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Early modern movie battles

I’m thinking about making a few minor changes to my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course next semester. Past versions have focused a fair amount on the narratives of various wars: out of the 38 class meetings (50 minutes each), I devote one class meeting each on the 100YW, the Ottoman wars, the Wars of Italy, the French Wars of Religion, the Dutch Revolt, the 30YW, L14’s wars, Frederick the Great’s wars, the French Revolutionary wars, and the Napoleonic Wars. The rest are topical.

This time I’ll be condensing a few of the war narratives and warfare topics into a single class (sorry Dutch Revolt, sorry French Wars of Religion). Thus I’ll focus on the Italian Wars, the 30YW, Frederick’s wars, the Revolutionary/Napoleonic wars, but more and more Louis XIV’s wars. This will give me more space to read a few of the new French books out, and focus a bit more on the actual process of campaigning, Louis XIV-style. This includes dedicated classes on small war, professionalization (military ranks/organization…), maybe even the fiscal-military state. Shockingly, I hardly mention the Military Revolution in the course – I’m not a big fan of sweeping historiography at the undergrad level. Even in a course that covers almost 500 years of European military history!

But to the reason for my post: Any suggestions for good early modern combat sequences from movies? I’ll include a few scenes from Alatriste, and there are a few things on YouTube, but if you have any other favorites, let us know in the comments.


What this early modernist learned from the Crusades

Just finished teaching the Crusades for the first time, like, ever. Never even taken a medieval history course for that matter. Sad, no?

Anywho, on my first go-through of a new history course I focus on getting the narrative down. (For those curious, I assigned Madden’s Concise History of the Crusades and Allen and Amt’s source reader.) In later iterations I add in more topical subjects – case studies, interesting primary sources… The first go-round isn’t always the most fun for the students, but if there’s one lesson of History I’ve learned, it’s that you really can’t make any intelligent generalizations about a period, can’t have a discussion of any depth, if you don’t first know what actually happened (or think happened, in the case of the Crusades). Especially if the prof doesn’t know.

Suggestsion for corrections/improvements appreciated

Suggestions for corrections/improvements appreciated

So even though I spent extremely little time this semester talking about the period’s warfare (mostly about sacking cities and grand strategic-level stuff), my initial, off-the-cuff and undigested impressions of the military history of the Crusades are:

  1. Sometimes no organization and no central authority is better than lots of organization and attempted central authority (compare the First and Fourth crusades).
  2. Sometimes trying to avoid the mistakes made by your predecessors just leads to the same mistake, but by a different route (see just about all the Egyptian campaigns).
  3. Sometimes trying to avoid the mistakes made by your predecessors leads to massively-impractical schemes (see Maximilian I’s 1518 crusade plan).
  4. Fighting 2,000 miles from your home base is hard (see every Crusade).
  5. Fighting 2,000 miles from your home base while relying upon your enemy-from-back-home is even harder (see every Crusade, but especially the Third). Coalition warfare is difficult – William III & Co. did a pretty good job, all told.
  6. Relatedly, unity is a hard thing to come by (see most Muslim responses to most Crusades, and most Christian responses to most setbacks in the Latin East. And those Normans were a pain in the ass – I’m looking at you Bohemond).
  7. It is so much easier to teach a subject when you have 4 different historical atlases that illustrate just about every major operation.
  8. Given my reliance on all those maps, I developed an unoriginal list of generic questions to ask when trying to explain any big shift in foreign policy/war, or why a successful army turns back:
    • Did a ruler or general die?
    • Were they attacked on another front?
    • Did segments of the army(ies) have a falling out?
    • Did a coup or civil war break out back home?
    • Was there a famine/economic crisis…?
  9. Some student will inevitably ask about those tiny little arrows on the map, and you’ll have no idea what they refer to. Count on it.
  10. I’m shocked how important the Byzantine fleet was in controlling early Frankish access to Anatolia via the Bosporus ferry. (But see #1.)
  11. Avoid naming your kids Baldwin, Raymond, or Alexios.
  12. I had no idea the Byzantines were so kinky, into maiming each other and all.
  13. Don’t expect a History Channel special on the Kingdom of Heaven movie to talk about Ridley Scott’s secular caricature of medieval religion. Do expect it to have Kelly DeVries taking us on a tour of a medieval castle.

Future posts on the explosion in French EMEMH research. My advice: learn to read French if you can’t already.

Fall 2015

Busy with many things (thank God for Pocket Informant and GTD), including teaching the Crusades for the first time.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned thus far? If I ever become dictator, my first edict will be to ban the names Raymond and Baldwin. Deus vult!

So some graphical filler while I struggle through the rest of the semester:

Because historians always start their courses long before their courses begin

Because historians always start their courses long before their courses begin. And no, I won’t tell you how long it took me to make this damn timechart.

Next, a timeline with far too much detail (inevitable in a first draft):

Crusader states, 1144-1192

Crusader states, 1144-1192. Note that I’ve started indicating the relationship between a new monarch and the previous one.

I still need to figure out how to visualize causal chains – suggestions, as well as any factual corrections, are welcome.

And on a more general pedagogical note: it’s amazing how much easier (NB: not “easy”) it is to prep for a course in a totally new field if you have four different historical atlases that you can rely upon for detailed maps and chronologies. I only wish EME history had a similar selection.

Bird’s-eye view of the French Wars of Religion

Recently finished up three days on the French Wars of Religion in my Religion, War and Peace course, which means I can now post this old graphic summary of the wars. It almost makes sense of those crazy conflicts. Almost.

Can't we all just get along?

Can’t we all just get along?

This is probably my favorite time chart, aesthetically at least, but feel free to provide corrections or comments. Tons of gory detail, but I think you can also see the big picture as well.

