Short update as I’m in France on a one-month research trip.
Last time I was researching at Vincennes (SHD, or the Archives de Guerre) was back in January 1998, a mere 17 years ago. They’ve switched buildings within the Vincennes complex since then, and now have online ordering of documents. The current reading room is appropriately named the salle de Louis XIV (in the Pavillon du Roi), and the room’s large paintings of the Sun King’s martial endeavors set the appropriate tone of Baroque seriousness. (If you want gaiety, you can check out the Château de Vincenne’s donjon right next door, where the Marquis de Sade, the Grand Condé, the Duc d’Enghein and many other political prisoners spent time.) In Louis’ salle you can see a large version of this painting that you’ve probably already seen, one of the few which bothers to show the view of a siege from the trenches:
The registration and consultation process at Vincennes is pretty similar to the other archives I’ve been to: go fill out a form with appropriate ID, get your photo taken for the ID card and receive said card, put your things in a locker (including the obligatory 1 euro coin for the locker key), go up to the 2nd floor (3rd for Americans), get assigned a seat, go to the window to pick up your documents (or see the président de salle if for some reason some of your volumes are ‘special’), then read them. Send back those you finish, and place the rest en réserve to consult the next day. Repeat as necessary.
Since the archive is open through the lunch hour, I try to eat some breakfast and just steal a quick snack so I don’t waste an hour going for lunch. Ideally this could give you 3-4 more hours per week consulting documents (a full extra day over the course of a month), though I recognize this hyper-efficiency is an insult to the French way of life. But since you’re limited to 5 volumes per day (ordered 2 weeks ahead of time), it’s hard to be efficient, particularly in the first weeks when you don’t really know how quickly you’ll be able to get through volumes. What this really means is that your rate of consultation is locked in for the first three weeks, since any increase in document orders will take two weeks to get to your desk, after you realize how it’s going at the end of your first week. Ah, lag time. So as it turns out I didn’t have anything to look at on Thursday and also today (Saturday), because I overestimated how long it would take to get through the volumes I’d ordered for that week. But that did allow more time to meet with some French military historians of Louis XIV’s reign. Yes, they actually exist!
Most of the volumes I’ve consulted have been microfilm, and since the SHD has old microfilm readers (4 of the giant hooded kind, and 4-5 of the not-quite-newish microfilm printers, but NOT scanners), and since you’re not allowed tripods of any kind, you need to figure out a way to take mediocre-quality photos of the mediocre-quality microfilm images, so you can read the authors’ mediocre-quality handwriting.
First, make sure you use a reader that actually works fully, e.g. you can move the image on the screen both left/right and up/down, that you can rotate the image, zoom and focus appropriately (e.g. the machine has the appropriate zoom magnification lens), etc. Check each machine till you find one with all these necessary qualities. Ideally that same machine will also be away from bright lights, whether windows or overhead – “glare’s a bitch,” as they say. And then after you figure out whether the machine is loaded overhand or underhand, you’ll figure out a way to zoom in on the image and focus, then decenter the page image to one side of the screen so you can steady your hand on the frame without blocking the light or the image and still have your camera pointing straight down (or at a very slight angle). Even with all that – I’m not knowledgeable or patient enough to play around with many of my digital camera settings – I’m lucky if I get a photo this good:
Pretty standard archival fare, in other words.
So like any self-respecting Taylorite, I went back over my old musings on my British Library experience from three years ago and compared it with Vincennes. The accommodations and food are, of course, much better in France than England (but we already knew they would be). Rereading my old BL post, I’m surprised at how much I complained about the time lost waiting for 70 minutes for five volumes to be delivered. And yet I feel slightly less anxious here at Vincennes, where I’m limited to five volumes at a time ordered two weeks in advance. Admittedly I have a whole month here in Paris instead of the 2.5 weeks in London, but there are far more volumes to consult here in France than there were in London, and ordering copies of documents is far easier with the BL than SHD. So what gives?
