“Shaving the yak” is a phrase used to describe the process of programming. It alludes to the fact that you often have to take two, or more, steps backward in order to eventually move one step forward. You want a sweater, so first you need to get some yarn, but to do that you have to… and eventually you find yourself shaving a yak. The reason why you even consider shaving a yak is that, once you’ve shaved said yak, you now have lots of yarn, which allows you to make many sweaters. This colorful analogy has a surprising number of online images, and even an O’Reilly book. It’s a thing.
I have been doing a lot of digital yak-shaving over the past four months. Come to think of it, most of my blog posts consist of yak shaving.
So if you’re interested in learning to code with Python but not sure whether it’s worth it, or if you just want to read an overview of how I used Python and QGIS to create a map like this from a big Word document, then continue reading.
When we last left off, we’d just come back from medieval Tolédo, full of New Castilian culture.
From Conquerors to Conquered
Having spent a week spying vestiges of conquistadors in our historical visits around Castile, we spent the second week of our trip looking at the other side of the hill. And a few fortresses.
So it was on to Barcelona. We survived an Ugly American (Brooklynite, actually) incident on the train, but when we arrived in Spain’s northern capital, it almost seemed like there was some sort of disagreement between the two parts of the country. My first clue was the “War of the Flags,” where people proudly hung their Catalan flags from their apartment balconies, far outnumbering the Spanish flags.
Fortunately there wasn’t any rioting after Real Madrid spanked Liverpool in the Champions League final.
My first impression of the city? Central Barcelona is a much more modern city than central Madrid, but with just as many tourists. The bread, I should note, is infinitely better than what we had in Madrid – must be the proximity to France, where they know how to bake bread. Bâtards.
Anyway, Barcelona has its own attractions. We spent the mandatory tourist dollars visiting Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia cathedral – mostly standing on narrow tower steps waiting for the line of people to keep moving down, not wanting to contemplate a fall.
And then we experienced the virtual-reality smartphone-headphone set up of Casa Bottló. I guess I was just fated to be an early modernist.
Speaking of early moderns, I was struck by the predominance of Anglo authors in the early modern Spanish history section of the Spanish bookstores – names you know, like Geoffrey Parker and John Lynch and J.H. Elliot, not to mention authors like John Keegan, and lots of Spanish translations of English-language histories. I’m guessing Franco’s heavy hand might have had something to do with the seeming silence of senior (native) Spanish historians, but that’s just speculation on my part.
History as Catalan Nationalism
Later on, we spent a half-day at the waterfront, and semi-randomly selected the Museum of Catalonian History as our destination. The museum covers the history of the Catalan region(s) from prehistory to today. When you hear somebody say “from prehistory to the present,” you undoubtedly think “so, like a few mannequin cavemen and they jump forward to the 19th century, right?” Well, let me tell you, I never saw so many rooms on medieval history in my life. More Catalan kingdoms and principalities than you could shake that proverbial stick at (again with the sticks? what’s up with those sticks?).
One fun fact of medieval nationalism I came away with: the origin legend for the Catalan flag (the Senyera above) is that, during the 897 siege of Barcelona, a grateful king dipped his four fingers in a mortally-wounded Catalan count’s blood and dragged it across the count’s golden shield, thanking him for his service. If I were the count, I probably would’ve requested some pain killers as a reward instead, but I guess they did things differently back then. Apparently the Austrians have a similar tale for their own crimson-streaked flag dating from the 13C. But for those who prefer stories of the pen to those of the sword, the museum also had a 10 minute video on making parchment, quill and ink from scratch. “Shaving the yak” indeed.
There was even a model of the fortress of Salses, a Pyrenean fort that we had visited several years earlier during our southern France excursion. What a small world.
The Salses gateway (on the left, in the model above) from our visit to the real thing:
There was also an interesting display on the 1640 ‘Reaper’ revolt, where the irregular miquelets rose up against Castilian taxes and governance during Olivares’ Franco-Spanish War (part of the Thirty Years War, for those of you keeping track at home). One of the songs from the conflict, “The Reapers” (Els Segadors), is currently the Catalan ‘national’ anthem.
