Saturday, 2 July 2022

Culture and Conflict

I have been having an interesting time, recently. Interesting, to some extent at least, along the lines of the old curse ‘May you live in interesting times.’ Not that my own life is haunted by the four horsemen of the apocalypse, of course, although sadly that is not true of other parts of the world. Nevertheless, I am having a reassessment and a ponder.

This has taken a few turns of some interest for the blog, however. I mentioned before considering what sort of solo wargaming book I would like to read. That is still bubbling away, even to the extent of a cluster diagram exploring some of the themes that I would like to see considered. On the other hand, I have just received my copy of Henry Hyde’s Wargaming Campaigns, so everything I might like to have said may well have been written already. We shall see.

Anyway, I have also been looking around at different wargame magazines, or at least at their websites. Things have changed a bit since I used to contribute to Miniature Wargames, not least that the market seems to have been considerably taken over by fantasy and science fiction miniature gaming. That is, as you might divine from the contents of the blog, not for me, but each to their own. I am not going to criticize.

I was perusing the website of Wargames, Soldiers, and Strategy, which is the ‘new’ kid on the block, so far as I can tell. They also publish Ancient Warfare and Medieval Warfare, as well as Ancient World. Medieval Warfare has just apparently morphed into Medieval Culture and Conflict. The rationale is quite interesting, I thought and pertains to wargaming and how I think about this blog.

The point made in the rationale is pertinent, I think: warfare was a constituent part of medieval life, and to limit one’s attention to the former is to eliminate a major chunk of why battles were fought (or were avoided) in the period. This is an unfortunate limitation, I agree. There is a lot more to life in general than charging across open fields with a lance or taking a bead on a sapper with a crossbow from a castle wall.

It is the sort of point that military historians have been trying to make for decades, mostly ignored by both the academy and the military history book-buying public. I confess to being one of the latter, at least in my younger days. As I think I have mentioned here before the question: ‘what did they eat?’ is always a pertinent one to ask of your wargame army. As wargamers, we can get to the point that we know in the greatest possible detail the ballistic profile of the Brown Bess musket but have no idea what its wielder ate while on campaign. That might, indeed, matter.

There is the other extreme, of course, practiced by military historians, which is to excise totally the campaign and battle parts of an army’s activities. This is surely as incorrect as the exclusive focus on battles. Armies came into existence for a purpose, and that purpose was not simply to be raised and provide historians with sociological data on the origins of the soldiers. The aim is to establish some cause or claim, and to fight someone if necessary.

The incorporation of medieval culture into medieval conflict is to be welcomed, in my view, although I dare say a few ‘drums and trumpets’ diehards might disagree. One of the more popular posts hereabouts in the last few years (and, to be honest, not many of them are popular) was about a book, Representing War and Violence 1250 – 1600. This is not a wargaming book, of course, but a book about how warfare was perceived in the literature and art of the time. Every government tried to justify its actions in the thought world of the time, much as they do today. Historians, too, wanted to describe the past and tended to do so in terms of their present.

We, therefore, tend to wear a range of spectacles to observe the past, including our own context, that of the historians we rely on, the sources and the context in which they were written, and the sources those writers used. No one ever tried to argue that history was simple. Nor should they.

For example, there are discussions to be had around Alexander III of Macedon (‘the great’). Was he great? Well, by some spectacles he was, conquering the known world. From other perspectives, he was simply a deranged megalomaniac leader intent on fighting and then fighting a bit more until drink, disease, and exhaustion overtook him. The latter is perhaps a more modern perspective than the former. Is it more correct? That might be a matter of opinion or tenderness of conscience.

There is therefore a great deal of culture involved in conflict, both in the worldview of the participants and those who reported on their activities, to say nothing of the world views of current historians and, for that matter of modern wargamers. History is necessarily contested and contestable and, perhaps of all the humanities, history is the subject that most frequently gets rewritten. Current political decisions, for example, are often based on perceptions of history that experts in the field, either professional or amateur, would argue over and, likely, disagree with.

These issues make history interesting and important. Battles and warfare are part of that history, but only a part. To properly understand the history of a period we need something more than ‘that bunch of men with pointy sticks were charged by that bunch’. There are whys and wherefores. I have been reading about the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the third quarter of the Seventeenth Century. Why did they break out? It is actually a difficult question to answer. There are issues about trade, for example, and who was sovereign over the narrow seas. But at the end of the day, on the British side at least, it was because the King and his brother decided to go to war. Why they did that, of course, is a matter of culture and context.


  1. Some interesting concepts explored here although to be honest, many of the periods I play in, I have only a very passing and cursory knowledge of....and I certainly DONT know how many pounds of meat or bread the British soldiers fighting in the War of 1812 were issued with! Perhaps I am a "drums and trumpets diehard"?! I do have a general interest in history per se, rather than military history exclusively - but not all history is created equal and some of it is, quite honestly, not that interesting. I am not particularly interested in today's economic drivers or how businesses operate etc - so I am likewise not especially interested in the details of the industrial revolution and the creation of the capitalist industrial economy. That does not mean I don't recognise these social developments had an impact on the production of weapons or the types of wars fought in the twentieth century - it just means I am not particularly interested in the details of how people lived in the 1920'and 30' enjoyment in the hobby of wargaming is about 90% aesthetic - I like the toy soldiers, I like collecting and painting them, and then playing games with them on attractively presented terrain - I don't think there is anything particularly "realistic" about the games I participate in and I do not believe I have learned anything from 40+ years of playing games with toy soldiers that would be of any value if I found myself in charge of a real army of fifty thousand soldiers!

    1. Well, I wouldn't expect everyone to know everything about every period they play in. That would be nearly impossible. But the British soldiers of 1812 were there for a reason, and behaved in they way they did for a reason. 'What did they eat?' is only a kind of entry level question, trying to look behind the battles a bit. 'Why were they there?' is perhaps more interesting to the wargamer.
      Perhaps some of my comments pertain to rule writers in pursuit of 'historical accuracy'. Linear warfare arose from the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment arose from the breakthroughs in science - everything good became scientific, including warfare. At however far a remove this does affect our wargames.
      But still aesthetics and playing with toy soldiers is a bit part of the hobby (and why not?), but there is a great deal of history and interpretation sitting, somewhat concealed, behind it all.

  2. As a very rough outline, we might explore the idea that there are some physical constraints (through the technologies used), some eternal situational verities (being surprised or attacked from the flank is never a good thing) and a layer of very contingent cultural ideas and norms which influence the organization, command and morale of specific forces.Over-emphasizing one of these is likely to lead to bland or caricatured games, whereas the closer we get to getting them right, the more we can have flavourful period-specific rules, scenarios and games.

    1. Thank you, and yes, agreed. But the contingent cultural ideas often get left behind, I suspect, leaving the technology and immediate situation as determinant. Getting the balance right is an issue. I am starting to wonder if later 17th C armies, for example, kept pikes just because armies always had pikes...