I think the difference is how the archives organize the volumes. In the BL, almost all the volumes are organized according to the author or the recipient: Marlborough’s papers from Opdam in a single volume, Robert Harley’s papers, etc. But unless you are working on a biography of that individual, or that individual is only a military actor, many of the documents in each volume won’t be relevant to your particular project. Hence the need to consult a LOT of volumes (in order to find only a few relevant documents) just to piece together several different accounts of the same event. On the other hand, Vincennes has two advantages, three really, that all come down to distillation and focus. First, as befits the origins of the archive, the documents are overwhelmingly on military subjects, which is exactly the subject I’m researching. So every document is relevant for me in some sense (or could easily be), whereas in the BL some of the personal papers dealt with personal financial matters, family affairs, and the like. Second, the SHD has further organized the vast majority of its papers not just by individual provenance per se – generally they are all letters received by the Secretary of State for War, though some others sneak in occasionally. They are further concentrated by the most logical scheme for war historians, by time and theater (when written and where written from/where written about). So A1 1968 consists of 600+ pieces of correspondence (from a few dozen authors) just on administrative military matters, pertaining to Italy, for the year 1705. And there are altogether separate volumes that focus on the operational correspondence about 1705 in Italy: one volume includes all the letters written during January-March, another volume April-July, and so on. That is an incredible amount of information, pre-selected into concentrated gold. And yet all this concentration doesn’t come at the cost of volume, at least as far as the War of the Spanish Succession is concerned. As I estimated before, there are probably 2 million pages of documents just in the AG A1 series dealing with this war. So when contrasted with the average British Library volume, each Vincennes volume is so much larger; each volume probably has 1000+ pages, with literally hundreds of individual documents, all focused on a specific geographical region ranging (usually) across mere months. Contrast that with the Blenheim Papers, where you would need to consult 75 different volumes (just a guess) in order to see all the letters Marlborough received in a similar time frame, talking about the same subject(s). Since the volumes are organized by place/period instead of by author/recipient, and each volume is concentrated and therefore almost completely relevant, 5 volumes per day at Vincennes is more than enough. And that’s with the ability to take photos.
At the same time, these voluminous Vincennes volumes are also far more manageable than most of the volumes in, say, the Blenheim Papers, even with the published Blenheim Papers catalogue and index. The pièce de la résistance is that each AG volume also has an incredibly helpful table of contents which lists each letter (hundreds per volume), its date, the author and recipient, and a brief summary of its contents. They usually also include the standard separate index of all the authors in the volume. I don’t want to even imagine how many 19C-20C French archivists gave their lives (or at least their eyesight) describing every single letter at the individual document-level. A moment of silence for those brave archivistes…
Now if only we could get all those tables of contents online, French military history would rule the world!
Other random travel research reminders to myself: renting a small apartment (with wifi, toilet, shower, clothes washing machine and full kitchenette including fridge/freezer and microwave), that’s a nice 5-10 minute walk from the archives (with the Bois de Vincennes visible from the apartment window) is so much better than my grad student experience was: a 30 minute commute on the Métro every day, while staying at a cheap cheap hotel with a toilette à la turque shared by the whole floor, and paying extra for each douche. Admittedly twenty years ago the Internet barely existed, and ten years ago France was barely on le World Wide Web (ah, but Minitel!), and I could never get the hotel’s wifi to work anyway. Oh yeah, and I had no money either. Nor was I getting reimbursed. So, yeah, things have improved. Even compared to when I was in London a few years back.
Proximity to the archives also has its advantages if, say, hypothetically of course, there’s a transportation strike, or maintenance that would force you to double your commute time, or, least pleasant of all, your train is delayed half-and-hour due to a malade voyageur.
And since I’m not a morning person, a very short commute means I’m more likely to actually get there soon after the archives open, rather than straggle in an hour or more late.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Vincennes is a very nice neighborhood with plenty of chocolatiers, boulangeries/patisseries, brasseries, not to mention several supermarchés (though the not-too-distant Hyper Cacher that was besieged during the Charlie Hebdo attacks is still closed).
My biggest regret so far? That I don’t have the full Adobe Acrobat on my MacBook Air, which means I can’t really combine the archive photos into documents until I get home. (I know you can do it with an Automator script, but that increases the size of the resulting file at least 2x-3x larger than if you did it within Adobe.)
