“Shaving the yak” is a phrase used to describe the process of programming. It alludes to the fact that you often have to take two, or more, steps backward in order to eventually move one step forward. You want a sweater, so first you need to get some yarn, but to do that you have to… and eventually you find yourself shaving a yak. The reason why you even consider shaving a yak is that, once you’ve shaved said yak, you now have lots of yarn, which allows you to make many sweaters. This colorful analogy has a surprising number of online images, and even an O’Reilly book. It’s a thing.
I have been doing a lot of digital yak-shaving over the past four months. Come to think of it, most of my blog posts consist of yak shaving.
So if you’re interested in learning to code with Python but not sure whether it’s worth it, or if you just want to read an overview of how I used Python and QGIS to create a map like this from a big Word document, then continue reading.
At least until the lights (or internet) goes down.
I’m preparing my appeal to you faithful skulkers to assist me in my quixotic quest to create a more robust and usable dataset on early modern European wars. I envision keeping it simple, at least at the start, posting a series of spreadsheets (possibly on Google Sheets) with information about various aspects of early modern warfare. We don’t want to start from scratch, so I’ve downloaded the basic information on the period’s wars and combats (“battles”) from Wikipedia, via Wikidata queries using SPARQL. And I’ve been learning about graph databases in the process, which someone might consider a bonus.
Wikipedia??? Well, the way I see it, they’ve already entered in a lot of basic information, and many of the factual details are probably correct, at least to a first order approximation. So it should speed up the process and allow us to refine and play around with the beta data (say that fast three times) before it’s “complete,” however that’s defined.
Once the data sheets are up online, we can clean that information, I can collate it, and then we can open it to the world to play with – analyze, map, chart, combine with other data, whatever one’s heart desires. If someone wants to deal with the Wikipedia bureaucracy, they can try to inject it back into The Source of All Knowledge.
In the meantime, if you’re curious as to what someone with some programming skills and an efficiency-oriented mindset can create, you should check out the following blog post, wherein a data scientist collects all of the wars listed in Wikipedia (Ancient to recent), and then explores their durations and a few other attributes. Very cool stuff, and you gotta love the graphics. Check it out at https://www.gokhan.io/post/scraping-wikipedia/. And just imagine what one could do with more granular data, and possibly more accurate data as well! Hopefully we’ll find out.
In the meantime, here’s a real simple map from a SPARQL query locating all of the “battles” listed in Wikidata (that have location information).
I’ll let you decide whether Europe and the eastern US really were that much more belligerent than the rest of the world. To the Methodology!
When we last left off, we’d just come back from medieval Tolédo, full of New Castilian culture.
From Conquerors to Conquered
Having spent a week spying vestiges of conquistadors in our historical visits around Castile, we spent the second week of our trip looking at the other side of the hill. And a few fortresses.
So it was on to Barcelona. We survived an Ugly American (Brooklynite, actually) incident on the train, but when we arrived in Spain’s northern capital, it almost seemed like there was some sort of disagreement between the two parts of the country. My first clue was the “War of the Flags,” where people proudly hung their Catalan flags from their apartment balconies, far outnumbering the Spanish flags.
Fortunately there wasn’t any rioting after Real Madrid spanked Liverpool in the Champions League final.
My first impression of the city? Central Barcelona is a much more modern city than central Madrid, but with just as many tourists. The bread, I should note, is infinitely better than what we had in Madrid – must be the proximity to France, where they know how to bake bread. Bâtards.
Anyway, Barcelona has its own attractions. We spent the mandatory tourist dollars visiting Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia cathedral – mostly standing on narrow tower steps waiting for the line of people to keep moving down, not wanting to contemplate a fall.
And then we experienced the virtual-reality smartphone-headphone set up of Casa Bottló. I guess I was just fated to be an early modernist.
Speaking of early moderns, I was struck by the predominance of Anglo authors in the early modern Spanish history section of the Spanish bookstores – names you know, like Geoffrey Parker and John Lynch and J.H. Elliot, not to mention authors like John Keegan, and lots of Spanish translations of English-language histories. I’m guessing Franco’s heavy hand might have had something to do with the seeming silence of senior (native) Spanish historians, but that’s just speculation on my part.
