. ‘“All of Us, In One Voice, Demand What’s Owed Us”: Mutiny in the Spanish Infantry during the Italian Wars, 1525–1538.’ Journal of Military History 78, no. 3 (July 2014): 893–926.
This article examines the main characteristics of mutinies in the Spanish tercios at the height of the Italian Wars (1494-1559), a surprisingly underresearched subject considering the high frequency of such upheavals in these core infantry units. Contrary to the severe legal and moral implications of modern military mutinies the dynamics of the mutinies in the tercios resembled more closely those of a modern workers’ strike, in that the soldiers were allowed room to organize, make representations, negotiate and reach relatively amicable conclusions. Generals and soldiers alike accepted the recurring mutinies as a way of maintaining the organizational status quo in a context of infrequent paydays and persistent supply problems.
Meanwhile, back in Metropolis…
As I suspected, Sumida’s recent index of Clausewitz’s On War in a previous issue has triggered a response from Peter Paret (“Translation, Literal or Accurate”), Paret being one of the editors/translators of the standard 1984 translation. For those who think this is a small squabble among just a few people, this website doesn’t pull many punches regarding the Howard/Paret version. All of which starts to sound a bit like theologians arguing whether Saint Jerome’s Vulgate is better than Luther’s new German translation. Yawn.

Oh yeah? Says who?

In several previous posts I’ve expressed concern about the pressures encouraging historians to soft-pedal or even minimize the evidence supporting their claims in their published works. In our current age of decreasing attention spans and declining academic books sales, there is growing pressure to eliminate the footnotes (or at least relegate them to annoying endnotes) and shorten the lengths of scholarly tomes by eliminating discussion of historiography and cited evidence. Some historians even counsel us to cull the evidence for our claims to a single example. What’s a historian to do?

Do we really need more than one example? Read More…

But how will the children read Script Ohio?

Yet Another Chronicle article on cursive script dying with a flourish – this time from a university rare-book librarian responding to an undergrad researcher who doesn’t “do” cursive. Money quote:

An informal survey of rare-book librarians and archivists indicates that our experience at Illinois is not uncommon. Research on manuscripts from the 17th to the 20th century is no longer possible for most undergraduates at American colleges.

So sign your 8-11 year old up for their summer “Camp Cursive” – and make sure they know what a long-s is, while you’re at it.

This story also gives me an excuse to post the following advertisement that I just came across. From the 1712.12.27 issue of the British Mercury, a newspaper intended for those busy business executives and bureaucrats on-the-go:


Three hundred years ago somebody apparently thought cursive printed documents came with their own tamper-evident seal.

Print Ohio?


The Eighty Years War just got a whole lot longer

In a comment Averrones pointed out a recent (in historical terms) release of a new publication on the rise of the Dutch fiscal-military state. I like looking beyond the usual 1648 terminus; and if there was ever a case study that required a fiscal-military approach, and an author to do it, this would be it.

Hart, Marjolein ’t. The Dutch Wars of Independence: Warfare and Commerce in the Netherlands 1570-1680. London ; New York: Routledge, 2014.
In The Dutch Wars of Independence, Marjolein ’t Hart assesses the success of the Dutch in establishing their independence through their eighty years struggle with Spain – one of the most remarkable achievements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Other rebellions troubled mighty powers of this epoch, but none resulted in the establishment of an independent, republican state. This book: tells the story of the Eighty Years War and its aftermath, including the three Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Guerre de Hollande (1570-1680); explores the interrelation between war, economy and society, explaining how the Dutch could turn their wars into commercial successes; illustrates how war could trigger and sustain innovations in the field of economy and state formation; the new ways of organization of Dutch military institutions favoured a high degree of commercialized warfare;    shows how other state rulers tried to copy the Dutch way of commercialized warfare, in particular in taking up the protection for capital accumulation. As such, the book unravels one of the unknown pillars of European state formation (and of capitalism).  The volume investigates thoroughly the economic profitability of warfare in the early modern period and shows how smaller, commercialized states could sustain prolonged war violence common to that period. It moves beyond traditional explanations of Dutch success in warfare focusing on geography, religion, diplomacy while presenting an up-to-date overview and interpretation of the Dutch Revolt, the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Guerre de Hollande.
Check it out.

