Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Military heritage

I came upon the stupid website mentioned in my previous post while I was searching for explanations concerning an exotic word: poliorcetic. No, in spite of the first five letters, it has nothing to do with the disease of poliomyelitis. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology indicates that the adjective poliorcetic, formed from the Greek terms pólis (city) and orkeîn (besiege), concerns the military art of sieges: both how to resist a siege perpetrated by your enemies, and how to besiege them in turn. This etymological explanation also guides you in the pronunciation of the term: poli-orcetic.

Without necessarily recognizing any of the names on this map, you might guess that these sites are significant from a military viewpoint, because they're all located on the hexagonal perimeter of France.

They are the spots where a 17th-century nobleman, military architect and poliorcetic expert, known as Vauban, encircled the land with a system of complex and finely-built defensive fortresses, most of which still exist today.

Prior to my arrival in France in 1962, I had heard of the failed fortifications designed by the politician André Maginot [1877-1932], but I must admit that I knew nothing of Vauban. In France, I've found that most people seem to have heard of Vauban, and many have actually visited one of his fortresses, or at least seen a TV documentary on this subject.

Yesterday, a dozen fortresses built by Vauban were added to the Unesco World Heritage listing.

Some of the great sieges in world history—such as those of the Crusaders, for example—were drawn out over excruciating periods of time. Three centuries will have elapsed before the universal recognition of the legacy of Vauban. As the computerized idiot mentioned in my last blog might say: That's a big seat!

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