Archive | June 2013


Interesting post with lots of early modern manuscript illustrations of gunpowder and gunpowder paraphernalia. Towards the end there’s a Fisher Price-looking wagenburg (wagon fort).

Brought to you by our favorite blog of early modern book images: BibliOdyssey.

Archival efficiency

For the record:



My first order: five full volumes from the Additional Manuscripts, requiring 1,782 jpgs – 2.66 GB.

Order placed online: 9 May
Order charged to credit card: 21 May
Estimated order completion date: 15 June
Dates volumes scanned (according to Date Modified properties of jpg metadata): 19-21 June
Credit card payment reimbursed by my institution: 20 June
Order completed and sent: 24 June
Order waiting in my mailbox: 28 June

‘Nuff said.

Google Reader expiration

If you subscribe to this (or any) blog with Google Reader, make sure you export your RSS feeds to another product before Monday, when Google Reader inexplicably goes bye-bye. I still haven’t decided on a replacement yet, but at least I have my feeds archived and downloaded.

What’s the matter with the Marlborough historiography?

Given recent events, I decided it was time to explicitly take on the dominant Marlborough historiography. To be honest, I don’t particularly want to – at least not this particular aspect – since I’d thought we were well beyond this. But I guess I was wrong.

A series of posts will follow, so I’ll talk in broad generalities here. Specific details about particular authors and works and arguments will follow in successive posts. Feel free to comment or ask questions; in fact, I’d encourage it.

To start, historiography is the history of historians’ interpretations of a particular historical event, in our case, how English historians over the years have viewed Marlborough and his role in the War of the Spanish Succession (WSS). So here’s my brief rundown of how Marlborough has been interpreted throughout the past three centuries.

Talking it back to the war itself, Englishmen were divided into Tory and Whig camps. Strategically, the dominant debate was a continuation of that from the Nine Years War: whether a blue water naval strategy (generally the Tory position) or a Continental land war (Williamite and Whig) was best; there was also a related dispute over whether English soldiers in Europe should fight in Flanders or elsewhere, particularly in Iberia or by landing along the French coast or in the New World. Though a moderate Tory in politics, Marlborough generally sided with the Whigs, for a land war in Flanders. Through 1706 at least, Marlborough’s battlefield victories (Blenheim and Ramillies especially) won over all but the most die-hard Tories. Robert Horn’s book (Marlborough: A Survey) summarizes the hundreds of pamphlets, sermons, poems and the like praising the Duke during the war. Yet by 1711 English public opinion had shifted against a war that was a decade old, with nought but sieges ahead. Marlborough was accused of prolonging the war, fired at the end of the 1711 campaign, impeached and put on trial for corruption. He and his wife Sarah fled to the Continent, and returned only at the accession of George I.

I presented recently on the reception of Marlborough from the end of the war to circa 1740 – check out the post’s chart showing specific biographies of the Duke if you’re interested. In a nutshell, Marlborough’s prolific supporters won out in a politically Whig environment, when the ‘Whig interpretation’ of Marlborough as one of England’s greatest captains, and as a general who always sought to fight the decisive battle in the field, came to dominate the literature. This vigorous view of the Duke would continue throughout the 19C, when editors like Murray and Coxe published accounts of his campaigns based off of their access to the Blenheim Papers. This hagiographical trend even accelerated in the last century. Marlborough was the subject of numerous biographies in the Great Captain vein – a dozen within the last 120 years.

Recent Marlborough Biographies

Recent Marlborough Biographies (from 2002 AHA paper). More since.

Even reading the Marlborough literature as a young grad student in the 1990s, I was a bit uncomfortable with the tone of these works, particularly the over-the-top Anglophone deification of the Duke. As I delved more deeply into the WSS-era literature, I was surprised at how completely the 20C historiography of Marlborough and the Spanish Succession aped what the Whigs were saying about the Duke during the war itself. As an academic historian, or any one who cares about understanding the past, this is a big problem for several reasons.

