Saturday, 16 January 2016

Religion and Wargaming

OK, a title which is guaranteed to get some negative reactions. I know that. At one level, of course, a negative reaction is at least a reaction. On the other hand, I am not talking about praying to the gods of the dice, so let me try to explain.

The title was inspired, if that is the right word, by a couple of books I have read recently, one before Christmas and one after. The latter was ‘Constantine, Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor’ by Paul Stephenson (2011, London: Quercus). This is not an academic tome, the author argues, but something trying to popularise his academic work. Let me state upfront: it is a good book.

In describing Constantine’s life and work, Stephenson starts by describing the religious makeup of the last part of the third century and the variety of options there were for people. He is particularly interested in the army, as to control the army meant to control the Roman Empire, and to lose the support of the army meant to lose it, and probably one’s life along the way.

The point of this, of course, is that religion and politics were not separated. Belonging to a particular religion was a political act. To be a Christian was a subversive political act, at least from the point of view of the Emperor who saw worship in the emperor-cult as being vital of the cohesion of the empire. In a way which many of us struggle to comprehend, religion was politics.

The reason for my reading this book was not, in fact, for the end of wargaming, but to try to understand something which is frequently talked about, particularly in Roman Catholic theological circles. That thing is the concept of the ‘pre-Constantine’ and ‘post-Constantine’ church. I think the idea here is that pre-Constantine the church was occasionally oppressed and certainly not friendly with the state at anything other than the local level. Post-Constantine the church was, more or less, identified with the state. Certainly bishops, for example, started to become administrators. The idea here is that the church is returning to a pre-Constantine relationship with the state, at least in Western Europe.

Of course, reading a semi-popular book about Constantine was never going to resolve that argument for me, but it has nuanced it. There could be arguments about how Christian Constantine was, about his evolution as a Christian from a sun worshipper and so on. I think in terms of the original argument, however, things evolved rather than changed. After all, it was only about 60 years after Constantine’s death that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

It is always nice to obtain some wargaming point from any book read, however, and the bonus for this one was that I did. In discussing the changes brought about in the religious practices of the army, Stephenson notes modern research on how units fight, that is that small units fight because their buddies are around them. This is likely to be true of the late Roman era as well, and so a change in religious practice is likely only to have a marginal effect on the effectiveness of the troops. However, having a central religious practise for all can only help to enhance troop effectiveness and morale. Constantine was careful not to deride all other forms of worship – pagans (which is originally a bit of a Christian term of abuse – the Christians were mainly sophisticated urbanites, ‘pagan’ seems to mean something like bumpkin) were still permitted to worship. Granted Constantine, being Emperor, could use a deal of persuasion that the best god to worship was the Christian one, but he did not make it happen.

Anyway, overall, a very interesting book with some unexpected insights. It almost made me want to start painting late Roman armies. Almost.

The other book I want to mention is ‘Heretic Queen: Queen Elizabeth I and the Wars of Religion’, by Susan Ronald (2012, St Martin’s: New York). The main point about this one is that it, too, wants to emphasise that in the sixteenth century politics and religion were not separated in the minds of the protagonists. This became pointed in England, of course, when Elizabeth was excommunicated. Her catholic subject were then, in principle at least, torn between loyalty to the church and the Pope, and loyalty to their queen and nation. Most chose the latter course, much, I imagine, to the chagrin of the Pope and a weary ‘I told you so’ from Philip II of Spain.

Again, the point here is that from our modern eyes it seems impossible to consider that religion could be the cause of wars, or the cause and motivation of fighting said wars. Even though, from many non-western perspectives, intervention in assorted Middle Eastern countries could be said to on the grounds of religion (also known as an extension of the crusades, pace George w Bush’s unfortunate expression), in western political rhetoric, at least, there is no such motivation. The grounds are of national security, peace, democracy, not the propagation of true religion. In sixteenth century Europe, of course, that was simply not the case.

I think that Ronald wants to make that point, and does so reasonably, and I tried to like the book. Two things bother me about it, however. The first is the claim that in the late 1560’s thirty five thousand French troops were poised on the Scottish border to invade England. This is, frankly, a hard to believe statement. An army that size might have been noticed by other writers on the subject and, to be honest, a French army that size would probably have starved before it did anything effective. The Borders were simply not rich enough to support that many troops. The second is that when Ronald describes the arguments over Holy Communion, she gets confused. She declares that Elizabeth decreed that the people should receive communion in both kinds that is ‘both Protestant and Catholic’. In this she (Ronald) is simply wrong. In both kinds means both bread and wine. Late medieval Catholicism distributed only the bread to the great unwashed. Elizabeth’s decree was Protestant and not an effort in the direction of toleration. With those niggles reported, the book is PK, but is not going to tell anyone with an interest in Elizabethan England anything they probably did not already know.

