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The Fours Walls of early modern European military historians

For those familiar with the early Reformation, you might recall one of Martin Luther’s classic criticisms of the Catholic Church, from his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate (1520): “The Romanists have, with great adroitness, drawn three walls round themselves, with which they have hitherto protected themselves, so that no one could reform them, whereby all Christendom has fallen terribly.” I’ll spare you a description of the Catholic fortifications, and of the tactics Luther used to besiege this fortified opponent. But I won’t spare you my maladroit use of this metaphor to introduce my own version of the four walls that separate early modern European military historians from each other. There are, I would argue, four significant obstacles that tend to isolate EMEMHians, and which make it treacherous for us to overgeneralize beyond our particular area of focus. Like a trace italienne fortification, knowledge of EMEMH is protected by four defensive layers. Gaining access to the secrets within requires besieging and breaking past these formidable barriers.

The First Wall: A Focus on a Particular Country
Even today, early modern European military historians still tend to focus on a single country, mostly either France or England. Gaining knowledge of the field of EMEMH requires you first penetrate this veritable covered way. Mutual understanding between EMEMHians is hindered first and foremost by a language barrier, which requires charging up the glacis and breaking through the linguistic palisades. Having successfully prepared an assault on the covered way with an initial bombardment of foreign language classes and paleography lessons, an invader from another country then finds himself confronted with the defenders therein, hundreds of culturally-specific events, individuals, and structures, all armed with their own histories and patterns that require a concerted effort to wrestle into comprehension. Each new allusion and curious reference in your sources is yet another traverse that needs to be passed and secured on your way to understanding a country’s military history.

The Second Wall: A Focus on a Particular War
Capturing the widely-arcing covered way around a fortress only provides you a hazy overview of the fortifications still to penetrate. The chronological boundaries between one war and the next serve as yet another obstacle, a moat or ditch, if you will. Inconveniently for historians like myself, Louis XIV fought five majors wars, about 34 years worth, each with enough information for a scholarly career. Thus we find most specialists of the era from c. 1660-c. 1715 devoting their attention to one of these wars, or perhaps specializing in either the early, middle, or late reign. To cross this yawning chasm requires a facility with an overview of each war as a whole: its diplomatic and political origins, the grand strategic objectives of the belligerents, its overall narrative, and its resolution. Usually the ditch is wet, and filled with flotsam and jetsam from previous wars. Yet more obstacles to drain away and build your fascine bridge-of-understanding on top of.

The Third Wall: A Focus on a Particular Theater of Operations
The multiple theaters in which military operations were conducted are a third type of boundary the generalizing EMEMHian must overcome. At the time most theater boundaries were easily crossed, but for historians these different theaters are individual ravelins within the outworks, each one requiring its own conquest. A country (or its most successful commander) might concentrate their attention in one specific geographical outwork, a massive crownwork to be occupied. The ditches between such theatrical outworks are further policed by the structure of many archives, where Flanders documents are physically separated from those on Italy, and so on. Thus the larger wars, e.g. the 9YW and WSS, witnessed sustained operations in four major European theaters, sub-theaters within each. Each had a unique combinations of nationalities; their operational constraints (divergent topography, climate, demographies, and economic and transportation networks) operated as yet another réduit to overcome. No surprise that the operational arcs of different theaters were often, well, different.

The Fourth Wall: A Focus on a Particular Level of War
Most works on EMEMH are also isolated from a broader readership by their focus on a particular topic. When scholars have managed to overcome the first three barriers to greater early modern understanding (the chronological impediment more easily breached than the national), they are still confronted by numerous studies that focus on one particular aspect of the war. Thus we have works on battles, on infantry tactics and drill, on cavalry, on sieges, on artillery, on small war, on logistics, on financial administration, on army administration, on the political assimilation of frontier provinces, on military-civilian interactions, and so on. Most of the detailed research on these subjects has only appeared over the past decade or two, and rarely are all the topical components integrated into any one of them, and even less likely for more than one country.