One week down, three to go!
I’m finishing up my edits for the final version of my West Point History of Warfare iBook chapter on the War of the Spanish Succession. Eventually they’ll release it beyond those lucky cadets who get to read it for their course.
Among other tweaks, it was suggested I incorporate the following image and include various hotspots. Here’s a low-res version of the whole thing:
The image is available from the Rijksmuseum to view and download in all its gory and glorious detail (once you register). All rights belong to them, of course.
I’ve spoken about the bombardment of Gelder before, and will have plenty to say about it for this image. One of the features of the chapter, however, is to give the reader a sense of the nitty-gritty reality of war. And since I’ve personally participated in at least thirteen early modern sieges (and have the wounds to show for it), I’m obviously the expert who can explain what all of these things are.
And yet, somehow, I don’t know everything. In fact, there are a few things in this panorama of a bombardment battery that I don’t know. A few others, I have speculations. But we certainly can’t let the West Point cadets rely on guesswork.
Since I’m leaving for France in the morning, I don’t have time to look through my Saint-Rémy and various other artillery manuals right now. Thus I’m hoping someone already knows what these things are, and is looking to impress. (Bonus points if you can cite a source or point to other examples.)
To help contextualize, recall that this depiction of a battery is only a bombardment of a poorly-garrisoned town, not a full-blown siege, which means there aren’t approach trenches or saps, and the bombarding side likely isn’t expecting sallying troops to charge all the way to the battery across all that open ground. (See the appendix in my Vauban under Siege if you’re still unclear on the difference between a bombardment and a siege.)
Let the quiz begin.
First up, what are these bucket-like objects resting on the parapet in the guard trench in front of the battery? What were they used for? And please don’t say they’re helmets. (And I sure hope they’re not airing out their chamber pots either.)
Next up, I’m thinking this might be a mechanical planer of some sort (given the boards, possibly a rough pre-board in the back and an after-planing straight board in the front). Can anyone confirm?
And what are these things on the ground at the bottom, which look like a metal container with some black cloth attached to their tops?
I’m guessing they might be funnels: I’d speculate the pliable cloth opening is pushed into whatever-size hole and then you tip up the container and gunpowder goes in – either down a muzzle or in a bomb. The other staff-like objects are for loading and cleaning cannon obviously.
Next question: What goodies do these little huts hold?
Less-likely speculation: are these fascine-topped huts gunpowder storage? In the entire image, there’s surprisingly little gunpowder that I can see, apart from (possibly) a few pony kegs. Admittedly, one would rather not have gunpowder lying around willy-nilly, but this strikes me as a very clean battery. There’s a solid-looking red shed on the far left that would be a logical place to store gunpowder barrels, but you’d think they’d have more illustration of gunpowder being transported to the different guns (unless maybe those funnel-like containers are actually gunpowder carrying case + funnel. Which might make sense now that I think about it).
More-likely speculation: Or perhaps the fascine-roofed sheds store pre-filled mortar bombs? I don’t see any obvious equipment (other than possibly the funnels) that indicates that they are filling the gunpowder-filled bombs on-site, so possibly they were delivered to the battery already full, or filled all at once, and then placed in the shelters for some minimal protection. The fact that these fascine sheds are directly behind the mortars, whereas the grates heating the red-hot shot are behind the cannon, might support this idea.
Final question: Who’s a brave doggie?
I just finished my final grades for the semester, leaving me a few precious days to prepare for my month-long research jaunt at the SHD (Archives de Guerre at Vincennes for old-timers like myself) – after I finish up several other outstanding tasks, of course. I’ve got three research projects going on – the battle book, a book chapter on French siege capitulations, and an upcoming paper (presumably an article/book chapter at some point) on the French view of battle. So my archive research will resemble a scattergun approach. To the extent that I have a focus, I’ll particularly be getting photos of French discussions of the Spanish theater’s battles, since the helpful Mémoires militaires series covers Flanders, Italy and Germany, but not, for some reason, Iberia.
