We all have learned about the big battles that allegedly saved Western Civilisation, from Poitiers to the relief of Vienna from the Turks in 1683. And the current political situation in the Near East makes it easy for ideologues of all persuasions to depict history as a clash of civilisations, an epic struggle between enlightened Christendom and fundamentalist Islam.
However, as Ian Almond calls out, this story works only if the influence of Islamic culture on the so-called Western World is ‘airbrushed out’ and history transformed into a caricature. His book Two Faiths, One Banner aims at setting the picture right by shedding light on seemingly key moments in the struggle between East and West.
Starting with Spain in the 11th century, he goes on to cover the Muslim troops in the service of Frederick II, the complicated alliances between Turks and Christians in Asia Minor from the Catalan company to the fall of Constantinople, the events leading up to the Turkish siege of Vienna in the 17th century and finally the Muslim troops that could be found fighting on all sides in the Crimean War.
The chapters always combine a rich historical and cultural background with a narrative of the conflicts and battles. He especially investigates the motives for fighting and argues that even when the leaders on each side ventilated religious slogans, most of the time the real reason for fighting was to increase one’s own power and wealth. This becomes even more convincing when he shows how easy alliances between seemingly mortal enemies could be forged if there was a common interest!
Almond’s aim is not to exonerate fundamentalists or in any way play down their atrocities. What he wants to show is that fundamentalism is only one expression of belief and that to reduce Islam (or the Christian faith) to such an image serves political purposes, not the least of them being the covering up of internal conflicts by invoking the danger of a common enemy.
Identities are, as Almond writes, always-complex entities. Religious affiliations lie alongside – and sometimes against – other identities, such as economic, linguistic, ethnic or local. For example, when the inhabitants of the Muslim Italian town of Lucera revolted against Charles of Anjou in 1268, they were joined by their Christian neighbours, as local solidarity against a ruler they perceived as an oppressor was stronger than religious identity.
Almond’s book is a fascinating account of a story that is increasingly suppressed by the master-narrative of Europe as the epitome of the Christian West. But what does it offer for the wargamer?
Lots I think. First of all, it makes us think about the stories we tell with our games. Do we tell the story of the Cid’s heroic struggle against the Muslim hordes or do we tell the story of how an 11th century warlord tried to carve out a territory for himself by making all kinds of opportunistic alliances with Christians and Muslims alike?
This, of course, leads us directly to the second aspect, namely army composition. Many army lists are compartmentalised into clear-cut factions. However, as Almond shows, many armies were quite mixed and contained all kinds of troops, especially when campaigns involved alliances. So the ‘Christian’ army of El Cid might contain a number of Islamic troops from an allied Taifa state, while the Almoravids might have Spanish knights on their side (The WAB supplement on El Cid is quite exemplary in this, as it allows large numbers of allied and mercenary troops in its lists). And of course there is always the option to use a mixture of figures in units where Christians have fought alongside their Muslim neighbours, such as in medieval Spanish frontier militias.
The third aspect the book addresses concerns unusual or lesser-known conflicts. Instead of playing the famous battles of mainstream history, why not look into some of the fascinating conflicts Almond describes? The Italian Saracens established in Lucera by Frederick II offer great potential for skirmish games as well as large-scale battles, as do the complicated struggles in 16th century Hungary. It would be great fun to play a campaign based on the career of Lodovici Gritti, an Italian businessman who led an army of Turks, Greeks, Romanians and Hungarians on behalf of Sultan Suleiman. Almond’s book thereby offers a lot of inspiration for building and painting colourful but still historically accurate forces!
In one way or the other, we always tell stories with our armies and games. By telling stories that break with the mainstream narrative of history as a clash between enlightened Western Christendom and fundamentalist Islam, miniature wargames might perhaps in their own modest way contribute towards freeing history from nationalistic and chauvinistic interpretations and depicting the complexity and intricacy of conflicts.