The World of the Modern Conference

Last weekend I attended an excellent workshop hosted by Duke University’s History department entitled “The World of the Siege” and organized by Anke Fischer-Kattner. It was one of those rare beasts in academia, a two+ day workshop focused around a very specific theme and period/place. The attendance was limited to a couple dozen scholars who presented papers on various aspects of early modern sieges around the world – in fact, a majority dealt with non-European sieges. I include the program in case anyone is interested in the details, and follow it with some general reflections on workshops vs. conferences. In a future post I’ll give my two cents on that whole trace italienne debate.

At first sight, the importance of sieges in early modern warfare seems well established. A contemporary British military man stated in 1677 that commanders made ‘war more like foxes, than like lyons; and you will have twenty sieges for one battell.’ Some important explorations of the subject have been undertaken more recently from the fields of history of technology, art-history and the ‘new military history’. Yet, so far, actual events of siege and the great mass of primary source material that they spawned remain curiously underexplored as key moments of cultural and social history. Early modern sieges have mostly, if ever, been treated as singular terrifying events. This workshop seeks to understand early modern sieges in a comparative fashion. Individual contributions concentrate on primary sources, in which contemporaries attempted to describe and make sense of the traumatic military, political and social ordeals they encountered in siege warfare. Presenting work in progress at various stages, participants will offer a variety of examples as a basis for joint reflection and discussion. An overview and reflections on the problem of a definition of siege warfare for world history in the modern era will be presented by Professor Peter Wilson (University of Hull) in a public keynote lecture. All the contributions of this workshop offer glimpses into a ‘world of the siege’, a rich mosaic of different cultural perspectives on a gruesome, yet fascinating event of war.

Anke Fischer-Kattner, Universität der Bundeswehr München/Duke University

Workshop ‘The World of the Siege’ – Program

Thursday, September 4, 2014

3:00 pm                                   Arrival, informal gathering

3:30 pm                                   Welcome addresses

4:00 pm                                   Panel 1: The Beginning of the End: Surrender

Chair: John Martin, Duke University

Siege, Surrender, and the Humanitarian Law of War in Early Modern Europe

John Lynn, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

The Many Faces of Surrender: Siege Capitulations c. 1700

Jamel Ostwald, Eastern Connecticut State University

6:30 pm                                   Keynote lecture

Under Siege? Defining Siege Warfare in World History

Peter Wilson, University of Hull, UK

8:00 pm                                   Dinner

Friday, September 5, 2014

8:30 am                                   Arrival, breakfast

9:00 am                                  Panel 2: Siege Warfare in the East (of Early Modern Europe) – Russia and the Ottoman Empire

Chair: Mona Hassan, Duke University

The Bombardier’s Ring: Russian Royal Sphragistics during the 1695 Siege of Azov

Erik Zitser, Duke University

Ottoman Visions of Kamenets-Podolski, 1672: A New Frontier-in-Making?

Kahraman Sakul, Istanbul Sehir University, Turkey

10:45 am                                Coffee break

11:00 am                                Panel 3: Sieges in Colonial North America

Chair: Kathleen DuVal, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

A Tale of Two Sieges: Failure and Victory in the Franco-Natchez War

George Milne, Oakland University

The Impact of the Siege of Charleston (1780) on Civilians before, during and after the Siege as seen through Archaeology

Carl Borick, Charleston Museum

12:45 pm                                Lunch break

1:45 pm                                   Panel 4: South Asian Sieges

Chair: Sumathi Ramaswamy, Duke University

‘Such Fights Had Never Been Seen in the World’: The Siege of Chitor (1567-68) and Mughal Siege Warfare in Early Modern North India

Pratyay Nath, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India/Georg-August Universität Göttingen, Germany

Imperial Failures: The 1689 Mughal Siege of Bombay and the Origins of the British Empire in Western India

Philip Stern, Duke University

The Siege of Ajaigarh in 1792 in Padmakar’s “Himmatbahādur Virudāvalī”

William Pinch, Wesleyan University

4:30 pm                                   Coffee break

4:45 pm                                  Panel 5: 16th-Century Europe

Chair: Kristen Neuschel, Duke University

‘The Enterprises and Surprises that They Would Like To Perform’: Fear, Urban Identities, and Siege Culture during the French Wars of Religion

Brian Sandberg, Northern Illinois University

“Impresa di Clissa”: Conflict and the Complexity of Political and Religious Identities on the Early Modern Dalmatian Frontier