I’m looking forward to having all my sources and “books” at my fingertips in the reading room: all the Mémoires militaires volumes and contemporary memoirs/correspondence, all of “my” scanned primary sources and many scanned sections of “my” secondary sources, not to mention all the archival guides and inventories. But to be honest, I’m hoping I won’t have time to consult them in the reading room proper, as I plan on being a photographing machine. But at least I’ll be able to almost immediately introduce my new archival photos to their brethren via the SD card slot (always have extra memory cards, and batteries). All courtesy of DTPO and the tiny MacBook Air of course:
But back to grading. One of my student seminar papers (seminar: England in Glorious Revolution) reminded me of an English periodical I didn’t yet have in my Devonthink database. The periodical in question is interesting because it is one of the few types of documents that is guaranteed to give you nothing but opinion. Its title is The British Apollo, or, Curious Amusements for the ingenious, first published in 1708 (available on Google Books). It copied the format of John Dunton’s earlier Athenian Mercury from the 1690s: lots of anonymous readers’ questions answered by the “experts” on staff. The questions range the gamut, from religion to science to sex to you-name-it. The very first page, for example, has the editors answering three questions: why Negroes have black skin (they disavow the old “punishment from God” idea), why the sound of files and saws annoy us (I’m assuming like fingernails on a chalkboard), and why we feel like falling when we look down from tall heights. And there are over 500 pages of similar questions, pithily answered with just a bit of attitude.
So I was looking through it for discussion of warfare – that this is a general-interest periodical and isn’t focused on war makes it useful as a gauge to broader public perceptions – and I came across this:
Q. Worthy Sirs, I beg the favour of you to resolve the following query. Who has been most serviceable to the World, the Priest who found out the use of Gunpowder? Or the Soldier who invented the art of Printing? And you’l oblige your Humble Servant, T.L.
First take a moment to admire the nicely parallel contrast of the respective inventors’ professions with their inventions. I assume the interrogator is referring to Roger Bacon as the “inventor” of gunpowder, though I don’t know who the soldier would be, since Gutenberg was a goldsmith AFAIK. Unless they were already giving the Chinese proper credit for both, which I doubt.
Now, stop and imagine what the response might be – what’s our instinctual reaction, what would we answer today? And then read on:
A. We shall demonstrate as briefly as we can, the good and bad/ill Effects of these Inventions; the more satisfactorily to answer your Question. And First, The expeditious manner of publishing large Volumes by the Art of Printing, has undoubtedly given vast Encouragement to the Study of all Sorts [of] Learning; since the extravagant Charges of paying Scribes for copying Manuscripts, is hereby taken off, and much greater numbers may be had, for much less Money; by which means, the Books, publish’d in one Country, are spread over another; and Knowledge, formerly confin’d to one part of the World, become Universal. But on the other hand, the same Opportunity has encourag’d the Propagators of Hersey and Schism, Rebellion, and all other Vices, to scatter their malignant Doctrines about the Universe; to sow the dangerous Seeds of Animosity and Sedition, to raise new Sects, and open new Divisions, even to the shaking the very Columns of Religion and Humanity: An Evil, that in our Opinions has very much over/counterbalanced the Good of the invention. Now, let us consider the Consequences which have attended the use of Gun-powder; and we shall find that instead of encreasing, it has lessen’d the Effusion of Blood, and mighty heaps of former slaughter. We hear nothing, in our times, of the Hundred Thousands that so often fell in ancient Battles; we have now a cleaner Art of War, and move with more dispatch, and far less havock; by which it plainly appears, that this Invention has prevented the spilling great Quantities of Human Blood; and consequently [is] preferable to the former; whose dangerous effects have often prov’d it fatal to both to our Religion and Government.
So many interesting things in this, and so little time. So I’ll simply provide a list:
- Their ultimate answer of book vs. gunpowder isn’t, I’d suggest, quite what your average 21st century reader might expect the answer to be. One of my favorite parts of history is how often one is struck by the gulf between what we expect vs. what we find – most of the time it’s as much about our assumptions differing from theirs as about any greater knowledge we might have – and what we learn about contemporary views based off this gulf.
