There exists a wealth of military images from the Renaissance. I want to use those images as sources of evidence to learn about certain aspects of the past (see my post What Was Push Of Pike: The Question Defined). I find myself in good company with Peter Burke in his book Eyewitnessing. Burke’s thesis is, in part, that images are useful to the historian because they give testimony about the past. But there’s a catch: it’s very easy to get bad evidence and to draw the wrong conclusions. Further, it’s very hard to get good evidence and draw correct conclusions.
Throughout his monograph, Burke argues that images can give good evidence to historians. In each chapter he does mostly by presenting one particular image, discussing its context, genre, and corresponding interpretive rules, and then pointing out some details that we can look to for evidence in a given historical field. The method I have described is a helpful feature of the book. One of Burke’s main goals in the book is to stress the danger posed by using images as sources of evidence. He laments that, historians too often “treat [images] as mere illustrations, reproducing them in their books without comment. In cases in which the images are discussed in the text, this evidence is often used to illustrate conclusions that the author has already reached by other means, rather than to give new answers or to ask new questions.” (p.10)
Put another way, too many historians assume that any and every image is a perfectly realistic portrayal of the past. The historian then uses it as a mirror image of past which needs no further comment or interpretation. When Burke shows how historical data can safely and correctly be coaxed out of an image, he also highlights the many ways bad data can also be squeezed out.
Generally speaking, Burke is optimistic about the ability of images to link us to the past. He argues that images, if utilized correctly, are important forms of historical evidence. Though he is optimistic about the usefulness of images, all is not sunshine. First, if images are witnesses to the past, they are mute ones – “it is difficult,” Burke writes, “to translate their testimony into words (14).” Second, He claims that many folks are under the impression that artists were concerned to give accurate testimony.
Third, Burke gives caution about ‘reading between the lines’ of an image. To read between the lines is to attempt to draw a messages from an image that the artist did not intend to communicate. He warns of the dangers of such a procedure: “To use the evidence of images safely, let alone effectively, it is necessary – as in the case of other kinds of source – to be aware of its weaknesses (14-15).” Developing a ‘source criticism’ of visual evidence is a key step in recognizing the weaknesses of images-as-evidence and avoiding them. A key step, in his opinion, seriously underdeveloped in the training of historians. He attempts inroads into a practical philosophy of image source criticism, and I shall detail some of the points most pertinent to my project.
The Good News, and the Bad
Burke’s thesis is centered around the question, “How can images be used as historical evidence?” In answer, he makes three points that are elaborated and iterated throughout the monograph: 1) “[A]rt can provide evidence for social reality which texts pass over.” 2) Yet, “representational art is often less realistic than it seems and distorts social reality rather than reflecting it.” Thus the historian uninformed by the artist’s intentions will be misled. 3) The distortion from (2) gives certain historians insight into certain phenomena, such as mentalities, ideologies and identities.
As far as my project is concerned, I am not very interested in (3). That is, I am almost totally disinterested in the history of mentality, ideology, or identity. Even if I really understood what these things are, and I don’t claim that I do, if they do not seriously further my project, they are merely curious side subjects. The less insight an image gives me into the realities of aspects of the Early Modern battlefield, the less interested I am in it. This is not to say that (1), social reality, or history of ideology, is unimportant – it is. Besides being interesting in its own right, such insight furthers the long term cause of the military historian. For instance, the facts of social reality, the very ones that are not immediately helpful to me, are immensely helpful to the art historian and anyone else who seeks to interpret an image by analyzing its details. And the art historian, as I shall discuss in a later section, has an integral part to play in my own project.
Art, specifically images, is designed to communicate. The problem is that images are rarely designed to communicate to people in the far future. Artists had their own concerns and agendas, and these concerns almost never line up with concerns of historians today. So what is the historian to do with images of and from the past?
One promising answer is to ‘read between the lines’ of an image. The idea here is simply this: using an image to draw historical conclusions that it was not intended to give. Put another way, reading between the lines means taking a message from an image other than the one it is trying to give. A fine but important distinction is to be made here: there is a difference between (i) testimony an image was not meant to provide, and (ii) testimony an image should not/cannot give. The first type of testimony, (i), is legitimate evidence for drawing historical conclusions. That is, the first type of testimony can actually inform us as to how things really were. The second type of testimony, (ii) is not legitimate. The evidence from this testimony bears false witness to the past, and conclusions drawn from it will correspondingly be false.
The obvious problem with reading between the lines is that we can draw false conclusions. Therefore the canny historian will take appropriate step in order to find valid, though secondary, messages in the image. Thus, reading between the lines of an image is not a perversion of the image’s message or the artist’s intent. Rather it is an extension of the intent – a pursuit of a message present in the image, though unintendedly so.
Safely reading between the lines is not an easy job. The historian is after evidence the image was not intended to give. Therefore the clever historian will take the appropriate measures to keep from getting a false message. Hence, at the basic level, she is asking two questions: 1) “what is the primary message of this image?” And 2) “what other messages can I safely draw from this image?” At the most general level, these measures include determining the author’s intent, the author’s audience, and the genre and interpretive rules of the image.
Iconography is the practice of answering question (1). That is, the job of the iconographer is to get at the real message of the image. (It is exactly because no image lacks artistic intention or audience that every image needs some degree of interpretation). I shall not discuss the methods of iconography until the end of this précis. But Burke claims early on that the standard methods need to be expanded upon – there exist other approaches to interpretation that need to be incorporated into iconography’s established methods. But all this is an interdisciplinary debate among art interpreters. The debate has important bearing upon my project, but is periphery – I have no dog in that fight. For the military historian, the important point is that images need interpreting, and that interpretation is serious, hard, sometimes tedious, and always very necessary work. Burke expands upon the nature of this work in regards to three key areas: Images of Religion and Power, Material Culture, and Narratives. In my next post, I shall examine each area for the Burke’s main conclusions, and point out the material from each that will be helpful for using military images in my own project.