Saturday 31 December 2016

Practising Safer Texts

Someone, (I think the novelist L. P. Hartley, but I’m likely wrong) once said something along the lines of ‘The past is a different country. They do things differently there’.  And herein lies the crux of the problem that I have been vaguely gesturing at  in some recent (and probably much older) posts. How on earth do we interpret ancient texts? Indeed, who can interpret ancient texts?

Texts are used for many purposes, and the purposes that we read them for are, in fact, fairly unlikely to be the purposes they were originally written for, nor, indeed, the purposes the original readers would have been interested in. So, for example, we might be interested in finding out how many rifle armed militia men were present at an American revolutionary war battle. An account of that battle may say something like ‘The rifle bullets came so thick the sky was black with them and no man dared to raise his head for fear of them’. While this text might tell us that rifle armed troops were present, it really does not tell us much more than that, aside what it felt like to be on the receiving end. We could also raise further questions, such as how did the writer know that the incoming bullets were rifle rounds, anyway.

Already, from a simple and made-up example we can observe a few of the problems in texts. Firstly, we question the text in ways that the original writer, readers and the text itself could not, probably, have formed the questions. Secondly, the text might not be entirely accurate, in terms of modern ‘accuracy’. The problem of the unreliable narrator is one thing: the text might be enhancing the author’s own feelings of bravery and significance, for example. Secondly, the writer is not omnipotent. Things were almost certainly happening about which the author knew little or nothing. Their text is but a snapshot of the world as it seemed to be.

Next up we also have problems from the interpreter’s end. Our world is not the world of the author. Their world view is different, their language, meanings and values will all vary from our own. For example, even World War Two memoirs reflect a society very different from our own, one where, at least in the UK, society was more deferential, at least on the surface, than it is today. We have to attend to the social location of the writer and their readers to start to apprehend what their meaning might be.

There are further issues, of course. It is quite likely that the original text was written in a language which is not that of the modern reader. There are issues of translation, from, say, Latin into English. Languages are not one-to-one translatable. Interpretation is required. For example, where the Hebrew Bible in English refers to God being patient, the Hebrew (apparently) literally means something like ‘long of nostril’. The idea, as I understand it, is that it takes longer for the snort of exasperation to be emitted. And so a translation is ‘patient’.  As my Old Testament tutor put it: ‘I just thought you might like to know that’.  But it does indicate the sorts of problems we encounter here.

This is all very well, but it is not helping the wargamer’s cause, wanting to know how many men with rifles to deploy on the battlefield. And here we approach the rub, perhaps. Wargamers cannot really go with ‘we don’t know’. We need a concrete number of figures on the table, not just ‘around so many’. Granted, we can pick a number which makes it reasonable that the opposition will have bullets whistling around their ears most of the time, but that is an interpretation of the text resting on some, perhaps dubious, guesswork.

So we hit the main part of the problem. We have to interpret texts to extract the answer, but how do we do this and who can do it? If we admit that authenticity is in some sense part of historical wargaming, and that we derive any such sense from the texts which speak of the battles we are interested in, whom on earth can say that this is the right way to interpret the text?

The question of authority in interpreting texts is a major problem. For example, if the text is a religious one, such as the Bible, the issue becomes whether the text can be interpreted as historical, objectively, ‘scientifically’ and so on, or whether the text can only be interpreted by those within the faith community, perhaps who have some authorisation to do such interpretation. You only need to consider the history of interpretation within a particular denomination to start to realise the complexities that can arise here (and which are still argued over, extensively).

In wargaming we do not have quite the same issue over faith, although some of wargamers sacred cows, such as Alexander being Great because he conquered practically everywhere, start to bear a slightly uncomfortable feeling of blind faith. But still the question arises: in a diverse and diffuse community, who can interpret the texts. There is, of course, no one interpretation of texts, and one view would be to leave it to the experts. However, with a few exceptions, professional historians do not tend to wargamers. They interpret within their academic community. Only by interpretation of their interpretations can wargamers use this material. This gets complicated.