Eric Dursteler, Brigham Young University

7:30 pm                                   Dinner

Saturday, September 6, 2014

8:30 am                                   Arrival, breakfast

9:00 am                                   Panel 6: 17th-Century Europe

Chair: Frederick C. Schneid, High Point University

The Effect of Sieges on the Populace

Sigrun Haude, University of Cincinnati

Colchester’s Plight: Pressures of Time and Space in Accounts of Siege Warfare from Seventeenth-Century Europe

Anke Fischer-Kattner, Universität der Bundeswehr, Munich, Germany/Duke University

Siege views: the city as trophy of conquest in 17th-century war

Martha Pollak, University of Illinois, Chicago

11:45 pm Roundtable and Concluding Discussion fading into/combined with farewell-lunch

Comments: Wayne Lee, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Thomas Robisheaux, Duke University


I’ve participated in a couple of similar conferences, but this one was the most successful by far. Why? A few reasons.

First, the theme was very focused, which necessarily means the interested audience will be small. But that also means that most of the participants already knew something about the topic, so could ask intelligent questions, as well as provide points of comparison. Most of the papers reflected themes and methodological questions that dovetailed with each other quite nicely. Historians frequently talk about the need for more comparative history, but it’s impossible to avoid it when you have papers on sieges in 16C India, 17C Germany, 17C England, 18C Louisiana, 18C South Carolina, 18C Low Countries… It didn’t hurt that each presenter pre-circulated a chosen primary source on their paper topic.

The format was a refreshing change from most conferences. Since the audience was small (no more than 25 or so), and since there was at least an hour reserved for discussion in each panel and only two papers per panel, we actually got to discuss things. Much more useful than what we usually find at conference panels: a series of often-unrelated, brief dialogues between first Presenter 1 and Questioner A, then Presenter 1 and Questioner B, and then Presenter 2 and Questioner C. You almost never have time in conference panels to have a discussion at any depth of detail, e.g. between more than two people, or more than a single exchange (limited to one back-and-forth, vs. back-and-forth-and-back-and-forth). This is especially true if you’ve got three papers (usually on different-enough topics). a 10+ minute commentary, and only 20-30 minutes for discussion. One person I know has a system, rarely followed, to have the questioners indicate with hand signals whether their question is a follow-up or a question on a new topic. It always seems to get eye-rolls, but the idea is a good one. And much of the time, too many of the questions at big conferences are mediocre at best, reflecting audience members’ glancing interest in the subject. Or maybe that’s because I go to the wrong conferences?

So the workshop format allowed me to do more than my fair share of butting in to respond, challenge, query, and shamelessly plug my book. It also made me appreciate (yet again) that there are a variety of benefits one can get from a conference. Most papers seem to be close-to-finished products – semi-polished arguments that are largely complete and intended to be defended. But maybe they shouldn’t be. My presentation was more of a work-in-progress, and I intentionally made several major points – each could have been its own paper – in the hopes that it would spur discussion, which it did in spades. Rarely will a presenter come away with new details on their own topic, especially in EMEMH where our periods and places are so diverse and distant from one another. Often times it’s more helpful to learn from an audience what they find interesting within your paper – which historiography finds the most traction, which section gets the most pushback, which avenues are worth further exploration. If you’re lucky, someone will suggest you might want to try searching for X or Y in this-or-that type of source. If nothing else, you will have a better sense of the objections you’ll need to rebut in order to prove your case. The proof of the workshop’s success? After little sleep the night before the conference, my brain still woke me up at 4 AM on the first night and 5 AM on the second night to write down my responses to questions I’d been asked about my paper (presented on the first day). In case you’re wondering, that’s really really early for me: I know a day can end at 4 AM, but I didn’t realize it could start then too.

The discussions were also fruitful because the collection of fourteen papers on the same topic, and the fact that the same group of people were in all the sessions, allowed certain recurring themes to be discussed in different contexts, in greater detail as the conference progressed. In normal conferences, a sustained dialog across panels is rarely possible because the panels are different, and parallel panels at the same time compete for attention, fragmenting the audiences and hindering a ‘cohort’ from developing. The workshop was, in other words, more like a TV series than a movie.

Small workshops also concentrate opportunities for serendipitous interactions, chance encounters that happen more rarely at conferences. Veteran conference-goers know that many interesting conversations are started at the hotel bar (i.e. stay in the same hotel as everyone else), while waiting for the conference shuttle bus, or just happening to be at the right panel before the lunch or dinner break and gravitating towards people who are asking the kinds of questions that you’re interested in.

At the end of the workshop, Wayne Lee’s wrap-up comments even suggested that we should start counting our sieges and fortresses. Now that’s progress!

Oh yeah. I also autographed a couple of copies of my book, which is always an odd experience. My only regret: that I didn’t have a box full of Vauban under Siege to give away.

