Forcing Modern Categories on Early Modern Realities

There’s a good discussion going on in the Comments section of the first Guest Question on mercenaries and their various permutations. Keep it up.

I’d just make two more general points here that, I think, help to justify this blog, in my mind at least.

1) The difficulties we are having defining what is and isn’t a ‘mercenary’ unit are, I think, mainly a function of trying to fit modern nation-based models of military institutions and motivations onto an early modern world, a largely pre-nationalistic era when things were much more complicated. “Foreign” is an ancient concept, and of course we can still read about ‘mercenaries’ and military contractors today. But the cosmopolitanism and eclecticism of the early modern period can still surprise us moderns: to take an example from the top, a bastard son of two English parents (the soon-to-be king James II and the future Duke of Marlborough’s elder sister Arabella) born and raised in France could command a Franco-Spanish army and face off against Anglo-Dutch-Austrian-Imperial troops that were commanded by an Italian (Eugene of Savoy) who was born and raised in France but who fought for Austria after being refused a company in Louis XIV’s army. Sometime we should make a network chart illustrating the maneuvers of commanders as they hopped from one service to another, one theater to another, one enemy to another.

2) The discussion also highlights the need to spell out our assumptions. In this case: why is it important to call one unit an ‘auxiliary’ and not a ‘mercenary’, and what are the implications of that decision? This is particularly true for the early modern period (and medieval as well), because it is so often the Other to modern military history: often lacking patriotic motivations; fought by armies composed of regiments raised by colonels and captains rather than the State and largely owned by these military entrepreneurs; officered by men of questionable professionalism; fighting skirmishes and sieges far more often than set-piece field battles; switching sides from one cosmopolitan force to another; while those at the top negotiate with the enemy throughout the length of the war. For far too long modern military conceptions have been forced onto the past. And then, when the reality is finally recognized, the negative judgments of that reality persist: ideological motivations are pure and mercenary motives are dishonorable, ‘total’ war is natural and ‘limited’ war is unnatural and even a joke, battle is the norm and siegecraft is an ‘abortive’ form of warfare… Early modernists have been chipping away at these assumptions for a couple of decades, and medievalists even longer in some cases, but the work must continue because these ideas are still so easy to slip back into, even for us EMEMHians. You really see this when you teach pre-modern military history to eager undergrads: they know the weapons, they know the Great Captains, they know the big battles. And most of all, they know military history, but usually only from 1861 on (for American students at least). As a result, in my European Warfare 1337-1815 course I frame the above pejorative judgments as the ‘five major assumptions of traditional military history’:

  1. Technological determinism (cannon, gunpowder, etc. dictate the outcomes of wars)
  2. There is a universal art of war (decisive battle) and wars are judged by how closely they approach this
  3. Military professionalism (officers sought to constantly and rationally improve the ‘military art’)
  4. Great Man history (wars were decided by the Great Captains)
  5. State-centrism (wars were waged between states, with each state monopolizing military force within its borders)

All these points, as you likely know, have been challenged by a variety of scholars over the past several decades, and I try to highlight their existence and their conflict with the more complicated reality throughout the semester. This blog will hopefully continue that noble crusade!

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3 responses to “Forcing Modern Categories on Early Modern Realities”

  1. Erik Lund says :

    Wait. Since when is a Savoyard an “Italian?” And “Austria?” Category error here, surely: “House of Habsburg.” You’ve got to trace the patronage ties, not force anachronistic national concepts on the era.

    Let’s see how this works…

    And then I’ll show myself out before the celeri show up.

    • jostwald says :

      Point taken. I might have been more careful and perhaps should have been given the post’s topic, but I’ll justify it nevertheless on several grounds:
      1) Trying to meet the modernists half-way. I recall when I submitted my article ms on Ramillies I was told to explain who the Walloons were, something I thought most people knew.
      2) Although historians have discussed the complications of ‘composite monarchies’ and the like for decades, it is nonetheless a standard historical convention today to use such modern anachronistic terms, e.g. Hochedlinger’s Austria’s Wars of Emergence, Wilson’s German Armies, etc. It’s largely a matter of convenience of course. Personally, I’m going to refer to Philip II “King of Spain”, rather than “King of Castile, King of Léon, King of Aragon, King of Navarre, King of Sicily, Count of Burgundy, King of Portugal, King of England, King of Jerusalem.” And of course we’d have to distinguish Spanish from Austrian House of Habsburg, depending on the context.
      3) Those anachronistic national concepts were present at the time, at least among foreigners, who referred to “Austrians”, “Spaniards”, etc. What exactly this means, what exact connotations went along with those national labels, and whose naming preferences we should be using today (the Magyars?), I don’t claim to know. In the Austrian (errr, I mean “Austrian House of Habsburg”) sources you’ve looked at, how did the what-we-now-call-Austrians refer to themselves? “Imperial” obviously gets used, but that itself conflates Austria in with all the various Circles, etc. and the Austrians and the Empire were separate entities (diplomatically, militarily). If the Austrians referred to themselves as the “Empire/Imperial” all the time, what did the German states in the Empire think about this? Was this a terminological power grab by the Emperor? I’m curious.
      We need a color-coded order of battle that shows all these gory complications (as we’ve been discussing in the mercenaries thread).

      Cool song – I was planning on doing a few posts on martial music from the period. I’ll link to that one when the time comes.
      Thanks.

  2. Erik Lund says :

    “Eugenio von Savoyen” clearly wasn’t on the same page as any modern. “House of Austria” gives us the “Austrian” adjective, and its Romance equivalents, which were also native languages to the Habsburgs. “Oesterreich” itself is a geographic designation. As to whether it had a nationalistic interpretation in 1700, that would definitely be a fun thing for someone else to argue about a lot.
    In the sources? “Imperialist”/kaiserliche, as distinguished from Reichs-whatnot. Not being made aware of the importance of an orthographically cleansed German language, seventeenth
    century writers would also have had no problem with “imperialistiche” and weirder forms yet.

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