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.

Proof that early modern Europeans had war elephants

From the 1702.01.03-06 Flying Post:

This is to give Notice, That there is lately arrived a large Elephant, the biggest that ever was in Europe, and performs varieties of Exercise for Diversion and Laughter, viz. exercises the Musket, flourishes the Colours very nimble and swift in several Postures; he also bears two Persons upon his Trunck; two upon his Ears, and ten upon his Back; with several Varieties. Is to be seen at the White-Horse Inn in Fleetstreet, from 10 in the Morning till 5 at Night.


And the publications keep on coming

In case your “To Read” shelves (both real and virtual) have any empty space available. Doesn’t matter whether your inclinations are navally fiscal, memorably lowland, knowingly engineered, or absolutely official, there’s something for everyone.

Page, Anthony. “The Seventy Years War, 1744–1815, and Britain’s Fiscal-Naval State.” War & Society 34, no. 3 (August 1, 2015): 162–86.
This article argues that we should view Britain as fighting a ‘Seventy Years War’ with France between the battles of Fontenoy in 1745 and Waterloo in 1815. Through years of hot and cold war, Britain struggled to build the military power needed to prevent it from falling under the domination of France. In hindsight, many view the British as inevitable imperialists, confidently building towards their global empire of the nineteenth century. In reality, eighteenth-century Britons frequently fretted about the threat of invasion, military weakness, possible financial collapse, and potential revolution. Historical developments only look inevitable in hindsight and with the aid of the social sciences. The struggle to defend itself in Europe during the Seventy Years War saw Britain develop a ‘fiscal-naval state’ that built a global empire.
Van der Steen, Jasper. Memory Wars in the Low Countries, 1566-1700. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2015.
The Revolt in the Netherlands erupted in 1566 and tore apart the Low Countries. In Memory Wars in the Low Countries, 1566-1700 Jasper van der Steen explains how public memories of the Revolt in the Habsburg Netherlands in the South and the Dutch Republic in the North diverged and became the objects of fierce contestation in domestic political struggles, on both sides of the border and throughout the seventeenth century. Against widespread assumptions about the supposed modernity of cultural memory Memory Wars argues that early modern public memory did not require the presence of state actors, nationalism and modern mass media in order to play a role of political importance in both North and South.
Martens, Pieter. “Engineers and the Circulation of Knowledge in the Spanish Netherlands.” In Embattled Territory: The Circulation of Knowledge In the Spanish Netherlands, edited by Sven Dupré, Bert De Munck, Werner Thomas, and Geert Vanpaemel. Gent: Academia Press, 2016.
The classical view of science in the Spanish Netherlands harbors implicit assumptions, which need to be reconsidered in the light of contemporary historiography. Approaching the history of science from the perspective of the circulation of knowledge, this book indicates new paths of research furthering the integration of the history of science into wider, general history. To accomplish this aim the book raises three sets of questions. The first question concerns the role of cities in the production and transmission of knowledge and skills in the Spanish Netherlands, with the Southern Netherlands being home to one of the densest urban networks in the world. In a second step, the book discusses how the Southern Netherlands were entangled with the rest of the globe through the Spanish Empire, and the Atlantic world in particular. How did these Iberian connections shape the circulation of knowledge in the Spanish Netherlands? Thirdly, did the definition and nature of knowledge change in the Spanish Netherlands and how was this related to processes of political and religious transformation? Focusing on urban knowledge, Iberian connections and the politics of knowledge, this book offers a new framework for the history of science in the Spanish Netherlands.
Thomas, Daniel. “The Final Years of the Constable of France, 1593–1627.” French Historical Studies 39, no. 1 (February 1, 2016): 73–103.
The abolition of the office of constable in 1627 has often been viewed as part of Richelieu’s supposed campaign against the excessive power of the high nobility, both within and without the royal army, and has been seen as an action that helped construct the system of “absolute monarchy” in France. Yet more recently questions have been raised about the real significance of the office’s suppression. Building on this debate, this article offers an examination of the vicissitudes of the office of constable between 1593 and 1627 to provide a more detailed portrait of this position and its powers during its final years. By doing so, the article also provides wider insight into the crucial relationships among royal offices, armed force, and the nobility in early modern France.
And did I mention yet another work on siege rituals? When it rains it pours, I guess.
Madunić, Domagoj. “Taming Mars: Customs, Rituals and Ceremonies in the Siege Operations in Dalmatia during the War for Crete (1645-69).” Hungarian Historical Review 4, no. 2 (2016): 445–70.
The main question of this study is how seventeenth-century European societies attempted to regulate the conduct of warfare. It deals with a peculiar aspect of seventeenth-century siege warfare, namely the customs, ceremonies and rituals that regulated various aspects of a siege, such as the observation of truces and immunities, the negotiation of surrenders, the treatment of prisoners etc. So far, most historians dealing with Early Modern siege warfare have been more concerned with its technical and operational aspects: the digging of trenches, the development of various elements of fortifications, wastage rates of combatants, hardships brought about by lack of food and epidemics, and so on, than they have been with these ” decorative elements ” of engagement. Nevertheless, these activities, although usually without any obvious operational military value, provided a medium for a discourse between the besieger and besieged and thus, as I argue, played an important role in the final outcome of a siege. Through descriptive analyses of three cases, each dealing with one siege operation in the Dalmatian theater of operations during the War for Crete (1645–69), this inquiry provides an account of customs, rituals, ceremonies and rules of ” proper ” conduct of a siege, with particular emphasis on the most critical part of a siege: the surrender of a fortified site.
And don’t forget to check in with the Zotero group bibliography (permanent link on right), which I update from time-to-time – especially in the French collection. I keep finding new (and old) things all the time.

