Archive | October 2013

Devonthink and tags

The Devonthink saga continues.

I posted on the DT forum asking a question about tags. The response was not quite what I suspected.

It turns out that my use of tags (i.e. tags as provenance, used to store the only copy of a document, the full original source) is officially frowned upon. It appears that tags and groups are not essentially the same thing after all. The developers’ concern was that if tags change in the future (either through DT or the Mac OS), that could have unexpected results on the tagging system in DT. A reasonable concern, but I didn’t realize that tags were such second-class citizens in the DTverse. Which reminds me of why I liked my custom-built Access database so much – I created it so I knew exactly how it worked, warts and all. It’s ability to make explicit relationships between various pieces of data and easily add or edit dozens of pieces of metadata to thousands of records in a few seconds made it really powerful for quickly assigning keywords and finding all records which met a whole slew of criteria (Author=English AND letter written before 1706 AND content about the Flanders theater…). Of course it was also slow (relatively speaking), unable to view various file formats, and generally had difficulty analyzing text.

Though I take no responsibility for anyone else’s data or system, if anyone has adopted my system and is of the paranoid variety, you can easily conform to the standard usage by:

  • Creating a new Source group in the groups section
  • Select all the provenance tags (and, by extension, their documents), and Move them to the Source group.
  • That will copy all of the documents to the Source group, keeping the tag hierarchy intact. At least it did in my small-scale test.

You could then use tags for more standard tag-like things – you know, get taggy with it. I really don’t like mucking up the AI by combining all of Marlborough’s letters into a single group, since he talked about 50 different subjects in different parts of different letters, and I want to analyze by those subjects, not by whether Marlborough wrote the letters or not. So you might want to check Exclude from Classify for those provenance groups, especially if you have un-OCRable PDFs that may still have hidden metadata text somewhere.

I’ve been using my system for months without a hiccup (OK, one minor hiccup) and will continue to do so, but of course you should always have a backup (e.g. Time Machine), and the ability to roll back in case some future change does muck things up.

So I’m still waiting for the perfect historian’s note-taking software. If only I could combine the advantages of a textbase like DT with the advantages of a relational database (and throw in a bibliographic database like Zotero while we’re at it). That would be the bomb. I guess I didn’t appreciate how complicated the historian’s note-taking needs are.

And why doesn’t everybody have flying cars and robot maids by now?

An MA in Marlburian logistics?!?

A new reader inquired as to whether it would be a good idea for a new graduate student to write their thesis analyzing the D. of M.’s role in logistics (presumably during the WSS).

That’s a tough one.

I have difficulty answering the question for several reasons. Most flippantly, I don’t teach grad students, so what the hell do I know? And I won’t base my recommendation on peering into my non-existent crystal ball to predict who would hire such a degree-holder. (The reason for the degree obviously looms large in the discussion.)

But thinking a bit longer on the question, I do have more substantive concerns. Perhaps commenters can resolve these, extend them, or add their own.

I’d start with the premise that there actually does need to be serious work done on the role of logistics in the Spanish Succession. But yet I hesitate recommending it for an MA student. Why?

