2015: The Year of the Military Revolution in French historiography

Yet more Xmas gifts. But at a price.

Oh, don’t worry –  I’ll spare you the checklist, but I’ll belabor you instead with what I’ve learned (and why I didn’t learn it sooner) over the past year.

But if you’re a busy person, the TL;DR version: there are a lot of French scholars of early modern military history, particularly of Louis XIV’s reign. And I’m giving you a bibliography, for free.

Every research historian needs to specialize in a particular period and place. For me, it’s been France and England, with a hint of the Netherlands. For the past seven years or so I’ve embraced the English side of the equation, for reasons I’ll now bore regale you with. (Or, if you don’t care about the importance of timing, serendipity, and the less-than-ideal way in which this scholar was formed, you can skip the personal bits to get back to the point – recent French military historiography. Or you can see some of my generic take-aways here)

The Personal Bits (for my biography, once I become a world-famous historian)

I, like all grad students, spent a lot of time reading about historiography in grad school – what other historians have written about the past. Scouring through the research guides and footnotes of publications from the mid-1990s, it was obvious that there was a well-established generation of French military historians. Not surprisingly, they tended to focus on France’s wars and military organizations, names like André Corvisier, Jean Bérenger, Jean Chagniot, Lucien Bély, Jean-Pierre Bois, and Joël Cornette, but also specialists of Vaubanian siegecraft like Anne Blanchard and Michèle Virol and Jean-François Pernot. Yet the vast majority of their studies (published before the mid-1990s) was of a distinctly political, diplomatic and social nature. Corvisier and Bois in particular made their name (to this American grad student, at least) in the “new” military history (aka war & society), with respective studies of French soldiers and veterans. Interesting enough, but my research interest was more focused on the fighting end, less the army as a social institution. This impression that nobody was interested in my topic (sieges), combined with inadequate preparation for my brief archival stint in France, England and the Netherlands (a mere four months total, with almost no external funding) and my natural introversion, led to a rather lonely research jaunt. I met not a single French military historian in my two months at Douai and Paris. Thus, I came back to the US with plenty of archival notes, but no real connection to French military historians (beyond a few brief email exchanges).

Then, as I plugged away on the dissertation in the late 90s and tried to keep up with more recent publications, I noticed an odd change: battle was making a comeback. Of most importance symbolically, the social military historian Corvisier was writing on traditional topics like the battle of Malplaquet (1709) – not just a journal article, but a whole book! – while Bois wrote a survey of early modern wars, a biography of Maurice de Saxe, a book on Fontenoy (1745), and several articles calling for a new historiography of battle. “That’s interesting,” I thought, particularly at a time when American military historians were complaining about the death of traditional military history, and the victory of military history “with the fighting left out.” But by that point I had to narrow my focus on siege warfare to (finally) finish the dissertation. Blinders on.

Then I plunged into the job market, somehow managed to get an academic job, and the real world intruded. I lucked into a halftime-teaching/halftime-research postdoc, and then a full-time teaching job on the tenure track. Within four years I’d managed to convert the dissertation into a monograph, thanks largely to the postdoc’s convenient proximity to the Library of Congress and the Society of the Cincinnati Library, and the birth of Gallica and Google Books. So now I had a book and a tenure-track job.

At that point, I wasn’t sure what my next major project should be. It was just then, however, that the fates conspired to divert me in a slightly different direction, to not-exactly abandon Louis XIV’s warfare entirely, but to shift my focus more squarely across la Manche, to Albion’s shores. First off, the path of least resistance was to return to the topic of my half-baked master’s thesis and my 2000 article on Ramillies – the operational effects of battle. And the most obvious practitioner of battle-seeking in the period was England’s Duke of Marlborough. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? In fact, I’d briefly toyed with the idea of putting the siege dissertation aside in 2003 and take up a book on Marlborough and battle first. (Glad I didn’t). Further impetus to study the English context of battle was provided by the ease with which one could order a few hundred manuscript volumes from the British Library (with several small research grants), and download contemporary newspapers and pamphlets. Ordering from the French military archives? Not so much.

