Saturday 28 January 2017


I fear that I am becoming a bit of a one dead horse beater, having written far too much this month about text, interpretation, authority and all that stuff. Important though I think it is, it is not the be all and the end all of the wargame world, even of my wargame world. I suppose, therefore, it is high time to find something else to talk about.

To start with, I could review my wargaming 2016. It did not go all that well. While a played a few games and ditched major parts of the rules, progress was limited. On the painting side I was decidedly hampered by an eye problem in the summer, but I did manage to finish my doubled Moorish army. Actually, I cheated a bit. My first aim was to finish by the end of November, and then I could justify obtaining more shiny metal at Battleground. I think Mr Berry was a bit surprised when I demurred from any purchase there. I was 24 figures from finishing. I actually completed the painting on New Year’s Eve, but basing took into January. Still, they are finished now.

The major project of the year was 150 tiny, tiny galleys. They were done by the middle of the year (I think) but for all my efforts, the campaign has yet to yield a naval encounter, so they remain in the box. But it is nice to know they are there. In fact, I think most of my painting effort is directed at knowing that I could field x army or navy at a moment’s notice, but that I rarely, in fact, do.

Along the way I somehow also managed to paint five houses, or, rather, four hovels and a house. These were Leven Miniatures Arab / Mediterranean range, I think and they painted up quite well, even given my limited abilities. They, at least, have been in action, masquerading as Asiatic Thracian homes in one of the main battles of the year.

I started to paint some of Irregular’s big classical buildings as well, but somehow they dropped off the road map after being partially undercoated and stuck on bases. The reason for this, if I recall, was that I noticed after having started that the insides needed painting as well as the outsides. As it has been snowing here as I write, I could be quite envious of a Mediterranean climate.

As far as the blog goes, discounting the hiatus in the summer, a lot of the recent posting has been about how to read ancient texts. I guess that this is something of a niche activity for most wargamers, even those of a historical bent. We prefer our history processed and dished up for us, I think, rather than having to chew on the raw data and interpret it for ourselves.  But I have been writing about that far too much recently, as I said above, so enough, and move on.

Reading has continued, and there have been some fine works consumed over the year, including Mary Beard’s SPQR and Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis.  As I said at the time, and in the Christmas Eve post, the latter is an amazing work of historical synthesis and unutterably depressing. I followed this up with a stab at the fourth volume of Sumption’s Hundred Years War series. I only made it half way through before the greed, stupidity and playground politics approach of most of the participants annoyed and depressed me so much that I had to give up. I fear that the resonances between both Parker and Sumption and contemporary politics were part of the mix as well. I will return to it, sometime.

Enough, I hear you cry! What of the future? A new-ish year beckons, vistas lie open before you. What are you going to do?

Well, next up on the painting table is another Spanish army. This is part of my doubling project, of course, and I am hoping that it will not take all year, this time. I have already undercoated a large number of skirmisher type figures, so the intent is there, even if the execution is a bit lacking. I also have the aforementioned classical buildings to finish (or, viewed from another perspective, properly start) and a few bits of a Roman marching fort to complete as well.  Having entirely failed to acquire any more figures or buildings in 2016, everything this year is eroding the unpainted figure pile, which has to be a good thing.

In case you are wondering whether there is a plan here, the answer is, inevitably, vaguely, sort of. I have noted that a certain Mr Hannibal used a fair number of both Spanish and Moorish troops and so my ‘master’ plan is to complete them and then I might have less to do if I ever decide to go for some Punic War activity. I am not holding my breath for that, however. Maybe when I retire….

In terms of reading stuff, I shall certainly continue doing that. I really ought to get around to Livy and Polybius, Xenophon (his other writings, not the historical ones) and Plutarch, but I doubt that will be this year. I have a fair pile from my winter reading box and a few Christmas present books to wade through (no, that is the wrong term – I enjoy them). I have a few of wargaming interest, such as Plataea, the Siege of Vienna and a biography of Cato. Interestingly, one of the selling points of the latter was George Washington’s use of Cato in the Valley Forge. Either that is an unlikely historical link or a cunning marketing ploy by the publishers, given that most people’s reaction to ‘Cato’ is ‘who?’

I will of course, continue to blog about the failure to achieve most of the above, and report on the very occasional success. As to what will appear on the blog aside from that, I have no real idea. I tend to blog, these days, from week to week, and it depends on what I have been reading, thinking about or trying out. We shall, hopefully, see.

Saturday 21 January 2017

Amateur Historians

The problem, as I have tried to state it, is something like this: historical wargamers, as wargamers, read the historical texts in a certain way, which is not the way that most historians read them. Thus, a wargamer reading a secondary text, assuming that that text is not a wargaming text, is unlikely to find the answer to the questions they would like answered.

