I fought the Milanese and the Milanese won

I don’t usually write about gaming on this blog, seeing as how I have a whole other blog for just that purpose. When history and gaming interact, however, I do post about it here. And they interacted for me this past weekend, when I went to the UK’s largest miniature wargaming convention, Salute.

In addition to all the shopping and chatting to friends, I spent much of my time playing a game of Lion Rampant, a medieval wargame. We were refighting the Battle of Lodi Vecchio, a 1239 clash between Milanese crusaders and the inhabitants of the town of Lodi, backed by the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. You can read a blog about the game’s development here.

The game was only part of a larger project being run out of the University of Edinburgh about gaming and history. They hosted a roundtable discussion last year, which got a write-up in Wargames Illustrated. You can read about that here.


This is a topic that comes up a lot — lots of historians are gamers, after all, and plenty of gamers are history buffs — and I think it’s interesting to see it explored. A lot of people think of gaming and history as sort of … putting some sugar on top of boring old history to get dumb kids interested in it, which I think a) doesn’t work, b) is kind of insulting and c) assumes that one part of the equation is the most important.

On the other hand, it clearly sort of works. Every year in my history class, I get one kid who is surprisingly knowledgeable about the military history of the ancient world. The first time this happened, I thought it was just weird but when it happened twice I realised that the kids were just big Total War fans. And although they get some funny ideas, they are genuinely pretty well-informed, so clearly something is working.

The other question that gets asked is whether we can use gaming to learn something about history, and here I’m a little more skeptical. Ultimately, simulations encode assumptions about reality, from kriegspiel to its digital descendants. The ideas is to teach people practical skills based on your real-world knowledge. But I don’t know how you take that and turn it into a research tool — creating the terms of the simulation requires provisional answers to the very questions you’re asking. I suppose you could just run a bunch of simulations with different assumptions and see how they come out differently, but even then I have some gut reservations about games as simulations.

I do actually use a simplified wargame in one of my history classes, but I’ve never used miniatures in it, if only because it would be a pain to transport them from class to class and I wouldn’t really have a place to put the map in one of my classrooms. Perhaps that will be different in the coming year? I would just need to paint some Turks and Egyptians.


I fought the Milanese and the Milanese won

Evans, Trump, postmodernism

OK, so, this might be a long one. Bear with me.

I was an undergraduate in 1999 when Richard Evans’ In Defence of History came out. Indeed, I may have been genning up for the Historical Method and Theory paper. I wound up writing about the use of archaeological evidence, which was prescient of me, but at the time Evans’ book was the latest thing, the more so since he then came to Cambridge, an event celebrated by a very public debate with Quentin Skinner and … er … someone else. It was a long time ago. In the book, Evans argued against what he saw as a postmodernist disregard for truth and further argued that this kind of thing gave aid and comfort to those with no regard for truth — creationists, holocaust deniers and so on.

I am far from being an expert on postmodernism, but I recall thinking as I read the book that I suspected that Evans was cherrypicking extreme and possibly unrepresentative examples of postmodern history to beat on, which I believe was a common complaint at the time. I’m also not 100% convinced that when Evans and the people he attacked talk about “facts” they’re really talking about the same thing at all, a criticism which I believe has been made better elsewhere. If you’re interested in the debate, there’s a good chunk of it here, as Evans and his critics battle back and forth in honour of the release of a new edition of E. H. Carr’s classic What Is History. (That’s not the exact edition, so if you want to get the one with Evans’ foreword you’ll have to look for the one with a big blue eye on the cover.)

But I’m not really interested in talking about Evans’ full-throated defence of good ol’ “common sense” empiricism, not least since I suspect that even the most radical deconstructionist still shares 90% of their historical DNA with a commonsense empiricist. It’s the other point that I wanted to talk about today, since it turns out that Richard Evans has a Twitter account.

