I sure do love Lincoln and Washington
Because they give us U.S. faculty on a MWF teaching schedule a full week off in the Spring, and that’s before Spring Break. Which, combined with the two consecutive snow days last Friday and this past Monday, mean I’ve had the time to finish up my siege capitulation chapter (okay, 99% done) that I’ve been working on forever. Literally. I wrote a graduate seminar paper on the subject circa 1994.
Why has it taken so long to finish this chapter with a target length of only 12,000 words? Let me count the ways, leaving aside non-project issues:
- I’m generally an empirical, detail-oriented kind of guy, which means I’m not convinced by historical arguments that rely primarily upon logic or theory (without copious empirical evidence from the period/place/subject in question), nor by arguments that mention a single example or two, without illustrating the depth of the research behind the selection of those cases – and bibliographical entries don’t tell us much about which sources were actually read through, which case studies were actually studied. My three arch-enemies are unfortunately quite popular among too many of the historians I read: Argument by Anecdote, Argument by Appeal to Theory, and Argument by Appeal to Zeitgeist. (Don’t know if these are in Hackett Fisher’s Historian’s Fallacies.) Unfortunately this describes the historiography on siege capitulations to a tee. Which means I need to break the cycle of violence – violence to contemporaries (whom we caricature and pigeon-hole), and violence to historical research method (which we turn into a game of “seek-a-pithy-quote-in-an-easy-to-find-source” and “let’s-just-assume-that-theoretical-treatises-accurately-describe-reality-because-they’re-easier-to-process”). Breaking a cycle of violence takes time.
- Early modern European military history has a ton of sources (relative to the period and place), and thanks to the digital age and some small research grants, I now have a ton of those on my hard drives (and the cloud) that I can call up effortlessly. That allows me to analyze the subject in a lot more detail: to learn a lot more about what dozens of contemporaries actually said and thought and did, and to analyze the subject with much finer granularity, to see all the exceptions that get buried as history races on at its dizzying pace. (Seriously, every historian should read Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History at least once every few years.) But that also takes a lot more time (not the reading Butterfield part).
- “My” war, the War of the Spanish Succession, had about 125 sieges (I’ve lost count, to be honest) – I’m only now starting to realize what a massive number of sieges that is, especially for a war of thirteen years. Because I’ve focused on the Low Countries theater my whole career, I’m focusing on those cases, though I draw from other theaters as well. But even examining only one of the four main theaters of war, we’re still talking about 36 sieges or so. And in those 36 sieges there are actually 49 different fortifications (towns plus associated citadels and forts), each of which might receive a distinct capitulation. And, if you’ve read my Vauban book, you know I want to see the patterns, rather than just choose a random (or worse, non-random) example and say “This is how they all were!” To repeat a previous graphic:
- So when you combine the 36/49 Flanders siege surrenders with the yuuge number of sources available, you get a lot of sources to look through. And I really do need to look through a lot of them. My ideas keep getting richer and more nuanced as I compare one siege capitulation with another, one interpretation of the capitulation of X with a divergent view from another source. It’s not just about piling on 12 different sources all supporting the claim that X happened at siege A, though corroboration is important in and of itself. It’s also about finding out that source 1 disagrees with source 2 about claim X, which means we need to be more nuanced when describing contemporary conceptions of X. It’s also about finding 5 examples of the same thing at sieges A, B, and C, which suggests that it’s a more robust phenomenon than just a one-off, that there’s some kind of trend or pattern among multiple sieges, over time. And it’s also about finding 5 examples of several reasons why X occurred at sieges A, B, and C, which is consilience, or different types of reasons all supporting the same broad claim. If I can put it in argument mapping terms, the last map is structurally much stronger than the others (ceteris paribus), and we should be requiring more evidence for our claims rather than less, since we historians overgeneralize all, the, time:
But finding these details require time:
- In theory you can make educated guesses as to which events will strike gold: ‘this was a really big siege, so it should have a really big discussion about topic Y.’ But I’ve found it isn’t easy to guess which sieges will reveal the best case studies. On several occasions I have serendipitously come upon a really revealing discussion of capitulations for a siege that I never would’ve predicted would yield such insight. And then I am disappointed that a better-known siege has nothing of use. Considering that I know these sieges pretty well (I think I wrote something about the subject once), the Sisyphean prospect is disheartening, but it also feeds into the addiction to keep wading through the sources. I still come across examples where I find myself saying: “Holy sh*t, that’s exactly what I wondered, and I would truly hate myself if I’d published my chapter without that example.” Further, most contemporaries will only make a big point with one siege (which one, you have to guess), not repeat it when they discuss siege after siege. Normally scholars talk about diminishing returns with the increasing number of sources you consult, but, scarily, I haven’t even come close to reaching that inflection point yet. And the richer the interpretation, the more hypotheses to test and the wider to cast your net. Oh wait, now you mean I have to go back to all those other capitulations and see if they mention trumpets as well? Damn.