Unlike Tolédo’s Museo del Ejército, the Museu d’Història de Catalunya clearly considered its history very important, and its experience in the War of the Spanish Succession as particularly relevant to today. They have a whole online exhibition on the war, if you’re interested.
For those who aren’t already familiar with the two-minute narrative: over the course of the war, Philippe’s forces managed to repulse two separate Allied occupations of Madrid, and went on to recapture most of its territory after the battlefield victory at Almansa. Obligingly, the British facilitated this reconquest by choosing to abandon their Austrian and Catalan allies after getting most of their Spanish contingent captured at Brihuega.
And, in case the Catalan bent of the museum had eluded you up to that point, the museum had a rather large exhibit on the Catalan catastrophe that was the fall of Barcelona in 1714. The War of the Spanish Succession had largely ended in 1713. But those crazy Catalans kept on fighting long after their Austrian candidate ‘King Carlos III’ abandoned them for the Imperial throne in 1711 – becoming Holy Roman Emperor Karl VI. It appears that Karl’s former Spanish digs would remain on his mind, since he refused to acknowledge Felipe as King of Spain for decades. And clearly the memory of Barcelona in particular stayed with him, at least in death, as my wife and I witnessed when viewing his crypt at the Kapuzinergruft in Vienna a few years earlier. Here’s a close-up of his tomb, which celebrates his 1706 liberation of the city:
But I digress. Since Barcelona wouldn’t surrender after fighting had ended everywhere else, that meant that the Duke of Berwick – you know, the English one in French service loaned out to the Spanish – had to besiege the fortress, exposing the city to a third siege in a decade, fourth, if you include a brief, unsuccessful Allied attack in 1705.
At siege’s end, after a year-long defense, a peeved Philippe ordered his commander to slaughter the population for their rebellion. Instead Berwick decided to give them a capitulation on the 11th of September. Catalan privileges were revoked, and it was all downhill from there.
So I guess the Catalonians had their 9/11 long before the U.S. had ours. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Overall the museum was very well done, lots of interesting maps and more descriptive text than you can imagine. Somebody spent a lot of time on this museum. And it’s been noticed, witness this hot-off-the-press study I just saw:
Another day, another fortress.
In case you had any more interest in Catalan history, you could always visit one of the sites of these many Barcelona sieges: Montjuïc castle, pronounced Mont-JEW-k. And you would be correct if you thought that it was named that because of its initial use as a Jewish burial ground. Fast forward to 1640 and this outcropping overlooking the Mediterranean would be transformed from a lighthouse to a small fort, built up over successive decades into a more formidable fort.
It’s one of the better-maintained fortresses that I’ve been to. As you can see from the Google Maps screenshot below, it’s on a hill and surrounded by a park – access is either via a cable-car and funicular, or a walk through said park.
The Art of War
An aerial view to give you your bearings – the main citadel complex is on the right:
The fortifications themselves were well maintained, with flower beds in the ditch.
I’ll let the photos do most of the talking, otherwise you can zoom around the fortress using Google Maps’ Street View, or find any number of descriptions on the various sieges the citadel underwent.
And there were moat monsters guarding the ravelin.
Or, if you seek interactivity, you can figure out what this says, and learn about who was involved in the 1697 and 1705 sieges:
And what does an occupying force do with all this stone overlooking Barcelona? Well, just about any early modern citadel garrison would tell you: use it to intimidate the town into submission. You think it’s a coincidence that the Castilians decided to build a fort there in 1640, when the Reapers’ revolt broke out? So every once in a while over the next few centuries the Spanish military would bombard the restless Barcelonans back into submission. And, starting in the Spanish Civil War, it became the site of a few human rights violations, including the imprisonment, torture and execution of dozens, including political prisoners. With this history, it’s no surprise that the castle’s exhibition on the history of Montjuïc ends with a quotation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 5 on freedom from torture.