Fortification cross-section (Ath)

These four walls resist historical attempts to truly understand a single war, much less the military history of a single country. These specializations – national, chronological, geographical and topical – are necessary, but so is our need to break them down. The shortcomings of most attempts to study war X from the perspective of country Y (which is, most often, actually a study of the single theater Z) can be illustrated by the average Confederate (i.e. Allied) army during the 9YW and WSS. In Flanders, this average army would comprise units from the United Provinces, Britain (England and Scotland), Spain, Germany, and Bavaria. In the WSS we can occasionally add Imperial and Austrian troops, while subtracting the Spanish and Bavarians. Some of these units, and their commanders, would shift from one theater to another, just as defenders might readjust their personnel from one outwork to another during a siege. To get the full picture of who these Allied troops were and what they did requires plowing through archives (and god-awful handwriting) in multiple countries, in English, French, Dutch, Spanish and German tongues. And we’d have to repeat the same siege operations in order to delve into the operations of another theater, and then again for another war.

Acknowledging these walls is not necessarily a criticism of the work many EMEMHians (including myself) have undertaken. It is, however, a warning about how far we should generalize from our particular particulars. Perhaps it’s even a call to action. Integrating together countries and themes and wars remains, I would suggest, the next challenge for early modern European military historians.

So if you wondered what our SMH panel on Anglo-Germanic relations was like (without the strained fortress metaphor), you just got a peek. And yes, I did complete my post-conference checklist.

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Once again, the French take us Anglos to visualization school

I’ve commented before on how impressed I am when I read old French history from the 1970s (e.g. here). I just happened across another example as I tracked down a classic book that I’d seen cited on occasion, but had never actually looked at. And this is what I find on page 144, a map indicating how widely commentary on the 1214 battle of Bouvines spread in various medieval accounts:

From George Duby, The Legend of Bouvines, trans. Catherine Tihnayi (Polity Press, 1990), 144.

From Georges Duby, The Legend of Bouvines, trans. Catherine Tihanyi (Polity Press, 1990), 144.*

This map includes a few different point and area symbols (mostly nominal and ordinal data), and is, to my mind, as interesting for the questions it raises as what ‘argument’ it makes. But that’s what good visualizations should do, encourage us to dive into the details.

And if you really want to know what I think about visualizing historical information, and have an extra hour or two, I pontificated on the subject here.

* Yes, I know, it’s the English 1990 translation and not the 1973 French original. But I don’t have a massive research library at my beck and call, so it’ll do.

When it rains, it pours

Early modern European military history (EMEMH) is a small field. Or so I thought, until I started to dust off my old grad school projects (late 1990s) on the French side of the Louis XIV’s last war. Then I discover, as I’ve already detailed, that there are quite a few French scholars now interested in the subject.

So it’s only fitting that, as I draft the final few pages of my book chapter on siege capitulations (only 18 years in the making!), I discover yet another scholar (not-French) interested in this particular subject:
Swart, Erik. “Defeat, Honour and the News: The Case of the Fall of Breda (1625) and the Dutch Republic.” European History Quarterly 46, no. 1 (January 2016): 6–26.

