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)

Like all models, this is theoretical, and obviously there are various iterations and feedback loops one goes through in any given project. But you get the idea. And in case you didn’t, I’ll spell it out.

Step 0. Familiarize and Develop a Research Question.

The above chart ignores the standard starting point for research, reading what other people have written about the subject and figuring out what you want to write about. (I’ll also ignore learning the requisite foreign languages, although they constantly mock the EME historian.) My impression is that EME(M)H has both advantages and disadvantages when compared to other fields in history, Western at least. Since the number and variety of sources generally increase as we approach the present, early modern Europe finds itself somewhere in the middle, between the poorly-sourced Middle Ages and the overwhelming amount of primary sources available on the modern era. There is an important corollary to this: the modern period has a large number of primary sources, but also a similarly massive number of secondary sources drawing upon this primary source base. If we were to imagine a ratio of secondary sources to primary sources (SS:PS), I’d suggest that early modern Europe probably has a very low ratio (SS<PS).

The result? There is a lot more secondary literature to read in modern history. In one sense, time advantage: early modern. Not only because of the volume of materials to read through, but also the variety of historiographical debates one could engage and has to keep up with (although it seems that many modernists compensate by narrowing their topics very narrowly). But this massive quantity of print also means there are far more overviews and surveys of just about every aspect of modern history, in addition to detailed histories on many specific cases. As we all know, one advantage of secondary sources is that they are already processed: previous historians have already gone through the thousands of primary sources and condensed them into a narrative, or even into an analytical framework. This makes comprehension of the topic relatively painless to acquire; your main concern will usually be choosing which history to read first – and you probably have several good reference works to get a basic overview from.

But for us early moderns, there are far fewer overviews and detailed narratives available, and therefore a much greater need to go poking through primary sources (or contemporary histories) trying to find a semi-detailed narrative. Fewer secondary sources to read, but more primary source work required. A related result is the tendency towards broad yet shallow early modern historiography, with the history of an entire country or war serviced by a single historian (Michael Roberts on Gustavus Adolphus, anyone?). Unless of course you read all those European languages.

There are a few additional caveats regarding the number of sources available to the EMEMHian:

  1. When exactly you study matters. Within early modern Europe there is significant variation, with the number of sources increasing dramatically as we travel into the 18C.
  2. Where you study will alter this basic relationship. Studying England or France will vastly increase not only the number of primary sources but the SS:PS ratio as well (contrasted, for example, with the history of early modern Denmark). There are far more historians on England and France than any of the other European countries, once we add the size of native historians to the large Anglo-American historical professoriate (which has historically focused heavily on England and France). No surprise then that English history tends to be hyper-empirical and filled with facts (even compared to French history), given the nation’s good fortune of avoiding much of the documentary destruction resulting from centuries of wars on their soil.
  3. Try to study more than one country and the number of sources will obviously increase vastly, in addition to requiring additional languages.
  4. What you study will dictate your source availability as well. Early modern military historians are particularly challenged because ours is one of the few early modern fields (along with high politics, law, religion and diplomacy) that literate early modern contemporaries cared so much about that they constantly wrote about, not just in the archives but in print as well.
  5. Studying particular wars will also change the ratio of SS:PS greatly – compare the secondary literature on the War of the Spanish Succession (featuring Great Captains like Marlborough, Eugene and Villars) with that of the previous war, the Nine Years War.

But back to what we historians do once we have a topic in mind.

Step 1. Locate.

Now much easier in the digital world of online catalogs and Google Books, although many of the early works are only available via subscription databases or by ordering from the archives. Partially because so much is available, searching out these works is still time consuming, if only because the embarrassment of digital riches tends to make one a hoarder.

Step 2. Acquire.

Our new digital wonderland is great, but let’s remember that this affects different fields and disciplines differently. Contrast the EMEMH hunt for books in Google Books or Gallica with some other disciplines where your sources consist of a pre-formatted dataset downloaded from the World Bank or GSS (General Social Survey) in a minute or less. Historical sources are also differentially accessible: archives have generally spent most of their money digitizing sources from the late 18C through the 20C. From an early modernist’s perspective, it’s both exhilarating and depressing to read what you can do with digital tools (e.g. the Programming Historian): I can only wish I needed the ability to scrape websites to harvest their (full-text) sources into my database. I don’t have any online databases to harvest in the first place, or at least any that will let me automate the process (Google Books) or allow me access to the full-text (ECCO). Fortunately many archives will reproduce documents for you (sometimes), but this will depend on how well you know the collection already, which in turn will depend on hit-or-miss cataloging. And it will also require 2-3 months for delivery.

