Jean-Denis G. G. Lepage. Vauban and the French Military under Louis XIV: An Illustrated History of Fortifications and Strategies. Jefferson: McFarland, 2010. viii + 292 pp. $49.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-4401-4.
Reviewed by Erik Lund
Published on H-War (February, 2011)
Commissioned by Brian G.H. Ditcham
Vauban's Fotresses Reviewed
To speak of the fortresses of Louis XIV is still to conjure up powerful emotions. Louis, more than most, is hero or monster depending on one's vantage point, and many perspectives are entangled with his great frontier fortification project. Germanophones, at least, still see where those frontiers were fixed. Raising the claim that these "scientific" fortresses constitute Enlightened progress is a call to the barricades on another approach entirely. It is no wonder that some would turn to lesser figures, such as Marshal Sebastian Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), who, after all, just followed orders. (And, as Jean-Denis G. G. Lepage inevitably reminds us, Vauban put some distance between himself and his king's project with a well-timed memorandum.)
So why do we need another book about Vauban and his fortresses? For one, the bookshelves dedicated to the subject include many written at the high point of teleological history and entertain ridiculously out-of-date claims about military and engineering professionalization and France's "natural frontiers." Lepage is not entirely free of old-fashioned Whiggism, but he is far better than most, writing in a format that will reach readers who might not otherwise get any exposure to more modern ideas. He also writes in an only occasionally eccentric English, making this work accessible to unilingual enthusiasts. Also, the mere fact of publishing now puts the hoary old collection of out-of-copyright plans, maps, and sketches here included into the wider marketplace of ideas. Finally, he provides a helpful guide to the practices of siege warfare that is actually better in some respects than Christopher Duffy's Fire and Stone: The Science of Fortress Warfare (1975). This book will not replace Duffy, but it is convenient to have this discussion appended to Lepage's account of some forty of Vauban's fortresses.
Unfortunately, what this is not is a history of "strategies." Admittedly, this line of inquiry would be better pursued in Janis Langins's Conserving the Enlightenment: French Military Engineering from Vauban to the Revolution (2004) and Jamel Ostwald's Vauban under Siege: Engineering Efficiency and Martial Vigor in the War of Spanish Succession (2007), but this reviewer has a more basic concern. The project of understanding the fortresses of the France of the grand siècle at one's reading desk was transformed over 150 years ago by the publication of the atlases of the French official history by Françoise Eugène de Vault and J. J. Pelet (Mémoires militaire relatifs à la Succession d’Espagne sous Louis XIV [1835-62]).
This reviewer appreciates that elephant folio volumes are not cheap. Access has always been limited. Over time, wear and light fingers have made them more difficult to consult. For that reason, one suspects that many historians of all levels of academic professionalism are unaware of the enormous value of these volumes. The problem, in short, has been a publishing problem, andsomeone should really try to resolve that issue. For the moment, however, Lepage's book provides a useful introduction to the issues.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Erik Lund. Review of Lepage, Jean-Denis G. G., Vauban and the French Military under Louis XIV: An Illustrated History of Fortifications and Strategies.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|