But now I must hence to ruminating on things mercenary and logistical.

The social history of military technology

has a dedicated journal.

Vulcan flyer_Page_1


Vulcan flyer_Page_2

Or for a readable version, go here.

Military Strategy For Dummies

Here is a simple operational-level map I created for my European Warfare class to try to reinforce the ideas of:

  1. What the operational level entails, and looks like on a map, particularly in contrast with a tactical-level map.
  2. How an army has multiple strategies available to it in order to achieve its strategic objectives. There are others I could have included if I’d had time (esp. amphibious).
Feel free to use, with proper attribution of course

Will the reds and blues ever just learn to get along?

Of course as we get further into the 18C and start talking about Napoleon et al, we’ll complicate it with the “operational art”: multiple armies, marching by different routes, etc.

And let’s not forget that whole DIMEFIL thing, courtesy of the DoD.

Feel free to use (because you know you want to), with proper attribution, of course.

Twenty years of computer-assisted research

Our household has been in a bit of a spring cleaning vibe (new bookcases will do that), which inspired me to get rid of a bunch of old electronics dating from the Pleistocene. In addition to recycling some pocket electronics (an old digital recorder and an old Dell Digital Jukebox MP3 player – and where or where did my old c. 2004 Dell Axim go?), we also are unloading one very old (486?) PC and a bevy of laptops, which made me briefly reminisce on all the laptops I’ve loved, and hated, before (sung with a Willie Nelson twang): Read More…

John F. Guilmartin Jr.

If you haven’t already heard, John (“Joe”) Guilmartin died last week. Best known to early modern military historians for his detailed work on Mediterranean naval warfare, he was a wide-ranging scholar who published on topics ranging from the Ancient world to Europe to the Americas to aerial combat to the Vietnam War.

He taught at several schools, spending most of his academic career at Ohio State, where he advised 200 students through the graduate school process. His former students, this one at least, remembers him as a jovial fellow always sharing historical factoids whenever the mood struck. If you’ve read his classic Gunpowder and Galleys, you already know that his engineering background was hard to repress, even if that meant chalking the equation for drag coefficients on the board during a History seminar on military technology, to the befuddlement of at least one of his students. Just as irrepressible was his homespun wisdom, whether describing the vigorous military mindset as “Hey diddle, diddle, straight up the middle”, or reassuring his charges that if the earth were to split open between his feet, he would automatically jump left, lest, in his hesitation, the earth swallowed him. And, though I missed his class lecture on siege warfare, his encouragement of my research on the 1708 siege of Lille, along with his early adoption of graphics, had a major influence on my future research path.

Guilmartin's HIS 625 syllabus

For more evidence of his very full life, see his homepage here. Several of his former advisees are preparing a festschrift in his honor.

He will be missed.