Thuloid Speaks: A Secret History of Wargaming, Part II – The Middle Ages to Modernity

Greetings again, O House of the Cakes of Pain. Two weeks ago I began to open to you the pages of war gaming’s secret history. Since then you have, I trust, been tormented by that brief vision of glory. First you attempted to console yourselves, to find distraction, but the questions ate at you. You paced back and forth in your little rooms, howling in despair. “How long till we know?” Well, the answer is today. Could have been sooner, but I went to Florida for a little while.

Perhaps an image of Belisarius, among the last of the classical war gamers.

We left off with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. We should not imagine that these political events spelled a sudden or total end to Roman influence, Roman culture or Roman gaming. The various Germanic states that succeeded the Empire tended to incorporate existing institutions and to adopt certain Roman flourishes, not least as indications of status. 

So it was that Theodoric, the great Ostrogoth king, early in the 6th century AD came to employ (and later to try and execute for treason) one Anicius Manlius Severinus Bo√ęthius, a highly educated member of a prominent Roman family. Boethius is most often known for the great work of Christian-tinged Platonism, The Consolation of Philosophy, written during his imprisonment. This book, while hugely popular for the next thousand years, must nevertheless be regarded as secondary to its companion volume, The Consolation of Games, which set the stage for the medieval synthesis of Christian and Platonic/Aristotelian gaming.
That synthesis, embodied in the increasing dominance of the Roman church in Western Europe, proved as powerful as it was inherently unstable. It contained multitudes, opposing impulses captured (which is not to say controlled) within one body. Hellenistic abstraction was alternately married to and in contest with prophetic spirit. In purely religious terms, life was viewed as an ascent, a pilgrimage, in which the pilgrim would, through contemplation and work (the monastic slogan orare et labore, to work and pray, points toward this synthesis) and repeated infusions of divine grace, climb toward glory.
Pilgrims on the ascent. Notice they have opponents.
This too was the high medieval conception of gaming. It was irreducibly spiritual (as we might expect, given its origins), though competing impulses within that spirituality expressed themselves in very different games. Scholastic rationalism corresponded with a high degree of intellectual abstraction–the historical subject in war gaming would serve only as a symbol for some higher reality–a shadow or sign pointing to a divine thing, in this life ever just out of reach. One can see a touch of this in the European refinement of chess–changes in the rules were made for the sake of balance and order, and at expense of any tie to historical warfare as such.

By contrast, there also existed a radically practical and historical side to medieval gaming. Joachim of Fiore’s prediction of a coming Age of the Spirit, based on his reading of Revelation, led to a surge in End Times gaming. Certain monastic orders rejected scale and miniatures entirely, arguing that as the imago dei (image of God), human beings stand already as the game pieces of the creator, and so all spiritual gaming should be true 1:1. One could interpret the Crusades as an extension of these monastic ideals to the nobility. Men whose position in society (bearing the sword, in the traditional phrasing) was ordinarily a source of tension with the church could instead, by the sign of the cross, mark themselves as game pieces of the Lord.

Two Knights Templar engaged in battle.

Among the military-religious orders, the history of the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, better known as the Teutonic Order, is most revealing for us. Founded in Acre in the years after the loss of Jerusalem in 1187, the Order relocated to Southeastern Europe and eventually to Poland, as part of a crusade against the pagan Prussians. There they quickly established a state and were fierce and successful opponents of not only the Prussians, but also pagan Lithuanians. The conquest of the former (late 13th century) and Christianization of the latter (late 14th century) left the Order with no one to fight but fellow Christians–Catholic Poland and Orthodox Novgorod. These latter contests did not help the Order’s reputation as WAAC assholes.

Teutonic Knights at play. Note that heavy cav was seriously OP during this period.

At this point the history of the Order runs headlong into the opening movements of the Reformation, in the form of a remarkable interaction between Martin Luther and Albert, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. That story will require at least some treatment of Renaissance gaming and the genesis of the Reformation.

It is important to recognize that the orientation of Renaissance humanism, in particular toward gaming, was historical rather than purely rationalistic. That is, both medieval scholasticism and Renaissance humanism were concerned with classical, Greco-Roman learning. The distinction between them is in the manner of that allegiance. The humanist drive toward sources (ad fontes) denotes a historical concern–Platonist and Aristotelian methods and habits of thought, already ascendant in the Middle Age, were to some extent relativized by a desire to learn from the whole body of classical civilization and its history.  Lorenzo Valla’s work on classical Latin philology undercut Papal claims to political supremacy, by exposing the famed Donation of Constantine as a fraud. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Art of War attempted to redefine warfare, and its miniature counterpart, by bringing his practical experience of early 15th century warfare into dialogue with careful study of Republican and Imperial Rome. Unfortunately, the chapters on gaming rules have been lost.

A forgotten father of historical war gaming?

