Saturday 14 June 2014

Wargame Hermeneutics

Someone mentioned recently in a comment that working with source texts is difficult and not something that most wargamers really want to do. I think that this is entirely correct. Original texts, particularly ancient ones, can and usually are really difficult to work with. Without that sort of engagement, however, it is quite likely that our wargaming will become stereotyped and sterile. We need to input of the original text as a stimulus to our thinking, to our viewpoints of events, so as to reproduce them, or something similar, on the table top.

The topic of working with a text, of understanding it, is hermeneutics. I have been reading ‘God Talk’ by John Macquarrie (London: SCM, 1970). Now aside from being a distinguished theologian, Macquarrie was also an expert on Heidegger. For example, he was co-translator of Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ from the original German into English. Heidegger was, of course, the hermeneutic philosopher par excellence, and a lot of his thought leaks into Macquarrie’s writing.

I confess, I have nerved myself to tackle Heidegger himself. His books tend to the weighty and the translators have found themselves having to retain German terms to distinguish between nuances of meaning that would otherwise get lost in English. So what follows here is distilled through the eyes of a man who could, quite seriously, use the word ‘being’ seventeen times in one (fairly short) paragraph.

Firstly, of course, we have to establish what the text actually is. This is not too great a problem with fairly recent texts, but as one plunges back into medieval history and beyond, we find that the texts become more and more difficult to authenticate. Even something like Biblical texts can be a bit tricky, as scribal errors and edits make for a variety of available texts, and the judgement of which is the ‘true’ or ‘original’ version can become contentious. Add to this the fact that there are a lot of early Biblical texts around (copying Biblical books as gifts for friends and family seems to have been something of an early Christian hobby), and you can get a fair bit of confusion, although with a bit of care and attention the original, except in a few cases, can be reliably obtained.

The same is not true of other texts. Neither Arrian nor Curtius Rufus were writing particularly close to the date of the events they reported, and nor have their writings been received in particularly complete editions (the same would be true of Tacitus). So we are reliant on their fair treatment of their own sources (now lost to us) and on the accurate passing down of the text through far fewer manuscripts than the Bible.

Even when we have established the text, our troubles have only just begun. We approach any text with questions, such as ‘what happened at Issus?’ or ‘How do these wargame rules work?’ These questions are framed by our preconceptions.  We already have some idea about how wargame rules work, or what happened at Issus. If we did not, we would hardly be able to engage with the text at all. On the other hand, our preconceptions may prevent us from engaging with what the text actually says, rather than what we think it should say, or we have been told it says, or what we would like it to say.

This indicates that we land up in what is often called a hermeneutical cycle. We bring a set of preconceptions to the text, which we expect to give us a new understanding. Our preconceptions enable us to understand the text, but must themselves be open to modification by the text as we read and understand it in the light of those preconceptions. Thus the understandings we obtain of the text modify our preconceptions, which themselves then modify the reading of the text. The text, as well as being interrogated for meaning by the reader, interrogates the reader and, at its best, challenges the very preconceptions the reader needs to engage with the text.

No wonder a lot of people prefer not to engage.

Sadly, this is not the end of the matter either. In order to read the text fairly, we have to know something of the culture and society of the writer, and of the time the writer wrote about. Historiography often tells us more about the time of writing than the history of the events and their meanings. The same event may be re-described in different language, even within the writing of a single author. Literary conventions are used as shorthand for events (most Roman armies in Tacitus are described as being very lazy and lax before the hero general arrives and disciplines them.) We need to be able to untangle these things and get the text to answer our questions.

Interpreting a text, therefore, is not simple operation. There is no such thing as a final understanding of the text, and nor can that text be read in isolation from the rest of the work in which it is contained, from the rest of the corpus of the author, from other writings of the same era and, of course, from our own context and interests.

Yet somehow we have to emerge from all this with a sense of meaning and the equipment to interpret all of it in terms of a wargame rule set, a table, a bunch of toy soldiers and some wargamers. It is, in some senses, a wonder that we manage to produce anything at all.

