Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Method For Using Military Images - Part 3: Burke and Reading Inbetween the Lines of three types of Images

In my last post I gave an overview of the main theses from Burke's book Eyewitnessing. Put briefly, the big idea is this: art, including images, is meant to give certain information. Usually that information is not what historians want to know about. For a historian to get good answers to his questions from an image, they must 'read inbetween the lines' of the image.
     In this post, I shall continue to present the core ways of implementing this strategy. Burke discusses three general types of images, and gives helpful insight in how to read inbetween their lines. I shall stick to the information that will have the most application for interpreting military images.

Images of Religion and Power

There are many types of images. One general type includes images concerned with the spiritual. Another general type are those images concerned with power, protest, and political institutions. These two types of images have their own very specific intentions, and thus pose a particular danger to the historian whom wishes to use them for testimony. Below is a summary of questions and techniques to keep help navigate these images.

 Sacred Art

Ask, “Is it religious at all?”
  • That is, was it meant for devotion? Indoctrination? 
  • If so, is the style theatrical? Rhetorical?

Affirmative answers to these questions do not exclude an image from helping a military historian. But the higher the degree of say, indoctrination or rhetorical effect, the less realism is likely to be found and thus less likely to be of much help.


Similar to sacred images, ask “How does this image portray power?”
  • Does is support or subvert a power structure? 
  • Does it eliminate and/or highlight certain aspects of its subject?
Heavily propagandist images are not exclusive to helpful historical military evidence, but its intended goals may make finding what is present difficult.

A Further Consideration

The following is something to take into consideration when looking at images dealing with power and the sacred. (Though it is also a good question to ask about any image). Is the image trying to make some abstract thing concrete? Take for example personification. In some Revolutionary French art, the concept of liberty is painted to be a flesh and blood woman. Obviously this is not an example of photo type realism, where the image mirrors reality. Therefore the types of evidence drawn from such an image, and the extent to which it is drawn, is limited

Material Culture

Burke devotes a chapter to the discussion of images and 'material culture.' This term refers to physical objects (like clothing, animals, buildings and people), scenes from (everyday) life (e.g. an evening on the porch, a working day at a chemistry lab, or a battle), and technology (e.g. how printing presses were operated and how crossbows were wound).

Some Dangers

Burke examines several dangers the historian is confronted with when attempting to read between the lines for insight into material culture. The dangers include imaginary subjects, transplanted subjects, and exaggerated detail. Take for example early 17th century Dutch landscape paintings, including urban landscapes (i.e. city scenes). Artist felt no compunction with 'beautifying' the subjects of their art – in this case, streets and buildings were made to look cleaner, straighter, safer and generally more pleasing than they actually were. This is a case of leaving detail out. For the military historian, this is a sin of omission, and it is dangerous because it is so insidious: the historian can make grossly inaccurate conclusions based on the evidence from an image, and not even know how or why he is wrong.
     Another problem with assessing images is a sin of commission. Artist would borrow a subject from a different place or time and put it into an otherwise direct representation of the scene. For instance, Dutch artists at this time would paint a building from another part of town into a space it was not in reality located – accurate representation of the subject’s looks, inaccurate representation of its place. What is more extreme, some artists painted subjects from the past into an otherwise contemporary scene. And even more extreme, some would create fantasy subjects, buildings, bridges, trees, etc. that never existed.
     The dangers for the military historian are clear. Say we have an image German landsknechts clearly portrayed fighting in a Swiss 'steamroll' style push of pike (for more on this, go to my post here), circa 1530s Italy. Without heavy source critical assurance, it is a dangerous gambit to conclude that at such a place and time landsknechts actually fought that way. For certainly the artist may only have had access to Swiss combat, but wanted to paint German soldiers. Thus we may conclude that landsknecht pikemen fought in such a way, and we may have a very realistic image as support for our conclusion, and nevertheless be terribly wrong.
     To avoid the above dangers, the military historian is wise to ask the following questions when approaching historical images.
  • What is the artist’s intention? Is it to represent the visible world faithfully, to idealize it, or even allegorize it? 
  • Is the material represented fantasy, actual, or actual but transplanted from a foreign temporal or geographical context? 
  • Is the material distorted or caricatured? If so, can we tell what is left out and/or exaggerated?
Clearly the questions from this last bullet most often cannot be answered based on evidence from a single image. They will need investigation into related images and texts, the artist’s biography, and forms of evidence such as archeological, artifactual, and others.