  1. As we’ve discussed before, logistics is a difficult subject. It requires rifling through thousands of fragmentary administrative records, often poorly organized and catalogued, and trying to recreate their meaning. It doesn’t help that early modern bookkeeping practices could be quite shoddy, and somewhat arcane. All this helps explain why there is relatively little historiography on early modern logistics before the better organization of the mid-18C, and what there is, is largely impressionistic and anecdotal, financial rather than operational, and often based off prescriptive manuals, edicts and the stray contract. It’s a lot easier to analyze operations and grand strategy from campaign accounts and correspondence, or harvest quotes for a tactically-themed thesis.
  2. I think this particular logistical subject would be much more challenging to research than, say, J.S. Wheeler’s works on English logistics during the English Civil Wars or D.W. Jones’ War and Economy in the Age of William and Marlborough, because of its coalition aspects. I’d think it difficult for the average MA student to acquire the languages necessary to tackle the task. Assuming only two years or so to complete the degree, someone wishing to study Marlborough’s logistics would absolutely have to have a reading knowledge of English, Dutch and French. Highly recommended would also be Spanish if you wanted to look at the civilians or local authorities in the Spanish Netherlands, and German if you’re looking at the German contingents and the Imperials in the later campaigns. The language requirements would also be compounded by a wider variety of archives you’d need to consult in various countries.
  3. Reading Dutch in particular is an absolute necessity for the topic, as we’ve also discussed in the past. First, the Dutch and their field deputies and subcontractors were largely in charge of the minutiae of the Allied army logistics. If you want to read the sources on “Marlborough’s” logistics, you need to look in the Dutch archives. Second, the best historical research on the question has been written by Dutch scholars such as Olaf van Nimwegen, in Dutch.
  4. This last point raises a question that I don’t know the answer to. How exactly does an English-speaking grad student write an MA thesis on a topic whose pre-existing literature is unfamiliar to most English-speakers (because it’s in Dutch) – knowledge of the decade-old Dutch historiography that in and of itself would significantly alter the English understanding if it was translated into English – yet after the student has ‘changed the field’ by ‘translating’ the literature’s ideas to an English audience, he/she still has to contribute something new? How do you balance repeating Olaf’s argumentation in detail (necessary because you can’t assume your audience is already familiar with his claims and evidence) with adding your own, especially if your argument assumes a detailed knowledge of his argument (which you can’t really assume)? In short, how do you avoid making your original contribution simply a minor aftershock to the much larger earthquake resulting from translating the existing Dutch scholarship into English? (Scholarship that will, since it’s a book, undoubtedly be much more in-depth than your MA thesis.)I’m sure students do it all the time, probably when studying other oft-ignored countries. But this case seems more challenging because even though nobody reads Dutch, your work is directly affecting a much larger English historiography that everybody does know (or thinks they know). This means you will have to outline a variety of assumptions about Marlburian logistics held by many English scholars, then detail what Olaf and a few other scholars say about the subject and how it confronts the English school, and then, finally, what you say about both the English and Dutch historiography. That seems a rather large project, at least for a MA thesis. Hopefully your contribution doesn’t get lost in all that. For my diss, I didn’t have to worry about another scholar stealing my thunder (though I had a scare in the French Archives de Guerre), nor that I would have to introduce Vauban and his historiography to the English-speaking world. Just about every military historian had heard of Vauban whether they read French or not, and there was enough written in English (all saying the same things) so I didn’t have to translate recent historiography. It also helped that the French literature hadn’t departed that much from the English-language lit. (I should add that there was a certain amount of convergent evolution with some of my claims and some of the work published by Michèle Virol. Whose early book I fortunately discovered while touring the Maison Vauban.)

    The logistical case is further complicated because I know that an editor from Brill has been working on a translation of Olaf’s book for several years. Which makes me wonder the extent to which we should avoid a topic if it’s already been written about, but in a language we can’t read, or in a language our intended audience can’t? Even if the MA student does know Dutch, what happens if such a translation were to come out before or right after they finish their degree, or, even worse, as the MA student works on his/her PhD dissertation? I should also add that John Stapleton’s work on the Anglo-Dutch war effort in the Nine Years War will also have much to say about the theater’s logistics, so that too must be taken into account. And Aaron Graham’s on the financial side of the English equation…

    You don’t want to find yourself in the awkward position of waiting for works to be published before you know the extent to which you need to incorporate them into your own framework. Nor do you want to see your smaller contribution swallowed up or made irrelevant or obsolete by just–published scholarship. Which is why you want to network as early as possible. But it’s hard when there’s almost no published English-language historiography on your subject.

    On the other hand I don’t know if it’s a good idea to choose a topic defensively, fearing “the scoop.” And it may not be particularly relevant for an MA degree in any case.

So, as usual, my pessimism and “can’t-do” attitude paralyzes me. It seems you need to take into consideration numerous variables, both macro and micro:

  • marketability of the degree (depending on why you’re pursuing the degree)
  • program and advisor availability
  • historiographic interest among other academics
  • historiographic sophistication of the topic (i.e. it needs to be something that more than a few other historians care about)
  • source availability
  • language skills
  • time/resources to acquire the languages and pillage the (archival) resources…

Personally, I could see a more-focused MA on a particular campaign, maybe even a particular theater of operations or a specific subset of logistics (Olaf’s book focused on bread), although this doesn’t resolve several of the above concerns, and it necessarily limits the impact of the final product. A serious, balanced look at the 1704 march to the Danube would be an obvious start and have the largest impact, but frankly I don’t know whether there are more sources on the topic beyond what Olaf has already uncovered, and you’d really need to delve into the German/Austrian side of the equation as well if you’re doing 1704. That’s a pretty full plate (and consequent risk) for an MA student, especially if it requires learning Dutch as a prerequisite.

