Archive | January 2013

The Italian Wars as you’ve never seen them

So what do you do if you teach a variety of early modern European courses over and over (in this case, Reformation Europe, European Warfare 1337-1815, Religion War and Peace in Early Modern Europe), need to quickly get up to speed on the narrative every time you teach it, and fancy yourself a visualizer of historical information? Something like this:

Italian Wars timechart

Italian Wars timechart

A bit of overkill, perhaps, but I’ve always liked my data dense. I’ve shared other examples of my timecharts before, and this is a more recent version of my overview of the Italian Wars (Wars of Italy if you prefer) in all their nauseating complexity. A topic, it so happens, that I’m covering in class today.

To slightly repeat myself from my earlier posts: this cheatsheet combines information on the names of the wars, their chronology, the combatants involved in any given year, the alliances, the rulers, and the main military movements and combats (battles, sieges) in each war year. I give a copy to students for reference purposes, and display it on the screen as we discuss the narrative of the war. You can also just use the colorful timeline (on left side) as a strip in the margin of a Powerpoint slide if you want to display other material on the slide (you can also trim the columns down to just the main belligerents).

Next up: figure out a way to simplify all this narrative detail down, without dumbing it down. Ideally I’ll add a few maps as well, or at least the same map of Italy with the various alliances, occupations, and major combats as they change over the course of the wars. Now will somebody write a good narrative of the wars in English please? Or even French.

Let me know of any factual corrections, embarrassing omissions, or design tweaks. Be sure to check out the Symbol page at the top of the blog header if you’re not familiar with my symbolism. (On that note, I got Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics for Xmas. Whoopee!!)

This was an earlier version, and I still like the maps (though I need to make my own):

Older version of Italian Wars cheatsheet

Older version of Italian Wars cheatsheet

Feel free to use the top graphic in your own courses, with appropriate attribution of course. And let me know! But no publications please (see the Citing the Blog page for general comments).

The wounded is to the dead as four to one

Prompted by a previous thread about dead combatants in the early modern period…

Back in high school I was first introduced to the rather devious idea that a combatant might desire to wound an enemy rather than kill him outright. The idea was that, even if the wounded soldier wasn’t used as a decoy to draw additional forces into a killing zone (a staple in war movies), more resources would be expended caring for that casualty than if they were simply killed in action. I think I probably heard about it in the context of the Vietnam war (punji sticks or some such, maybe small mines that incapacitated rather than killed outright). Seemed logical but cold-hearted.

So as I started looking at my primary sources that contained the word “bury” (thank you database and full text), I came across this quote, which not only evoked early memories of human cruelty, but which also serves as a reminder that anything we can do, the pre-moderns could do too.
It is now sixty days that the Duke of Vendôme is diverting himself at this dirty siege [of Verrua, 1704-1705]; and I think we ought to set up a statue to his memory in every street of Turin. By the best accounts which we can get, his infantry is now reduced to about 7000, and a great part of these will be good for nothing but to recruit their hospitals, before we have done with them. If the accounts which we get from the Milanese, and the enemies’ quarters are just, there are near 18000 French at present in the several hospitals, belonging to the two armies, which are commanded by the two gracious brothers [the two French theater commanders were the duc de Vendôme and his brother, the Grand Prieur]. I observe this with the greater pleasure, because every useless poor creature in these hospitals does cost their master as much as four grenadiers who mount the trenches; and this is one of those expensive articles upon which the French King is cheated in Italy, as much as any King of Spain ever was. O rare Italy! which has served, in all ages, to murder, and to bury Frenchmen.”
(Correspondence, vol. 1, pp. 471-472, Richard Hill to Charles Hedges, Turin, 17 December 1704)

I’m not going to declare this the first recognition of the attritional benefits of casualties (versus KIAs), but it strikes me as pretty early. And this undoubtedly wasn’t an intentional Allied tactic, but early modern medicine being what it was, I can’t imagine the survival rate in those hospitals was very high. (Yet another prompt to look into that military medicine literature.)

As a side note, the personality of Richard Hill shines through the quote as well, particularly his glee at French suffering. His historical recognition of Italy as the burial ground for generations of French soldiers is also a nice touch. Unless you happen to be French.

