Saturday 28 September 2019

History and Memory

Oral history is something of a newcomer in the methods (or theories) of history. I first came across it in the 1980’s, when historians realized that the veterans of the First World War were dying out and their memories of the conflict were dying with them. This yielded, in my memory, Lyn McDonald’s Somme and They Called It Passchendaele, oral accounts, mixed with unit histories, of events in those battles. These books (and, I dare say, many others) told the story of the battles from ‘below’, that is, from the memories of the Tommies who went through it.

Oral history thus contrasts with more top-down accounts. While McDonald’s books had illustrations and maps, these located the units and events of which the narrators were a part. Even then, reading the accounts against the maps, you realise that the maps are tidied up versions of histories. Units did not have nice square edges, nor advance along clear arrows.

According to

Green, A. and K. Troup (1999). The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory. Manchester, Manchester University Press, p 230-7.

oral history started as an effort to recover the views, the history, the memories, of the marginalised and oppressed. Hence, for example, there is an awful lot of oral testimony of the experiences of victims of the Holocaust. Memory, it can be claimed, is the best method of resisting barbarism.

Nevertheless, the account of past events by those who participated in them can be problematic. Memory is not a nice, linear device like a fiction book (all right, not necessarily post-modern fiction, but most fiction over recent centuries). It skips about, conflates events, highlights the things which meant much to the people involved and ignores things they do not know.

Memory, our narratives of our lives, historical events and how we recount them are influenced by ourselves and our culture. Green and Troup refer to the oral narrative of a group of ‘self-made’ men in colonial Algeria. They carefully covered over the fact that they came from privileged backgrounds, with family networks to support and enable their activities. The myth of the self-made man is pervasive in capitalism, but it rarely happens in reality. Dig back far enough and reasons other than the self-reliance and brilliance of the narrator become clear. At the risk of getting political here, perhaps some recent ‘populist’ politicians should be assessed against their real, rather than their claimed backgrounds on this basis. As ‘anti-establishment non-elites’ their records are, to say the least, highly dubious.

Still, often we have to rely on oral testimony. If we are historians of more than the last few decades, then that oral testimony might well have been written down, perhaps quite a lot later than the original oral source. A classic example of this is, I suppose, the Bible, much of which was probably originally passed down orally. This might be thought to undermine its authenticity, of course, as memory, as noted, can distort, but in fact, it can be shown mathematically that such sources can be highly reliable, particularly if there are multiple attestations (which there are for the Bible, of course, although that simply launches a further set of questions).

With careful listening and analysis, however, oral history can yield some interesting results about people and their attitudes to the events around them. Even a simple statement such as ‘The bastards shot at me’ yields a good deal of interesting information, particularly about the reasons that the opposition are described as ‘bastards’. If this is linked with a real historical event or sequence of events, then the feelings and attitudes of the participants can be brought into focus. Even if it turns out that no shots were fired, the response, the expectations and emotions are helpful, if not determinative, of the course of events and reasons for them occurring.

Of course, such interpretations come with a health warning. We are all caught up in the narrative of our lives, and we all are prone to recount such narratives with due regard to rhetorical devices, humour, pathos and all the ways we use to make such narrative interesting, and, perhaps, make ourselves and our lives meaningful. If the war I was involved in turned out to be unpopular, then I might describe myself as hiding in the trenches wanting to go home. If it was popular, I might be leading the charge to final victory (or heroic defeat). This is why, I suppose, oral history is treated carefully – the narratives are valid but only in certain terms, in certain ways. As someone once remarked, we rarely make things up entirely, but what we do is distort our relationship to the facts. Again, modern politicians could well be analysed in these terms.

My own favourite collection of oral history is the so called ‘Border Ballads’, a collection of poems and songs relating to the Anglo-Scottish Borders before the Union of the Crowns in the early Seventeenth Century. These were, on the whole, collected and written down by Sir Walter Scott at the end of the Eighteenth and into the early Nineteenth Centuries. Immediately, of course, questions are raised about the accuracy of transmission and, particularly, editorial involvement. Even aside from these issues, the relation of the ballads to real events is hard to establish, due to the paucity of the historical record and the fact that many of the ballads refer to local, even personal events which probably would not have made it into any record anywhere.