But that might be better than what too often happens – just look at English sources and write as if Marlborough controlled every aspect of his army’s supply.

Solutions to these problems? Suggestions for an aspiring grad student?

No way

I can’t believe it. It’s finally here, after literally a year of waiting (and forgetting it was on back order).

2013 reissue of John Childs' The Nine Years' War and the British Army 1688-97: The Operations in the Low Countries

2013 reissue of John Childs’ The Nine Years’ War and the British Army 1688-97: The Operations in the Low Countries

(Of course I already had a photocopy of the original – which you could buy used for $200+ online. But still.)

Manchester University Press/Palgrave Macmillan.

Now that’s art!

I was poking through the online Bridgman Art collection for possible images on the peace of Utrecht. For those who need historical background: a new Tory ministry in England secretly negotiated the broad terms of the end of the Spanish Succession war in summer 1711, and the peace conference at Utrecht began in early 1712. The treaty between France, Britain and the Netherlands was ultimately signed in 1713. The exiled Whigs were outraged at its terms, and when they returned to power with the accession of George I, they put the peace’s architects (Harley and St. John) on trial.

I came upon the following image, and I’m not sure how exactly to interpret this particular satirical print.

Whig Satire on Utrecht peace

Whig Satire on Utrecht peace

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a higher-quality image of it, nor much in the way of provenance or even description. It’s from a private collection, which doesn’t bode well for information discovery.

So what does this illustration tell us?

I can make out a devil spouting nonsense (or worse) into the ear of one of the negotiators/signatories. The wall displays mounted asses as trophies – maybe they’ve got it all ass-backwards? The man’s fur-lined clothing and cap in the painting hanging on the wall remind me of a well-known portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein Jr. Was this intended to situate the venue in the Netherlands? Unsure.

To add to the confusion, I can’t imagine what’s happening in the top left painting, but I’m pretty sure it’s not family friendly.

I guess I’m just no good at interpreting art.

No comment

From A General History of Sieges and Battles, By Sea and Land… (1762), vol. 1, To the Public:

“The common method of writing the history of all nations is generally slow and tedious, mixed with many things uninteresting and unentertaining; and the reader is commonly led through a disagreeable and ill-digested series of matters, seldom pleased, and often left in the dark, as to the main end for which he reads. The design, therefore, of this undertaking is, by passing over the cabals of statesmen, and other less important matters, at once to introduce the reader to the review of those things that are of the utmost importance, and on which the fate of kingdoms have, and always will, turn. These we apprehend to be SIEGES AND BATTLES, of which we shall present our readers with the most satisfactory account.”

The theory behind historical visualizations

A comment by a reader on a previous post (contrasting my Ottoman timechart with Minard’s famous map of Russia 1812) merits further discussion. Warning: theoretical discussion of the visual display of (not just) quantitative information follows.

Napoleon's march into and out of Russia, 1812 (Minard)

Napoleon’s march into and out of Russia, 1812 (Minard)

Minard’s map is considered successful because it makes a *very* simple and focused argument using high-information variables. Let me explain. Read More…

Summaries, Paraphrases and Quotes

Researchers can only be grateful when archives publicize their collections. The standard starting point is for archives to post their various catalogs online. Normally these describe the general content of entire volumes (often hundreds of documents per volume), and occasionally highlight a particularly interesting document within each volume. Some well-heeled archives go further, cataloging their holdings on a document, rather than volume, level. This is really useful.

But we need to avoid the temptation to rely on these in place of consulting the documents themselves. We always need to be a bit suspicious of summaries mediated by others.