- Apparently all periods and places didn’t consider the spread of knowledge as an essential good, even in the age of the Scientific Revolution. Gotta watch out for those dangerous ideas.
- Interesting how most of the impact of printing comes from spreading from one country to another, vs. spreading knowledge (foreign or otherwise) downward within a country. (It might be worth mentioning that the British Apollo, like most other periodicals/papers of the period, explicitly refused to discuss domestic politics – certain information doesn’t belong in the public sphere.)
- One can easily play the “Contextualize this!” game that historians like to play. Which types of people were seen as most benefitting from print? What recent events were the authors thinking of when they worried about the impact of print? What does their discussion of the Art of War tell us about how they viewed military history? Sounds like one of my homework assignments.
- How were such documents to be read? Were they intended as sincere responses, or is there a certain contrariness to them? Given the popularity of English satire in the period, one can never be quite certain…
- And for the military historians in the audience: did contemporaries consider gunpowder as constituting a military revolution?
- What do we think of their argument about the relationship between more gunpowder and fewer casualties: causation, or just correlation?
Historical research, as most of us know, has traditionally been a solitary practice. Even in this postmodern age of killa’ collabs and remixes with co-authors named feat., historians, by and large, are still a lonely bunch of recluses. Admittedly, one’s choice of subject has a lot to do with how crowded your subfield is. Unfortunately (or not?), I’ve rarely been in a position where I knew somebody else who was actively researching the same war as me (War of the Spanish Succession) and might want to look at the same sources. John Stapleton is the closest example from my grad school days, and he focuses on the war before “mine,” so we’ve given each other feedback and pointed each other to various sources from “our” respective wars over the years. In general, though, it’s been kinda lonely out here on the plains.
But the times they are a-changin’ and the prairie turf is being transformed into suburban subdivisions. The question is whether all these houses will follow a similar aesthetic, whether their architecture will reference each other, or whether the only communication between neighbors will consist of vague nods at the grocery store and heated arguments over how far their property line extends. (Thus far, subdivisions are still segregated into ethnic neighborhoods.)
If we look beyond the discipline of History, we’re told that it’s an age of collaboration (CEOs say they want their new employees to work effectively in teams) as well as the age of information overload (I believe that – my main Devonthink database has grown to 104,000 documents and 95 million words of text). Even the other kind of doctors are having a rethink. Now this whole Internet thing allows like-minded individuals to communicate and commiserate across the planet, and not just with their neighbor next door. “Global village” and all that. As a result, even historians have figured out that we can now find out if we’re alone in the universe or not – I assume everybody has Google Alerts set for their name and publication titles? This academic version of Google Street View certainly has certainly expanded my worldview. My one semi-regret is that, thanks to online dissertations, conference proceedings and even blogs, I now find out I was in the archives 10-15 years too early, and there are currently a bunch of people both American and Euro looking into the period – and by “bunch” I mean maybe 6-12. Even more reasons for making connections. Hmmm, someone should create a blog that allows EMEMH scholars to communicate with each other…
So how should historical research work in this interconnected digital age, in this global, digital village? In an age when the moderately-well-heeled scholar can accumulate scans of thousands of rare books and hundreds of archival volumes? The combination of collaboration and digitization has opened up a spectrum of possibilities, and it’s up to us to decide which are worth exploring. Here are some possibilities I see, stretching along a spectrum from sharing general ideas to swapping concrete primary sources (Roy Rosenzweig undoubtedly predicted all this twenty years ago):
- Topic Sharing. The way it’s traditionally been done, in grad school, or if people meet up in the archives or at a conference or on fellowship. You let people know the specific topics you’re working on, and let it progress from there: “Oh, you’re working on X. Do you know about …? Have you checked out Y? You should really look at Z.” This has two advantages: first, it allows participants to keep the details of their research close to the vest, and more fruitfully, it allows the historiography to develop into a conversation rather than separate ships passing each other in the night – it’s such a waste when something gets published that really should have looked at X, Y or Z, but nobody suggested it. Or, perhaps peers studying the same period/place offered comment, but other potential-peers studying the same theme didn’t (or vice versa). Sharing subjects also forces people to acknowledge that they might not be the only person writing on topic X, and encourage them to consider whether they might want to divvy up topics rather than writing in ignorance of what others will be publishing, or already have written. Say, hypothetically, when one thinks they want to write a chapter about how the French viewed battle in the War of the Spanish Succession, and then discover that another scholar has already written about a thousand pages on the subject. So letting others know what you’re working on would be a start: type of history, subject (sieges? battles? operations? logistics?…), type of study (campaign narrative? commander biography? comparison of two different theaters?…), sides/countries (including languages of sources being used), and so on.
