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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?