Yet the ballads have their fascination; they are a record in poetry, of a real time in a real place. Some of the geography is still extant, in the towers, bastle houses and castles of the Borders. Some of the subjects, like the Battle of Otterburn (1388) did occur, and the results, if not the detail, are recorded accurately. Careful mining of the poems can lead to some insight and understanding of the events, if not in detail, then in terms of the culture and society that led to the violence and romance of the borders in that period.

So, oral history, if used carefully, can give us some insights into the subjects. As wargamers, of course, we like narrative and poetry. Many years ago I wrote a set of rules (published in Miniature Wargames) called ‘Shake Loose the Borders’. Were they historical? Well, they captured something of the period, I would like to think, but more precisely, hopefully, they captured something of the meaning of the ballads.

Saturday 21 September 2019

Crusades and Reconquests

I have noted before that part of the background to the Spanish invasion of Mexico is the Reconquista, the recapture of mainland Spain from the Moorish kingdoms. In fact, this ideology also applies to the Portuguese and their adventures down the west coast of Africa and into the Indian Ocean in attempts to outflank the Islamic powers.

I have been reading again, in vague preparation for a few battles set in the latter part for the Reconquista, as background to the things I am thinking about in terms of Aztecs and Conquistadores, as a follow up to the book I discussed here a while ago about Queen Isabella,  and, well, because reading is part of who I am. The book in question this time is:

O'Callaghan, J. F., The Last Crusade in the West: Castile and the Conquest of Granada (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2014).

This is, apparently, the third in a trilogy of books devoted to the subject of the rise and fall of Muslim Spain; alternatively, we could describe it as a trilogy on the fall and rise of Christian Spain. It is all a bit of a matter of perspective, I suppose. I am sure you know the story – the rapid expansion of Islam across the straits from North Africa led to the destruction of the Visigoth kingdom and the capture of almost all of Spain by Islamic polities. The exceptions were on the northern edge of Spain and these kingdoms proceeded to start to recapture the peninsular – El Cid and all that stuff.

This volume covers the period from about 1350 to 1492 when Granada surrendered to the forces of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. It is far from a straightforward tale, and a fair bit of it was rather confusing to the amateur, or someone with little clue about medieval Spain.

Anyway, the campaigns against the Moors of Granada (for that is what the Muslim kingdoms had been reduced to) proceeded in fits and starts, depending on what else was going on. There were dynastic issues on both sides of the border, with civil war being more frequent, often, than cross border warfare. The situation was complicated, of course, by cross-border raiding and by the fact that various assorted emirs of Granada had accepted vassalage in order to get out of sticky situations. The Castilian monarchs could always claim that the bonds of vassalage had been broken and launch a campaign.

Further complications arose, of course, from international situations. The emirs of Morocco and Granada sometime cooperated, sometimes did not. The Kings of Castile, Portugal and Aragon sometimes worked together; oftentimes they fought and, sometimes were in alliance with either Granada or Morocco against one or the other of the Christian kingdoms. Add to this mix the involvement of Aragon with Sicily and the Pope declaring crusades against the Moors and the Turks and you have a rather heady atmosphere wherein religion, money and ambition came together.

Being mostly an early modern wargamer, of course, my interest is more in the later stages of the wars, that launched by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1482. They had an advantage in that the thrones of Aragon and Castile were united in their marriage and that they managed to come to an agreement with Portugal (albeit after armed confrontation) over some tricky issues, such as who really owned North Africa, the Canary Islands and the succession in Castile. Once this lot was settled, the campaign against Granada was set in motion.

As the Christian side was unified, the Moorish side collapsed into civil war. The genealogies list seven kings of Aragon and eight of Castile between 1300 and 1480 (or thereabouts). In the same time frame, twenty-three Emirs of Granada are listed, indicating a fair bit of unstable governance, to say the least. In fact, a number of the Emirs ruled for more than one chunk of time, usually aided and abetted by the Castilians in either losing or gaining their throne. A simple matter of Islam versus Christianity the wars are not.