If you missed this, which I suppose is possible, it’s about the recent inauguration of US President Donald Trump. Trump got a moderate-to-small-sized crowd for his inauguration, which is understandable given that a) he’s very unpopular, b) he’s especially unpopular in Washington, and c) it was a rainy Friday afternoon. But this wasn’t good enough for Trump, who is a) a dipshit manchild and b) the President of the United States, and he sent his hapless press secretary Sean Spicer out to give the media a tongue lashing for believing their lyin’ eyes instead of the Real Truth. He got raked over the coals for this by the unsympathetic papers, as well he might. As the totally unnecessary controversy persisted, Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway tried to defend Spicer on Meet the Press and wound up making an even bigger arse of herself, claiming that Spicer was merely presenting “alternative facts.”

Cue outrage from everyone you might expect: there’s no such thing as “alternative facts!” Post-truth era! To what has our society come! People were quick to blame the Internet, Fox News, partisanship, whatever. And Evans jumped in to blame … postmodernism. And, in the same way that I don’t think holocaust denial and postmodernism have a lot to do with each other, I’m not wholly convinced the connection is as strong as it might be in this case.

Let’s get the two obvious objections out of the way. First, Conway probably misspoke. When she said “alternative facts,” she seems to have meant something like “facts that support another interpretation” not “there’s no such thing as truth, ha ha ha.” People who care about truth seized on this because it was the perfect two-word encapsulation of Trump’s shameless, unrestrained mendacity, not because they actually think Kellyanne Conway doesn’t believe in facts.

Secondly, the historical idea that Donald Trump is somehow steeped in postmodernist discourse is absurd. For one thing, he’s 70 years old and went to university in the 60s. For another, he was an economics major. And for yet another, he’s … I mean, he’s not a big reader. People in a position to know have speculated that he has not read a book from beginning to end in fifty years. The idea that he himself is a product of the postmodern university environment is so goddamn dumb it can’t possibly be what Evans intended.

Indeed, Evans clarified later that he was referring to people like Conway and Spicer, who graduated from university in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kellyanne Conway went to a Catholic university, Trinity Washington (it was called Trinity College back then) and studied political science. I don’t know if it was a hotbed of postmodernism, but superficially it seems unlikely. Spicer, perhaps, is a more likely candidate — he went to a small private liberal arts college in Connecticut, so maybe it was  nothing but dope-smoking Derrida freaks, I don’t know.

But it’s not like Spicer came out and told the press corps that relative crowd size was a story inscribed on the past by the media and that they should be open to a multivocal inaugural narrative. He came out and shouted at them that they were misrepresenting what he presented as the real truth, bolstered by mock-evidence in the form of misleading photographs and made-up statistics. He didn’t act like a postmodernist, he acted like a conspiracy freak, or if you prefer, a hoaxer.

So we can rule out the idea, I think, that Conway, Spicer or Trump subscribe personally to postmodern theories of, I don’t know, incredulity toward hegemonic narratives. Did I say I wasn’t an expert on postmodernism? Conway and Spicer are the usual combination of cynical opportunism and partisan blindness, while Trump is a combination of a bullshitter in the Frankfurtian sense and a goofy old dope who only knows what he sees on television. You don’t need to have “imbibed relativism” to be a powerful man’s cringing toady or a self-involved fantasist. So what does this have to do with postmodernism?

As it happens, Evans thinks that postmodernism has created an academic environment in which conspiracy freaks who might otherwise be laughed to scorn now get an equal hearing. And there’s … a leetle bit of evidence to support that. I was once at an archaeological confidence where goofball fantasist Michael Cremo (who is a very nice and affable man in person) was invited to speak. And while everyone at the conference knew that this was some kind of weird academic performance/joke/provocation by organiser Cornelius Holtorf in which young defenders of archaeological orthodoxy were tested by their exposure to a pseudo-archaeologist in person, it’s just possible that someone was persuaded by Cremo who wouldn’t otherwise have been because he was able to put “invited to speak at the 2007 conference of the European Association of Archaeologists.” I don’t think it’s likely, but I won’t rule it out.

So perhaps post-modernism has made people more willing to be tolerant of goofuses. But, and assuming this is directed at the media and the left generally, I have not noticed that kind of tolerance being extended to groups like, say, the Tea Party, who most people are happy to point out were a bunch of conspiracy fabulists. The US media’s ludicrous refusal to call a lie a lie until recently, so decried by the left during the Bush years, actually stems from the opposite of postmodern concepts — a strict insistence on “objectivity” and “neutrality.” As I understand postmodern thought — and again, not an expert — postmodernists don’t believe in those things. And not like “don’t believe in slavery” don’t believe, but like “don’t believe in unicorns” don’t believe.