In a few cases, e.g. the Public Record Office’s State Papers or the Burney newspaper collection, documents have been scanned and are available online, but only if you can afford the subscription fee charged by the company doing the scanning and hosting. I’ve managed to take advantage of several free trials to such databases, but subscription prices are astronomical. I’m told, for example, that the main online collection of printed 18C works, the Eighteenth Century Collections Online, costs each subscribing library near $100,000, plus an annual fee. And now it appears Gale is apparently going to combine all their various databases into a single meta-search engine, perhaps to stave off bankruptcy. How many libraries can afford such fees?

Yet the most fundamental challenge for EMEMH research is actually processing the sources into a usable format.

Step 3. Process.

You can venture on small research jaunts, scrape up grants here and there, order archival documents on microfilm or (nowadays) as image files, maybe even spend weeks or months in the archives. Such acquisition is relatively easy, if expensive. Nowadays the key bottleneck is that most early modern documents are still unpublished and therefore analog. Not only are EMEMHians more likely to need to travel far or order archival documents for more of their sources (at least if you’re in the US), but we must also rely on a higher percentage of analog sources than modern historians. Damn their fancy typescript – thus OCRable – documents, published primary sources, and free online resources! More early modern primary sources will be in analog-only format, if only because the greater popularity of modern history provides a larger market for publishers. (Google Books provides an exception to this rule thanks to the US pre-1923 copyright rule, but has its own problems).

And I mean “analog” in the most old-fashioned sense possible: handwritten text. Even if it’s been scanned, it still requires a human brain (with the necessary linguistic and paleographical skills) even to transcribe, much less interpret. If you are only reading your historical documents once and taking notes as you go, then processing the info requires the standard but mentally taxing work of puzzling out handwritten words, internalizing archaic verbiage and sentence structure and ignoring ink bleed-through, all while trying to understand and analyze all at the same time.

But if you want the full text like digital humanists do – for textual analysis, for future research, or because you’ll only see that document once in the archives – then this becomes a serious constraint. Transcribing handwritten documents is still beyond OCR capabilities, while the wide variation in early modern typefaces makes OCR very inaccurate – check the text versions of various Google Books books if you’re unfamiliar with the problem. Correcting OCR is so time-numbing that I recently purchased Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software in the hopes that it will speed up entering various campaign and newspaper accounts, diaries, etc. Reading the text into dictation software has its own limitations for early modernists, most notably that irregular spelling is eliminated in the process and unfamiliar place names are garbled, unless you want to manually correct them all. There is, in other words, no shortcut – unless you have the money to pay for transcription by desperate grad students. Volunteers?

Step 4. Analyze.

Once you have the sources in readable form, then you can do the normal analysis that historians perform. You choose a methodology and an analytical framework, you make use of your note-taking system, you ask questions and you answer them with your logic and your empirical evidence. Then you write up the results. Revise, submit, revise again. Presto: History!

So that’s four steps, five including historiography. I would argue the bottleneck for the EMEMHian is step 3, or at least it is for me. The processing of each and every document is an additional stage that pre-modern historians (or any historian relying heavily on manuscript sources) must go through, in addition to the normal stages every historian performs. Independent of the methodology you choose, separate from the analytical framework you adopt, apart from the genre(s) of primary sources you analyze, and regardless of the note-taking system you adhere to, the vast majority of your sources are analog. And even when “digitized” by an archive, they usually remain images that require human deciphering, with little assistance offered by computers. This analogularity (cute, no?) adds another time-consuming, often times mind-numbing, always-daunting step in the researching process. I don’t know if this analogularity is equivalent to the flood of sources available to modern historians (this isn’t a competition after all), but in any case, this is where I’m at now. I have 10,000s of new documents photocopied, scanned and filmed. Yet I’ve barely scratched the surface because of their analog nature. Now comes the hard part.


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2 responses to “So what do early modern European military historians do anyway?”

  1. Andy Tumath says :

    I’m up for some pro bono transcription work. 17th-18th C English and Spanish will be (ought to be) simple enough; I can do French and Portuguese at a push.

    • jostwald says :

      That would be awesome. Unless of course you’re joking, in which case that would be mean.
      Given copyright and the like, it might be best to do some transcriptions of (late) 17th century published military manuals, those not already transcribed in EEBO, Google Books, etc., and which aren’t easy to OCR. They’re out of copyright, and I’m thinking many others would find them useful as well, i.e. I’ll post the results online.
      Let me write up a post with a formal invite to participate. I could even sweeten the pot by offering a few of my own OCRed/scanned docs. I could also include a ‘dirty’ OCR version if anybody wanted to look at that.

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