- One of the most interesting aspects of siege capitulations is how they were interpreted by observers (the participants themselves spent practically no time whatsoever describing these evacuations and marks of honor outside of the capitulation – hint, hint). One of the best sources to provide an observer’s perspective are the several dozen contemporary newspapers – for this project I’m largely limiting myself to English- and French-language papers. They come in a variety of flavors (I’ve already expressed my affection for the salty Observator), but they do have one big problem familiar to anyone who’s used the genre: their asynchronous reporting means that you never really know which issue to look in. For example, I know the siege of X surrendered on June 6 N.S. But I can’t just focus on the papers of June 6-8. News travels at different speeds, different accounts are sent at different times, breaking news might delay publishing some news stories, etc. Even worse, the English newspapers were, the bastards, still using the Old Style calendar, which means on top of all the other issues, you need to subtract 11 days from the issue date, since the fighting was occurring on the Continent (my old Access database did that automatically with some code, but not DTPO). But then news across the Channel might be further delayed – they often complained about packet boats being delayed by weather, or by being on the wrong side of the Channel – so you can really get quite the asynchronicity headache reading any given issue of an English newspaper (see my series on “I Read the News Today”). And most of the papers were only published every few days, which means you need to spread your net out even further, not to mention all the monthlies. The result is that for each siege, you need to read the closest issue after the capitulation date, plus or minus a month or more for each paper, so you can see the expectations for the surrender, the initial reports of its capitulation, and then see how the news of the event kept trickling in, as well as reactions to it. You need to check the year-end roundup as well, which, wouldn’t you figure, isn’t always published in the last issue of the year. And you have to skim through the entirety of each issue, because A) you don’t know where in the newspaper your stories will be (fortunately each issue is only two two-column pages, but very small print with dense detail and topics poorly demarcated within each article), and B) they might have two different accounts (on two different dates) on different pages in the same issue, the first speculating on a coming surrender and the next with news of the garrison having already evacuated. All of which takes time.
- Fortunately it doesn’t take much time to create notes, since my DTPO scripts are working beautifully. The problem I do find, however, is that I end up transcribing a lot (the originals are usually in image PDFs) because I’ll find four other interesting quotes about topics A, B, and C in addition to topic X that I’m currently working on. And given my experience with the importance of serendipitous discovery (see #4 above), it’s probably better in the long run to take that extra minute or two to keyword and summarize what you find when you find it. DTPO makes it easy to find it later on, and it helps with DTPO’s AI.
- Finally, it’s taken so long because I was writing a work that should really be published in two separate pieces, actually one, much longer, piece. I decided that the honor and siege capitulations that I really want to write about will probably take twice the space, or more, of the 12,000 words that I’m allowed in this book chapter. So after writing big chunks on a dozen different points, I decided last month to just chop the thing in half, and only focus on the garrison’s “marks of honor” for this chapter (kind of). Over the summer I’ll write the bigger piece, incorporate some of the recent research by new French Ph.D.s (without stealing their thunder, I hope), and maybe just post it up online: discuss the Flanders theater more comprehensively (deal with all the sieges, deal more with the disagreements between sources), expand my discussion beyond the Flanders theater, and expand my discussion beyond the garrison’s honor to the honor of the other participants and observers as well. And I have no interest in submitting this to another journal, or turning it into a book. I’m getting tired of the multi-year delays, of following publishers’ limits and cutting out all sorts of interesting things to water down a work, chasing after a mythical broad(er) audience that I doubt even exists for my topic – and I’m a co-editor! If nobody else wants to read it, I’ll manage. I’ll read it again and again! And its full text will be discoverable in Google (or your search engine of choice). But then I can do that because I’ve already got tenure, and I’ll have plenty of other future publications. Maybe I’ll even revise the work as I find more information and refine my conceptualization of the subject. It’s a whole new world…
The Digital Advantage
So speaking of things that can’t be put in a printed work, I include here an image of my content analysis of the Flanders capitulations’ terms, which I initially started in grad school. As usual, there are some errors, but it gives one example of how scholars should study topics that are said to be structured and repetitive: test it! Doing so, I’m surprised at how unstructured they were, considering how structured they’re said to be, and how structured they could have been. (Obviously this depends on how standardized you think rituals are supposed to be, which is apparently controversial among specialists in ritual studies.)
