Tag Archive | louis xiv

Jumping on the eclipse bandwagon

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).

356 3-L14 France SP17.png

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:

Screenshot 2017-08-21 13.43.38

For non-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.”

Pages from A Collection of some Satyrical Prints (Poems_on_Affairs_of_State).png

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.

De groote eclipsis in de zon (Koninglyke Almanach 1706) crop.jpg

(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?

Tyrants beware!

Further Reading:

Claydon, Tony, and Charles-Edouard Levillain, eds. Louis XIV Outside in: Images of the Sun King Beyond France, 1661-1715. Farnham, Surrey, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2015.

* 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.


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.

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…

Early modern satire

Random filler while I’m away in England. Examine the image for a minute or two before reading on.

Louis, Philippe and Maintenon share the globe.

Read More…

New EMEMH bibliographies online

Oxford Bibliographies just published their Military History module, with 54 bibliographies up already. There are several EMEMH articles thus far: on Poltava, Cromwell, the Seven Years War, Cavalry since 1500, oh yeah, and one on the wars of Louis XIV – I’ll let you figure out who contributed that article. Each article should have between 100 and 150 annotated entries.

Future article topics will include Frederick the Great and the War of the Austrian Succession, as well as more general entries on Fortifications and Siegecraft, Early Modern French Armies, and Military Revolutions.

(Unfortunately full access is by subscription only, but the first ‘page’ is free.)