One of the strangest experiences I have ever had was, admittedly, many years ago now. I was, for no very good reason, in San Antonio in Texas (the one in the USA) and visited, on a Sunday morning, The Alamo. Granted, The Alamo is a site of some historical importance, so what, you may wonder was so odd about it.
Now I admit that I, as the author of the blog and as a general gawper at historical sites am not from the United States of America, nor, in this case perhaps more importantly, am I from Texas. However, the really odd thing about The Alamo from my point of view was firstly, the respectful crowds of people wandering around the place and secondly the attendants holding up signs saying (something along the lines of – memory is not perfect) ‘this is a national shrine – please be silent’.
As you can tell, I have been wondering about this ever since. My own feeling, apart from the general bizarreness of the atmosphere, was that only a bunch of lunatics would have considered defending the place. The walls are low, the buildings are built into the walls and there are lots of windows. In short, against any sort of artillery and determined attackers the place was indefensible.
That led to a further thought, of course. Only a bunch of total incompetents could have taken days to capture the place. I am not aware that the Mexicans at that time were particular humanitarians, so it probably was not an effort to save lives. When the place was stormed, they did not show particular quarter to the defenders, in accordance with the laws of warfare and sieges of the time.
Nevertheless, in the USA, and in particular in Texas (despite being a state of the USA, Texas still has something of the feel of being independent, or at least semi-detached. Texans are the only people to have voted to join the Union and seem to feel that they are willing to stay so long as the Union does not upset them too much) The Alamo is a significant site. There is a lot of myth accumulated around it and the siege and the war between Texas and Mexico. I am sure that many Texans, reading the comments I made above about the defensibility of the site would feel a bit aggrieved. It is a bit like telling the British that the RAF outnumbered the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.
The point I think I am edging towards is that, very often, our historiography is dodgy. If you visit the average historic castle in the UK, for example, in the shop you will inevitably find figures of knights in armour with lances, swords and so on. There is a great focus on the castle as defended, and so much the better if it was besieged. Actually, the castles were built for control and as centres of justice and administration. While they were defendable, that was not their main role. Principally, it is probably true, they were symbols of prestige, demonstrations of wealth and power. If you were a peasant who had at best a scythe and a pointy stick you were going to realise, in fairly short order, that besieging the castle and getting rid of your lord was not going to be easy, or even, perhaps, possible.
Nothing historically is really that simple, of course. Cathedrals are another statement in stone about wealth and power. While a few of them look like castles, they were not designed that way. They are, however, claims about the mightiness of God and the reach, wealth and power of the church. The aim of a cathedral is different from that of a castle, but, from a peasant’s eye view, the effect might be similar.
It is also, I think, a bit of a mistake to suppose that most castles were besieged at some time. Up the road from here is the ruin of a castle built to control the road along the foot of the moors. It was not, it seems, very big, very powerful or even particularly useful. It would have been a statement of power and control. It quickly fell into disuse and then into ruin. Around the corner there is a Cistercian Abbey which is a far larger and more impressive ruin. But the shop still sells knights with lances, although it does also sell teddy bears dressed as monks.
The point is, with both The Alamo and British castles, the myth is propagated that they were viable military installations. For all I know this goes further. The Rhineland is dotted with castles, including a rather nice one built in the middle of the river. Defensible? Probably. But actually they were built as a means of controlling the river traffic and charging (extorting – you are much more likely to pay a toll if cannon might be trained on your barge) tolls. The threat of armed force is often more effective than its actuality.
And so we loop around to wargaming again. I do not know how popular the Texas-Mexico war is among wargamers. My guess is not so much. Most of the activity seems to have been one sided, one way of the other. But the myths are real enough. So too with medieval castles; their existence suggests an ongoing threat of violence. Actually, although there are notable exceptions, medieval England was a reasonably peaceable sort of place. Even the Wars of the Roses caused fairly small amounts of damage, and that was, on the whole localised. But we like our myths better.
I suppose that, underlying this, is some sort of ethical question about what we wargame. On the basis of what I have just said, a ‘real’ medieval campaign game would have years of not much happening, followed by a short, limited campaign finishing in a battle and a few executions. Everyone else then retires to their castles, taxes a few more peasants and waits to have another go. That might be realistic, but is it not rather boring?