Abstract:
The honour of the polity, closely tied to military success, was of great importance in seventeenth-century European international relations. This article provides an analysis of the importance of the honour of the polity in the early Dutch Republic – the late sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth-century – and the role of military success and failure as crucial matters in this. It also contributes to the debate about the position of the Republic, now no longer seen as an anomaly, in European relations. In existing research scant attention is paid to the role of military glory in this. A military defeat, the loss of Breda in 1625, functions as an analytical tool. Analysing the manner in which this defeat was dealt with enables an assessment of the importance of the Republic’s honour in a ‘national’ and international context.
Huhn. Sieges and honor. I guess it’s a growth industry.
Which leads to a minor dilemma. Since my current chapter is almost finished, and I’ve been working on it forever, I’m taking the (unusual?) tack of intentionally and stubbornly ignoring the content of these other works at this stage. I’ve adopted this approach for two reasons. First, my own chapter is very focused in time, space and subject: how honor and shame was distributed in sieges (primarily Flanders) during the War of the Spanish Succession. More importantly, I’ve got too much to do as it is: too many primary sources I still need to skim through (and the chapter is already overdue), I just this week figured out the organization for this convoluted chapter, and, wouldn’t you know it, Spring semester starts next week. In other words, not enough time (over a short winter break) to read through a 650-page French dissertation, a few book chapters, and now a brand new journal article, then think about how they all relate to my own thesis, potentially refine/reformulate my own research, then do some additional research in my sources based off of my new thoughts, and then draft it all up – conceivably even requiring a reorganization of my chapter. Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That!
I am, however, mentioning their works in a footnote, with the tried-and-true “too late to be incorporated into this work.”  I feel a slight bit sheepish doing this, but at least it’s intellectually honest. And in an odd way I wonder if it’s a courtesy to these other scholars? Obviously in the case of dissertations, it doesn’t steal the thunder of other scholars – and, on the other side of the coin, I can also (truthfully) claim that I came up with the ideas all by myself. [It certainly wouldn’t be the first time such convergent scholarship evolved. Compare, for example, Michèle Virol’s “Le siège de Namur de 1692: l’héroïsme et la technique,” Dix-septième siècle 228, no. 3 (September 1, 2005): 465–88 with my diss/Vauban under Siege.] And I’d feel bad if I disagreed with their work and felt compelled to attack their work. I think there’s some kind of honeymoon period or something…
All this uncertainty, not surprisingly, circles back to that whole question about how to characterize a historiography that’s in flux that I’ve discussed before.
So when do you stop incorporating new works into your own, and why? When reading other scholars’ works, how up-to-date do you expect their historiography to be?

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.
Read More…

Now it’s your turn

The first week of the Spring semester, and as usual I’m behind already. I’m teaching the Historical Research and Writing course, a senior seminar on Late Stuart England, and my Religion, War and Peace in Early Modern Europe – tomorrow’s lesson: the Old Testament!

So I’ll just throw this out there until I have time to compose a real post:

A colleague wants to know what the latest consensus is (if one exists) about the old saw that British red coats in the American Revolution stood up proud and tall in nice straight linear formations while American militiamen fired at them behind trees and rocks with their rifles.

I’ve read Spring’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only and Grenier’s First American Way of War and a couple of the recent works on Native American warfare, but since several skulkers focus on the American Revolutionary era and since I have enough trouble keeping up with works on Europe between 1650 and 1750 while doing my own research, I thought I’d check to see what the current status of the topic is. So for this post only, consider this EMEMH blog temporarily a EMAMH blog.

Comment away!

Again with the historiography

Beginning of the school year again – sigh. This semester I’m teaching more Western Civ and Tudor/Stuart England.

As I write papers, I often find myself wondering how much coverage should be dedicated to the historiography. As I’ve said before, I never really know what the vast unwashed masses of historians think about a particular subject – only what a much smaller subset of them have written. And there is always the disturbing possibility that unpublished historians might apply common sense to a topic, which could easily contradict the published literature. Scientists would argue that even negative results need to be published, though it doesn’t sound like they follow their own advice very often. Thus you often wonder whether you’re wasting your time arguing for something that is “obvious” to the silent majority. I haven’t yet figured out which is worse: that the effort of your labors is greeted with a rebuttal, or with a shrug?

This uncertainty is particularly true with topical questions. It’s easy, for example, to find accounts and explanations of various events, but it’s much harder to find more than a single “in-depth” (definitions vary) analysis of a particular thematic subject, say, the “laws” of Vauban-era siegecraft, or a longitudinal study of a subject (beyond a single war or reign), or most topics in EMEMH for that matter. What’s a scholar to do?

First, I think we need to be a bit more systematic with our historiography. Unfortunately, publishers (in theory at least) don’t really want us to do this. If the Internet is to be believed, some editors see historiographical discussion as a waste of ink; undoubtedly that would be the only thing stopping my future book on Marlburian battle from rocketing up the New York Times Bestsellers list. To seriously analyze a historiography would also require scanning it all in and OCRing it before analyzing the text. Some might construe this as violating copyright. But, as physicists like to joke, let’s start by assuming a spherical cow.