The second factor encouraging my shift to the English side of battle was environmental. Employed by an undergraduate teaching university, I found myself teaching four courses per semester, creating thirteen different upper-level courses over the years, almost one new course every semester and repeating most courses only once every two years. As my timecharts indicate, I spent a lot of time condensing down the narrative of European history from c. 1490 to 1815. I was only occasionally able to teach my two courses in military history, and almost never a course which matched my research focus. This inevitable (and beneficial) broadening necessarily limited the time available to do additional research period, much less allow more time in the French archives. I also quickly learned that if I wanted to teach subjects that allowed students to read the original documents, Stuart history was a pretty good choice, given the growing availability of online resources like Google Books, EEBO and ECCO (and the surprising lacuna of French sources translated into English). My teaching pressures reinforced the English path of least resistance regarding research. And did I mention that I knew practically no other young scholars studying Louis XIV’s armée? It got pretty lonely out there on the plains, so it was natural to migrate to a slightly-more crowded field – certainly I was more likely to meet American scholars interested in early modern English military history than those fascinated by early modern French military history.

But I still tried to keep up with continental developments. I kept tabs on new French literature cited in other sources, and what was available from searches on Amazon.fr. And from afar, it increasingly became clear that Corvisier’s and Bois’ interest in battle and more traditional topics in military history wasn’t just a dalliance, but the beginning of a wave of interest in the subject. But  just as I feared that I’d missed the boat, that I’d have to surrender my French bâton, I was pulled back into the orbit of the Sun King. An invitation to a 2014 World of the Siege conference gave me an opportunity to dust off some research I’d done almost twenty years prior, which necessarily threw me back into all those French sources I’d collected way back when. With my whistle wetted, on a lark I decided to spend a month in the French military archives this past May, where I took the time to meet several French new scholars. This, seconded by a fortuitously-timed invitation to a recent SHD colloque led me to discover an entire world (a few might say demi-monde) of young French scholars exploring all the things I’d wanted to look at, but had abandoned as beyond my reach. As I learned, this wave came from a “second” (I lost count) generation of French historians, scholars like Olivier Chaline and Hervé Drévillon, who had managed to create an entire coterie of young French military historians, many of them focusing on the wars of Louis XIV. And all while I was toiling away on les rosbifs.

The Historiographical Bits

And what did I find upon reimmersion? Quite a bit of new stuff. So my final gift to you for 2015 is what I’ve learned since I returned to the French way of war. I put in the Zotero group bibliography (link on right) a long list of recent French scholarship on EMEMH (in the French folder), with a welcome emphasis on the age of Louis XIV. The subjects range from traditional military history to more fashionable subjects, and include both well-established and new scholars:

  • Biographies of Louis XIV (just about everybody)
  • Biographies of ministers and advisors (Sarmant generally, Chamlay-Cénat, Louvois-Corvisier & Cénat, Chamillart-Pénicaut)
  • Battle (Corvisier, Bois, Malfoy-Noël, Oury, Drévillon…)
  • Operations and commanders (El Hage, Fonck, Le Gall)
  • Weapons and Tactics (Bouget)
  • Strategy (Cénat, Fonck)
  • Cavalry (Chauviré)
  • Winter quarters activities (Royal)
  • Siege capitulations (Vo-Ha, Dosquet)
  • Engineers (Virol, Buisseret). There’s still disappointingly-little French work on siege warfare, beyond the standard study of Vauban’s life and fortifications (Virol is still the gold standard). I’m starting to worry my Vauban under Siege may have strangled it in its cradle. At the least, we really need some attention paid to pre- and post-Vauban siegecraft.
  • Chivalry (Deruelle, Le Roux)
  • the Ancients (many)
  • Small War (Picaud-Monnerat, Fonck, Deruelle)
  • Propaganda (Rameix, Dosquet)
  • Peace and neutrality (Bély, Bois, Chanet et al)
  • Occupation (Denys)
  • Protestant responses to Louis XIV (Levillain, Jettot)
  • Military Enlightenment (Guinier)
  • Military humanism (Drévillon)
  • Central and Eastern Europe (Bérenger)
  • Governors and northeastern France (Lasconjarias)
  • France and the Baltic (Schnakenbourg)
  • Intelligence (Bély)

And since you’re undoubtedly jonesing for a graphic by now, I present an incredibly unscientific visualization of the growth in EMFrench military history, according to my admittedly-incomplete bibliography of book chapters, journal articles, and books:

NB: Clumpiness due to edited collections. See Zotero bib for details.

NB: Clumpiness due to edited collections. See Zotero bib for details.

So check out the French group in the Zotero bib for a few hundred book chapters, and a few books and articles, on the rise of early modern French military history over the past decade. And thank the French institutions (like the SHD and the Institut Guerre et Paix) that sponsor such conferences and publish their proceedings.