Never a good sign

For those who need a reminder of the fragility of our knowledge of the past, I present the following from the Bodleian, Oxford:

Update on sprinkler incident at Book Storage Facility [by this point, your heart should already have leapt into your throat]

On Saturday 12 January at the Bodleian’s Book Storage Facility (BSF), a sprinkler was activated causing water damage to a number of books. This incident is highly unusual and is the first time this has occurred since the BSF opened in September 2010. Bodleian Libraries staff responded to the matter immediately and are working with the University’s Estates Services to investigate the problem. At the moment it is not yet known what caused the sprinkler to go off, but there is no evidence of a fire.
In total 5,724 books from a wide variety of collection areas were affected. The wet materials have been dispatched for freezing and drying, the recommended treatment for such incidents. We anticipate that all books will return to their collections but are not able to make a final assessment until the restoration process has been completed. SOLO has been updated to note those items that are temporarily unavailable. Library staff and the Just in Time Team are on alert to locate an alternative copy if possible from other sources should a reader have an urgent need to consult a title which is temporarily inaccessible during conservation treatment.
The BSF reopened on Monday 14 January and had returned to normal operations by the afternoon of Tuesday 15 January. We thank you for their patience as we respond to this incident.”

My wife and I toured the 15C Duke Humfrey’s Library last year, where the docent proudly informed us of the spanking new facilities that would protect the Bodleian’s books – instead of relying solely on the heavy iron chains attached to the spines of the books. Ah, technology. Hopefully none of the books suffered significant damage. Plus, you gotta love any library that defines “a number of books” as 5,724!

Let this serve as a reminder to libraries and archives everywhere to spend more money scanning all those old works and making them freely available online – isn’t there some billionaire somewhere who has a few hundred million dollars to spend on such a laudable goal? Oxford, it should be noted, has been doing its part, witness their Broadside Ballads Online Database, and their partnership with Google Books. Now if we could just get the British Library to allow photography…

Greatest British Battle?

In preparation for an upcoming exhibition, Britain’s National Army Museum is sponsoring a competition to declare “Britain’s Greatest Battle” (actually, the top five). As the website describes:

“The shortlisted battles were selected not simply for being great British victories. Their inclusion took into consideration the political, historical and cultural impact, the difficulties and challenges the Army overcame, and the innovative deployment of strategy and tactics. The choice of battles also reflects the global reach of the British Army and recognises the vital contributions of Commonwealth troops.

Britain’s Greatest Battles aims to highlight the most notable clashes the British Army has seen, as well as draw attention to some of the lesser-known ones. It takes into account all kinds of ‘battles’, including sieges, campaigns, last stands and charges.”

Several notable early modern battles are included (Naseby, Blenheim, Culloden), as well as colonial clashes (Plassey, Quebec, Lexington and Concord). No early modern sieges mentioned, but the British weren’t particularly proud of their siege service at the time (see Christopher Atkinson, “Marlborough’s Sieges,” The Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, 13 (1935): 195-205).

I’m not going to tell you how to vote, but we really should get some of those early modern examples in the top five.


Thoughts on the NAM’s definition of “great”? Maybe you have your own early modern write-in candidates?

E-book example for newbies

For those who aren’t Kindle followers (and I’m not), I was just exploring a few books on the iPad’s Kindle app last night (while the Patriots were getting spanked) and discovered an interesting new feature that illustrates the kinds of things e-books could become, if resources were put into them.

For example, if the publisher bothers to encode the text, you can use Kindle’s new X-Ray feature to get summaries of the work. This screenshot shows its ability to define various terms in the book, while the bar illustrates where in the book they appear.

Example from Sherlock Holmes

Proper Nouns and where they appear in the book

If you tap on one of the terms, you get a definition and a list of the context for each occurrence.

Term in context

Term in context

Another view provides other information that might be available:


These examples show its potential, but they also illustrate its limitations. The eagle-eyed amongst you might have noticed in the above examples that much of the contextual information about the glossary terms comes from, you guessed it, Wikipedia, and another crowd-sourced reference, Shelfari. Clearly little effort has been put into adding more rigorous information. And I can’t imagine that would go over well among most academics.

If textbooks did have these features, it would be very useful for students. But since there are so many competing, incompatible formats, I’m not holding my breath.

Why e-texts are a long way off

For at least five years academics have been discussing how to incorporate digital textbooks into their courses; a growing number of universities have even experimented with requiring incoming freshmen to purchase iPads to facilitate this process. So here’s my recent experience as I venture out into the wild woolly interface between print and digital text.

I’m teaching an upper-level (undergraduate, always undergraduate) course on Reformation Europe this semester. I’m using the same text I used last time, Andrew Pettegree’s Europe in the Sixteenth Century (2002), supplemented with various primary sources. I received a free instructor’s copy of the paperback last time I taught it, and this time I thought I’d try to get an e-text version so I could annotate it on my iPad and use it in class. I also hoped to mark up the first chapter and post it for my students on Blackboard, so they could see how to read a textbook – the kinds of questions to ask, how to identify key points, etc.

Silly me.