Interpretation of a text and its reimagination into our wargaming context is not a scientific procedure, no matter how much science dominates our public discourse as the epitome of knowledge. There can be no one-to-one correspondence of a few paragraphs of text in, say, Arrian, and the performance of a unit of troops on the wargame table. Each rule set is different, depending on the hermeneutical disposition of the author, whether this is explicit or implied. We all have one, whether we know it or not.


  1. Another great post. Thank you. Of course, engaging with the text could be taken further. Reading it in the original language can bring out nuances of detail that can be lost in translation. Where multiple manuscripts of a text exist, they may not all agree. Reading the introduction to a translation is fine for a spot of background, but the real meat will lie in the body of critical literature around the text. Engaging with critical literature can be a painful process, especially when a large proportion of that literature is in foreign languages (as I know to my cost), but reading it can be necessary if one is to understand the purpose and context of the text as well as the resources available to and mind-set of the author. All of these factors affect how the battle will be described and could be construed as necessary precursors to writing a rules set or playing a battle scenario. Phew, it almost sounds more work than it is worth. Good job we are only playing toy soldiers and can take a few short-cuts. :)

    1. Well, sometimes just plonking a few toys on the table and getting on with it is the best plan.

      Part of the problem with the critical literature is that for an 'independent' scholar, it can be difficult and expensive to get hold of. I'm sure if some of the academic publishers reduced the price of their books from the ludicrously expensive, they would sell a lot more copies and hence make more money.

      But any engagement is better than none; reading the whole text in translation is better than reading only the bits about battles, and so on. It can almost become a hobby in itself.

    2. Agreed. Just play the game.

      A lot of the critical literature is very expensive, which is annoying, but I'm not sure that the publishers can afford to reduce the price much in the hope that it will sell better. I don't think there is demand enough to make that worthwhile. I am happy to be convinced differently. While waiting for reasonably priced critical literature, there is always public libraries. We all need to use our public libraries more. I'll leave this bit at that before I get up on my soap box too much.

      Yes, any engagement is better than none, and people spending time learning about the period by whatever means has to be positive.

      In terms of what is readily available, JSTOR is making articles more accessible these days (although still a tad expensive yet), many scholars are posting their articles for download on and public libraries are a fantastic resource that everyone should use more. There are journals online covering many periods that are free to access and much older work is being digitised by libraries. The work done by the Bavarian state library and the Norwegian national library, to take two examples, is brilliant. also does a sterling job of publicising interesting new research. Perhaps what is needed is more of a campaign to make wargamers more readily aware of this material. I should probably write a blog post or three focused more specifically on the needs of wargamers, and perhaps suggest some reading for developing the critical toolkit to assess the material too, although anything I wrote would really only be applicable to the Anglo-Saxon period and Viking Age. I'll add it to the list of everything else that needs doing.

    3. I think that you are probably right about publishing, although some academic publishers do not seem to have embraced the possibilities of the digital age.

      I also agree that there are increasing quantities of materials out there; also, if possible, leaving purchase for a couple of years usually enables some stuff to be picked up at sensible remaindered prices.

      I think it would be an idea to blog about finding stuff out there, and assessing it subsequently. Anything on the AS and Vikings would be good, as the methods would be transferable even if the specifics were not. There is a lot of knowledge out there, in the wargame blogosphere and beyond. Accessing it is a problem.

  2. I was reminded by this post of a scene I watched recently, in the History Channel series "Vikings", where an Anglo-Saxon king, a bit of an intellectual, is reading an account of Julius Caesar's battles, and appreciating the strategy and tactics of it as best he can given the obstacles of distance and language. It was quite an interesting scene and perhaps a commentary on how our light, despite centuries of historical knowledge and research, isn't that much different.
    Vikings, BTW, was an interesting series and seemed, despite its hints of magic and myth, to be well researched.

    1. I think that is exactly right - it is trying to understand a distant text (in space and / or time) from our own perspective. I guess this is why so many renaissance writers argued for re-introducing legionaries. they took what they read in the classical sources a bit too literally.