So I think it’s very hard to identify the roots of either Trump’s lying or people’s responses to it in relativist indoctriation.

One of the things that people always say about Trump is “this is not normal.” And within the confines of 20th-century American politics, it’s not. But within the sweep of global history, outrageous political lying is hardly unusual. Hitler accused the Jewish community of all kinds of shenanigans, French revolutionaries saw counter-revolutionary conspiracies where there were none (and sometimes where there were), medieval preachers accused Muslims of horrible atrocities, blah blah blah. People often propound, and almost as often believe, what they need to be true. Obviously, this is a historical phenomenon that predates Trump or American politics generally.

The specific form this takes is one that’s bolstered by a world in which there is no longer a single, authoritative voice to heed. There’s no longer someone you can just rely on, whether a Pope, a king, or an expert. Authority hasn’t spoken with a single voice in a long time, not since printing presses became cheap enough that there was one per political party. And with the growth of cable news, the internet, social media, well … you know the story. Your friend shows you a link from realobviousnews.com and you think well, maybe. But the way in which these different truths are contested isn’t the postmodern one; it’s the conspiratorial one. The real facts are these — the man / big business / SJWs / whoever don’t want you to know them!

You could argue, I suppose, that postmodernism as a way of thinking about knowledge had to result from a society in which this diversity of opinion existed — and furthermore, perhaps, from a society in which some sort of more-or-less, rough-and-ready sense of empiricism was the force that was supposed to counteract that. But it seems to me anyway that opportunistic political liars and/or cranks would use the proliferation of partisan and conspiratorial viewpoints as cover, with or without postmodernism. In fact, surely you can see that exact phenomenon in fields that have never had any real dealings with postmodernism? If you look at medicine, for instance, it’s not like there aren’t snake-oil salesmen, quacks, well-meaning but wrong mystics, “alternative” medicine advocates and whatever other kind of pseudoscientist you can think of, all peddling their wares and increasing their power in a field that you can hardly say has been corrupted by the creeping relativism of the Continent. But the same media and technological trends exist for doctors as for everyone else.

(Medicine, in fact, provides a fine example of the idea that the certainty of truth claims and the, er, truth of them aren’t correlated. In the Middle Ages everyone was pretty much on the same page in terms of the value of truth and falsehood, but they didn’t know shit about anything. But that’s a separate issue.)

Anyway, I thought wild generalisation unsupported by evidence was what we objected to about the French.

Evans, Trump, postmodernism

Obituaries and first drafts of history

So Fidel Castro died.

I’m currently teaching a fair amount of Cold War history, so I’ve been thinking of Castro and Cuba, of the way in which both became symbols in American foreign policy. It’s a sad truth that this enemy state is — and, apart from a few weeks in 1962, always has been — so basically harmless to the US that the US can treat it like a symbol despite the fact that it is full of real people.

Harmless other than symbolically, of course.

Nothing inspires confidence like a ruler-for-life in a military uniform.

So Fidel Castro died. Cue three responses, each no doubt sincere:

  • Fidel Castro was a real piece of work, a dictator who ruled without challenge for decades and then handed power off to his brother, which isn’t exactly the most anti-tyrannical thing you could do. Jailed journalists, oppressed homosexuals, looted businesses, show-tried political enemies and generally demonstrated a complete disregard for civil liberties second only (and crucially) to the rotten gangster he replaced. The fact that leftists are sad about the death of this villain only shows that they don’t live in the real world. Yes, OK, the US’s policies toward Cuba are silly, but that doesn’t mean Castro wasn’t a son of a bitch. BONUS POINT: Jesus Christ, Justin Trudeau/Jeremy Corbyn, what the hell is your problem.
  • Fidel Castro stood up to US imperialism for decades, surviving the malice of a much larger and more powerful enemy that explicitly aimed to kill or topple him (although how seriously they pursued this goal is up for debate). The fact that he could do this — and do this while theoretically more powerful allies dried up and blew away — is a vital corrective to the myth of US omnipotence. He also showed that a country — even a poor country, even a country suffering from a crippling economic embargo enforced by its largest obvious trading partner — could focus on social services in a way that provided a much better standard of living for its citizens than its wealth would suggest. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but he resisted the unfair attacks of the US and that’s what really matters. BONUS POINT: Jesus Christ, Donald Trump, what the hell is your problem.
  • Criticism or praise of Fidel Castro falls more or less like you’d expect on political lines. What matters, good or bad, is that he was important, a historical figure who punched way above his weight and had a huge impact on politics not only in his own country and the region but around the world. Probably came closer to genuinely starting World War III than anyone else, which … is good? I guess? Not sure about that one.