Other random, slightly-less depressing, facts about the citadel:
- Montjuic was one of the locations where measurements were taken to establish the meter in 1792 – there’s a plaque commemorating that.
- It hosted some of the events of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. And as if on cue, when we were there an archer, possibly a holdover from their Olympics team, was at the butts in the dry ditch.
So definitely worth a visit, especially if you’re with someone who wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead tramping around a fortress. Fortunately for me (but not for my wife), our fortress tramping was just beginning.
But that’s for part 3.
For those who’ve never been, or who need a refresher, or for those who want to check up on Spanish history before 1808, I offer you a pictorial tour of the early modern highlights of Spain, May 2018. Two weeks of art, churches, and war – can it get any better than that? There will be nothing surprising to seasoned travelers or experts on Spain, but I haven’t posted in a while. So read on for lots of big photos and historical allusions aplenty. Maybe you’ll even learn something. Read More…
Sabbatical. What academics look forward to for years – the ability to take time off from teaching and service to recharge and focus on me-time. On my last sabbatical seven years ago, I attended a few conferences, wrote a few papers, scanned in a ton of book chapters/journal articles, and even started a blog.
And now it’s back. This time around, it means further expanding my digital history toolkit, and reading and writing.
So once I get those final grades in (due Wednesday), I’ll be free! Free to travel to Spain for two weeks, where we’ll take in the sights of Madrid and Barcelona, which might even include a visit to the Sant Ferran citadel (c. 1750s), just outside of Figueres in Catalonia. In case we want to see what a real hornwork (or two) looks like. We’ve already seen the French side of the contested Pyrenean border (Perpignan and the little yellow train up to Mont-Louis), so now we’ll get to see it from the Spanish side.
After that, I’ll be free to finish the long-awaited big book of Marlborough’s battles. And to refresh my rudimentary Python skills, learn R, and expand my knowledge of GIS. The latter tasks will allow me to embark on my next journey, a GIS-informed analysis of military operations during the War of the Spanish Succession and beyond. In the process, I’ll be developing my early modern European military history database, and try to get you faithful skulkers to crowdsource some basic data on these EME wars.
Hopefully that’s not too ambitious for a year-long sabbatical, but I’ve earned it.
At the end of 2017, I’m able to catch my breath and reflect back on the past year. It was a digital year, among other things.
Most concretely, our History department’s Digital History Lab was finally completed. Two long years of planning and grant-writing, and almost 800 emails later, my quixotic labor of love is (almost) done! A generous anonymous donor gave us enough money to find a room one floor above our offices, and to find the money to stock it with PCs and iMacs, a Surface Hub touch-display, scanners (including a microfilm scanner and a ScannX book scanner), and a Surface Book tablet/laptop to pass around the seminar table and project to the Surface Hub. These tools will allow our undergraduate department to use the lab for a variety of projects: digital-centric history courses and digitally-inflected courses; independent studies and tutoring; faculty projects and internships; as well as public history projects with local museums. Not to mention the Skype-enabled Hub.
In the process of designing and overseeing the lab’s construction, I’ve learned a lot about institutional paranoia and the rules they necessitate, and how the digital humanities’ love of open-source software doesn’t play well with IT’s need for locked-down systems. So the lab had to forego many of the open-source tools used by digital historians and humanists. But I did try to provide the computers in the lab with commercial programs with similar features. The software includes:
- ABBYY FineReader for OCRing texts
- the standard Microsoft Office suite (including Access for relational databases)
- the standard Adobe Creative Suite, including Illustrator
- statistics software (SPSS and Minitab)
- EndNote (because we can’t install Zotero)
- Aeon 2 timeline software (for semi-interactive timelines like this)
- mapping software, including Google Earth Pro, ArcGIS, QGIS, Centennia and Euratlas historical digital maps, and MAPublisher to tweak geospatial data in Illustrator.
- OutWit Hub for web scraping and tagged entity extraction
- online software, such as Google Fusion Tables, Palladio, Voyant, etc.