The upshot of this is that wargamers, not being, in general, professional historians, will read texts, and generate answers to their questions, which might raise the eyebrows, somewhat at least, of a trained historian. As a wargamer, I want to know, for example, the effective range of a Greek bow.  A historian is more likely to want to know the social class of an Athenian bow wielder. To some extent, at least, the two will rarely meet.

As an example, I am currently reading ‘Democracy: A Lifer’ by Paul Cartledge (Oxford: OUP, 2016).  Cartledge is a bona fide classical historian, and does know a fair bit about classical warfare, given that a number of his works relate to it. But battles are not his real interest. The focus in Democracy is, naturally, the rise of Greek democracy, particularly in Athens (because that is where a lot of the evidence comes from). As it happens, a fair bit of Athenian democracy was related to the rise of the hoplite class, at least initially, and then to the requirement of the Athenian Empire (Delian League) for manpower for the trireme fleet. The need for large numbers of free men to man the triremes led to political power being, in part, relocated to the poorest citizens. If they withdrew their labour, the state was imperilled.

One of the problems with the discussion of Greek democracy, of course, is that our sources (Thucydides and Xenophon, mostly) were not keen on the idea of the masses (even the masses of citizens) having any say in affairs. Thus their accounts of Athenian 9and other) democracies are rather biased against it. So too, roughly, with Aristotle. People who come from the educated elite tend to rather look down on the uneducated masses.

Be that as it may, the issue is that Cartledge is not particularly interested in the details of Athenian fleets or the machinations of campaigns, alliances and international politics, at least in this book. That is not to say it is not a good book (it is good book) but to admit that the focus is not where most wargamers would want it to be.

That said, of course, most of the historical texts do not focus on what wargamers are interested in. While there is a reasonable amount of information around on some of the bigger battles, it is often not cast in a form the wargamer needs to answer their questions. As I noted before, a wargamer really wants answers in the form of ‘there were X thousand hoplites, Y hundred cavalry and Z thousand light troops present’. While this does happen, it is rarely the focus of either original historian of secondary work author.

Wargamers, thus, are forced to make their own interpretations of historical texts, and it is here that the incautious can make mistakes. It is very easy to read an ancient text as if we were reading a newspaper report. We can and, I suspect, often do, simply flip through the pages until we find something interesting, like an order of battle or an account of a skirmish, and ignore the rest. After all, as a wargamer, we want the armies and the battles. Give us the numbers and array, and we will be happy.

Unfortunately, textual interpretation is rarely that easy. The author almost certainly has some sort of agenda. We also forget that history, as a subject for academic study, was a nineteenth century invention. Prior to that, it was relatively rare for someone to questions the sources accuracy or consider the inherent bias of the author. A naïve reading of the text is often nearly as bad as no reading at all.

For a made up example, it is possible that an ancient author, opposed to the idea of democracy, would inflate the size of ‘democratic’ armies over oligarchic ones, and accuse the former of being undisciplined and hence lucky to win a battle over the latter. This has little or nothing to do with history, and a lot to do with ideology. If we do not read the rest of the author, we might land up considering that democratic armies were fairly useless but, as democratic, simply big enough to win.

We therefore land up, if we read a text with sufficient suspicion, presenting ourselves with, perhaps a range of possibilities. Within these we have to make decisions about army size, quality of generals, discipline, training and so on. The text might present us with a ball park, but only our interpretation can decide where within the field the historical army was to be found.

As another example, if you read Tacitus (and I hope you do) one of the things that frequently happens is that a Roman army on the frontier becomes lax and ill-disciplined because the general is more interested in a life of luxury or political scheming. A new general is sent out and makes the soldiers do dawn marches and plenty of battle practice (which they love) and then leads them, in the next campaigning season, into a successful, victorious, battle. Everyone is happy. The soldiers get pay and loot, the general kudos and promotion and so on. But this happens again and again in Tacitus, leading us to suspect that other motives are afoot in the writing, more to do with the politicians and generals Tacitus liked and disliked than any real difference in the efficiency of the army.

The upshot of this is, of course, that textual interpretation is tricky. I do not mean that we should not do it, or that we should leave the interpretation to the experts and rely on those who have material we need (largely because they tend to be Dead White Males of a previous age and outlook), but that we need a sufficient dose of caution in our interpretation, a dash of suspicion before we try to reconstruct what might have been going on.

Saturday 14 January 2017

Wargamer’s Readings of History

I have noted before that wargamers have, in all likelihood, a particular view of history, and a particular use for the texts thereof. Wander around the book stalls of your local wargaming show and, I suspect, two things will become clear to you. Firstly, wargamers are, even in these days of the Internet, a fairly book-ish tribe. Secondly, they are interested in politics, campaigns, battles and military dress, and very little more.

