Yesterday, an entirely farcical event took place on the Thames in London, as a stunt by the Brexit campaign, designed to highlight the concerns of fishermen, turned into a scuffle carried out with water hoses, sound systems and rude gestures. Soon, twitter and news sites referred to a ‘naval battle’.
Today, I came across this map.
It is entirely without source – a Google reverse image search reveals that somebody very cleverly photoshopped new captions into this map of the battle of Lowestoft (1665), and did so while the event was still going on. But I could not find anybody who used the picture with reference to a source, so the wit who came up with this will have to remain unnamed.
What struck me about it is how historical this ridiculous event looks if you choose to present it in this manner. Does the presentation alone change the meaning of an event? Not on the first day, of course. Today the mismatch between what happened and the serious presentation makes this a brilliant joke. But what would it look like with a bit of distance? Can historians confer gravitas where none is deserved?
It also makes me realise how much I am used to seeing these maps. I ‘grew up’ as an ancient history student consulting the wonderful battle maps in Kromeyer & Veith’s atlas of ancient battle fields (1903-1931, marvel at it here), a work so legendary that as students, we all heard the story that one of the authors (Georg Veith) was beaten to death by shepherds on the site of the battle of Zela (67BC): surely the most historical of historians’ deaths (Wikipedia knows the story, too).
Wikipedia* in particular tends to have very beautiful battle maps like this (cf. the battle of Lowestoft, see above). They are usually accurate enough as well: forgive me if I resort to stereotypes for a moment, but the Wikipedia editors’ demographic skews heavily towards people who might be fans of battles while also taking details very seriously. Such maps confer a certain authority – not least because like all maps, they fudge uncertainties, and they really do make it a lot easier to explain what happend in a battle.
I use such maps for teaching, too, for example this one of the battle of Salamis, a version of which turns up in somewhere in my lecture slides.
Of course, nobody would doubt that the battle of Salamis was a proper battle. But what about other events? Does it matter if you start calling an event a battle, start writing the battle account, and ultimately, perhaps, draw the map, too?
How often did my ancient sources make that choice… or not?
I am looking at you, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon…
*in a blog post full of Wikipedia links I have to declare my hand. Of course, as academics, we have to keep telling students over and over that you can’t reference Wikipedia in an academic context (and you really can’t). But of course I use it, and I bet most of my colleagues do, too. Just not as actual historical evidence or proper scholarly argument – because it isn’t.