History as Catalan Nationalism
Later on, we spent a half-day at the waterfront, and semi-randomly selected the Museum of Catalonian History as our destination. The museum covers the history of the Catalan region(s) from prehistory to today. When you hear somebody say “from prehistory to the present,” you undoubtedly think “so, like a few mannequin cavemen and they jump forward to the 19th century, right?” Well, let me tell you, I never saw so many rooms on medieval history in my life. More Catalan kingdoms and principalities than you could shake that proverbial stick at (again with the sticks? what’s up with those sticks?).
One fun fact of medieval nationalism I came away with: the origin legend for the Catalan flag (the Senyera above) is that, during the 897 siege of Barcelona, a grateful king dipped his four fingers in a mortally-wounded Catalan count’s blood and dragged it across the count’s golden shield, thanking him for his service. If I were the count, I probably would’ve requested some pain killers as a reward instead, but I guess they did things differently back then. Apparently the Austrians have a similar tale for their own crimson-streaked flag dating from the 13C. But for those who prefer stories of the pen to those of the sword, the museum also had a 10 minute video on making parchment, quill and ink from scratch. “Shaving the yak” indeed.
There was even a model of the fortress of Salses, a Pyrenean fort that we had visited several years earlier during our southern France excursion. What a small world.
The Salses gateway (on the left, in the model above) from our visit to the real thing:
There was also an interesting display on the 1640 ‘Reaper’ revolt, where the irregular miquelets rose up against Castilian taxes and governance during Olivares’ Franco-Spanish War (part of the Thirty Years War, for those of you keeping track at home). One of the songs from the conflict, “The Reapers” (Els Segadors), is currently the Catalan ‘national’ anthem.
Unlike Tolédo’s Museo del Ejército, the Museu d’Història de Catalunya clearly considered its history very important, and its experience in the War of the Spanish Succession as particularly relevant to today. They have a whole online exhibition on the war, if you’re interested.
For those who aren’t already familiar with the two-minute narrative: over the course of the war, Philippe’s forces managed to repulse two separate Allied occupations of Madrid, and went on to recapture most of its territory after the battlefield victory at Almansa. Obligingly, the British facilitated this reconquest by choosing to abandon their Austrian and Catalan allies after getting most of their Spanish contingent captured at Brihuega.
And, in case the Catalan bent of the museum had eluded you up to that point, the museum had a rather large exhibit on the Catalan catastrophe that was the fall of Barcelona in 1714. The War of the Spanish Succession had largely ended in 1713. But those crazy Catalans kept on fighting long after their Austrian candidate ‘King Carlos III’ abandoned them for the Imperial throne in 1711 – becoming Holy Roman Emperor Karl VI. It appears that Karl’s former Spanish digs would remain on his mind, since he refused to acknowledge Felipe as King of Spain for decades. And clearly the memory of Barcelona in particular stayed with him, at least in death, as my wife and I witnessed when viewing his crypt at the Kapuzinergruft in Vienna a few years earlier. Here’s a close-up of his tomb, which celebrates his 1706 liberation of the city:
But I digress. Since Barcelona wouldn’t surrender after fighting had ended everywhere else, that meant that the Duke of Berwick – you know, the English one in French service loaned out to the Spanish – had to besiege the fortress, exposing the city to a third siege in a decade, fourth, if you include a brief, unsuccessful Allied attack in 1705.
At siege’s end, after a year-long defense, a peeved Philippe ordered his commander to slaughter the population for their rebellion. Instead Berwick decided to give them a capitulation on the 11th of September. Catalan privileges were revoked, and it was all downhill from there.
So I guess the Catalonians had their 9/11 long before the U.S. had ours. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Overall the museum was very well done, lots of interesting maps and more descriptive text than you can imagine. Somebody spent a lot of time on this museum. And it’s been noticed, witness this hot-off-the-press study I just saw:
Another day, another fortress.
In case you had any more interest in Catalan history, you could always visit one of the sites of these many Barcelona sieges: Montjuïc castle, pronounced Mont-JEW-k. And you would be correct if you thought that it was named that because of its initial use as a Jewish burial ground. Fast forward to 1640 and this outcropping overlooking the Mediterranean would be transformed from a lighthouse to a small fort, built up over successive decades into a more formidable fort.
It’s one of the better-maintained fortresses that I’ve been to. As you can see from the Google Maps screenshot below, it’s on a hill and surrounded by a park – access is either via a cable-car and funicular, or a walk through said park.
The Art of War
An aerial view to give you your bearings – the main citadel complex is on the right:
The fortifications themselves were well maintained, with flower beds in the ditch.