And speaking of more things that can’t be put in printed work because you’ve already got too much wordiness in there already: I’ll actually include a footnote citing my 2012 blog post looking at media coverage of the 1702 siege of Stevensweert. Let’s see if I can get away with it.
A Call to Pens
So, if anyone out there is still reading: I’m soliciting a few volunteers to read through my chapter draft for general comments about the argument. If you’re tempted but uncertain, I can summarize what it’s about, to help you decide if it’s worth your time.
My general thesis is that historians have given way too much attention to these little marks of honor. First off, these ritual evacuation terms (evacuating with drums beating, flags flying, musket balls in the mouth…) weren’t very precisely calibrated, contra the common belief. This is significant in part because it’s a common component of that whole ‘rhetoric of siege history’ (artificial, scientific, ritualized, like a chess game or ballet, blah blah blah), but also because (some) cultural historians talk about rituals constructing meaning. Most contemporaries, including the garrisons themselves, didn’t care about these evacuation marks in any specific sense. They wanted an “honorable surrender,” sure, and preferred to get “all the marks of honor,” but nobody was clear on what “all” the marks of honor even were. On the other hand, they were very clear about practical things like whether the garrison was free or imprisoned (i.e. its fate), and who had to pay for all this broken stuff (“you broke it” did not usually mean “you bought it”). Both participants and observers definitely cared about honor, but in a much broader sense: the evacuation marks were only one minor way to measure a garrison’s honor. And from the outside, these marks of honor weren’t particularly diagnostic because there were all sorts of reasons why the marks (and even the garrison’s fate) didn’t always correspond to a garrison’s honorable conduct.
But only after reading through a few summaries of ritual theory did I realize that while these evacuations were performative rituals (i.e. the honor theoretically came from the performance of the evacuation that was allowed by the besiegers), there were other “markers” of the garrison’s honor that were much more important, other indications of honor that observers and participants cited again and again, and which had nothing to do with those symbolic evacuation marks that nobody mentioned. That is to say, I knew about all those contemporary arguments before and had argued that these evacuation marks weren’t very important, but I hadn’t realized that these other reasons why the garrison defended itself well or poorly were also markers of the garrison’s honor, just like the evacuation terms except more useful. The result is, I think, a much more interesting case where symbolic capitulation terms, the garrison’s fate, and its honor were manipulated and debated with a variety of contested markers, rather than a simplistic view of a garrison’s evacuation ritual defining its honor. I think I’m also setting up a framework to talk about how exactly early moderns argued that military commanders gained honor or shame; I won’t say I’m deconstructing the discursive field of early modern martial honor, but it might be something like that. Various scholars have talked about what early modern (martial) honor was, and talk in general terms about who could have it, how one gained it from brave acts (duh), and the physical markers that displayed it (in addition to evacuation marks of honor, this includes medals and insignia, batons and Napoleon’s “baubles”…). What I’m doing is getting really specific, spelling out the specific rhetorical strategies that contemporaries (garrisons, besiegers, relief commanders, outside observers in the army and at Court, newspapers and the reading publics most broadly…) used to argue that a garrison earned either martial honor or shame, and looking at how these debates evolved over time. What markers were used to claim that a garrison had gained honor, and which were most popular? (Honor being all about getting your peers to acknowledge your claim to honor.) How did the different sides advance and contest honor claims? That’s the big question that I’m interested in here. And, needless to say, I’ll apply it to my battle book as well.
So hopefully this all makes sense – I’m still formulating the broader framework. Thoughts appreciated.
If you’re interested, you can email me at the address listed in the fourth comment of the About Me page. I’ll need feedback by April.
But now I have to switch gears and write my chapter on Louis XIV’s pursuit of relief battles, and what that says about battle-avoidance.