That an interpretation of any historical subject, much less one dealing with a powerful nation-state’s Great Captain, has remained essentially static for the past 300 years should raise a huge red flag for any academic historian, especially given the number of works on the subject. In almost all historiography, historians’ views change over time, or new historians change the reigning paradigm. New sources are examined, new methods applied, new questions asked, and as a result competing interpretations are advanced and debated. That’s what academic historians do. Change is to be expected given our general understanding of the development of the western historical profession. It was only in the 20C (or maybe mid-to-late 19C) that historians became academic professionals, professional in terms of source criticism and interpretative methods, professional in terms of expanding our conception of what subjects merit historical study, and professional in terms of questioning widespread assumptions about the past. Two major assumptions of past history were quickly recognized as problematic: the belief in Great Man history (the idea that singular men drove all significant historical change, in the military case “Great Captains”), and the tendency for nationalism and patriotism to shape (even hijack) interpretations of the past, most tellingly seen when authors whitewash the history of their own nation’s wars. Academic historians have been trying to redress these nationalistic and Great Man biases for a century. Even military historians, hardly a faddish group, recognized decades ago that it’s not all about national Great Captains.

In this context, some fatal weaknesses of the Marlborough literature should be obvious to anyone who has looked through it:

  • The literature on Marlborough and the WSS is consistently unanalytical. The same Great Captain biographical narrative format dominates book after book, though we can throw in a few exceptions to this equation of ‘WSS = Marlborough’, e.g. a few monographs on the Iberian theater and the important yet still underutilized work by John Hattendorf. As a whole, however, the vast majority of the literature unfortunately remains purely descriptive and focused on Marlborough.
  • The argumentation is stale. The fact that Churchill’s and Chandler’s biographies are reprinted multiple times decade-after-decade, and that new biographies are published that say the same thing over and over, illustrates the point. Even the arc of Marlborough’s career is the same in biography after biography. Whether Marlborough divulged plans to attack Camaret Bay is one of the few debates, but this rather minor point of history gains its force solely from whether or not this act of would-be-treachery (if that term even applies) tarnishes his reputation as an English patriot. There are no serious sustained debates about the Duke among military historians, much less among academic military historians. What exactly are people arguing about Marlborough? What broader historiographical debate is being addressed? For that matter, where is the recent scholarly monograph on the Duke? Where are the scholarly articles published in academic journals? As far as I can tell, the literature consists of a competition to see who can best represent how awesome he was while climbing up the bestsellers list.
  • The source base is incredibly weak. Look through the bibliographies of these biographies and you will find the same small number of English sources over and over and over. Almost none of the massive volume of foreign sources are used by the vast majority of works, yet despite this fact, Marlborough’s biographers are more than happy to pronounce on the motivations of these foreigners. Based on what evidence? Why, what English contemporaries thought their motivations were, of course! Learning languages isn’t easy, nor is wading through multiple archives. But it’s not that difficult to be more circumspect describing what other people thought when you haven’t even looked at ‘their side of the hill’ (the ‘known unknowns’, if you will).
  • Nationalistic biases make it difficult to come to terms with the implications of alliance warfare. Marlborough commanded a coalition army, a fact sometimes acknowledged, but never addressed head on. Instead, discussion of Marlborough’s diplomacy is primarily used as a way to beat up his Dutch, German and Austrian allies for not supporting English war objectives more blindly.
  • The interpretation of those sources that are consulted is too often simplistic. For example, given the fact that there was a huge domestic debate over Marlborough, over strategy, and over the contributions of England’s allies to the war effort, mightn’t it be worthwhile to consider whether Marlborough’s supporters (not just his Tory opponents) were exaggerating their claims, or making points that served more as politically-motivated or patronage-enmeshed talking points rather than accurate reflections of the historical past? Maybe notice how Marlborough’s supporters changed their tune as the war situation evolved? Perhaps even notice that most of the strategic debate in the Spanish Succession was surprisingly similar to what the English public had argued in the previous war? Too often the literature’s ‘source criticism’ seems to consist of: “Aha! I found a source that supports the Duke, so let’s quote it!” Contextualize the sources you use.
  • The literature on the Duke is embarrassingly Great Man-esque. He is said to excel at everything military, with not a single flaw, beyond his inability to politically outmaneuver his rivals and his stinginess. Not only that, but he controlled every aspect of the Allied military machine (and diplomacy to boot!) as well, down to the minutest detail. Diplomacy, logistics, siegecraft, the overall policy of England: he controlled them all – but somehow he bears no blame for the ultimate failure of the Whig strategy. As a result, any victory of Allied arms is automatically due to the Duke, whereas any failure is to be found at the hands of others. You may think I’m exaggerating, but not much.