Short of advising all wargamers to obtain advanced degrees in history, perhaps the way forward is to ensure that we retain a level of critical engagement with the sources and the texts of wargaming. There will be multiple interpretations of ancient (or, as noted above, more recent) texts. We, as wargamers, do not in general have the resources to follow all the lines of inquiry, but as intelligent human beings we can engage critically with them. This, of course, applies to the texts of wargaming, such as rules and army lists, as well of the primary source material of history.

I think that there is a lot more to be thought about here, and a lot more to be written, but I do think that the task might be quite important for wargaming, otherwise we will just sit around, thinking that some classic of wargaming literature was the ultimate in wargame experience.

Saturday 24 December 2016

Happy Histories?

It may just be me, but there seem to be a number of dark clouds hovering over my reading this year. In the first place, I read and commented on here Geoffrey Parker’s ‘Global Crisis’, which was a fascinating if rather depressing read. Part of the argument is that the world’s leaders pretty well carried on with their squabbles and wars, ignoring the plight of their rapidly impoverishing, starving, disease ridden populations. Leaders stood upon their dignity, rights and, in some cases, divine appointment. Somewhere around a third of the world’s population died.

I am currently, as I mentioned the other week, reading Jonathon Sumption’s  ‘Cursed Kings’, the fourth volume of his Hundred Years War series. France in 1400 was a happy, peaceful, prosperous place. The only problem, really, was that the king was, more often not, bonkers. But that was fine, because there was a range of princes all ready and willing to take up the reins of government.

Shame they fell out among themselves over who got the biggest cut of looting the treasury and taxes. By 1414 France was undergoing a civil war, both government and princes were deeply in debt and the tax burden had skyrocketed. Across the Channel, Henry V, having succeeded his father and played a large part in crushing rebels against him, was bent on invading France. He did not seem to be particularly bothered on which side in the civil war he intervened on. The scene is now set for another round of devastation, caused by world leaders.

This blog has never been a political one. After all, it is about my hobby, wargaming, and not about current events, modern conflicts and the news. The litany of appalling and callous leadership of the past, however, has started to make me wonder about the present. Not that I wish to debate recent events and elections across the globe, but to raise fears about leaders and mandates that appear to be as misguided as those claimed by our medieval and early modern leaders. I dare say that the cult of management and leadership with which the world is becoming ever more infected does not help either.

Still, I am trying not to be depressed this Christmas tide. Incidentally, might I remind the rest of the world (it seems) that Christmas strictly starts at sun down on 24th December, not sometime in November? The bit before Christmas is Advent; it is a time of preparation and fasting, at least in traditional terms, rather than spending money we do not have and eating things we really, secretly, do not like. I mean, does anyone really like mince pies? Seriously?

My mood is probably not being improved by a number of medical semi-crises this year, and the fact that the estimable Mrs P has to dash around like a mad thing validating everyone else’s ‘Xmas Warm Fuzzies’ at this time of year.

It is enough to make me say ‘Bah, Humbug!’ But I shall refrain, and wish you all a Merry Christmas. 

Saturday 17 December 2016

Putting the History In

We forget, often, as wargamers, I suspect, that there is such a thing as history. I do not really think this is unique to wargamers, but it does happen quite frequently in wargaming. We can, and do, argue over whether, for example, the French Medieval Ordonnance army would triumph over the legions of first century Rome. Whether this is a sensible question or not is rather moot, but given that we can find the argument, it must be at least an intelligible question.

We are not alone. History is one of those strange things that pops up rather more often than we suppose, and can quietly modify our positions, or be modified by them. The spate of ‘false news’ planted during recent elections is a case in point. As George Orwell put it in 1984, he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future. False news is an attempt to control the present. It is, in postmodernist terms, an attempt to make the present conform to how you would like it to be. Whether the item is true or false is irrelevant here; if we remake to world to our taste, the tool we use to manufacture it is not important.

Of course, over history, people have always attempted to make real their own beliefs and desires. Even in medieval times (referring back to Sumption’s Hundred Years War books) the various sides, at various times, issued manifestoes which they believed would bring all right thinking people onto their side. We, they say, are the true rulers of this or that territory, and our claim is just and based on these facts. That the other side could and did do the same was neither here nor there.