Some Advantages

Burke notes a few advantages of images portraying material culture. 1) They can communicate quickly and clearly the details of a complex process which texts take longer to describe, and even then, more vaguely. 2) Images portray material culture not mentioned in texts because it was taken for granted at that time. 3) Some of the artifacts portrayed survive to this day and can be examined. 4) Images often reveal how technology was used.
     All this is very exciting for the military historian, so let me point out a few specific reasons why these advantages are noteworthy. I shall take them in reverse order. (4) is helpful if an image demonstrates correctly how a weapon was held, and especially how it was operated. Burke presents the winding of a crossbow in The Battle of San Romano as an example. How pikes and halberds were held, in combat and out, and how firearms were operated.
     (3) is helpful because of synergy: images of artifacts, analyzed in conjunction with surviving artifacts, can help correct and balance conclusions drawn from just the image or just the artifact alone. For example, in several historical images of battles, some of the detritus pictured on the battlefield are broken (and sometimes apparently cut) tips of pikes. As per Burke’s thesis, source criticism of the images portraying broken and cut shafts will help determine how warranted we are to conclude that pikes were often broken and/or cut during battle. Better yet is to couple the testimony of images with hands-on experiments using physical replicas, sword and weapon experts, reenacted battles, and mechanical horse charges, etc. (This would be helpful for my own project to test a theory. There will be many broken pikes from streamroller combat. And the corollary: there will be few broken pikes from purely thrust and stab combat).
     (2) can help to answer certain questions that many texts cannot, and raise further questions the historian would not have otherwise asked. Take for instance the question “how prevalent were shield or buckler armed swordsmen on the battlefield in early 17th century Low Country engagements?” State papers from the English, Dutch, and Spanish give numbers for enlistment for this troop type, but receipts and similar texts do not really tell us what purpose, if any, such soldiers served on the battlefield. Letters and memoires are only moderately helpful for the question. Fortunately, many contemporary images show sword and bucklermen in the front ranks of pike units, as well as the vanguard troops in many images of attackers of sieged walls and cities. Often these scenes are portrayed in the background or periphery of the image as whole. If source criticism gives generally favorable accounts for taking such scenes at face value, the military historian has a very rich source of evidence for answering their question.
     Finally, (1) is useful especially for the push of pike question. In virtually all sources where the concept is mentioned, further discussion of the mechanics of a push of pike is noticeably absent. Even if more in-depth descriptions existed, an accurate picture or two, in corroboration with other sources of evidence, would be worth many, many words.
     In short and in regard to material culture, the picture is a promising source of evidence. Burke concludes, “So far as the history of material culture is concerned, the testimony of images seems to be most reliable in the small details. It is particularly valuable as evidence of the arrangement of objects and of the social uses of objects, not so much the spear or fork or book in itself, but the way to hold it. In other words, images allow us to replace old artifacts in their original social context (102).” This is very promising indeed for uncovering answers to questions regarding Push of Pike! There is work to be done though, and it is up to historians to do it.


The narrative is a genre of art that seeks to tell a story. Unlike its literary counterpart, the artist of an imaged narrative must condense dynamic sequences of events into a few, or even one, static scene. Roughly put, an ‘imaged narrative’ is a whole story (or part of a story) made into a picture. Images in this genre are therefore difficult to create and to interpret. However, as in any genre, difficulties of interpretation are eased by familiarity with the artist and his context. Knowledge of the genre itself helps with answering genre specific questions. For example, should the piece should be read left to right, or vice versa? Are the figures and objects portrayed ‘stock images’? That is, are they formulaic props included to advance the narrative, or are they taken from the actual event?

The Battle Piece

A species of the narrative genre is the battle piece. Burke makes several notes regarding this type of image.
  • It was often difficult for an artist to observe combat at close quarters.
  • The desire to depict figures and battles heroically meant incorporating more stock figures.
  • Many Renaissance artists depicted leaders as heroic. 
  • Some artists had first-hand experience of battle. Burke lists a few:
               -The Swiss Niklaus Manuel (c. 1484-1530) was a soldier. 
               -The Flemish Jan Vermeyen (c. 1500-1559) accompanied Charles V on expedition.
               -The Flemish Adam van der Meulen (1632-1690) accompanied Louis XIV.
  • During the late 15th till about the middle 16th century, the aim of artists and historians “was to represent fighting as dramatically as possible rather than to look for what was specific to a particular battle (147).”
               -Battle pieces were thus generic and formulaic. Most figures, geography and material were ‘stock images’, not representations of the actual event.

  • Beginning in the 16th century, battle pieces were increasingly concerned to portray historical battles, as well as the strategy and tactics from the actual event.
These last two bullet points can be put in terms of the ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ distinction. Hot images were supposed to illicit emotions from the viewer while “cold” images were supposed to inform. The movement from hot to cold was the movement from formulaic images to images representing actual, specific battles. Yet even this distinction carries a caveat and a warning.

"The gain in legibility attained by the new style of battle-piece should not be equated with a gain in realism. Indeed, it may have been achieved at the expense of realism, by a deliberate refusal to take account of the confusion or ‘sprawl’ of actual warfare. The change in the conventions of visual narrative allowed more information of one kind of information less visible than before, privileging what was supposed to have happened over what actually happened. Once again, historians have to be on their guard not to take idealizing images for the reality they claim to represent." (149)

The Series and Narrative Strips

A couple other species of the narrative are ‘series’ and ‘strips.’ Series are collections of images that were meant to be viewed together. Strips, on the other hand, were basically a series of miniatures in once place. Both species could be images of battles, so it bears keeping in mind that both were not meant to be complete records of an event, but a summary. Further, both species were often subject to a high degree of idealization and propaganda.

Last Thoughts
Burke is careful to make clear that he has not written a how-to book. Nevertheless, his thesis demands attention and action when reading in-between the lines of images. Fortunately, he provides some good good steps in that direction. I have collected and distilled what I believe will be most helpful to my own project. In my next post, I shall finish up with Burke by presenting some conclusions of his and from myself.

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