- the machines also have Python, but I’m not sure about how easy it will be to constantly install/update new libraries and the like, given the school’s security concerns
- the department also has a subscription to Omeka, for our planned public history projects.
And there’s more to come. The anonymous donor made an additional donation which will allow us to replace that retro chalkboard with a 90″ monitor display. As well as purchase a few other software packages, and even a reference book or two. All the tools you need to do some digital history. And build a digital history curriculum for our undergraduate majors.
The DHL will be the centerpiece of our department’s new foray into digital history. Since we’re an undergraduate institution, our goals are modest. Having just taught the first iteration of my Introduction to Digital History course, it’s pretty clear that having undergraduates mess with lots of open-source package installations – much less try to learn a programming language like Python – would’ve been a nightmare (especially since I’m just learning Python myself). So our textbook, Exploring Big Historical Data, didn’t get as much use as I’d initially planned. But we did spend some time looking at the broader picture before we dove into the weeds.
And to make sure the students understood the importance of kaizen and the “There’s gotta be a better way!!!” ethic, I beat them over the head with the automation staircase:
As a result, the students were introduced to, and hopefully even learned how to use at least a few features of, the following tools:
- Adobe Acrobat automation
- Excel (don’t assume today’s college students know how to use computers beyond games and social media)
- MS Access
- OCR (ABBYY FineReader and Adobe Acrobat Pro)
- Regular expressions
- Google Sheets and ezGeocode add-in
- Google Fusion Tables
- Stanford Named Entity Recognition
- OutWit Hub
A digital smorgasbord, I realize, but I tried to give them a sampling of relational databases, text mining, and mapping. Unfortunately, we proved again and again that 60%-80% of every digital project is acquiring and cleaning the data, which meant there wasn’t as much time for analysis as I would’ve liked. And, to boot, several of the tools were extremely limited without purchasing the full version (OutWit Hub), or installing the local server version on your own computer (Stanford NER) – did I mention students had problems installing software on their own machines? But, at the least, the students were exposed to these tools, saw what they can do, and know where to look to explore further, as their interests and needs dictate. I’d call that an Introduction to Digital History.
Fortunately, I was able to play around with a few more sophisticated tools in the process, relying on the Programming Historian, among other resources:
- Vard 2 and GATE (cleaning up OCRed texts)
- MALLET topic modeling
- Gephi network software (Palladio also has some basic network graphing features)
- VOS Viewer for bibliometrics – if only JSTOR/Academic Search Premier/Historical Abstracts had the bibliometric citation datasets that Web of Science does (yes, JSTOR’s Text Analyzer is a start, but still…)
- Edinburgh geoparser
- Python (also with the help of Automating the Boring Stuff with Python).
So now I’ve at least successfully used most of the tools I see digital historians mention, and have established a foundation to build future work upon.
So, what are my resolutions for 2018?
More of the same, but applied toward EMEMH!
More digitalia – adding a few more toys to Eastern’s Digital History Lab, training the other History faculty on some of its tools (Zotero and Omeka, for starters), and practicing a bit more with GIS. And figuring out a way to efficiently clean all those 18C primary source texts I’ve got in PDFs. And, just as mind numbing, creating shapefiles of the boundaries of early modern European states.
More miltaria – I’m teaching my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course again this Spring, and will try to figure out a way to have the students’ projects contribute towards an EMEMH dataset that will eventually go online.
And did I mention a year-long sabbatical in 2018-19, so I can finish the big book of battles, and start the next project, a GIS-driven operational analysis of Louis XIV’s campaigns? Yeehaa!
So here’s to wishing your 2018 might be a bit more digital too.
Since the whole US seems to be aflutter with today’s solar eclipse, I might as well jump on the bandwagon, and introduce an earlier solar eclipse and how it was interpreted. That would be, of course, the eclipse of the Sun King – le Roi Soleil himself, Louis XIV – during his annus horribilis of 1706.