Here’s an abbreviated version I put in the margin of my Powerpoint slides:

For the masses

For the masses

The French Revolutionary Wars as you might have seen them

I’m moving into the revolutionary section of my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course, so I thought I’d throw up (not literally) a slightly different type of time chart that I’ve developed. Since entire courses are taught on the few decades from 1789-1815 (including by me), it makes sense to get a bit more granular about those years. Hence a more detailed time chart, month by bloody month.

The events on this first time chart actually have less to do with war and more with political events, but then I can’t lecture about war all the time.

French Revolutionary time chart

French Revolutionary time chart

But I can lecture about war a lot of the time:


I don’t think I’ve posted an example of this type of (monthly) chart, but then again, I have put up almost 300 posts. As usual, there are plenty of opportunities for improvements, but that would take time.

Understanding wars – the visual way!

For those keeping track, I give you yet one more example of my desire to replace reading text with seeing icons (check the blog’s graphics tag for other examples). Turns out I can trace my fascination with visualizing info to my teen years. My first recollection of being amazed at the visual organization of lots of information was my high school periodic table of the elements. It was a fancy two-side sheet brimming with colorful detail – I can’t find that particular version online, but here’s an example:

Periodic Table of Elements element

Periodic Table of Elements element

In addition to the way in which the elements were organized into periods and groups, other info (in a smaller font, as above) was included as well. One side of the sheet included the atomic mass and many other numeric values for each element, while the other side illustrated some kind of 3D shape/structure associated with each element (haven’t taken chemistry since high school, so I don’t know what it would have been exactly, but I think it looked kinda like the shape of a crystal, or a molecule). I remember being excited, literally excited, at how much information was grouped into that little space – a very efficient micro-macro reference device.

Eventually (as a sophomore in college) I became a historian. What a let down in the visualization department (with the exception of those wacky Annalistes). So let’s talk one of the most frequent ways historians summarize historical info: the timeline. I hope I’m not the only one who hates simple two-column timelines that waste space by spelling out Battle of Mohács, Siege of Vienna… Not only does it take up a lot of extra space, but you can’t include any other info in the list with text alone (who won the battle? which sides were involved? what did it lead to?…). You can of course use a limited number of font style options to add one or two more dimensions to the info in the timeline, but why not use icons, which can manipulate Bertin’s visual variables of shape, orientation, color/hue, value, size, position and texture? Lots of permutations there. This ability to include much detail in a small amount of space is also the motivation behind Tufte’s sparklines, which would be awesome to include in campaign narratives: march rates, casualty rates, army size fluctuations… Yet such things almost never appear in military history, despite our heavy reliance on maps. It’s particularly odd how historians expect these kinds of symbols on maps, but don’t think about using them elsewhere. (Not that I’ve got anything against maps, mind you.)

Thus my mantra: Condense the info and add more, dammit! And, lest you fear, notice that a lot of this info doesn’t even require BIG DATA and massive quantitative datasets – it’s simple nominal and ordinal data.

But back to my timechart-of-the-day (wait for it), which illustrates the major military events of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 16C. It probably has a lot of mistakes, but it’s not my fault you see. When you try to create such campaign overviews for most early modern wars, you quickly discover that historians love to mention big events like major battles and sieges, but rarely do they mention the operational context, and they happily skip over entire years when there may (or may not) have been fighting. Half of the time we can’t even be bothered to specify the year: “Several years later the Turks returned…”. Yet even if every combat and campaign doesn’t merit narration, they could at least be included in an appendix or table/chart. (Note to publishers: I would gladly pay an extra $20 for a book that included such basic information, data absolutely critical to judging the quality of an author’s argument. Or I’d pay $20 for digital versions of the kinds of timecharts I post here. Am I the only one?)

So this chart (wait for it) provides yet another example of the challenge non-experts and experts alike face trying to assemble a systematic overview of a campaign based off of spotty narratives that leave out all sorts of details and important information. Reminds me of grad school, where I quickly realized that we could argue about Roberts’ or Parker’s Military Revolution (how much change? when did it change? how did it change?), but since we didn’t know the details of all the various battles/sieges and campaigns, it was a pretty speculative discussion, and not incredibly worthwhile. Now if we had systematic empirical evidence to back our hunches up rather than a decontextualized quotation or two…

In other words, I haven’t found the perfect source that provides Ottoman campaign narratives by year – most of what I have are thematic works by the likes of Rhoads Murphey, Gabor Agoston (apologies for the lack of accents), and Virginia Aksan.

So check out the Symbol page for my icons if you haven’t memorized them by now. And finally, without further ado, I give you the Ottoman wars chart.

Ottoman Wars timechart, 1505-1547

Ottoman Wars timechart, 1505-1547

So was it worth the wait? I think it works as a good reference sheet, but I won’t say too much about its content, other than to suggest that it does a decent job of illustrating how the Ottomans had to juggle expansion (and defense) along several different frontiers, from North Africa and the Mediterranean, to southeastern Europe and Hungary, to Persia to the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Palace coups, revolts, plagues and fires, raids, battles and sieges – they sure were busy!

Feedback (corrections especially) appreciated. And please make your own timecharts and share them; feel free to use my iconography if it helps (I think it does, needless to say). As usual, feel free to use this chart (no publication), as long as you properly attribute it to this blog.

Random Powerpoint slide

‘Twill be a busy year, so discussion of Marlborough et al must wait.

But in the meantime, I present a semi-randomly selected slide from my European warfare course. We just covered early gunpowder weapons, so I summarized Kelly DeVries’ chronology (I think it’s pretty similar to the more recent The Artillery of the Dukes of Burgundy).

Early gunpowder development

Early gunpowder development

Lessons learned? Technology takes a long time to standardize and optimize, and there will always be certain usage scenarios where older technology may still be adequate.