Naturally I tend to fall into the third category, since the impulse of my temperament is to look at binary thinking and go “must be some possible synthesis” even when there might not be. In this case, I think there is and I think it’s obvious: you can think that the Bay of Pigs was a bad thing and Castro is a bad guy simultaneously, even if prominent politicians in this and other countries don’t seem to be able to.

But the truth is that the people we look up to were often pretty bad guys in ways other than the ways we look up to them. We just gloss over that because it’s history and in history we try to be conscious of and accept contradiction (I guess, maybe). And here we have, I don’t know, current events becoming history, and that transition seems to be painful.

Obituaries and first drafts of history

Teaching and learning

In addition to teaching history, I tutor students in both history and English. Usually I’m much more in demand for English, which everyone takes, but this year I seem to have quite a lot of history students so far. My students all go to different schools, and as a result they’re all doing slightly different topics in preparation for their exams.

Although I’m mostly used to it by now, there’s still something a little odd to me about the way the British system teaches history. Not bad at all, but odd; where US schools tend to go for the broad sweep of world or American history, with a focus on local history in younger years, the British system focuses in the teen years on a very limited number of topics but in great depth.

The idea behind this is that it’s supposed to give the students skills in source analysis, critical thinking, and so on, rather than just memorising a simple timeline and some key dates. Once you’ve developed those skills, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re studying the history of surgery or the rise of Hitler or whatever. The skills are, as they say, transferable.

My point isn’t to argue that this is or isn’t a good idea — like any teaching strategy, it has good points and bad ones. But in some cases, it can be quite hard to separate the specific unit you’re teaching from the background knowledge the students need but don’t necessarily get in this system.

For instance: one group of students are currently doing a thing on the history of migration into and out of Britain. Interesting stuff, actually — they’ve done some stuff on the Jewish community in the middle ages and the early modern period, and they’re just moving on to the Huguenots. Now I have never known much about the Huguenots — like, I could say “they were French Protestants who moved to England to escape persecution in the late 17th century,” and maybe add a few details about the, er, evolving position of Louis XIV on religious topics. Um, and I guess there are some legacies of the Huguenot presence in English names and stuff?

Huguenots were essentially a “model minority” for many English writers and artists, portrayed as pious, hardworking and respectable compared to their London neighbours. 

So I was a little unsure about this unit and brushed up on the Huguenots a bit before we got going. I’m glad I did; it was interesting stuff. But talking to the students I discovered that the whole thing started with explaining to them what the different between a Catholic and a Protestant was. And … I mean, basically in terms of how decorated churches were supposed to be.

And that took me aback. There’s an immediate impulse to go “what the hell?” but honestly it’s not that surprising. For most British kids, religion in general and the differences between various flavours of Christian in particular — these are not terribly important topics. Most are probably not aware of the religious proclivities, if any, of their classmates or neighbours. And when you zoom in on specific periods or themes only, a lot of the kind of basic background stuff can get lost. Of course, the idea is that this unit teaches kids what the difference between Catholics and Protestants is, what an absolute monarchy is, etc., etc. But if you came up in a system that did it the other way around it can be a little perplexing.

(I may be biased because for me, university was the experience of being thrown in at the deep end in British history, an experience that was certainly educational but also frustrating and confusing.)

Teaching and learning

“And always after that it grew much worse.”

Well, here we are — the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. I’m not sure that 950 is a big milestone, but since I wasn’t around for 900 and can’t guarantee I’ll be around for 1,000, I’ll take it.