In a way, Louis XIV asked for it. After all, he was the one who choose to dance as the sun god Apollo in ballets at Versailles, and he was the one who bestowed upon himself the moniker of the Sun King. (Even before twitter, it was still a good idea to think about how your brand could be twisted by your opponents.) Appropriately, the Sun King would see his most visible eclipse in the twilight of his reign, during the exhausting War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714).
France’s Sun King saw his military forces eclipsed most spectacularly in 1706. The failure of the Bourbon attempt to recapture Barcelona lead to the occupation of Madrid by mid-year. The 23 May battle of Ramillies allowed Allied forces under the Duke of Marlborough to sweep through the poorly-defended Spanish Netherlands and then conduct a series of successful sieges of Franco-Spanish fortresses along Louis’ northern border. As if these two reversals weren’t humbling enough, the Bourbon siege of Victor Amadeus of Savoy’s Turin capital turned into catastrophe when Prince Eugene of Savoy attacked French defenders in their trenches in early September. Within months, the French were forced to abandon Italy.
And what did early modern Europe make of such sudden and unprecedented reversals of fortune in multiple theaters? Helpfully, the deistic Supreme Being himself prophesized the upcoming eclipse of the Sun King. It just so happened that 12 May of that very year witnessed an actual eclipse of the Sun. The path of totality passed through Montpellier, France, encouraging a local professor of mathematics there to publish his own calculations of the event against empirical observation:
scientists natural philosophers, the events offered more than just an opportunity to improve the astronomical sciences. Contemporaries hardly needed the excuse of astrology, or of Huguenot prophecies, to draw the parallel between a real solar eclipse and a metaphorical Sun King eclipse. With the irrefutable proof of post hoc ergo propter hoc, literal and figurative solar eclipses became intertwined – a Protestant God couldn’t have provided a better PR opportunity, nor could anti-Bourbon powers ask for a better one. The parallel was obvious to all. One letter from Spain, published in the Present State of Europe, noted the connection:
“But what is remarkable, too, according to the course of the Planets there is no wonder in [the victory], is, that this Morning about a quarter past 9 a Clock, when the Enemy’s Army was in full march and Confusion, the Sun was eclipsed for 6 Minutes, so that the Day look’d like Night. Thus the Crown of France, which has the Sun for its Device, loses its Force before Barcelona; and must at last restore to the King and lawful Sovereign of Spain all the Monarchy usurp’d from him.”
Those of a more cynical bent placed more faith in Man than Heavenly constellations, one skeptic noting that on the retreat from Barcelona the French march “was overcast this morning with the darkest eclipse of the sun as almost ever was seen, by which the superstitious here portend the eternal setting of the Bourbon son, but I believe the attendance of the enraged Miguelets [Catalan partisan bands] from the mountains will prove most fatal in their way to Girone, whither we hear they are marched in very great confusion.”
Whether through powers divine or human, the outlook remained dark for Philippe V’s Spanish forces for months afterwards.
Meanwhile, to the north, an English soldier fighting in Marlborough’s Flanders army was unaware of the great events to come, and therefore chronicled more prosaically that “over a great heath there happened a greate eclipse of the sunn wch. begann about 9 o clock in the morning and held till half an hour after 10, vizible unto us and was the strangest and greatest that ever I beheld or could heare of by any souldier or officer amongst us.” Within weeks, the victory of Ramillies would make the eclipse’s meaning for the northern theater clear.
Since war is fought with pens as much as with swords, the eclipse was also enlisted into service in the visual war for hearts and minds. Yet perhaps interpreting visual metaphors isn’t as simple as it might seem. Two examples of how propagandists used the eclipse metaphor will suffice. The first is an English copy and translation of “cuts from beyond the Sea,” illustrating the symbolic eclipse, with Louis presciently commenting to his wife: “The Sun, my Dear, Is now eclips’d, and bodes some Ill, I fear.”
