Saturday, 28 May 2016

Historical Accuracy

I suspect that both words in the title should really be in scare quote. Thus the title should be ‘historical’ ‘accuracy’, or possibly ‘historical accuracy’. We shall see.

I have been fortunate in reading June 2016’s issue of History Today magazine. It is very interesting, and hardly a battle is mentioned in it. However, there is a fairly short article within it about ‘Making History’ by Suzannah Lipscomb, and its subject is historical fiction.

She starts by asserting, via a quote from Hilary Mantel, that historical fiction should be accurate and authentic. We will all nod sagely in agreement with that. We expect the bodices to be laced up in the right way, the swords to be worn on the correct side, the tea to be served with cucumber sandwiches with the crusts trimmed in the right manner. If we, with our expectations of the authentic representation of the period, accept that the author has done their homework, then we can relax with the fiction as we do in a hot bath and revel in the authenticity.

Except that we cannot, not really. A modern author always carries with them their contemporary baggage. It is hard to find, Lipscombe remarks, a historical fiction set in the sixteenth century that represents how important religion was in Europe at that time. This is an importation from the modern world. Religion is no longer the way the week, year or month are set. Even the religious believers among us do not have their lives shot through with religious observance, and our lives are not regulated by the Christian year. This was not the case in the sixteenth century.

If historical fiction convinces us that human nature does not change, it is doing a dangerous thing. The minds of people in the sixteenth century were different from us. Lipscombe observes that when Francis Dereham had sex with the teenage Katherine Howard without her consent, no-one accused him of rape or child abuse. In the manner of some recent judges, the woman was held responsible. This is not how the modern mind works (and a good thing too).

Some aspects of human nature, perhaps, do not change. We all need, throughout the centuries, to eat, sleep and find shelter. The furniture of our minds, however, can be radically different, even if the evolution of it is fairly slow. It is only, perhaps, by comparing one century with another that this stands out in stark relief.

The second danger of historical fiction is that in can convince us that we do understand the working of the historical mind. An author of historical fiction can create the historical mind of a character in their book (or film, or whatever). The danger is that if the author has done a good job, we start believing that this is what the historical original thought; this is what motivated their actions and so on.  This historical fiction author, if they do their job well, can sell us a convincing lie. However much we are convinced, it is still a lie. We do not, cannot, know what the original person was thinking.

Lipscombe finishes up by suggesting that historical novels should come with a sticker attached, reading: ‘This is not the past. It just looks like it’. She also suggests that this may not apply simply to fiction. Perhaps history books should come with the same attachment.

Historical wargaming is a form of historical fiction, I would suggest. We strive for accuracy in formations, in uniforms, weaponry, terrain. The rules we create for wargaming are judged on their accuracy to this historical record. Weapons are categorised as to their effectiveness and so on. Figures judged by their scaled down resemblance to historical originals.

Even the imagi-nations are not immune from this effect. We presume that human nature is the same, that the furnishings of the mind of the fictional protagonists resemble, in some way our own. The contemporary is imported into the fictional automatically, whether we like it or not. We create wargames from the context of our own time, import our own issues and ideas.

Of course, it is slightly worse for a historical wargamer, as opposed to a imagi-nation-er. The historian has to used flawed historical texts and artefacts to determine the nature of the era they work with, the wargame they wish to create. The imagi-nation-er does not. They can create the sort of world they wish, but are still constrained by what we think human nature is. I am sure that all my generals, of whatever era, are really nice, liberal, twenty-first century Westerners at heart. The fact that the historical prototypes of some of them would cheerfully have crucified thousands without trial is neither here nor there. We do not do that sort of thing these days.

So, historical wargaming should have the same label attached to it as historical fiction. After all, I think most armies on campaign at the least lost that parade ground feel of most of our wargame figures. When was the last time you saw a demonstration game of, say, eighteenth century armies where the figures were in rags, their coats washed out and their trousers were spattered in mud. Despite the existence of ‘campaign’ figures from some manufacturers, I have yet to see such a game.

And yet few of us, I suspect, can avoid the hankering after some sort of historical grounding for our games. Perhaps there is just something inherently fascinating about the past, and about examining it again and again. History is always being made and remade, as the present interrogates the past with its own, new, questions. The answers we get, of course, reflect the interests of the contemporary age, not the original. It is quite likely that the originals would not even understand the questions.

So, is there such as thing as historical wargaming, historical accuracy? Do the scare quotes need to be in place? Of course they do, as they do for historical fiction and, in all likelihood, for history text books as well. It is just that we are far too polite to make a fuss about it.


  1. Interesting discussion. Blogs are awash with righteous indignation over Arthur Harman's article in MW in which he suggested that we don't need to follow the fashion for exquisitely painted figures & that such an approach may put beginners off.
    What tickles me is this all gets run into all the nonsensical statements about "historical" v "fantasy" and only huge regiments of 50-100 figures will do (28/25mm of course).
    I remember AH advocated that Napoleonic games should be between multi-purpose greatcoated figures covered in mud...
    Oddly the same "historical accuracy" advocates were willing to ignore this & use the parade ground uniforms with all sorts of spurious arguments to support doing so.
    My view is that pretty much all of wargaming is fantasy to some extent (as it never happened or didn't happen "that way").
    The danger, as you outline above, is to take our creations as representing anything more than just games of toy soldiers....

    1. Crikey, that article was a while ago. Must be 30 years?

      Was it in that article that AH said you may as well use hair-roller armies or was it Paddy Griffith in another article?

      Whichever it was, the general thrust of it has stuck with me for a long time. And conveniently gave me the excuse to be a little more lazy in my research of uniforms!

    2. IIRC the title of AH's article was "multipurpose Napoleonic infantry".
      I suspect the late Paddy Griffith put the case for Andy Callan's hair roller armies in "The case against toy soldiers"

    3. Aye, that was it. 'The case against toy soldiers,' which I think was along the lines of 'toy soldiers get in the way of realism', and suggested various alternative approaches if you want to face historically realistic challenges.

  2. I heartily agree. Historical wargaming is historical fiction. Definite need for scare quotes around the 'historical' side of things. I have even gone so far as to say it is fantasy wargaming, not historical, and received the brickbats for that. I still maintain that this is largely the case, if we take fantasy in the sense of using the imagination.

    I'm not wholly in agreement with your assessment of history text books as historical fiction. For popular histories, this may be the case, especially where they are the short and simple kind. When you start dealing with the texts that interrogate the past in a more complex manner, you are leaving the realm of fiction for the most part, even if you are not engaging with actual 'history', whatever that is.

    On a different note, the reinvention/misrepresentation of the past to suit present needs is a fascinating topic in its own right, and one that is particularly relevant to current concerns.

    1. I dare say that we can easily describe ourselves as fantasy wargamers. The problem is that some wargamer's fantasy is to redeem Napoleon's reputation by winning Waterloo.

      History text books are an interesting topic. Not fiction, agreed, but what is history, or the historian, actually doing? A lot still has to be assumed or implied to enable a textbook or monograph to be written at all.

      There is a school of thought that reckons that everything we can think is by analogy or metaphor, so we can only explain the present by using the past for our own purposes. I suppose it comes down to how honest we are doing it.

    2. I think that as long as wargamers' fantasies do no harm, then we can safely leave the Napoleon fetishists to their own inner world. There are definite issues with certain sectors fetishising particular elements of the past, and those need to be dealt with directly, but a wargamer acting that out on the tabletop is probably not too much of a worry. The conversation down the pub could be a tad tedious though!

      History text books are certainly not neutral artefacts. They reflect the limited sources from the past, mediated through the biases, theoretical values, and approach of the historian. I suppose the historian is creating a narrative of the past but, unlike historical fiction, there is an attempt to be objective within a given theoretical framework. Much of the work is interpretation of evidence, and there is a need to lay out a clear methodology so that others following can understand the conclusions better. I've always thought of it like CSI: History School; you focus on the evidence and just the evidence.

      I am inclined to agree with your last point. We define ourselves through our relationship with a constructed version of the past. It's a form of neo-colonialism, and not always tasteful.

    3. I have met someone who really did seem to think they were Napoleon, and very disconcerting they were after a while. But history fetishism does exists, and much of it revolves around World war Two.

      I think good history books lay out the evidence and clearly mark everything else as speculation, while bad ones confuse the two. I'm reading Mary Beard's SPQR at the moment, which is popular history, but she clearly marks speculation as such.

      Of course, evidence is rarely clear cut and univocal. We still bring a whole load of stuff to the table. Mind you, we do that in interpreting anything, I think. It is just part of being human.

      We do reconstruct that past to our own advantage. As a for example, would the drafters of the US Constitution really have thought that the right to bear arms meant that 2 year olds would shoot their parents? Almost certainly not, but the way the constitution is interpreted means that it happens.

      (I'm not trying to start an argument on US gun law, by the way, but it is better than talking about UK - Europe relations from my perspective).

    4. I had a similar experience with an acquaintance who identified rather too strongly with Robert E. Lee!

      Yes, a good historian will set out the facts and tell what is fact and what is their interpretation. I'm not keen on the word speculation in this context, because it implies a lesser level of factual basis. Mind you, I am prone to referring to parts of my own works as 'the rampant speculation section'.

      Best that I not get involved in discussions on either US gun law or UK-Europe relations, because I get extremely irked by the wilful misuse and misinterpretation of the past in both cases. Suffice to say that, as research has shown, people focus too much on short-term gain even when it will have a net long-term deleterious effect on their lives.

    5. Well, what I mean by 'speculation' is clear going beyond the facts, such as the finding of a random archaeological artefact which says something like 'Judas' is clear evidence of the existence of Judas Iscariot.

      No it isn't. stop being silly. It is only evidence of someone called 'Judas'. Just because there may only be a few Judases in the historical record, it doesn't follow that the artefact is anything to do with them. Any link is speculation, at least in the sense I'm using it (and MB uses it, I think)

    6. That makes sense. I'm just a bit careful with the terminology because I'm hyper-aware of shades of meaning and how they affect our mental approach to a topic.

  3. I'm not sure "fiction"applies to many wargames, it implies a certain amount of storytelling and invention which is not always present when a "gamer" decides to roll some dice to generate some excitement and pass the time. "Game Inspired by Imagined History" might be appropriate if somewhat unwieldy.

    As for "History", we should remember that one definition is the study of the past while another is a narrative of past events. To study or relate something is not the same as the thing itself although that actual past is also history whether known or not. No wonder politicians and authors like english, the same words can mean different things to different people.

    For me, I've gone back to my earliest inspirations and just call my hobby "wargaming" without a descriptor although I sometimes just call it "playing with toy soldiers" .

    1. Well, if fiction doesn't apply to a wargame, I'm not sure what does. Perhaps a better term is 'narrative'? We do tell a story, even if it is not a story that is determined in all its details by an author. The dice are part of the narrative resolution?

      'History' is something that is always disputed, I think. I usually assume that 'history' doesn't change, but historiography does, that is, our interpretation of the past changes, even though the 'facts' (oh dear, more scare quotes) don't. Not that my definitions hold any weight or water, of course.

      Nevertheless, I do suspect that wargames generally are grounded in the 'real' world and it is very hard to dissociate any wargame from that.

  4. Excellent post - I really can't disagree with much of that!

    The subject matter (to me) gets back a little way towards previous discussion of fashions and styles in the writing of history. My favourite writers of history, for the most part, are those who tell an informed story - Charles Oman and Veronica Wedgwood might be good examples - but my irritation with their approach emerges when the presented distortions do not accord with my own preferences! Modern historians (I don't think I quite intended to phrase it like that, but you know what I mean) are very strict about the need to heap references upon us until we lose track, or until we no longer give a rat's. Recently, at dinner, a professional historian explained to me the accepted methodology for supporting an argument with references - how many primary sources equal one secondary and all that (he explained it very patiently, since it is evident that my brain is very small) - but he still failed to explain the significance if a genuine primary/contemporary source is a lot of crap.

    I was recently disappointed (though not surprised) by the historical tome on Waterloo produced by that prince among ex-pat historians, Mr Cornwell. It is refreshing in this day and age that the author did not delay himself unduly by consulting non-English sources, though that in itself is not unfamiliar. His explanation here and there of what Napoleon was thinking at key points in the campaign suggests that he himself might be a little confused about where storytelling starts and history ends (I'm not always too clear on that myself), but I believe that I'd have swallowed such an approach from Charles Oman - not sure what the difference is, Well, I probably am sure, but I'd prefer not to enlarge upon it.

    Wargames: a walkthrough of a real event is a possibility - I have attended a few such - any miniaturised activity which contains the distortions necessarily inherent in our understanding of the facts, the requirement to simplify to make things practicable, and the chance elements required for any sort of a game may use history as its original inspiration, but it is not really a piece of competent historical re-enactment or modelling/analysis of real event.

    I think.

    1. There's a formula for calculating primary to secondary source ratios in an article? Crikey! I'm discombobulated, and not a little boggled, by this idea. Doesn't sound very historian-like to me. I fear the person in question may have been having you on, or they were a television 'historian' ...

    2. I am an easy dupe, of course - gosh, I really wish you'd been there.

    3. Given that I only recently realised that 'gullible' has not, in fact, been removed from the dictionary, I fear that my presence would only have confused matters!

      It would not surprise me to learn that some historians might have tried calculating primary/secondary source ratios for supporting arguments, to be honest, although I am unaware of any that actually do. My lack of awareness should not be taken as an indicator of much of anything other than my ignorance though.

    4. As I recall, the discussion was around the topic of how much weight should be attached to a particular viewpoint - some of the stuff was self-evident, such as secondary sources should not be references to other secondary sources - some was rules of thumb about preponderance of secondary references, and occasions where debate might come as to which was valid - e.g. a discussion of a common soldiers' view of WW1 might rely heavily on personal correspondence, which in itself might include proportions of regimental folklore presented as eyewitness - whether, on balance, this would be more or less reliable than official records is a topic for debate in the pub - or at dinner, of course.

    5. Sounds interesting, although from your first missive, I get the impression that the historian was a tad patronising about it all. That would spoil any good discussion.

    6. No - not at all - that was merely oafish self-deprecation on my part. This chap is a particularly decent and knowledgeable fellow, though I have to say that my past experience (which is limited) is that the profession takes itself enormously seriously - maybe this is appropriate? I fear that the industry in reference-generation in history is part of our modern-day obsession of making errors into someone else's fault - don't blame me, i was just quoting Goebbels etc.

    7. Ah, sorry, I misunderstood then. That renders my attempts at humour earlier redundant and unfunny. Oh dear ...

      I can only really speak for medievalists, where there is the usual cross-section of humanity. Some are overly serious, while others are more inclined to 'play' with the topic. I've read a few pieces over the last several years discussing how the serious, aggressive, humourless types are perceived as more intelligent than the friendlier types regardless of actual intelligence, and thus the former attitude is encouraged and reinforced in academia. Perhaps it is the case that there are more overly serious historians for this reason. It's certainly a fact that I tend to gravitate (levitate?) towards those that have a sense of humour and avoid the overly serious types where I can, so my perception probably does not give a good sense of the average.

      Plagiarism is a huge bugbear these days, especially with essay-writing businesses churning out essays for students with the means to pay for them, and the ease of copying and pasting from t'internet. The emphasis on referencing almost certainly stems from the desire not to be seen to be plagiarising. Most people are especially careful these days, although I don't generally find it an issue with reading a text, unless the author uses endnotes. I hate endnotes!

  5. We like our cucumber sandwiches (with the crusts off) here in the ahistoric and vaguely Germanic Grand Duchy of Stollen, somewhere just to the east of Frederick's Prussia, some few years after the conclusion of the Seven Years' War.

    Best Regards,


    1. Any minute now someone will come along and dispute your history of Stollen - I hope you have archives...

    2. I heard a rumour that a neighbouring Grand Duchy has documents proving that the archives of Stollen are all forgeries! :)

    3. I'm sorry, but you have to reveal your sources. We do know, however, that the sandwich bread is purchased with the crusts already removed (we checked with the delivery man). His name is Olaf.

    4. Suffice to say that it was on the front page of the Konditorei Herald. The journalist wrote that it was actually a source high up in the Stollen administration that admitted this, but pleaded 'confidential source' when pressed to reveal the name of their informant.

    5. My lips (and archives) are sealed! At least until after the Third Partition of Poland, when the Grand Duchy disappeared from European maps, and poor Irwin-Amadeus II went into exile on the Wirral Peninsula. There is, apparently, a small monument to him somewhere in Hoylake.

  6. Hmmm . . . here's a poem by Bertold Brecht:

    Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
    In the books you will find the names of kings.
    Did kings haul up the lumps of rock?
    The young Alexander conquered India.
    Was he alone?
    Caesar beat the Gauls.
    Did he not have even a cook with him?
    Every page a victory.
    Who cooked the feast for the victors?
    Every ten years a great man.
    Who paid the bill?
    So many accounts.
    So many questions.

    I have the same problem deciding how best to represent Napoleonic skirmishing . . . .

    1. We know that Alexander wasn't alone, because he stabbed some of his friends when he was drunk.

      Caesar, of course, only reported what the greatest man in Gaul did, one Julius of that ilk.

      And so on. One of the interesting bits of modern historiography is the attempt to recover the history of the ordinary person - the women, children, slaves and poor free citizens who are otherwise anonymous. it is hard to do.

      The only other comment I have is WH Auden's poem, To the Unknown Citizen:

      He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
      One against whom there was no official complaint,
      And all the reports of his conduct agree
      That, in the modern sense of the old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
      For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
      Except for the war till the day he retired
      He worked in a factory and never got fired,
      But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
      Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
      For his union reports that he paid his dues,
      (Our report of his union shows it was sound)
      And our Social Psychology workers found
      That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
      The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day,
      And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
      Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
      And his Health-card shows that he was once in hospital but left it cured.
      Both Producers Research and High--Grade Living declare
      He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
      And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
      A gramophone, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
      Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
      That he held the proper opinions for the time of the year;
      When there was peace he was for peace; when there was war he went.
      He was married and added five children to the population,
      which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
      And our teachers report he never interfered with their education.
      Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
      Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

  7. As a long-time re-enactor and gamer it has always fascinated me that gamers are mostly devoid of any 'accuracy conscience' beyond button-counting. But that is ok if everyone is doing the same and it has no penalty. Reenactors have the same problem. Most think if they buy something someone has bothered to make then it must be ok. If everyone goes with the flow it is no problem. The pauses for thought happen when someone points out that people of the past are foreigners to us - as L.P. Hartley wrote. Modern vikings wearing gangster bandanas which would identify them as married women in viking times and wargames with troops self-sacrificing all over the place only give most people a short pause for thought..then they continue. The key is to get over it while acknowledging it. The spirit of Imaginations is just right I think (if not carried too far). Barry Lindon as opposed to de Merode-Westerloo. I think it is fun to see gamers criticising 'Flames of War'. It is a GAME not a simulation. Duuur..The whole of Hollywood's efforts have not shown you that yet ?( Cornwell prides himself in writing off-the-cuff with no references and is a good example of how far this fantasy can chime with our also modern psychologies).