If you’ve been following digital texts for a while, you know that one long-standing complaint from academics is the format of the e-books. Because these e-books are intended for e-readers (initially devices like the Kindle, Kobo…) and designed for reading popular fiction, the formatting of the original page layouts isn’t deemed important. The result is that these e-reader books in essence replicate the experience of reading text on a webpage – you just keep scrolling and more text appears. There are no real pages per se (since the more flexible continuous text format allows you to change the font size, among other things), although the e-readers can mimic the appearance of a page. Usually a bar or percentage indicates how far through the text you currently are; more recently, fancy versions replicate the ‘feel’ of pages (even extending to the ability to see the page curling as you ‘turn’ it), but those ‘pages’ are ad hoc creations, i.e. the page breaks are not necessarily the same as those found in the print edition. In other words, most e-texts are not available in PDF format, a format which retains the exact shape and format of the printed page – the font, the margins, the page breaks, etc. I’ve used PDFs a lot in my classes over the years; only recently have I started OCRing the pages. E-books are a whole other beast.

So I thought I would branch out: I tried to acquire a digital copy of my textbook. First I checked on Amazon and noticed that there was a Kindle version of the book available. Being a cheapskate, I then checked with the publisher rep to see if I could get a free copy of that. The rep informed me that no Kindle version was available, nor an e-text version. A bit confused that the rep couldn’t see that Amazon had a Kindle version available, I decided to just take the plunge and buy the Kindle version. I should’ve listened to that little voice in my head.

Downloaded lickety split. But the first thing I noticed was that, as predicted, the pages indeed did not correspond to the pages in the printed version. For some reason I’ve had PDFs on my mind so much lately (I wonder why?) that I forgot all those warnings. So right off the bat, I was a bit disappointed. I can still use the e-version, especially for text mining purposes and full-text searching, but I can’t refer to any page numbers, which really limits its use in class.

A bit more surprising, I quickly noticed that the Kindle version was in fact a poorly-OCRed version of the original. To give an example from the Illustrations page:

Illustrations (kind of)

Note that we’re on “page” 9.3 of 834, which has nothing to do with the actual print pages. And this also means that the page numbers referenced are useless.

Rather bizarre, until you look at a few pages where the text wasn’t fully OCRed:

That's the best you could do?

Seriously? That’s the best you could do?

So I’m left with the question of whether this Kindle edition was:

  • a cheap version thrown out there by the publisher (with plausible deniability?), or
  • an e-text Kindleized by Amazon (with or without the permission of the publisher).

Neither possibility fills me with confidence about the fate of e-textbooks, if this is their idea of quality control.

The gist of the matter: e-texts will never take off until publishers figure out a way to control the quality of the digital books they’re selling (or allowing others to sell), and, more narrowly, indicate page breaks (and other scholarly apparatus such as footnotes) in their e-versions. It could be as simple as putting the page number in brackets [34] within the text, but even that is extra work which somebody would have to do and get paid for. So far my impression is that publishers tend to just throw their existing print content out in an e-format with as little modification as possible. I already have to warn my students that many of the ‘books’ available on Amazon are cheaply printed copies of out-of-copyright works freely-available on Google Books. Now this. Doesn’t bode well for the adoption of e-texts, I’d say.

But I think there are probably two bigger problems here that complicate the matter:

  1. The publishing world is having a heck of a time figuring out what its general response to digital publishing (and the threat of digital piracy) should be. This makes them hesitant to embrace digital books fully. Not surprisingly, they’ve picked the lowest-hanging fruit first: works of fiction that don’t necessarily require format fidelity. Works just fine, unless you happen to be reading that work of fiction for a literature course.
  2. The breathless manifestos of digital boosters insist on portraying a black-and-white struggle between print and digital, insisting that digital books require eliminating all vestiges of the print world in order to revolutionize knowledge. Unfortunately they ignore the needs of academics in the process, particularly the ability to precisely reference specific points within a text.

Perhaps in the future everything will be born digital and, combined with the ability to do a full-text search for quotations, we won’t need to include page numbers in our citations. But for now, I’d suggest publishers follow the normal course of technological development: start a new technology by making it mimic older, more mature technology (incunabula replicating the look of manuscripts, TV shows reproducing the format of radio shows…). Include hyperlinked Tables of Contents and Indexes, and thrown in a hyperlinked word cloud as well. All the other bells and whistles (animated graphics, audio and video…) are great (and add a lot more cost), but the first job is to replicate what a printed text already does, before you start adding whiz-bang features. And can a brother get a spell check?

Thoughts? Suggestions on how to incorporate e-textbooks into courses?

SMHBLOG post up: SMH 2013

My new post summarizing the papers at the upcoming Society for Military History conference in New Orleans is now up. And the graphics work again – yippee!