From the start, Martin Luther’s protest against Roman theology and gaming should be understood as a marriage of both monastic (which is to say, high medieval) and humanist impulses. His take on the authority of scripture was not radically out of line with medieval theology (the notion that tradition and scripture stand as mutually conditioning norms seems to date not much earlier than Jean Gerson in the late 14th century), but its emphasis on historical sense (rather than the figurative reading preferred by most medieval interpreters) owed much to the humanists. Luther made considerable use of Valla.

On the other hand, he both absorbed and transformed medieval formulations. The classic monastic description of how one learns both theology and gaming was oratio, meditatio, contemplatio – prayer, meditation, contemplation. It indicates an ascent, a spiritual ladder as one moves both upward and inward. In gaming terms, it suggests a goal of a “pure” game that involves only God and the individual creature. Luther revised this description in radical fashion: oratio, meditatio, tentatio – prayer, meditation, and suffering or attack.  This description is interpersonal – it involves multiple players (meditation is described by Luther as a public and communal activity), and even includes the possibility of loss. An opponent is thereby included. In fact, in the introduction to a collected edition of his Latin writings, Luther noted on just this point that he could never have become so good a theologian (we understand this as “player”) without the attack of his enemies, and so he owes them thanks. Wide adoption of this attitude would be a remarkable improvement in the gaming world.

Luther, c. 1523. He had been excommunicated from Rome 2 years prior.  Still dressed like a monk, but only out of habit (haha, get it?

Two of Luther’s works stand out on the subject of gaming, and will illustrate the nature of his re-orientation of medieval practice. The first, the 1520 Disputatio de Militibus Minimis (Disputation Concerning Tiny Soldiers), contains the following as theses 7 and 8:

7. Those games which reject created things and their histories, while claiming to be spiritual, are utterly puffed-up, deluded, and offensive to God.
8. On the contrary, those games which delight in created things themselves are pleasing to God and may be called truly spiritual.

Late in his life, Luther returned to this subject, addressing it in the 1537 Disputatio de Lege et Regulis Ludorum (Disputation on the Law and the Rules of Play). Here Luther argued that Christians are free to adopt rules of play which do not correspond to historical actuality, in effect giving permission for fantasy gaming.

Luther’s encounter with Albert unfolded in unusual fashion. Albert was the third son of Frederick I, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, and oddly enough, a cousin of Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz, whose fundraising scheme to finance acquiring a second archbishopric had so annoyed Luther, inspiring the 95 theses and the start of the Reformation. Raised for a career in the church, he became Grand Master of the Teutonic Order at 21 years old, within a decade fought (and lost) a war against his uncle the king of Poland, and then in the early 1520s became increasingly convinced of the Reformation cause. In 1525 he travelled to Wittenberg to seek Luther’s advice on how to proceed.

The problem was this–Albert was not only a monk, but the head of a monastic order (albeit one with a lot of swords, castles and other fun toys). As such he lacked personal land holdings–rather, he ruled over a state that technically belonged to the church. Luther advised him to renounce his monastic vows, marry, and convert Prussia into a hereditary holding. In effect, convert his religious estate into a secular one. This Albert managed to do, though it required pledging fealty to his uncle Sigismund I of Poland. Albert was now Duke of Prussia, a Lutheran Protestant vassal of Catholic Poland.

Albert, Duke of Prussia

In this fashion most of what had been the dreaded Teutonic Order, Northern Europe’s most aggressive gaming club, became in good time the state of Prussia, and Albert’s descendants in the house of Hohenzollern did a few things as well. For example, found Germany.

You know, these guys.

Standard histories will tell you that Kriegsspiel, the forerunner of modern wargaming, was invented by a Prussian officer named Georg Leopold von Reiswitz in the early 19th century. This is largely true, but as you can see, woefully incomplete as an explanation. Reiswitz was acting within a longstanding tradition. His secularized and instrumentalized (as a training tool) war game was in many ways merely a late Enlightenment development along the trajectory set by Luther and enacted by Albert. It is war gaming shorn of religious pretense–which is not to say emptied of genuine spiritual value.

Luther’s transformation of gaming from heavenly pathway to earthly pleasure, alongside his intense focus on historical particularity (while ever insisting that the gamer is free with respect to rules), sits back of the whole modern gaming enterprise. If today we might dismiss as a medieval relic his assertion that the game, however earthly its subject matter and pedestrian its aim, nevertheless is holy and spiritual in its own right, we should hesitate when we recall the remarkable intensity and near(?) religious devotion of our fellow gamers to their hobby. Idols in polystyrene and resin are no less objects of worship, and no better masters, than their ancient counterparts in wood and stone. Our figures are fine toys but dangerous and capricious gods. Despite our protestations, we seem not to have escaped the pull of gaming as a potential gateway to heaven. I take this as a primary lesson to draw from the myriad blog entries on why gamers can be such cultish jerks.

Luther and Albert suggest another way open to us. There is that possibility, however rarely honored within our history, that gaming could simply be fun.

You may also like...