I’m pleased my SMHBLOG post on naming wars has received a variety of comments, mostly providing specific case studies. Feel free to continue the discussion there.
I’m interested in the issue of naming wars in part because in the past I’ve tried to create a list of early modern wars and been stymied by the lack of names for many of them (in English at least). My interest has also been piqued because it’s surprisingly contentious – particularly by historians of different countries (say, what a French historian might call a war vs. what an English historian would call that same conflict – I’m thinking of the Nine Years War in particular). Naming wars is also intriguing because it illustrates how complicated history is, how much trouble we have trying to wrap up messy historical events in tidy little packages. Would you like to read my further thoughts on the complicated and seemingly-random process of naming wars? Of course you would. Read More…
One early modern convention leads to another. How self-perpetuating.
In a previous post I’d described the basic knowledge of early modern handwriting (paleography) that one needs in order to do well in the archives. In an attempt to crowdsource my research in the English archives, I included a photo of a particular word that was giving me fits. Several interpretations were offered, with the most plausible candidate (when measured by letter shapes) seemingly disqualified – it looked like that word (more or less), but that word didn’t make any sense in the context of that sentence. Or did it?
Welcome to the world of archaisms. Read More…
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of skulking in archival holes and corners, you’ve no doubt encountered the joy and despair associated with paleography. When I was a kid I wanted to be a paleontologist; little did I know that my future would take me in the slightly-different direction of paleography. Perhaps not as exciting as chasing after a T. Rex (but almost as dusty), being a paleographer means excavating knowledge from handwritten documents slightly younger than fossils. An American history grad student’s first introduction to paleography can be fear-inducing: about to set off on his great European archival adventure, a new professor suddenly introduces him to the concept of difficult handwriting in a class he was auditing. The level of panic only increased when a fellow grad student already across the Pond confirmed the challenge, warning that he had spent several *weeks* in the archives deciphering the handwriting, literally l-e-t-t-e-r by l-e-t-t-e-r, for day after day.
Over the years I’ve researched in numerous archives and therefore gotten pretty good at deciphering the paleography written by French and English hands c. 1700 – enough to impress most HIS 200 undergraduates at least. But paleography varies greatly not only by person, but by place and time as well, so I’ll post what little I’ve learned over the years – undoubtedly serious guides to paleography will discuss these more authoritatively than I can. What follows is a combination of observations and tips: Read More…
Having posted a few versions of maps I’ve attempted over the years, I should mention a few issues relating to early modern cartography. I’m far from an expert in the matter, so if you’re interested in the subject there’s a whole field of historical cartography out there – the journal Imago Mundi is the place to go to hear what the experts have to say.
As if early moderns weren’t confused enough keeping track of the multitude of ways they used names and dates, and even how they counted men, they also had to deal with how to represent 3D space on a scaled-down 2D plane (i.e. paper): maps, in other words. The early modern period saw significant developments, from the late medieval development of maritime navigation charts to European explorers mapping the world, to the increasing precision of maps by the Cassini family in the mid-18C. Read More…
One more point about army sizes: we usually convert army sizes into an absolute number of men, even though numbers of units (regiment or battalion or company) are the most frequently occurring measure in the sources, and sometimes the only size information available. Whenever we are forced to rely on unit totals, we need to constantly remind ourselves of the weaknesses in measuring size this way.
Erik’s comments on a previous post have prompted me to make an expanded post spelling out what I see as the broad issues surrounding naming things from early modern Europe. This issue comes up from time to time, and since it can be rather contentious, I thought I’d spell out my version.
Here’s my take: It’s complicated!
It’s complicated for many reasons, which I’ll spell out for those unfamiliar with the details. NB: This is a necessarily Euro-centric and Anglo-centric post; I am writing this in English after all.
There’s a good discussion going on in the Comments section of the first Guest Question on mercenaries and their various permutations. Keep it up.
I’d just make two more general points here that, I think, help to justify this blog, in my mind at least.
1) The difficulties we are having defining what is and isn’t a ‘mercenary’ unit are, I think, mainly a function of trying to fit modern nation-based models of military institutions and motivations onto an early modern world, a largely pre-nationalistic era when things were much more complicated. “Foreign” is an ancient concept, and of course we can still read about ‘mercenaries’ and military contractors today. But the cosmopolitanism and eclecticism of the early modern period can still surprise us moderns: to take an example from the top, a bastard son of two English parents (the soon-to-be king James II and the future Duke of Marlborough’s elder sister Arabella) born and raised in France could command a Franco-Spanish army and face off against Anglo-Dutch-Austrian-Imperial troops that were commanded by an Italian (Eugene of Savoy) who was born and raised in France but who fought for Austria after being refused a company in Louis XIV’s army. Sometime we should make a network chart illustrating the maneuvers of commanders as they hopped from one service to another, one theater to another, one enemy to another.
2) The discussion also highlights the need to spell out our assumptions. In this case: why is it important to call one unit an ‘auxiliary’ and not a ‘mercenary’, and what are the implications of that decision? This is particularly true for the early modern period (and medieval as well), because it is so often the Other to modern military history: often lacking patriotic motivations; fought by armies composed of regiments raised by colonels and captains rather than the State and largely owned by these military entrepreneurs; officered by men of questionable professionalism; fighting skirmishes and sieges far more often than set-piece field battles; switching sides from one cosmopolitan force to another; while those at the top negotiate with the enemy throughout the length of the war. For far too long modern military conceptions have been forced onto the past. And then, when the reality is finally recognized, the negative judgments of that reality persist: ideological motivations are pure and mercenary motives are dishonorable, ‘total’ war is natural and ‘limited’ war is unnatural and even a joke, battle is the norm and siegecraft is an ‘abortive’ form of warfare… Early modernists have been chipping away at these assumptions for a couple of decades, and medievalists even longer in some cases, but the work must continue because these ideas are still so easy to slip back into, even for us EMEMHians. You really see this when you teach pre-modern military history to eager undergrads: they know the weapons, they know the Great Captains, they know the big battles. And most of all, they know military history, but usually only from 1861 on (for American students at least). As a result, in my European Warfare 1337-1815 course I frame the above pejorative judgments as the ‘five major assumptions of traditional military history’:
- Technological determinism (cannon, gunpowder, etc. dictate the outcomes of wars)
- There is a universal art of war (decisive battle) and wars are judged by how closely they approach this
- Military professionalism (officers sought to constantly and rationally improve the ‘military art’)
- Great Man history (wars were decided by the Great Captains)
- State-centrism (wars were waged between states, with each state monopolizing military force within its borders)
All these points, as you likely know, have been challenged by a variety of scholars over the past several decades, and I try to highlight their existence and their conflict with the more complicated reality throughout the semester. This blog will hopefully continue that noble crusade!