Given the disunity on the Moorish side, Ferdinand (as commander in chief; Isabella probably had influence on the direction of the war) managed to besiege and capture, over the years, the previously impregnable fortresses of Granada. The first move seems to have been the surprise seizure of Alhama, which is between Granada and Malaga. This was a very exposed location for the Christians and considerable effort had to be put into keeping it, supplying it and defending it; the Grenadines subjected it to several sieges.

The campaigns are usually depicted as ones of siege, raid and counter-raid, and that is accurate as far as I can tell. I suspect this is why the Reconquista, at least in this stage, gets limited wargame interest. However, logistics and the new-fangled powerful siege artillery deployed by the Catholic monarchs do give the activities some interest. If the Moors had been less fissiparous then field actions would have been more frequent. Even the raiding forces could amount to a decent sized army.

Other factors also come into play for the imaginative wargamer. The Moors appealed for aid from Morocco and from Egypt. The Christians had to deploy naval forces in the Straits of Gibraltar to prevent reinforcements crossing; indeed, some did and stood a particularly grim siege in, I think, Malaga (but don’t quote me on that). Additionally, of course, the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453, and landed at Otranto in 1480. Whatever the ins and outs of the situation between the religions, Western Europe was in a fairly parlous state, although that was insufficient to make the western leaders actually work together much .

The book, except for the last two chapters, is a good effort at a narrative history of the sometimes confusing events of the latter end of the Reconquista. The penultimate chapter summarises and discusses organisation, finances and so on across the period. The last chapter, I feel, slips a little in trying to analyse the wars as religious. There are, the author admits, other reasons but with crusades and jihads being declared frequently, they had a distinctly religious overtone. That is fair enough, but I suspect that other issues, particularly the emergence of the concept of the “modern” nation stage as a geographically coherent entity might have had a bit more to do with it than O’Callaghan argues. Certainly, despite what happened to the Muslim Moorish community later in the sixteenth century, while Isabella was alive they seem, in my view, to have been treated fairly well for a medieval defeated polity. It was only a bit later that religious issues, as well as financial exactions, began  to bite and, later, warfare with the Ottomans raised alarm over a ‘fifth column’ within territorial Spain itself.

Now, where did I put those jinites?

Saturday 14 September 2019

Narrative and Analysis

I have claimed and attempted to demonstrate, that wargaming, and wargame campaigns, can be thought of as narratives. That is, a wargame, or a wargame campaign is developed through telling stories. History, too, it can be argued, is about storytelling, even though a fair few historians might beg to differ, their argument being that history is not about simply what happened, as a sequence of events, but about why it happened, the analysis of events.

Many years ago a friend of mine get interested in British history in the Twentieth Century. He picked up a book about interwar British social history but really struggled with it. The reason for the struggle was that he did not, in my view at least, have much of a historical framework to hang the analysis on; the narrative, the sweep of history between the wars, was not present for him to fit the analysis into.

One of the problems with modern western culture is the overbearing respect given to science. At its worst this can blend into ‘scientism’, the view that no knowledge except scientific knowledge is worth having and everything should be reduced to scientific method, experiment or theory. Thus you get some fairly eminent people saying silly things like people’s prayers should be subject to scientific experiment, totally ignoring the fact that people’s prayer life is to do with the people and their God, not to do with changing things directly on Earth.

Of course, there are answers to the scientism challenge. The most obvious is to inquire of the scientism advocate if they can prove, scientifically and experimentally, whether their life-partner loves them. This is actually a lot harder, I submit, that proving that prayers might (or might not) work, and, of course, will require the follow-up question as to whether the life partner still loves them after the experiment has taken its course.

Without wishing to digress too far into the scientism versus the rest of life arguments, the problem with the cultural interpretation of science today is that it has such a high profile as being ‘right’, as being knowledge, that every subject wants to claim to be a science. Hence we get such things as ‘social science’, which has a method but does not do repeatable experiments, we have ‘economic science’ (also known as ‘the dismal science’) which is usually wrong and even (heaven help us!) theological science.