The most common practice seems to be for a historian to summarize the literature in some multiple of a paragraph or page – this has become a veritable ritual in any literature involving the Military Revolution, for example. Summarizing a historiography in your own prose is sometimes necessary, but it is the ultimate in the “Trust-me-I’m-an-expert” game that we academics play. I hate that game.

What else can we do? We could start by including specific quotes from other published historians. Admittedly this is often difficult because we’re a long-winded lot, and a narration of the disputations can get pretty boring: “X said A, Y said not-A, Z says B…”. Not ideal, but we could at least throw in a few key phrases from an author or two. It helps if the historian we’re quoting is actually making an argument, with a clearly-stated thesis.

Perhaps our beloved word cloud could give us a hand, or we could look at which words are highly associated with each other (collocation). Heck, make a collage of all the keywords used to describe a topic. Maybe we need to do some network analysis on citations, like they do in the social/natural sciences – citation analysis, bibliometrics and the like. There are even some software packages that apparently do that. Just do something a bit more systematic.

Another option is to explicitly discuss the rhetoric used by other historians – Keegan’s “rhetoric of battle history” (or my “rhetoric of siege history”), for example. Are there consistent terms used to describe/explain a subject? Are there specific examples/authors/sources that are constantly cited? Are there particular metaphors that historians use when explaining an event or phenomenon? For example, what does it suggest that traditional military historians compare early modern sieges so often to dances, theater, and chess? And do these descriptors and metaphors vary from author to author (or country to country), or change over time?

And then there’s the thorny question of when to stop collecting more historiography. Undoubtedly even the most minutely-focused monograph might pass judgment on all sorts of historical conventional wisdom. Ideally, we have all those secondary sources text-searchable, either in Google Books or in your own database. But I think it’s best to start with certain types of works, those that have the most impact. Thus, we should focus foremost on accessible works. So start by analyzing works that are still in print or have been reissued. Look at works written by prolific authors, e.g. I came to Vaubanian siege warfare via Christopher Duffy’s Russia’s Military Way to the West. (This applies to primary sources as well as secondary.) The most systematic method would be to scan a bunch of notes/bibliographies from other secondary sources and see which titles pop up over and over. (I’ll leave it to others to decide whether that’s a “transformative” use or not.)

We should also look for works that are dedicated to the topic, using the most common synonyms (“laws of war”) and important peoples’ names (Marlborough, Vauban…). And we really need to pay attention to titles that are just begging to be cited by everyone and their brother: The Art of Warfare in the Age of _____. Knowing where to look also matters on the micro level. If you want to know what an author thinks about sieges ‘in the abstract’ for example, look in the art of war sections dedicated to summarizing the subject. You might be surprised at how different their abstract view is from the picture that emerges from the details in their narrative, or from the data in their own appendices.

However we choose to address historiography, we need to give our readers a sense of how many authors we are discussing. Has one solitary historian discussed the topic (and if so, does it get cited a lot?), or is it a topic touched on by most works in the field? If more than a couple of authors are involved, it’s helpful to group them into various schools or positions.  And it wouldn’t hurt to explicitly relate the size of the historiography to its importance: lots of works on topic X presumably signal importance, but does a small number of publications on topic Y indicate the opposite? I’m not so sure. Especially when that topic is widely exclaimed to be of critical importance to the period.

Another possibility is to ‘just ask historians.’ This seems a good idea in theory, but I’m not sure how it would work in practice. Possibly someone will develop a survey to administer to fellow historians, as mentioned in an earlier post – perhaps the Society for Military History should look into sponsoring a survey or two? Though I wonder what we should conclude from the rarity of such polling; that the example mentioned in the earlier post was performed by economic historians is also noteworthy I think. Personally I’m a little daunted by the effort needed to craft a questionnaire, identify and contact the responders, follow up to get a good response rate, and analyze the results. Nevertheless, such a survey would probably be a good measure of ‘public opinion’ – might be interesting to start with the state of the Military Revolution debate. That being said, I’m not really sure how we would deal with the inevitable contradictions between public opinion and what the ‘experts’ have said. What other response is there but to berate the respondents for not keeping up with the literature? Nor does this really answer the question of whether your research should respond to what the experts in your field think, or to what most historians, immersed in their own subfields, think. An interesting possibility, but lots of questions to resolve as well.