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7 responses to “The World of the Modern Conference”

  1. Boris Megorsky says :

    Extremely interesting, thank you for sharing the program, Mr. Ostwald. Do you know if they were going to publish the papers?
    I am doing my amateur research on the GNW siege warfare and your dissertation has been long among my favourite readings.

    • jostwald says :

      Glad you found the program of interest, and like my diss (the book is better!). There is some discussion of a possible volume, but in my experience it likely wouldn’t be published for a few years. Normally the conference papers are pretty rough and require a fair amount of revision, and such edited volumes are often low priority for some contributors, even including the editors! My “Creating the British way of war” was submitted back in 2009/2010, but the volume wasn’t released till a few months ago. There are many other examples one could cite. So if you’re impatient, you could try contacting the individual authors.

      • Boris Megorsky says :

        It is a familiar situation with late printing of a conference volumes although there are happy exceptions. I am impatient indeed, so will take the chance and ask if you were thinking of uploading yours to academia?
        Customs and practice of capitulation with regards to GNW sieges is something I was researching as well.

      • jostwald says :

        The conference paper isn’t really in a state for public view – a lot of the footnotes are missing (i.e. they’re in other fragments in the Scrivener project or in Devonthink notes) and it is generally in mid-project form. I have several bold claims, but don’t have all the evidence for them marshaled on the page. As usual I think I’m right, but more work is needed to make the argument convincing for skeptics. And there are a few outstanding questions I still need to answer.
        I’ll probably end up writing two separate chapters since there’s so much to say, ideally over this academic year. In a nutshell, my workshop paper argued that the rituals in siege capitulations (at least those in the Low Countries theater during the WSS) were far less important than is usually believed. In short, I was trying to start the necessary task of replacing John Wright’s 80-year old article on siege conventions, since he reinforces the “rhetoric of siege history” I’ve railed against previously.
        The chapter for the tentative conference proceedings, however, would probably broaden out a bit to explore the ways in which honor was claimed and contested through the WSS siege surrenders: what exactly did it mean when contemporaries said a garrison received an “honorable” surrender? Where exactly was the “honor” in sieges? This wouldn’t just repeat the explanation of the meanings of the various marks of honor (flags flying, drums beating…) given by Wright (drawn almost exclusively from prescriptive treatises we should add), but actually look at how participants and observers interpreted these surrender terms. In other words, the same methodology that I used in Vauban under Siege: compare/contrast the stereotyped theory that everybody repeats vs. the reality that we find when we bother to actually look at what people said at the time. As usual, the reality is far more complicated (and interesting) than the conventional wisdom would have it.
        A second article might well be a more direct replacement for Wright, describing the capitulation process, and would probably look more at the statistics of WSS sieges and what they tell us about how combatants determined when to surrender and what terms to offer/accept (compared with what the prescriptive treatises said). But I won’t know if this division makes sense till I try to write it up.

  2. Boris Megorsky says :

    Thank you for sharing! Trying to find out what contemporaries followed in practice compared to theory is one of the most interesting parts of a research. When looking at GNW capitulations I have seen a brief mention of different ‘types of surrender’ in Peter the Great’s correspondense, however no detailed description of them, unfortunately. Speaking of reality there are numerous cases when capitulations terms were abused and how one side justified it and another reacted to it. I also found that rituals of capitulation were at times followed on paper by both sides even when it was imposisble to implement it in real life (like exit of garrison via breach in rampart was insterted into a signed accord even when the breach was still impracticable in Noteburg 1702).
    Will have to find a copy of Wright’s paper from 1934.

    • jostwald says :

      I’d guess Peter’s types of surrender were the standard variety of fates a garrison might face (assuming a successful siege): either 1) garrison granted a free evacuation aka “honorable” conditions, 2) a garrison allowed a free evacuation but promising not to fight for a certain period of time, 3) a garrison taken prisoner – either to be exchanged right away or later, or 4) a garrison taken “at discretion” (what we’d call unconditional surrender). The worst fate of course would be 5) to be put to the sword. But the garrison’s fate is distinct from the specific “marks of honor” a garrison might receive. The specific details of the evacuation ceremony followed a few general principles, but the specifics don’t exactly match the garrison fates mentioned above. For example, even imprisoned garrisons could receive certain “marks of honor” despite not receiving “honorable” terms. So it’s a bit confusing.
      I’m glad to hear there are also Russian examples where the formal terms of the capitulation aren’t (or can’t) be followed – that’s one of the reasons why I think the ritualized aspects of the capitulations weren’t that important/meaningful.

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