- Feedback and advice. This requires longer and more sustained interaction, but is far more useful for all involved. I’m not convinced by the latest bestseller claiming that the crowd is always right, but crowdsourcing certainly gives a scholar a sense of how his/her ideas are being received, and what ideas a potential audience might like to read about in the first place.
- Research assistance. Here, I would suggest, is where most historians are still living in the stone age, or more accurately, are on the cusp between the paper and digital ages. Most of our precious historical documents survive entombed within a single piece of paper(s), in an archive that may require significant costs and time to access. Depending on a government’s view of cultural patrimony and the opportunity for a marketable product, a subset of those documents have been transferred to the digital realm. But not many. This is where many historians need help, a topic which we’ve discussed many times before (as with this thread, which prompted the present post), and where collaboration and digitization offer potential solutions to the inaccessibility of so many primary sources.
But there is a rather important catch: copyright. Archives and libraries (and publishers, of course) claim copyright over the documents under their care, and they frown upon the idea that information just wants to be free (ask Aaron Swartz):
So this puts a bit of a kink in attempts to create a Napster-style primary source swap meet – though I am getting a little excited just imagining a primary-source orgy like Napster was back in the day.
Fortunately there are steps short ofscofflawery. Most of these revolve around the idea of improving the ‘finding aids’ historians use to target particular documents within the millions of possibilities. These range in scale from helping others plan a strategic bombing campaign, to serving as forward observer for a surgical strike:
- A wish list of specific volumes/documents that somebody would like to look at. This could be as simple as having somebody who has the document(s) just check to see what it discusses, whether it’s worth consulting. This, of course, requires a bit more time and effort than simply sharing the PDF.
- Or it might mean providing some metadata on the documents in a given volume. For example, I discovered in the archives that if the Blenheim Papers catalog says that Salisch’s letters to Marlborough in volume XYZ cover the period 1702-1711, and I’m studying the siege of Douai in 1710, it is a waste of one of my limited daily requests to discover that Salisch’s letters include one dated 1702, one from 1711, and the rest all on 1708. The ability to pinpoint specific documents would in itself be a boon: many archives have indexes and catalogs and inventories that give almost no idea of the individual documents. Not only would it save time, but it might also save money if you want to order copies of just a few documents rather than an entire volume.
- Or, such assistance could be as involved as transcribing the meaty bits of a document. Useful for full text, though purists might harbor a lingering doubt about the fidelity of the transcription.
- Or, it might mean running queries for others based off of your own database. I did that for a fellow scholar once, and if you’ve got something like Devonthink (or at least lots of full-text sources), it’s pretty easy and painless. Though if there are too many results, that starts to look a bit like doing someone else’s research for them.
Of course with all of these options, you have to worry about thunder being stolen, about trusting someone else to find what you are looking for, etc., etc. And there probably isn’t a good way to assuage that concern except through trust that develops over time. And trust is based on a sense of fairness: Andy’s questions about how to create a system of calculating non-monetary exchanges have bedeviled barter systems for a long time, I think.
As usual, I don’t have a clear answer. Simple sharing of documents is undoubtedly the easiest solution (cheapest, quickest, fewest number of eyes between the original source and your interpretation), but I don’t have a system for the mechanics. Nor am I clear on the ethical issues of massive sharing of sources – is “My thanks to X for this source” in a footnote enough? If some documents are acquired with grant funds, can they be freely given away? And the list goes on…