Historically, the widespread use of the word ‘science’ can be justified; in Medieval Latin it meant something like wisdom. But the usage of a word defines it, and the meaning is different today, if we accept that modern science means something like following a known (although hard to define) method in a fairly narrowly defined range of subjects.

All of this is, of course, a rather long-winded way of saying that ‘historical science’ is no such thing. It might have its methods, and some of the results of the sciences might be used. For example, radiocarbon dating is a fairly reliable way of finding out how old some historical stuff is. It is scientific, because the way it works is well established, and has a method which can be followed to give a result. However, it is not history, but only a foundation for history.

I work in a rather peculiar half academic and half not part of a university, and often have to warn research students about numbers. The fact is that in our culture we like numbers: they give us a sense of security, of precision, even of the truth. There are two things to say here. Firstly, that arises from our cultural view of science, but it is seldom noted that professional scientists spend huge amounts of effort in replicating their results and in estimating their errors. A number, in science, without an error, is not a number, but a hand wave.

Secondly, a number, even with an error attached to it, is still not useful without an interpretation. If I say, for example, ’35.5’, you will not know what I mean. If I say ‘The atomic number of chlorine is 35.5’, you might have a chance. Numbers need interpreting, as do historical events, even when the latter have numbers attached to them. The key is in the meaning, not in the raw data or even the output number, error range and interpretation. Context counts.

So, my friend’s experience with the social history of Britain was not his fault. The book gave insufficient context for a historical ‘beginner’. This is not to denigrate him – he is a far better mathematical physicist than I ever will be. But he did not have the historical background to tackle the book in question. The context of the reader, the historian, the wargamer, is as important as the context of the experiment, number, document that is being interrogated.

As wargamers, of course, we have a particular context, and that asks questions which history, as I have said before, cannot always (or often) answer. We seek quantitative answers where only qualitative answers may exist; indeed, often no answer can be found. My ‘refights’ of Seminaria and Cerignola are cases in point. How many French crossbowmen were there? In reality, no-one really knows. A few thousand is as close as we can get. To history, this is all that matters (if it matters at all). To a wargamer the missing numbers are vital.

That, too, is a roundabout way of arguing that history is not a science. This is, to some extent, stating the absolutely obvious, but the demands of science in our culture make the idea of a historical science strangely attractive. After all, the original academic historians in the Nineteenth Century believed that they could put history on a scientific basis. To some extent they were right – they stripped out the moral, theological and teleological aspects and focussed on what happened. But a science in the normal use of the word they could not make. We have to live with that as modern westerners, and, of course, as wargamers.

Saturday 7 September 2019

Aztecs Again

I am, very slowly, rebasing my Aztec and similar sorts of troops. This is a slow process because I seem to have an awful lot of them, far more than seems necessary or, indeed, sane. Now I know that I brought a lot of Aztecs because, under most army lists (especially DBR, which was the set I used at the time) armies such as the Aztecs fell at the cheap end of the spectrum per base. I also know that due to my presumed obsessive nature, I wanted to be able to field an army of Aztecs and an army of their enemies, plus, of course, a second Aztec army for the inevitable civil wars. The result of this has been, well, an awful lot of bases.

At present, I think, I am about halfway through, at approximately 60 bases done and about the same to go. You did read that correctly – about 120 – 130 bases will constitute my Central American armies, plus, in fact, 48 single based officers, and a town. When it is all done I might try my photography skills. Even in my inept hands, it might look a fair size.

Anyway, the point here is not to brag about the size of my armies, but to ponder a bit more the Aztecs and the conquest thereof. This has been inspired by some comments on my latest postcolonial post, wondering whether the Spanish were really that much of a factor in the overthrow of the Aztec Empire as the usual narrative of history gives them credit for. My time being spent largely rebasing the Aztecs, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Chicimecs and Tlaxcalans, this is based only on a very quick skim re-read of one of Ross Hassig’s books. I am sure there is much more to be said on the subject, and much more pondering to be done on rule sets.