The historian, as I have said before, is thus faced with a ‘two frame’ problem. They have to understand the world viewa of the original protagonists, and then match that into language from their own world view. These things vary in space and time. History is always going to be written and rewritten. There is no such thing as a total, accurate and complete history.

Wargaming, of course, adds another frame to the pile. We view history in a certain way, through high politics, strategy, war, campaigns, battles, armies and generals. We add also other constraints, such as wargame figures, tables, dice and so on. Our view of a battle can be constrained by what we can place on a table, or represent in rules. If we are not careful with our history, the rules can become that history, the toys can be the actors, and we really do launch out into some sort of fantasy and alternate history.

There is nothing wrong with that per se, of course. But it is a good thing if we do at least recognise what we are doing. When we start to design our army according to a given army list, we are starting to flatten history out. Each army comes from a given context: a time, place, set of circumstances. When we reduce that to something like zero to six mounted knights, we are reducing that context to something else – a set of marks on a page, which only mean something in the context of a set of rules.

We have to do this sort of thing, to an extent at least, in order to cope with the sheer complexity of the past. I would defy anyone, at least in the English speaking world, to really get a grip on the history and politics of the German states in the medieval period. Some sort of simplification, if not case based study, has to be undertaken here. Otherwise we would be bewildered and unable to achieve anything, let alone a wargame.

Yet this very flattening of the historical complexity leads us, perhaps unwittingly, down the road of comparing legions with Medieval French. Once we do start to flatten out the contexts, the comparisons become easier. I start to compare, not one army with another, but one set of sorts of bases with another. Within the context of the rules the comparison is sensible, or at least intelligible. Within the context of history, of course, it is liable to be laughed at.

Wargamers, then, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes deliberately, flatten out the context of history. I do not really have a problem with that, so long as we realise what we are doing. If we want to have a game of Aztecs against Ming Chinese then there is no real issue: in this case, the game is the thing as we know that it is a game, at least as long as we have some idea about history and geography. When we start to lose that knowledge, we are probably heading into dubious waters.

The problem is, of course, that we cannot simply compare the battlefield performance of different armies from different periods or times. The Aztecs had a different view of what a battle or a war meant from the Ming (I imagine they did, anyway). The cultures from which the armies arose were different. They had differing world views. A battle, in short, meant different things. Who won could be less relevant than the meaning of the affair. Losing well could be, for example, more noble and therefore acceptable than winning by subterfuge.

As wargamers we are apt to forget these sorts of nuances. We could, in fact, be accused of clinging onto a classical world view, whereby there is one culture and everyone else is a barbarian. If they do not follow our rules, our precepts, our world view, then they should jolly well have it imposed upon them. We flatten out the cultures to our convenience. In wargaming terms, everyone gets treated like, say, Napoleonic British infantry, only more or less bad. The fact that the Aztecs would not have even recognised such a style of warfare is neither here nor there.

By our flattening out of history, therefore, we are imposing a kind of cultural imperialism on the past. It is made to conform to our rules, our expectations, our world view. We could argue that this is inevitable, and to an extent I would agree.  But it is only really acceptable when we recognise it for what it is.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Missed Battles

I am currently engaged in reading the fourth volume of Jonathon Sumption’s History of the Hundred Year’s War. This volume is called ‘Cursed Kings’ and covers 1400 – 1422. Big wars, someone once said, deserve big books. Sumption’s volume is about 900 pages long, and is of a similar size to his previous efforts. Big war, big book.

Sumption’s is a volume that should be dear to every wargamer with an interest in history. It is a history of big things: Kings, wars and battles. High politics is the centre stage, both within and between countries. While intellectual and cultural developments are nodded to, Sumption is interested in other things, the decisions of politicians, the efforts of generals and soldiers, the contingency of things.

Of course, he covers other things. War, especially the destructive and debilitating kind of the medieval period, was often followed, if not accompanied by, famine, plague and pestilence. The second volume of the series chronicled in depressing detail the destruction of France by war, routier gangs, plague and dislocation. Life as a peasant became nasty, brutish and short. Life as anyone else was not hugely better, unless you were a great noble or king.