Hastings is a story told so many times it assumes the quality of legend: the frantic march, the feigned retreat, the shower of arrows. We all have somewhere in our heads the idea that it’s a romantic moment, a tale of doomed heroism, a day when a sympathetic character lost and a scoundrel one, but both villain and hero are so attenuated by time and cultural distance that there’s no real pain in the thought. Karbala it ain’t, or even Gettysburg.

And yet it’s a fundamental part of the national myth, seeming heavy with importance even though over the years it’s shifted meaning. I was astonished when I learned that the stereotypical storybook narrative of the battle used to be about what a good guy William was — or maybe I just read a lot of Catholic authors. I don’t know. My point is that everyone knows that Hastings was important, but unlike a lot of historical battles that nebulous importance has never really settled into a single meaningful narrative. We just … care about it.  There’s something about the moments where a kingdom hangs in the balance, something so fascinating and horrible that it blinds us to the fact that the balance would be a problem for years to come — and that the kingdom hanging in the balance had been the norm for a while.

Anyway, Hastings. Good to see the attention being paid to it, both in class by the kids I tutor and nationally by the media. More history without clear narratives is probably a good thing.

“And always after that it grew much worse.”


I’ve written before about the way movies about the middle ages tend to present the era as one of just fundamental lawlessness, when individual might was the thing that mattered most. And, of course, that’s pretty much nonsense. The early middle ages — and you could probably generalise this to periods of lawlessness generally — was a time when people thought very much in terms of collective identity and regarded the possibility of destabilising violence as something very real and very, very dangerous. There’s a lot of caution and compromise going around.

But, of course, people who make movies about the early middle ages aren’t really making movies about the early middle ages, they’re making movies about primal humanity, and in their minds, primal humanity is brutal and rapey rather than clannish and, er, well, rapey-but-in-a-less-obvious-more-insidious-way.

I was just thinking about this in the context of post-apocalyptic narratives, your Mad Maxes and so forth. Like the typical Viking movie, most of these are individualistic narratives (although, stick a pin in this, they’re often about characters who are individualists against a tribalist backdrop), and they tend to feature groups that are largely composed of BDSM bandits rather than, say, Amishy farmers. They have a lot in common with the stories we tell about the early middle ages, which makes sense because in a lot of ways you can consider that era a post-apocalyptic one.

But if we can think about the early middle ages (and lots of other periods in history) as post-apocalyptic, you’d think that we would then conclude that we can come to some conclusions about what post-apocalyptic societies would be like by looking at the history of the early middle ages. Instead, we seem to be mainly basing our sense of the early middle ages on stock “uncivilised” narratives.

I wonder if this is something to do with people’s unwilling to acknowledge that hardworking communities of farmers and what have you are actually not such great guys on the whole. They have form in terms of organised violence against other communities, not respecting people’s autonomy, the whole bit. The Magnificent Seven notwithstanding, it’s the farmers you want to look out for. Those guys are mean.


Ingroups and outgroups: the historical stuff

So I promised I’d write some stuff about historical topics I think are relevant to the things I worry about in the modern day! Now, the relevance of these posts might not always be obvious, but I think that’s a good thing. I’m not trying to make political points, necessarily — just put political questions in a (very loose, very broad) historical context.

We are all us

The period that I studied for my MA and PhD was the Anglo-Saxon period, which is usually dated from the late 5th to the 11th centuries. My particular focus was on the later Anglo-Saxon period, which I guess begins around 900 or so, but I paid attention to the whole range, of course.

The interesting thing about the Anglo-Saxon period — well, one of the interesting things — is that it is a period of ethnogenesis in two senses. Ethnogenesis means “birth of a people,” and it often refers to a group’s foundational myth. “The Scots are originally from Scythia,” or whatever. It can also refer to the process of national unification — the means by which, I dunno, Prussians and Swabians and Franconians and what have you all begin to think of those identities as secondary to being Germans.