Thoughts? Good models to follow?

The Ostwald Test: Historiography for Dummies

These ideas aren’t particularly original to me, but I’ll pretend like they are by giving them a name.

How good (how rigorous, how scholarly, how systematic, how analytical, how serious, how developed…) is the historiography on any particular topic? The sophistication of a research field isn’t necessarily the same thing as being able to tell whether any given historiographical argument is true or not, but there’s a pretty high correlation between the two.

There are so many ways to test this idea of historiographical sophistication – I’ll assume everyone knows to ask whether any non-published, i.e. archival, sources are used (unless you’re only looking at the media or the public sphere). But here are a few really simple and easy rules of thumb that I rely upon. An individual work should, ideally, pass at least two (probably three) of the following criteria, It’s much more damning, however, to find multiple works within a field that fail these tests. That’s a sign of some systemic problems within the field.

Step 1: Look at the subject of a work (a book, an article…) on the topic of interest.

Step 2: Look at the other sources that secondary source uses (e.g. in the footnotes and bibliography).

Step 3: Ask the following four questions:

I. Citations’ Age

Do the sources incorporate recent thinking on the subject? How old is your historiography, i.e. how old are your citations? Is it past its Best Before date? Examples that have jumped out at me over my career:

  • Scholars in the 1990s or later still basing their understanding of Vaubanian siegecraft upon Guerlac’s analysis from the 1940s, or Blomfield’s 1930s-era analysis. Not a good sign.
  • Scholars in the 1990s or later relying upon hagiographical treatments of the Duke of Marlborough that are 70+ years old. Not a good sign.
  • Scholars in the 1990s or later relying upon Wright’s 1930s-era discussion of the customs of siege warfare. Not a good  sign.

In short, if no significant reassessment of a field has occurred in 70+ years, that’s a bad sign.

The diagnosticity of the first question can be improved by asking the next question as well:

II. Pages-to-Coverage Ratio

Is the coverage adequately deep or pathetically shallow? For the sources cited in a secondary source (and for the secondary source itself), what is the ratio of page length to number of years/countries/topics covered? Is it 100 pages on one decade of a single country’s ‘life’, or 100 pages covering an entire continent’s 1000-year ‘age’? If the basis for a discussion in the modern literature comes purely from topical “art of war” works that claim to describe a continent’s worth of conduct across three centuries in 25 pages, that’s a bad sign.

Not every source needs to be a monograph, but if there are almost no recent monographs cited on a subject, that’s a bad sign. Either it means nobody has looked at it closely, or perhaps somebody has, but the author you’re reading hasn’t. That’s a bad sign.

We can add a further corollary:

III. Argument Coverage-to-Sources Coverage Ratio

Does the argument match the sources? Compare the geographical and chronological coverage claimed in an author’s argument with what their sources actually cover. You can probably cut their title a little slack. Does someone covering western European siege warfare in the War of the Spanish Succession claim that this equally applies to siegecraft in 1500 Poland? If so, that’s a bad sign.

One final, should-be-obvious, rule of thumb:

IV. Language Correspondence

Is the author bothering to see what his subjects actually thought? Does the language of the citations match the language of the people under study? Do the languages used in the author’s sources coincide with the languages spoken where the events took place? If, for example, you’re trying to explain why the Dutch did something, it would help if you could point to Dutch sources.

Four simple questions that will tell you a lot about the state of your historiography. In active (which I think we can use as a reasonable proxy for rigorous) subfields, a majority of academic works will almost always pass these four tests. I’d really love to see them used (as summary statistics) in book reviews – would tell us a lot.

So try it for yourself. And feel free to recommend any additional tests in the comments.

The Ostwald Test. Kinda like the Turing Test, but with no chance of research funding.