The second, more interesting example, comes from the Dutch,* whose had a long pedigree of mocking the pretensions of that tyrant Louis (see: Romeyn de Hooghe). The top half of the page consists of an image illustrating England’s Queen Anne siting on her throne, surrounded by courtiers and action scenes from the year’s military victories.
(See a version of the entire page here.)
The accompanying text, in both Dutch and French, first situates the event within the growing age of Enlightenment. It starts by noting that:
“Although it seems that we are no longer in the time of miracles, and that in such an Enlightened century as this, we know that everything that occurs on earth results from natural causes, nevertheless people naturally stray into superstition, seeing in the eclipse of the Sun which took place May 12 much similarity to the Eclipse of the grandeur of Louis XIV who take the Sun as his emblem…”
It continues by extending the metaphor: the Sun is being eclipsed by his “sister” the Moon, just as the terrestrial Sun King is eclipsed by his “soeur” Queen Anne:
L’Eclypse qui parut au Ciel l’autre semaine,
Fut aux yeux des Mortels un parlant Phenomene
D’une terrestre Eclypse, un Divin Precurseur
C’est celle de Louis, le Soleil de la France
Qu’aujourd’huy nous voyons tomber en defaillance
Par l’entremise de sa Soeur
But deconstructing the imagery takes a bit more work, which the editor is happy to assist us with, at least to the best of his abilities. Obviously enough, the editor suggests, the lunar eclipse of the sun drives the successive events. “You also see two astrologers who, with the assistance of a telescope, attempt to teach us some kind of new discovery” [Unfortunately, the editor remains silent as to whether a mirror, held by two characters on the opposite side, can serve the same protective purpose as eclipse glasses.] Queen Anne sits on her throne underneath the royal coat of arms adorned with English lions, Irish harp and French fleur-de-lis. She appears to be clipping the wings of the French coq “so that it cannot fly so high and so far from its own home.” What exactly all those courtiers want is admittedly uncertain, presumably something more than just clipping wings. Even less certain is the point of the fleet scene, though it “seems to me to represent those of Admirals Leake and Wassenaar” generically preventing the Comte de Toulouse from ruling the Two Seas. And we know that the combat scene has to represent the battle of Ramillies “because I see the Judoigne village church tower.” After another sonnet on the neutralization of the universal hegemon’s plans, we come to the final frame. What do you see happening with those people in the upper left? “I see,” continues our guide, Madame de Maintenon lecturing her husband (and his court) about the courage, strength, and abilities of his enemies, and of the need to extricate France from its losing war. Which, I suppose, is as good an interpretation of that single-frame snapshot as any.
So what, pray tell, is the lesson for those of us dealing with our own solar eclipse in 2017? Can we hope to interpret our celestial event and predict our own future with any greater certainty than our struggling art critic interpreted his?
My takeaway from the eclipse of August 21, 2017?
* It’s worth noting that the imprint at the bottom claims the print is based on a copy from London (and Jean Mosse), raising the possibility that this Anglo-centric illustration is, in fact, an English (Huguenot-exile-related?) creation being translated for dutcho- and franco-phone audiences, which might explain the [editor’s?] rather curious inclusion of the Dutch admiral Wassenaar alongside the English Leake. Undoubtedly, further research on the source would turn up additional details and context. Boy, History can be complicated.
For those who get all their international news from CNN, they would’ve come across this article on the British (“Royal”) Navy keeping a close eye on Russia’s lone aircraft carrier as it chugs its way back to its Baltic home: http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/26/europe/britain-russia-aircraft-carrier/.
The quote receiving attention abroad was the UK Defence Secretary saying that “We are keeping a close eye on the Admiral Kuznetsov as it skulks back to Russia, a ship of shame whose mission has only extended the suffering of the Syrian people.” Of course for me, the money quote was not the “ship of shame” line – to be honest, I had to think for a minute which shame to focus on: the mission, the carrier design, or its operational performance in the Eastern Med? No, I smiled at yet another example of the British accusing their opponents of skulking about – why can’t everybody just be brave and downright like the British?
So, is Vladimir Putin the new Louis XIV? Discuss.