Historians and their damned eclecticism

After a recent post, I received an email from a blog reader pointing me to an online project focused on presenting information on WW2 in a digital environment: Envisioning History. If you’re interested in the potential for digital history, you should check out some of its YouTube videos.

Watching a few of the videos made me appreciate once again how different note-taking needs can be from one academic inquiry to another. For historians they appear to break down into two categories:

  1. Storing the unstructured data of the original sources themselves, whether they be scans of archival documents or photographs of battle paintings or fortifications.
  2. Keeping tabs on the structured data extracted from the unstructured data for a particular analytical purpose, usually a summary of the sources’ content, most often in the form of summaries, keywords or quantities, or maybe a quote or two.

These two types of information are fundamentally different yet related, as many methodological treatises will no doubt explain. They also require different types of note-taking capabilities. Historians are generally generalists and a surprising number still rely on 3″x5″ notecards and simple Word documents, but those on the cutting edge (like me?) also want all the cool toys our colleagues in other fields play with. Back in the day, I referred to the options as a quadrangle or rectangle.

My early attempt to categorize different types of software

My early attempt to categorize different types of software

On the one hand, historians want the unstructured, original documents, in all their messy glory. That means, ideally, transcripts of the full document, as well images of the originals. But the hard work for historians is to find structure in this chaos. We need the originals in case we need to verify a quote or ask a new question. But usually we are creating structured data by extracting information from the original sources according to a pre-determined method – ideally the methodological choices are made clear to the reader. Structuring the unstructured requires, at a minimum, keywords and categories, with a link back to the original whenever possible. There’s an immense amount of winnowing in the journey from source to analysis.

Unfortunately, few off-the-shelf software packages handle both unstructured and structured information with equal facility, a limitation I am once again confronting in my transition from MS Access to Devonthink. The CLIO or Kleio software by Manfred Thaller was an early, extremely historio-centric, attempt, but most historians fall back on packages with a broader user base. In part the specialization of software is probably explained by cultural explanations as much as purely technical ones. Over the several decades of the Personal Computing Age, increasing processor power has expanded our toolkit far beyond the simple, business-friendly relational databases and punch-card legacy systems of the early days. But it took time – well into the 1990s social scientists  still shoehorned their qualitative data into the quantitative model preferred by most early software, creating quantitative dummy variables (0=No, 1=Yes) and numeric codes (1=French, 2=English, 3=Dutch) that could be handled by the slower processors of the period. Though the 0/1-Yes/No dummy variable retains its elegant simplicity, today’s more powerful relational databases can handle big chunks of rich text, but we also have so many other types of analysis to choose from: quantitative analysis software like SPSS and Minitab, GIS software which allows us to analyze geospatial relationships between objects, and textual analysis software for those seeking word frequencies, KWIC, co-occurrences, topic modeling and the like. Modern programs even allow photographic (and increasingly video) analysis, Picasa’s facial recognition being one of the simplest examples. Today, “big data” is as likely to be composed of text or images as it is of numbers.

This embarrassment of computational and data riches (the data-mining metaphor isn’t accidental) comes at the price of having to deal with often-incompatible software packages, not to mention distinctive methodologies. Unfortunately I don’t have a solution for methodologically eclectic historians, but I figured I could at least give those ignorant in relational databases a better sense of what this  type of software does well. So here I post my Powerpoint slides from a presentation I gave 14 years ago, describing the basic design of my note-taking Access database. It preserved both the unstructured original sources (transcriptions only, alas) and built a layer of structured data on top of it. As it turns out, I didn’t use it to its full potential, but perhaps it might be of use to others, if they can suss out what the slides mean without my accompanying explanation (that’ll cost you extra). Maybe I’ll even return to relational databasing in my next project. Read More…


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