The Anglo-Saxon period is like that in two ways: first, English writers of the 19th and 20th centuries tended to view the Anglo-Saxon period as the birth of the modern English nation, and to attribute to the Anglo-Saxons the qualities that they perceived in themselves. Charles Kingley said that Anglo-Saxon heritage had given him:

… a calm and steady brain, and a free and loyal heart; the energy which springs from health; the self-respect which comes from self-restraint; and the spirit which shrinks from neither God nor man, and feels it light to die for wife and child, for people, and for Queen.

Now, the idea that being English meant you were super purely Germanic fell out of favour during the 20th century for sooooome reason, but the idea that the English nation was a natural product of what happened in the Anglo-Saxon period was a pretty widespread one.

Authentic historical bullshit

But the interesting thing is — and I’m really summarising here — that something not too crazily dissimilar is happening in the Anglo-Saxon period itself. When you look at the history and archaeology of the period, you can see that an identity of Englishness is being formed out of a bunch of different, disparate identities. We even have the sort of … wreckage of unsuccessful attempts to construct alternative identities. At least that’s one way to look at them: like, the Sutton Hoo burial has been interpreted as an attempt to fuse a bunch of different heritages into a source of legitimacy for pagan kingship. Didn’t work out in the end, of course.


And I tend to think that the weird coins you get from York that have both pagan and Christian symbols on them are attempts to create a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Northumbrian identity. On the one side, the heirs of Alfred the Great saying: “you may be a Northumbrian and I may be a West Saxon, but we’re both English and we’re both Christians, and we’re going to get rid of these pagan Danes,” and on the other side the kings of York saying “you may be English and I may be Danish, but we’re both Northumbrian and we’re going to resist West Saxon rule.” That’s an oversimplification, obviously, but something like that.


Saint Peter on one side, hammer of Thor on the other. Pretty cool.

So the period that later writers invoked to justify English identity was formative in the creation of English identity, all right, but perhaps in a way they didn’t anticipate. It wasn’t the period when the noble, manly English came over from Germany and Denmark and what have you, it was the period (roughly) in which these groups went through the processes that made them the (noble, manly) English.

OK, but so what? 

You will hear people say sometimes that things are “just a social construct.” This is often taken to mean that these things aren’t real, appealing to some nebulous definition of real that nobody really understands. They may mean true, which is a different story and one I don’t know if I can address. But social constructs are like other kinds of construct: they get constructed, and then there they are. A treehouse is just a physical construct. It didn’t grow there; the neighbour kids built it. But it’s there now, and they don’t want to let girls in because they’re a gang of little snots.

Like … take race. The division between black people and white people as practiced in the US takes one very diverse group of people and treats them as a homogeneous mass compared to another very diverse group of people who are also treated as a homogeneous mass. It is a super messy mess when it comes to anybody whose heritage is not 100% either, which is lots and lots of people. But it’s real, because people believe in it and behave accordingly. You can’t walk around modern America and act like it isn’t.

Aside: some people who profess to believe that social constructs aren’t real are instead saying they think they shouldn’t be real and exemplifying the point by behaving as if they weren’t. This is fair enough and a pretty good strategy if you can get it to work. I don’t want to 

And while some people may feel that social constructs mean nothing, others think they’re destiny. Conservatives often to suggest that different groups can never live together peacefully, and people on all sides of the political spectrum like to act like certain modern trends are just inherent to the groups you find them among, even when the changes have occurred in living memory. Like, I’m only moderately old, and I remember when the big terrorist threat was a socialist national liberation movement.

As you can see, I think that view is obviously false. There are plenty of other examples of constructs that Americans (to return to my previous example) don’t treat like they’re really real, which in other times and places would have been real as hell. The ancestors of many modern Episcopalians and Presbyterians absolutely thought that the difference was worth shooting someone over. But in modern America … eh. Not so much.

I guess what I’m saying is that the Anglo-Saxon period is a fascinating example of a social construct — England — being constructed. And it’s constructed in different ways at the same time, and I doubt that anyone ever sat down and went “OK, guys, we need to forge a national identity here.” I think that if you’re interested in how ingroups and outgroups are formed, it can be interesting to look at the way groups that we just think of as a permanent part of the landscape form.

More thoughts to come in a future post: this is just a bit of an introduction, albeit one that got way out of hand.

Ingroups and outgroups: the historical stuff