Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Method For Using Military Images - Part 1: Introduction

In an earlier post (What was Push of Pike: The Question Defined), I declared that I want knowledge: knowledge of how pikemen fought in early modern Europe. I believe that one of the best ways to have knowledge about a thing is to actually experience the thing. Thus, I want direct, immediate access to the past. I want to see a battle (if I could stomach it), hear its sounds, smell its scents. Touch the weapons and armor. Speak to the troops. I believe these types of experiences would give the quickest, best answers to my questions. Put yet another way, the best method for learning about the mechanics of a Push of Pike is to experience one firsthand. In this sense, for me to be linked to a Push of Pike is to see and hear it, to speak to soldiers who have engaged in it, to engage in it myself, to survey the battlefield after the bloody fact, to question commanders and strategists. In that case, to answer a question like “what was the nature of a push of pike on so-and-so date at such-and-such place” would be as easy as pointing to the event itself as it takes place.

                Alas, obviously, this is not possible (nor advisable if you’ve watched Bill and Ted lately). Direct access to the far past is not to be had. Instead, I must seek out artifacts, those tangible objects that will link me to the past in such a way that I can garner accurate answers to my questions.


Historical Sources

Above I used the term ‘being linked to the past’ several times. When I say that someone is linked to the past, I mean that they have access to the way things were in a certain place in the world, at a certain time – all for the purpose of gaining insight into some aspect of that time and place. In my case, I want access to parts of the past that give me understanding into the Push of Pike phenomena. I mentioned that the best way to access the world is to experience it directly: to be at the time and place sensing the aspects of the world that you are interested in learning about. To access the distant past, we need ‘historical sources.’ There are a variety of types of historical sources. One general type of historical source is testimony, word of mouth accounts about what happened. Another type is tangible objects. Henceforth I shall refer to physical, tangible historical sources as artifacts. Whatever the type, we do well to think of historical sources as witnesses in a trial. We ask questions, and they give answers. Some witnesses are better than others: they were at the scene, they know more, they are clearer, they tell the truth more, or at least they lie less, than others. Some witnesses know very little, some mislead. The task of the historian is to get at the truth of the matter, to offer a hypothesis, and to support it with as much good evidence from the witnesses as possible.

Stabby the Pike

Let us look at one artifact that may be very useful, a pike. Let us call her “Stabby.” Stabby is a 16 foot ash pike produced in southern England in the early 1600s, used in the Low Countries throughout the 1630s, and now lives in a museum in France. Once we are pretty sure of Stabby’s past, that is, once the authenticity of the artifact is reasonably established, she can serve to inform on the shape, material, origin, and even (to a degree) how she was used (e.g. the nicks from slashing on certain “thrusting” swords). Stabby cannot serve, at least cannot serve well, to inform us of her original tensile strength – in this case she’s too old. And (although I wouldn’t say this to her face), Stabby is really just a very old, inanimate piece of wood and iron. Thus, clearly, she can directly inform us on almost nothing about how she was used in a Push of Pike. It’s the most sordid details from Stabby’s past that she is most quiet about!

Stabby’s usefulness is not totally gone though, she still has prospects. For Stabby can be modeled and duplicated. Put in the hands of learned battle re-enactor, Stabby’s clones can serve to test many types of historical theories (e.g. strength of languets, thrusting power, cutting effectiveness, effects of different ways of holding the pike in advance and attack). In other words, one of the uses of an authentic contemporary artifact is in making reproductions; and one of the uses of reproductions is testing the weapon’s possible uses, observing its effective uses, and building theories about its original use from that data.

Synergy of Artifacts

Clearly none of this is new information. Military historians, and groups such as ARMA and HEMAC, exercise detailed variations on this theme as a matter of course. What I seek to highlight in my example are (i) the uses of an artifact, (ii) its abilitiy to link us to the past, and (iii) its limits. Stabby, the contemporary pike, is a true pike from such-and-such date and place. With corroboration from documents like state papers we can make justified conclusions that it was one of the pikes purchased by the Dutch from the English for use in war against the Spanish. The corroboration with other artifacts need not stop there though. With support from images (made by credible eyewitnesses), we can determine many other data. For instance, that Stabby is a good example of the type of pikes soldiers commonly used in the Dutch revolt. Even better, with information from memoires and other images, we can develop further theories, for example, how the pike may have actually been used. With identical reproductions we can test these theories for plausibility and likelihood; and in so testing may have new insights, discoveries, or questions.

I hope you will excuse my use of the grotesquely named pike. However, using it as an example, I have tried to briefly show how a single artifact, on its own, is only of limited use. But, coupled or tripled with other artifacts, it becomes exponentially more useful to the military historian. I shall call this is mutual strengthening, interdependent support the ‘synergy of artifacts.’ Synergy is exciting because it allows me to become more closely linked to the past than I could otherwise be.


The scheme I have presented so far is exciting, but it is a rough one. There is much more to be said in several important areas. I shall focus on one of those areas, historical images, and examine it in regards to my interest: the mechanics of a Push of Pike. In the rest of this paper, I shall seek to expound my own take on (i) the types of imagery that are most useful to my project, (ii) how images can and ought to be utilized, and (iii), the extent of their usefulness to my project. The student of military history has a wealth of visual sources to potentially link them to the past. Unfortunately, each piece must be carefully and knowledgably utilized. Not too many professional military historians have taken extensive advantage of military images (usually sticking to written sources). Those who do use military images usually do so cavalierly, without recognizing the appropriate qualifications of using images as sources of evidence. I shall examine a couple of the best books and essays on the subject. I shall lay out the most helpful ideas from each, and give explanation or critique when necessary. Then I summarize my own position.  Finally, I shall list out my conclusions in a way that I hope is user-friendly – I want you the reader to have an accessible, easy-to-use list of guidelines so that you may begin accurately using military images that interest you for your own research. All of this will be done throughout a series of blog posts titled A Method For Using Military Images.


  1. I'm glad you are utilizing this blog again. I look forward to reading your findings!

  2. Thank you Anthony for your message. It is encouraging.