An example? A year or two ago I noticed that the National Archives (PRO) had catalog info on the document level, particularly the State Papers collection. I downloaded each individual record because they also included brief summaries of the content of each letter. You don’t see that level of detail very often. So as I was skimming through these records in DTPO, I came across a document that piqued my curiosity. Here’s the summary from TNA website:

1702.7.9 Marlborough to Nottingham   (PRO SP 87/2.11)

Marlborough [to Nottingham]: he has written to the [grand] pensionary concerning the expedition to the West Indies but has received no answer. Lord Cutts is wrong in the matter of Mr. Morgan. He agrees that the elector of Bavaria and duke of Savoy will agree to the proposals. He has again pressed the [grand] pensionary to prohibit letters [to France and Spain]. It is in England’s interest to support Prince Eugene. Dated at camp at Over Assel [?Overijse]. PS. that he seeks a person to replace Sir Martin Beckman. ff. 11, 12

Pretty straightforward. Until I looked at a scan I had of the original:

Actual text

Actual text

For those who need the paleography practice:
“I agree intierly in your Lordps opinion, that the Elector of Bavaria and the duke of Savoy will harken to noe proposals, till thay see the success of this Campagne”

Unfortunately my interpretation of the original deviates from the summary in three ways.

  1. I’d suggest that the positive spin in the summary isn’t as evident in the original. Instead, Bavaria’s and Savoy’s responses depend an awful lot on how the rest of the campaign turns out – when exactly did they expect to see the success of this campaign (it only being early July after all)? And what exactly did Marlborough think their response would be? Marlborough probably was optimistic, but I’d argue his words are not as positive as the summary suggests.
  2. The summary’s interpretation of Marlborough’s use of the term “harken” is also a bit problematic. I’d argue “harken” doesn’t necessarily mean “agree to”, though a broader analysis of Marlborough’s usage might clarify the matter. This matters if we care about how Marlborough envisioned such diplomatic negotiations: did he expect the Bavarians and Savoyards to simply acquiesce to Allied demands due to the overwhelming victories of the campaign, or did he expect them to be more hard-nosed in their negotiations?
  3. Finally, it’s not exactly clear that Marlborough was referring to any specific proposals (as suggested by “the proposals” in the summary), since the original gives the more vague “noe proposals”. I think this further reinforces the uncertainty of how the Bavarians and Savoyards would react, particularly if there isn’t even a specific proposal that Marlborough is thinking about. Presumably a previous letter from Nottingham which discussed the issue would shed some light: was this prior discussion about a specific proposal or just general wishing that the two powers would abandon their French ally? We can’t tell without the Nottingham letter, which is not in SP 87/2; I’d have to check if it’s even in TNA – I know Nottingham’s papers are spread across several archives. Did the summarizer have some additional knowledge of this broader context, or was it simply a (hasty) generalization? I don’t know, which is a problem.

In short, I don’t really know whether the summary of this portion of the letter is good or not. Which in itself is discouraging, because that makes me wonder whether I need to be leery about summaries of the other letters. Perhaps we can trust summaries that seem to be using contemporary language rather than modern parlance? “Concerning the expedition”; “pressed to prohibit” – which of course assumes you can tell the difference.

If the quote is to be used to judge Marlborough’s optimism after only a few months of campaigning, what can we conclude? Is this quote evidence that Marlborough expected the Bavarians and Savoyards to abandon their French ally after a few months of campaigning? (Savoy did so in 1703; Bavaria not so much. But did Savoy do it because of this specific campaign?) And if Marlborough did expect Savoy to switch sides after one or two military campaigns, is this evidence that Marlborough was naive, or prescient, about how diplomacy worked? How much supposition can we pile on top of this quote? A lot less once we look at the original.

Ultimately these aren’t earth-shaking disagreements, but such nitpicking is important, depending on how tall of an edifice you want to build on top of this quote. Alas, historians can build some rickety structures, and often their foundation is hidden in a brief citation in a footnote. Which is why I not only prefer sets of evidence rather than single anecdotes and “examples”, but direct quotes whenever possible. The original language is also useful in identifying contemporary vocabulary for further digging – vigor anyone?

This tiny example has further relevance. To return to one of my obsessions, we are rarely careful enough in our summaries and note-taking: the uncertainties in the original get flattened in the retelling. This happens all the time in history (and everywhere else), and forms one of the pillars of Herbert Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History. Hence the need to keep original copies of the documents whenever possible. And, as we’ve discussed before, the need to look at a bunch of letters where the same author might have expressed himself differently on the same subject, and more clearly. Research is hard.

So kudos to TNA for their document-level descriptions. Further kudos for including a feedback link where you can suggest corrections. Whether this feedback feature gets used with any regularity, and how transparent the process is, is another matter.

Unfortunately, such summaries won’t serve as a substitute for the real thing.