History, of course, encompasses much more than this list of what, I think, historians would conceive of as fairly minor sorts of interests. I once read that professional historians were little interested in the battle of Agincourt and its outcome, but much more interested in the Treaty of Troyes and what it tells us about medieval kingship. This always struck me as slightly odd, partly because I had just read an article by Austin Woolrych bemoaning this attitude among historians, and secondly because Troyes would not have happened if Henry V had gone down under the weight for the French attack in 1415.

Woolrych observed that, when he started being a historian, it struck him that some idea of how things turned out, of who won the battles, for example, was quite important. Professional historians, he discovered, did not really agree, which he found very strange. For myself, I do find that historiography’s focus on thematic analysis is only of any use when you have a firm understanding of the chronology of the period in question. Otherwise it just gets confusing. That chronology is often not present in academic historiography, and thus it seems, at least, to split itself off from events. Sometimes, it seems, history can spend its time examining the lichen on the bark of a tree, and forget that the wood exists.

In spite of all this, of course, the spate of respectable history books by professional historians published about Agincourt around 2015 was rather large. Whether or not the main focus of the profession is on the Treaty of Troyes, some historians clearly have an eye to the popular history main chance, and what the book-buying public might be interested in. Battles are, if nothing else, high drama which even Eastenders or similar soap operas find it hard to compete against. When it comes to conflict, battles are hard to beat.

Nevertheless, it is true that wargamers, as a community, have a different set of interests, and a different set of readings, from people who are following, say, church history, or medical history, or the social history of dustmen, or whatever. We read the same texts, perhaps – in ancient history particularly there are only a limited number of texts to read – but we read them in a different way, asking different questions and finding answers that satisfy those, in whole or part. A medical historian reading Arrian might be interested in Alexander’s wounds, their treatment and his final illness. A wargamer would be interested in the numbers of troops in the armies.
In terms of the authority to interpret, what we have here is a diverse set of interpretative communities. The medical historians and the military ones, let alone the wargamers, probably have little to talk about beyond the interpretation of certain words. This is not strictly because they talk past each other (although that happens) it is just an indication of diverse interests. The secondary literatures that build up around these topics are usually only of interest to the members (more or less peripheral to them) of that community of interest. Interpretations are then relative to that community.

Thus, for the wargaming community, the interpretations we seek are those which aid the community in the fulfilment of its aims. The aim of the wargaming community is, of course, to play wargames, and to enjoy them. As has been noted a few times here, while that aim is not incompatible with having an interpretation of history which is acceptable in a wider historiographical community, such as professional historians, it does not entail that a wargame is historical. A wargame may be a reasonable and acceptable interpretation of a historical event, but it does not have to be.

The acceptability of a wargame, therefore, is not a simply function of its historicity, nor is it one of the fun of the game. It is, rather, a complex function of the two, plus a few other aspects, such as aesthetic appeal, playability of the rules, sociability and so on. But it is, I think, a mistake to suppose that a ‘good’ wargame is a historical wargame, or a wargame played strictly for fun. As with so many things, the truth of what a good wargame is lies between these poles.

Interpretations of history of interest to wargamers thus tend to evolve. Wargaming started, perhaps, with the view of the activity of the individual solider, what he could do in a certain time. As understanding of battles and their concomitant activities evolved, some aspects of wargames became more unit based, and the interest switched to what a unit could achieve in a certain amount of time. Of course, there was a backlash to this as, perhaps, a more ‘romantic’ view of the soldier as hero reasserted itself. History as written and interpreted is an aspect of this, but only one of the inputs to the debate.

Who, then, has authority of interpretation in wargaming? The answer is, perhaps inevitably, no one. But the reasons for making that the answer are at least a little interesting. There are active debates in wargaming between the unit and the individual, and that debate is articulated through big battle and skirmish type rules and games. What we actually think are important aspects of military conflicts is shown though our activities. Not that, of course, our opinions do not shift, but consider this: if you fight a wargame with a set of skirmish rules, and the same wargame with a set of big battle rules, you are almost certain to get a different outcome.

Nevertheless, Einstein encouraged sociologists of science not to listen to what scientists said they do, but to watch what they do. How much, I wonder, of wargamer’s commitments to interpretations of history can be seen in the games that we play?

Saturday 7 January 2017

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Completely raving, of course, and what on earth has it to do with wargaming? ‘Kiss Me Kate’? Has he gone mad?

Well, of course, the excesses of Christmas and the New Year may well have driven me over the edge, but to quote the Bard (my, how the girls will flock to the blog) ‘It may be madness, but there is method in’t.’ Yes. Quite. It might take a bit of digging to find it though.