By 1400, of course, the situation had improved massively. Most of France proper had been recaptured during the 1380’s. There was a truce with England, with a suggestion that a permanent peace might be on the cards. France was prospering. There were only a few dark clouds on the horizon. Firstly, Richard II of England was deposed and murdered by Henry of Lancaster. As Richard was married to a French princess, this caused alarm in Paris, but as Henry IV had been supported by Louis of Orleans in his bid for the English throne, not much was going to be done about that, except increasingly impolite requests for the 13 year old girl to be returned to France and (rather more optimistically) the return of her jewels and dowry.

The second cloud was the insanity of the French King. From the early 1380’s he had lapses into what appears to be paranoid schizophrenia, or something similar. Ruling the country during the king’s ‘absences’ became increasingly difficult. This was exacerbated by the existence of a number of the king’s uncles, the Queen, and Prince Louis, who proceeded to loot the state of taxes and fall out among themselves. The number of times France stood on the edge of civil war in the early 1400’s are quite large. Eventually, of course, it all fell apart.

The English were not in any better state, and were probably worse off. The English crown was without money, and Parliament, as Parliaments were wont to do, assumed that the king should be able to live off his own income and not bother the state for taxes (the Long Parliament of the early 1640’s had the same view). Henry IV was, as an usurper, weak anyway and had to spend to maintain a glorious court (to establish the mystique of kingship), buy off supporters and semi-supporters, and to try to fight off pretenders, the Scots, the Welsh (Glendower) and protect Gascony and Calais.

Given all this, it is a wonder that there were so few battles. All right, Shrewsbury happened in 1403, when Hotspur rebelled. There were some ambushes and a couple of small scale battles in Wales. But the big plans for invasion rarely were delivered. For example, Louis had a wonderful strategic vision for a multiple invasion of English assets – an assault on Calais, an invasion of Gascony, an expeditionary force to Wales to invade England in association with Glendower, and persuasion on the Scots to invade the north. Such a combination would have been very difficult for Henry to survive.

Of course, it all came to something and nothing. A few men at arms landed in Wales, only to have their shipping dispersed by the English. They helped to capture a couple of castles for the Welsh, but the invasion of England petered out as Glendower was unwilling to risk poorly armed Welsh levies against English men-at-arms, even with French support. The invasion of Gascony went ahead, and landed up with the capture of a castle or two and a threatening of Bordeaux. The commercial ties between the city and England, however, meant that there was no way for the French to make much progress. Threats to Calais fell apart anyway, immured in the politics of the French court.

Overall, then, we have a huge range here of ‘missed’ battles. Battles that might have happened, but did not. These non-battles did not happen because of a variety of reasons – malice, timorousness, incompetence and impoverishment. The crowns involved simply could not afford to implement their grandiose schemes. Further, the grasp of geography was a bit dodgy, as well. Louis seems to have thought that the Welsh and Scots could unite somewhere in the English Midlands and march on London. Well, perhaps they could, but it was a lot further than he seems to have thought.

Finally, there was logistics. Feeding an army was a problem. Living off the land was one way of going forward, but most farming was subsistence. There was not that much surplus food around. Established garrisons, such as those around Calais were small for a good reason: they could be fed. Paying an army was another problem. Both sides could and did raise money from Estates and by loans from merchants. But when nothing much was achieved, the taxes set aside for war were spent anyway, and the Estates grumbled and demanded investigations into corruption and misuse before being willing (let alone able) to vote for any more.

For a wargamer, of course, these are rich pickings. Some of the battles which did not happen are so much more interesting than those that did. There were, for example , several times that Edward III offered battle in the years before Crecy, sometimes in much less favourable circumstances than in 1345. What would have happened if the French could have taken the gambit? Similarly, the invasions scenario outlined above could make the basis of a good campaign. As wargamers, we can magic the logistical problems away; we still have coordination as an issue, but who can tell what might have happened. I might even be typing this blog in French (or Welsh).