Overall, then, an interesting couple of books. The point, however, is one made in my Open University history course, that without religion we cannot understand the past. By extension, then, without some understanding of religion, we will almost certainly find wargaming the past difficult.
Tiny Galleys: painted: 15, awaiting finishing of bases: 10, under-coated 10, still grey: 115


  1. Thankfully not a factor here but looking south over the border into the US, as unlikely as I would have thought it 40 years ago, religion seems to be a frighteningly increasingly important factor or facade at least in politics and public policy.

    As for the French in Scotland, While there were 3,000 French at the affair at Haddington in 1548 and various largish French garrisons as well as various large allied contingents on the border into the 60's, one would suspect either a decimal point slip or a representation of total French +Scots numbers under arms in the kingdom as French poised on the border.

    1. I think most people in the West thought that religion was on the way out 40 years ago (cf Steve Berger and the secularisation debate) but it turns out it was only sleeping. Mind you, I guess religion has usually been a cover for other things - I've just been reading about the Franco-Ottoman alliances, and the fact that what really annoyed Sulieman was Charles V claiming the title of Caesar, not the fact that he was a Christian at all.

      As for the French army, I do also suspect a skipping decimal point, but the claim is repeated a couple of times. Surely someone should have inserted a sanity check...

  2. An interesting post, and I agree with your final statement. If we do not fully engage with the motivation for wars, and for being a soldier or warrior in a given time period, we cannot formulate good quality rules for that period. This all goes back to an earlier post on your blog where we discussed colonial gaming. A person's Weltanschauung will affect how and why they fight, and also what the wider aims of a military campaign are likely to be. Naturally this has to include religion.

    On a side note, when teaching Old English I always took great pleasure in contrasting the militant, muscular and heroic Christianity of the Anglo-Saxon period with the perception of modern Christianity as meek and mild that my (largely atheist or agnostic) students had. This difference in the nature of Christianity and the approach of people to it is precisely the kind of thing that needs to be considered when writing rules to cover an army from this period.

    1. I do suspect (or feel, or some other subjective word) that a lot of wargame rules treat ancient soldiers as modern westerners. Thus everyone looks the same, fights the same and runs away in the same way.

      Interesting about Anglo-Saxon Christians as well. Constantine had no hesitation about a it of political murder even when he was a self-declared Christian. It would be interesting to compare with, say, Victorian 'muscular' Christianity in the industrial towns, or with missionary and colonial Christianity.

    2. I'm pretty much certain you are right about wargame rules. The majority that I am aware of state that a bloke with a pointy stick in a unit of blokes with a pointy stick is the same whatever the period without consideration for their motivation for being there in the first place.

      Christianity has changed a lot over the years and expresses itself differently in different places even in the same time period. There are probably studies out there that cover the comparisons between Anglo-Saxon and Victorian Christianity, although I have not read any.

    3. Ah yes, the Macedonian pikeman, and the ECW one - all the same really. We could call them the universal soldier....

      Christianity's attitude to warfare has changed a fair bit, too, although the claims that early on it was pacifist have been questioned. It never seems to have stopped anyone going to war, however.

  3. Heh, so is the Macedonian Pikeman van Damme and the ECW one Dolph Lundgren?

    I actually think that the idea of a pacifist Christianity is fairly recent. Early medieval texts describing the activities of missionaries suggest that violence was acceptable to Christians at that time. Anglo-Saxon literature is also more Old Testament in flavour, being heroic, etc, etc. The Dream of the Rood even casts Christ as the leader of a warband and the cross as his loyal retainer. It's heroic literature at its best.

    1. I suppose it would depend on which one likes feathers the most....

      There are arguments that Christianity was pacifist for the first 200 years or so, based on the fact that some early martyrs (like St Alban) were military types who got executed for their faith. It seems more likely that they were soldiers who converted and then refused to engage in the emperor / unit cult, rather than pacifists per se.

      Post Constantine, the argument goes, the church was identified with the state and thus supported state violence.

      The problem is that Christianity was a shadowy sort of organisation prone to theological argument in the first few centuries, so we don't really know about its line on pacifism and war. the first just war theories were by Augustine, I think around 400 AD. Plus the fact that St Paul uses quite a lot of military language and metaphors, and the soldiers in the gospels are not condemned for being soldiers by Jesus or John the Baptist, and in Acts the military (a a police force) is not hostile to the Apostles.

      So, overall, I'd say Christians were not pacifists in the early centuries, but then, under the Pax Romana it probably wasn't a problem either way.

    2. Very early Christianity is an area I could stand to research more. I wonder if there was a pacifist ideal that was preached but the reality was a long way from that. Certainly the hagiography is problematic, when you mention St Alban. Ah well, I shall add it to my list of things to do if I ever retire. :)

    3. The problem is that most reitirees I have encountered complain that they have even less time than they had before...

      I think the problem with a lot of studies of very early Christianity is that they tend to be interested in doctrine, rather than relating Christianity to what was going on in the Roman world. Making those links (and Stephenson makes a good effort in this direction) would be a generally useful thing to do.