All this being said, no historiography is completely monolithic. There have been a few changes to the historiography within the past decade or so, which I’ll address in time. Nevertheless, if recent comments from several academic military historians are any indication, these revisionist works appear to have had surprisingly little impact on the basic Great Captain narrative. Truth be told, I never really know how exactly to describe the Marlborough literature, since I’ve personally been arguing against the dominant view since the 1990s (in grad school). Several older revisionist accounts – to be discussed in a future post – have been sitting in libraries since at least the 1950s. The embarrassing fact, however, is that these challenges are simply ignored rather than addressed head on. This is a horrible sign for any historiography.

But perhaps this isn’t a surprise, since there are very few academic historians writing on “Marlborough’s war”, at least from a military perspective. Instead, for the past century the Marlborough historiography has been dominated by popular biographies written by amateur military historians, or by academic historians who write a Great Captain biography as a one-off. Look at the presses that publish and republish the Marlborough literature: almost none are academic publishers, although we’re starting to see more academic interest as university presses look to broaden the marketability of their catalog. History written by non-academic historians isn’t a problem in itself, but it is if they don’t take account of historical developments over the past century. To give an example of what the historiographical debate should look like, Mark Danley and I have had some interesting though inconclusive conversations/debates regarding whether Marlborough’s battle-seeking character was accepted or praised in the mid-18C – a discussion to be continued I hope. This is a significant analytical question that not only addresses the question of how monolithic the Marlborough historiography is, but which also relates to the debate over the ‘Military Enlightenment,’ as well as broader questions about the universality of military strategy. In short, the Marlborough literature is essentially popular military history – intended to tell a ripping yarn full of dramatic battles and bold marches (with all the boring trenchwork left out, and convenient scapegoats). A secondary, perhaps half-conscious, purpose seems to be making people feel good about (their) English military heritage. The vast majority of the Marlborough literature is not, in other words, academic history. Unfortunately this dominant Anglo view is too easily accepted by many academic historians who have not critically delved into the details of the war.

In future posts I will provide some examples of all of these points, but I thought it important to first set out the general framework for why we really shouldn’t be relying on Churchill’s biography. Eighty years later (that is an eternity in historiographical time), we shouldn’t be relying on a self-serving history of the Duke written by a British patriot who was not only a proud descendant seeking to defend his ancestor, but who saw his ancestor’s experience as offering lessons on the nature of British diplomacy and warmaking in the Interwar period. At the least, we really should examine it with a much more critical eye. The University of Chicago recently republished the massive work because it is highly-readable, and it undoubtedly earned them more profit than their average monograph. But that’s not a reason why we should use it as our touchstone.

No, seriously, it’s fun

Data entry is so much fun that I’ve spent the past month doing it – mostly transitioning from PC to Mac and from PDFs in folders+Access database to importing everything into Devonthink Pro Office (though I’m still not happy about the lack of Access on the Mac). I’ve been a bit obsessive about the process, so I’ve put off a few other things, this blog included. That’s what summer is about I guess.

It’s still a work in progress, but the results thus far? DTPO’s easy database summary gives some detail on my late obsession: my main DTPO database (English-language only, with almost none of my primary source transcripts from Access) currently measures 32 GB, with 22,000 documents and 300 topical groups and subgroups (think nested keyword folders). Of those 22,000 docs, 7,000 are rich text docs (a few primary sources but mostly OCRed secondary sources) and 14,000 PDFs (600 archival photo collections and contemporary published primary sources, the rest newspaper images). Those 7,000 text documents contain 31 million words (410,000 unique words). Once I figure out how best to import all of my notes from my Access database, that should add another 5.7 million words – right now they’re sitting all bunched up in a separate DTPO database, one giant document for each year. And I still have a few thousand PDFs to import as well, mostly pamphlets and other published accounts from the period (Google Books, Gallica, EEBO/ECCO…).