Actually, the point I am trying to make with this sudden excursus into Cole Porter is about interpretation, again. In January 2017’s issue of History today magazine, there is a profile of Natsume Soseki, Japan’s Charles Dickens. He came to London in the early 20th century, sent by the modernising Japanese government to assess which bits of modernity Japan should assimilate, and which bits it should not.

Soseki was a scholar and author, and had studied English literature. However, he arrived in England full of English studies of Shakespeare. In his opinion, only an Englishman could interpret Shakespeare, so his interpretation of the Bard had to be dependent on English interpretations.

As Soseki lived in England and did English things (including trying to learn to ride a bicycle) he revised his opinion of how to interpret Shakespeare. His interpretation, he concluded, was as valid as anyone else’s. Meiji Japan’s assimilation of many things modern and western could be considered to be highly unfortunate for both Japan and the rest of the world, but that is hardly Soseki’s fault.

The point of all this is, of course, to ask the question: how do we interpret Shakespeare? After all, he lived 400 or so years ago and, as I tried to suggest last time, the past is different to the present. What his plays meant to the original audience may not be what they mean to us. Occasionally, of course, some bright spark of a theatre director has a go at doing something different, making, for instance, Macbeth set in 1920’s gangster led prohibition, or The Tempest on a Greek island receiving refugees or something (I have made those up, by the way, although I think someone might have tried the Macbeth thing). Immediately the critics are sharpening their pens, crying ‘It is not authentic!’

Who really knows, or cares, whether such an updated production is authentic? Or, in other words, why do people get so upset when a Shakespeare play is “updated”. A classic, after all, is a classic. Part of the definition of a classic is that it speaks afresh to each generation, and that each, returning to it, can find something else in its depths. If we can interpret A Winter’s Tale as a post-nuclear apocalypse dystopian warning, then who, really, is there to object?

Nevertheless, people do object. The authority to make these objections comes from an idea of what an authentic production of a Shakespeare play should be. Similarly, I suppose, wargamers have an idea of what an authentic wargame might look like. New interpretations, new ideas, tend to be rejected initially. Max Planck once remarked that new ideas in physics are only accepted when the current crop of professors either retires or dies.

No-one, therefore, really has the authority to interpret Shakespeare. His plays are a gift to the world, for the world to make of them what it will. That does not mean, of course, that a scholarly community cannot make some sort of general introduction or guide to his works. Nor does it mean that any interpretation goes. New ideas, new concepts, new interpretations have to be tested and accepted by a wider community. The claim that ‘They laughed at Galileo’ does not mean that my new ‘theory’ of gravity should be taken seriously. Galileo, after all, was steeped in the physics community of his day. He knew what he was doing, and what he was rejecting. I would need a thorough understanding of the present state of research in General Relativity before I could claim a new theory of gravity of which the community should take note. So it is with Shakespeare; new interpretations do not emerge from a void.

In these communities, then, there is some sort of authority, derived from the group think of relevant people. So it is in wargaming, of course. Even for us solo wargamers out here on left field of the community the authority of the rest of the wargaming world has an impact. Only by recognising and understanding the thinking of the community, and the reasons why the community thinks in that way can my ideas have any sort of impact. The main vehicle of this impact is, of course, the wargame rule set. Rules are accepted or not by the wider community. They can become, in some sense, currency for discussing wargaming, as DB* did, for a while.

This is no bad thing, of course. We need a language to discuss the hobby, and successful languages will tend to come to the fore. Paradigms tend to change, of course, and what was acceptable wargaming language in the (say) 1970’s may well not be (except in some quarters) today. The evolution of wargaming can, probably, be traced through the popular sets of wargame rules. But no-one makes anyone use this or that particular set. There may be popular rule sets, but there is no authority, no verifiable claim to authenticity that a particular set can make.

And so we return to Bill S and interpretations. A Japanese interpretation of Shakespeare is quite likely to look very different from a performance staged in Stratford-Upon-Avon. One cannot claim more authenticity than the other. Similarly, a battle of Waterloo wargame performed with one set of rules cannot claim greater authenticity then the same battle under different rules (assuming that the rules pertain, of course). In that sense there is no authority of interpreter or interpretation. After all, someone pointed out here once that the accounts of Waterloo vary over what time the battle started, to say nothing of the events.

The authority, such as it is, in the world tends to arise, ultimately, from the nation state and the control of violence. Where who controls violence is disputed, civil wars (which are among the most uncivil sort of conflict, of course) tend to occur. But in areas where the state is not interested, or which it has relinquished control over (such as wargaming and theatre), there is no authority beyond the interpretative community (or communities) involved. Exactly where that leaves us, as wargamers, interpreting our texts, is a subject for another time.