I’ll let the photos do most of the talking, otherwise you can zoom around the fortress using Google Maps’ Street View, or find any number of descriptions on the various sieges the citadel underwent.
And there were moat monsters guarding the ravelin.
Or, if you seek interactivity, you can figure out what this says, and learn about who was involved in the 1697 and 1705 sieges:
And what does an occupying force do with all this stone overlooking Barcelona? Well, just about any early modern citadel garrison would tell you: use it to intimidate the town into submission. You think it’s a coincidence that the Castilians decided to build a fort there in 1640, when the Reapers’ revolt broke out? So every once in a while over the next few centuries the Spanish military would bombard the restless Barcelonans back into submission. And, starting in the Spanish Civil War, it became the site of a few human rights violations, including the imprisonment, torture and execution of dozens, including political prisoners. With this history, it’s no surprise that the castle’s exhibition on the history of Montjuïc ends with a quotation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 5 on freedom from torture.
Other random, slightly-less depressing, facts about the citadel:
- Montjuic was one of the locations where measurements were taken to establish the meter in 1792 – there’s a plaque commemorating that.
- It hosted some of the events of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. And as if on cue, when we were there an archer, possibly a holdover from their Olympics team, was at the butts in the dry ditch.
So definitely worth a visit, especially if you’re with someone who wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead tramping around a fortress. Fortunately for me (but not for my wife), our fortress tramping was just beginning.
But that’s for part 3.
The deadline for panel/paper proposals for the Society for Military History’s annual conference next May is coming up, October 1. We’re in the process of putting together two panels early modern European proposals as I write this, but we’d love to have an early modern take-over of the SMH next year. The conference will be held at my alma mater of Ohio State (Columbus, OH), and the conference theme is “Soldiers and Civilians in the Cauldron of War,” although papers/panels on any germane topic will be considered.
So if you’re interested, get together with some of your friends and propose. If you need help finding co-panelists, you can contact me via the blog, or you can use the SMH’s new Panels Seeking Panelists online forum.
For those who’ve never been, or who need a refresher, or for those who want to check up on Spanish history before 1808, I offer you a pictorial tour of the early modern highlights of Spain, May 2018. Two weeks of art, churches, and war – can it get any better than that? There will be nothing surprising to seasoned travelers or experts on Spain, but I haven’t posted in a while. So read on for lots of big photos and historical allusions aplenty. Maybe you’ll even learn something. Read More…
Sabbatical. What academics look forward to for years – the ability to take time off from teaching and service to recharge and focus on me-time. On my last sabbatical seven years ago, I attended a few conferences, wrote a few papers, scanned in a ton of book chapters/journal articles, and even started a blog.
And now it’s back. This time around, it means further expanding my digital history toolkit, and reading and writing.
So once I get those final grades in (due Wednesday), I’ll be free! Free to travel to Spain for two weeks, where we’ll take in the sights of Madrid and Barcelona, which might even include a visit to the Sant Ferran citadel (c. 1750s), just outside of Figueres in Catalonia. In case we want to see what a real hornwork (or two) looks like. We’ve already seen the French side of the contested Pyrenean border (Perpignan and the little yellow train up to Mont-Louis), so now we’ll get to see it from the Spanish side.
After that, I’ll be free to finish the long-awaited big book of Marlborough’s battles. And to refresh my rudimentary Python skills, learn R, and expand my knowledge of GIS. The latter tasks will allow me to embark on my next journey, a GIS-informed analysis of military operations during the War of the Spanish Succession and beyond. In the process, I’ll be developing my early modern European military history database, and try to get you faithful skulkers to crowdsource some basic data on these EME wars.
Hopefully that’s not too ambitious for a year-long sabbatical, but I’ve earned it.
Where I’m at now, after reading more on GIS, historical and Quantum. Here we have the beginnings of my Low Countries theater map, for operational military history.
Features include rivers, the (modern) coastline, capital cities, fortifications (fortresses and forts) by side of garrison, a light tracing of the pré carré fortresses in northern France, and, for kicks, the woods of northern Belgium traced from the Austrian Ferraris maps, c. 1770s.
And more to trace, e.g. from the Pelet 1837 atlas:
Still lots of work to do, cleaning things up and adding additional features, like army marches and camps. Eventually, I’ll even work up to Print Composer and stop taking screenshots.
But in the meantime, progress moves forward.