Seems like a lot of info, and it is. But the point of DTPO is to search through a lot of text. To give an idea of the application’s capabilities and speed (on my 2012-model 27″ iMac with 2.9 GHz processor and 24 GB RAM), I ran a search for the phrase “I do not know” in 67 million words (all seven databases). In 0.234 seconds it found 92 documents containing that text string, in 0.27 seconds a fuzzy search of the same phrase found 94 items. In 0.36 seconds it found 432 documents that had the string “do not” within ten words of the word “know” (aka proximity search); in 0.18 seconds it told me there are 379 documents that have the string “do not” ten words or less before the word “know” (proximity search in a specific direction). Its Concordance feature also let me know that the word “know” appears 340 times in those 31 million words. You can combine these text searches with tagging, grouping and metadata: in 0.068 seconds I found the 35 documents that are both tagged as Secondary sources (3130 docs) and include the phrase “I do not know” in the content. Throw in wildcards, boolean search terms and parenthetical nesting – it’s got it all.

DTPO also includes what its creators refer to as “AI” (artificial intelligence), although it’s really an algorithm(s) for determining similarity between documents based solely off of their textual content – there’s a related Classify feature that will group similar documents together based off of their content. The recipe is a secret, but they say it looks at word frequencies and patterns in the relationships between words within documents. Two examples of this feature can be seen in this screen shot of the search window below:

DTPO Similar Words

A search for the text string know results in 1148 documents (including any word with ‘know’ in it somewhere: knowledge, unknown…). The bottom part of the main search window shows the first instance in the selected document (unfortunately no KWIC layout here). Click on the Similar Words button and after waiting 3 seconds a ‘drawer’ on the right opens up with more info provided by the AI. The top is a list of other words that are somehow “similar to” the text string “know” – not sure if this is more of a co-occurrence feature (frequently found with, and presumably in close proximity to, the search string), or whether it’s intended more as a synonym finder (which it seems to fail at). The bottom part shows other words that might be the same text string but misspelled – similar to the fuzzy search feature I think, and very useful for OCRed text. [Sidenote: Right now my database consists of entire articles and book chapters; the AI should become more accurate as I eventually parse them into smaller, more meaningful chunks of text.]

In other words, DTPO can take a lot of words and search through them pretty darn quickly, in several different ways.

For those curious about Devonthink Pro Office for historical research, there will be blog posts. But in the meantime, for those who don’t know how to use Google, here are a few historians (and other academics) who’ve blogged about using DT, in an introductory sort of way:

But be ye warned!

First, if you want to consider a program like DT, RTFM! Several times, if you’re seriously considering the product. And don’t throw it away after you’ve started using the program – return to the manual again and again as your knowledge of the program grows.

Second, judge carefully what you read online, especially from bloggers. As historians, we should already know that we need to be really careful about chronology, and this is also true when researching software online. Features change over time, sometimes significantly, and usually in the direction of adding more. This is particularly important for software like DTPO, which has been around for perhaps a decade (I think) and gone through two major versions, adding numerous features in the process. Yet most blog commentary on DT dates from 2011 or earlier, before version 2 was released. But you don’t need to be a historian to know that you need to take claims with a grain of salt: in blog posts and comments people often assert that software X cannot do task Y, even when it can – I’ve seen this half-a-dozen times with DT. Sometimes blogger ignorance is as much to blame as outdated blog posts. So caveat emptor.

More details to come. Needless to say I’m trying to use DTPO as efficiently as possible, though I am hampered a bit by the disconnect between DTPO and relational databases. The shift from the more structured relational database format to a more freeform text database makes importing tens of thousands of records challenging. As a first (temporary) step, I’ve just done a brute-force data dump from my Access database – the text is searchable by the above methods even if the metadata isn’t included.

Oh yeah, there’ll be future posts on martial music, and that whole Churchill thing.

Data entry is fun!

Following on a previous post’s comments, if anyone is interested in helping to transcribe sources, respond (ostwaldj at easternct dot edu) and I’ll shoot you a PDF chapter from a late 17C manual. If you get hooked, more could follow. I’ll post the final results back up to the blog in case anybody else wants to share in the fruits. Crowdsourcing they call it.