Cyberstalking, Academic-Style

And if you need pointers on keeping track of future developments in this digital age, I’d recommend the following:

  • Create Google Alerts on scholars’ names.
  • Follow people and groups on Academia.edu.
  • Periodically check institutional websites and YouTube channels, such as the Paris I-Sorbonne’s Institut Guerre et Paix (headed by Drévillon).
  • Keep up with thèses in progress via theses.fr.
  • Occasionally scour Amazon.fr for keywords.
  • Subscribe (lettres d’information) to important presses: PUF, Presses universitaires de Rennes, Tallandier, Economica, Belin, Fayard, Perrin…
  • Skim French journal aggregators such as Cairn.info.
  • Subscribe to the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of various institutions and groups. (Personally, I’m too busy to wade through all that crap…)
  • Notify your local EMEMH blog about new publications <*cough*cough*>

The Dynamics of Academic Research Fads

And if you need broader lessons about grad school and academia, I’ve got a few:

  1. Make contacts early and often – I know it’s said all the time, but it’s really true. I figure my successes (such as they are) managed to overcome some serious disadvantages that my early mismanagement created for me. We shouldn’t rely on luck.
  2. Thank your lucky stars that we now live in an age where we a) have a critical mass of French scholars interested in the period, and b) have the technology that allows others to follow even minute academic developments a continent away. It’s not just email and online library catalogs and publisher/archive websites, but the ability to find recent publications and new scholars, even conference programs and papers, on sites like Academia.edu and the Williamite Universe. This includes the posting of older publications (e.g. at the Institut de Stratégie Comparée (formerly stratisc), and the Revue historique des armées). All this assumes your country-of-interest has jumped on the Web bandwagon – it’s not coincidental that my renewed exposure to French academia coincides with the period when France (finally) jumped on the Internet bandwagon. For example, here.
  3. As in the US, France seems to have far more degree-holders than available academic positions. Thus, many of these young historians find themselves employed in libraries, archives, or museums. So be sure to expand your net beyond civilian universities.
  4. Historians change over time, just like history (and historiography). Those lucky enough to get stable employment often get bored and shift topics radically over the years, while other history Ph.D.s leave the field. Many big-time scholars will make their name with some book in topic X, but then move on to other topics – usually they’ll keep the same region and shift topic or period, since it’s easiest to reuse already-learned foreign languages than learn new ones, and easier to fit new knowledge into previous knowledge of “your” country’s history (e.g. what you learned about Louis IX for the 16C will still be relevant when you look at 20C French views of the Middle Ages). Yet despite moving away from the subfield in which they made their name, they will still be considered the experts in their “old” field by those new to the field long after they’ve abandoned research in the subject. And from a publication perspective, it might even look like they’re still fully engaged in the field: their status will lead to invitations to continue to contribute in their field, which will largely consist of rehashing old work while working on other projects. This is all understandable, of course, and not in the least blameworthy. But it is worth keeping in mind when you are assessing a new (to you) field. Any bibliography is merely a snapshot in time, with the research represented therein perhaps ten years out of date – kinda like a doppler shift. Let’s call it Ostwald’s theory of historiographical relativity. I first experienced this temporal whiplash when visiting grad schools – I had University of Chicago on my list largely because of Richard Hellie, who wrote a big book (in the field) on Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy that I’d learned about a year or two previous. But that book was published twenty years before I visited him, when I was shocked to learn that he wasn’t interested in military history anymore. Hence the utility of looking forward (towards grad students and recent graduates) as much as looking backwards. And the need to make contacts, ask questions and strike while the iron is hot – you never know which recent grads will find jobs, which will shift focus, and which will abandon the field entirely within five years. And maybe, as a middle-aged scholar, you can help some younger ones.
  5. And finally, even in a sleepy backwater field like EMEMH, you should try to publish your research sooner rather than later, because you don’t know when its freshness date will expire, or you’ll get scooped. Which is why I’m finishing up my siege capitulation chapter (started way back in 1995) ASAP, before two new French scholars publish their findings on the same (general) subject. I think this also partly explains why my Ramillies article and Vauban under Siege book have been cited so frequently, including by French scholars: I did it just before a critical mass of French scholars, with unfettered access to their own archives, developed. Timing is everything in war, but also in war studies.

So Happy New Year to all, and to all a good night.


Tags: ,

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Giants of the Grand Siècle | Skulking in Holes and Corners - January 25, 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: