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.