What is this? The Age of Charlemagne?

I didn’t have a prompt for today’s post, so I asked on social media and friend Bob suggested:

Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.


One of the things that a couple of historical TV shows have been doing lately — I’m thinking of Marco Polo and Vikings — is keep a single historical figure looming over the story. Obviously, that’s Genghis in Marco Polo, although disappointingly he’s showed up a time or two. Most of the time, though, he’s just a shadow over Benedict Wong’s Kublai. In Vikings, in the French sequences, it’s Charlemagne, who exists to show how his descendants have failed to live up to his mighty reputation.

And I think that’s probably fairly accurate for the way the emperors — who went on to style themselves Holy Roman Emperors — saw Charlemagne.

I always had a bit of a funny perspective on Charlemagne, and I wonder if I was unusual. He’s not something we really covered in school in the US, and when I was at university I started out seeing him as a sort of who-cares figure: dwarfed by the power of his Byzantine contemporaries, and, for all his achievements, hardly the equal of the Roman emperors whose title he claimed. Obviously, once I got to learn more about him and his age, I changed my view, but I think I never really appreciated how important he was in early medieval — and indeed proper medieval — Europe, not only as a person but as a person to think with.

I think it was the Song of Roland that really drove that home for me, in which Charlemagne is portrayed as someone with literally superhuman powers. By the time that was written, he was, I dunno, 2-300 years in the rear view mirror and had already passed into legend. And the importance of that legend persisted into the modern day; I firmly believe that all supernatural malarkey theories about the Spear of Destiny are based on not grasping how emotionally important the Holy Roman Empire was to the Nazis. It wasn’t that the Nazis thought it belonged to Jesus — it’s that they thought it belonged to Charlemagne.


Now, maybe I’m the weirdo, and maybe everybody else always had the right kind of appreciation for the power of Charlemagne as a symbol in medieval Europe. But when you say “Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire,” that’s what pops into my head.

What is this? The Age of Charlemagne?

Reader questions: the fog of war

I made another reader questions video!

One thing that’s really missing from this video is discussion of how nations have historically responded to the fog of war. The most common way of dealing with poor communications between the central authority and armies out in the field has been to grant the commander a significant level of autonomy. This leaves a lot of the decision-making in the hands of the person with the most on-the-ground knowledge, but you will recall from the study of pretty much any period of history that highly autonomous commanders with armies loyal mainly to them have not always worked out great.

One way to get around that is, of course, to make sure the commander is someone who has a vested interest in seeing the ruling dynasty survive, such as the king’s nephew or son or some kind of gifted foreigner who could never rule, but obviously these methods have their own problems.

Reader questions: the fog of war

Reader question: toy soldiers

Reader Adam asks:

What are your thoughts on the history of toy soldiers?

I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that I have “thoughts,” which is funny considering how much of my mental energy is taken up by thinking about present-day toy soldiers.

Part of the question of the history of toy soldiers — of toys in general — comes down to the vexed question of intent. That is, we definitely see figurines of various kinds throughout history, but are they “toys” per se? In some cases, doubtful: like, these soldier figures from an Egyptian tomb have a ritual/magical function, but I definitely always think of them as a wargame unit when I see them in museums.


I knew a guy when I was doing my MA who was very fascinated by what these kinds of figurines could tell us about the Egyptian military — and he was a wargamer.

You also get what appear to be toy figurines of knights in the middle ages, I do know that: see some examples here.


But it’s really in the 18th century that “toy soldiers” as we know them become a thing, particularly in Germany. I assume this is to do with changing trends in consumer culture — this is also when we get “shopping” as a leisure activity, for instance, and my guess would be that this is also when you start to get any kind of large-scale production (even if not that large-scale) of dolls, dollhouses, jacks, etc. But it’s also true that this is an age of militaries with standard, elaborate uniforms, where a bunch of identical monopose brightly-coloured tin figures is what an army would idealise itself as.


This kind of thing, you know what I mean? That’s the War of the Austrian Succession, so it’s about right era-wise.

And of course, this is also the era that I associate in my mind with the rise of militarism that goes with the nation-state, the idea of armies as institutions. Rrrrroughly; we’re talking long-term trends here.

Now, a lot of these early tin soldiers are made using two-part flat slate moulds, so they’re very thin. When I was getting into wargaming, the books on the topic in my local library made mention of these, although they were understood as primarily a German thing and an older thing.

These are from the Roscheider Hof museum in Germany, for instance. 

As the mould-making technology develops (I assume as rubber moulds get easier and cheaper to make and hollow casting becomes easier? I legit don’t know how that works), you start to get the three-dimensional toy soldiers that most British kids remember. I even had some of these in the day, although heaven knows where they came from. These are the kinds of things H.G. Wells wrote his wargame rules for, I believe.

This kind of thing, y’know. 

And then there’s Elastolin and then plastic moulding becomes practical and you get cheap 1/35 or 1/72 model soldiers, like Airfix toys, and plastic army men in bags and then Gary Gygax is gluing cardboard wings to dime-store dinosaurs to make dragons and then you have D&D which begat Warhammer and so on and so on. I actually like 1/72 plastic figures and buy them compulsively, even though I have almost no use for them. But they’re so varied and economical! Heck, I don’t know. There are a lot of them out there, though. 

So yeah — “toy soldiers” in the sense we understand them are probably a product of the technology and economy for mass-production being available plus uniformed militaries being the norm plus society being very into the pageant and spectacle of the military. Note that a lot of early toy soldiers aren’t in any kind of combat position and there are a lot of military bands, colour parties and so on — you’re clearly meant to be creating a parade with them.

Tangentially, there’s quite a lot of good stuff on the evolution from military wargaming to modern fantasy and adventure gaming in Jon Peterson‘s excellent book Playing at the World, which I wholeheartedly recommend if you have not read it.

Reader question: toy soldiers