EEBO and ECCO have many of these manuals as image PDFs, but only a few are available to download in full text through the Text Creation Partnership. And, as speculated on earlier, it seems Google Books is slowly becoming a marketing website, possibly even removing some image PDFs and replacing them with links to online booksellers that will sell you a copy of the work.

First up for our transcription experiment is Nathaniel Boteler’s War Practically Performed (orig. 1663). It doesn’t look like it’s available in text anywhere (not even the image files in Google Books), but I have a scan from an old microfilm.

Boteler War Practically Performed

To see why good ol’-fashioned human transcription is still needed, and for those curious about what OCR software looks like (it’s usually behind the scenes in Google Books), here’s a snapshot from one of the best off-the-shelf packages, ABBYY FineReader:

Sample OCR software screenshot

Sample OCR software screenshot

The panes show a variety of views:

  • on the left, an overview of the document as a whole – the red pages mean lots of errors
  • next to it a full image of the selected page – the green indicates which areas will be ‘read’ as text
  • next to that the resulting OCRed text from FineReader – the blue highlights indicate results the software is unsure about (but there could still be errors elsewhere, if, for example, a valid-yet-incorrect word was read)
  • and at bottom a closeup of the specific line where the cursor is inserted, for detailed comparison.

With this interface the user can then correct all the errors, as well as perform a variety of other manipulations on the image and text. The text can then be exported to a variety of formats.

As you can see, the poor quality of this image (especially all those dots in the background) and the variability of the fonts in the 17C-18C (particularly the use of italics) makes it difficult for computers to interpret the letters. Computers are dumb. But that’s where the human brain comes in.

The software interface makes it relatively easy to correct such errors. But as you can also see, there are numerous errors, only some of which are systemic and easily corrected with batch find-and-replace – stray speck or discoloration might be misinterpreted as a letter or word. Not surprisingly then, experts suggest that even 95% accuracy results in hundreds or thousands of errors in a single book consisting of 100,000 or more characters – and this 95% accuracy is measured by character, not word, which means that the accuracy rate is even lower when measured by words. As a result, some studies suggest that manual entry may be faster and cheaper for large projects. There are apparently numerous companies in India that will transcribe large projects.

Thus the need for our grand crowdsourcing experiment, even with printed texts.

If anyone else has specific requests or other tips or thoughts, let us know in the comments.

So what do early modern European military historians do anyway?

Over the past year, as I read through Promotion and Tenure files, taught Historical Research and Writing to undergraduates, converted to a new note-taking system (twice), applied for reassigned research time, spoke of humanities research to a broad audience, and generally tried to plan my own research trajectory over the next several years, my brain bombarded me with a wide range of questions: Why haven’t I published more? Why do I have so many primary sources but so little to show for it? Why are there so few EMEMHians? Why don’t they publish more? How can some disciplines present papers (and posters) at multiple conferences every year as well as publish a journal article a year, while us historians chug along at a snail’s pace?…

I can’t claim to answer the above scattershot queries, but I decided I would, for once and for all, sit down and figure out what exactly it is that I do (or don’t do enough of), so I can:

  • Get a better sense of what an EMEMHian like me does.
  • Figure out where the bottlenecks are in my research/writing process.
  • Possibly educate a few other people about the requisite skills and persistent challenges awaiting pre-modern (military) European historians, or history generally.
  • Did I mention it gives me the opportunity to make a diagram?

I’ll dispose of the obvious culprit with a wave of the hand regarding my productivity or lack thereof: teaching 3-4 undergrad courses a semester without TAs, most of which have writing intensive components (Note to self: it’s a lot easier to grade 35 papers on the same topic with a pre-defined research question than 15 papers on 15 different topics, each requiring a thesis on a different primary source.) That’s not the point of this post, and is rather self-evident in any case. And, no, “you aren’t more productive because you keep posting to your blog” is not an acceptable answer either. My blog, my rules.

So what do EMEMHians actually do when they research? Here’s my take, in convenient graphical form:

Doing Early Modern History

Doing Early Modern History (click to enlarge)

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