Anyway, the book in question is

Hassig, R., Mexico and the Spanish Conquest (Harlow: Longman, 1994).

I have not been following the world of Aztec historiography that closely since around 2000, I think, so this might not be the current last word on the subject, but it will certainly do for my purposes here.

Hassig observes that most histories of the conquest take the view of the Spanish participants; even those who take the Aztec view more seriously depart little from the given script. He lists around nine different reasons given for the success of the Spanish: the Aztec belief that the Spanish were gods; the psychological and ideological collapse of the Aztecs; the personal characteristics of Cortez and the Spanish; the poor tactics and weaponry of the Indians; the superior weaponry of the Spanish; the flaws in the political structure of the Aztec Empire; the impact of disease, particularly smallpox; the Spanish superior grasp of the symbolic system.

It seems that serious historians have had little grasp of the reasons for the seeming miraculous success of the Spanish. But Hassig argues that it is only miraculous because we accept the Spanish account of it. Watching the conquest through Indian eyes gives a different perspective. As he notes, the Aztecs fought bitterly, effectively and valiantly against the conquest of Tenochtitlan: no psychological or ideological collapse is, in fact, evident in even the Spanish accounts of the conquest.

The problem is that accepting the Spanish interpretation of events requires assuming that Cortez understood Indian politics and that he could and did manipulate it. After all, both the Tlaxcalans and the Aztecs could, if they had decided to, have wiped out the Spanish force by sheer overwhelming numbers, let alone ambush or starvation, at various times during the campaign. The fact that they chose not to is not because they thought of the Spanish as gods, but because all sides thought they could manipulate the situation to their own advantage.

On weaponry, we have to concede that the Spanish, with metal armour and weapons, had the edge. The Tlaxcallans ambushed the Spanish while the latter were on the march, but the Spanish weapons gave them the edge, although not a particularly decisive one. Hassig remarks (p. 65) that being ambushed left little time for the Spanish to prepare their gunpowder weapons and, although metal armour is fairly effective against arrows, it provided very partial protection against sling stones.

Tactically, the Tlaxcallans relied on ambush or, at least, feigned retreat followed by ambush. The Spanish seem, in the early days, to have rather fallen for this because politically they could not be seen to fail; to do so would have been to risk losing their Indian allies (who were mostly Aztec tributaries). Spanish firepower could keep the Tlaxcallans at bay, but Cortez needed more than that. He also needed food, and the Tlaxcallans were not about to leave any for his men to find.

In combat, Cortez and his men needed to keep their formations tight and ordered. They could not, for example, unleash the full power of a cavalry charge as it would have bogged down against the numbers deployed against it and, separated from the rest of the army, have been lost. A night attack by the Tlaxcallans proved to be more dangerous, as the Spanish were then out-shot by Tlaxcallan ranged weapons; only a desperate charge by mounted lancers disrupted the enemy formations sufficiently to get them to withdraw.

What do we make of all this as wargamers? Well, there is no doubt that the Spanish created problems for the Central American art of war. These are military, it is true, but an all-out attack by the Tlaxcallan army would probably, eventually, have overwhelmed the few hundred Spanish and their even fewer allies at this stage. If the Tlaxcallan’s had encircled and besieged the Spanish, they could probably have starved them to death as well as ensuring they ran out of gunpowder. But, again, logistics came to the fore and it is probable that the Indians could not sustain an offensive army for as long as needed. Further, in Central American military culture a defeated army (or an invading army held to a draw) retreated. That the Spanish did not, Hassig notes, (p. 70) is more to do with their lack of alternatives than battlefield success.

History, of course, tells a different story. The Tlaxcallans allied with the Spanish and pressed on to victory over the Aztecs, ostensibly because the Spanish had beaten them on the battlefield. In fact, if they had proceeded against the Spanish Cortez and his men would have been a mere private Spanish plundering expedition that had been wiped out. The Tlaxcallan geopolitical situation persuaded them to ally with the Spanish. Military defeat against the Spanish was not part of the problem; it was the threat from the Aztecs which persuaded them to parley. War and alliance is an extension of politics by other means.