Fireside Friday, April 8, 2022

Fireside this week! It’s been a while, eight weeks in a row without a fireside. For what’s coming up in future weeks, I’m working on a longer discussion of Expeditions: Rome and how it treats Roman history. After that, we’ll have a look at the art of pre-modern generalship as compared to the remarkably ‘frictionless’ command in games like the Total War series, inter alia. I’m not sure why we ended up with a whole lot of history-in-video-games in a row here, but no one seems to mind, so that’s good.

This is a pretty perfect expression of the difference in our cat’s personalities. Ollie up front at the camera, eyes wide saying hello, while Percy sits at some distance, glaring in a mix of distrust and boredom at the whole thing.

For this week’s musing, I hope you will all let me indulge in a bit of game’s criticism, specifically aimed at Elden Ring, a game I am really enjoying but which is also a fascinating cultural product. I have been particularly struck by the way the game treats gender, something I found myself paying attention to because I was taking close note of much of the armor in the game for a possible ‘kit review.’

FromSoftware (the Japanese developer behind Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekeiro and Elden Ring) has a philosophy to how they treat armor which I quite appreciate. Some FromSoft armor is realistic, much of it is absurd fantasy, but it is armor. The game does do some reshaping; textile elements in particular will conform to your character’s general build and armor is scaled to your size even if it was originally worn by a creature many times larger than you. But beyond that, the armor continues to be shaped as it was; crucially armor does not change based on your character’s gender.

In this, Elden Ring and the rest of FromSoft’s body of work avoids the problem of many games (especially MMORPGs), where the appearance of equipment changes dramatically based on the gender of the wearer, with male characters typically getting bulky, effective-looking (if overwrought) armor and female characters wearing the same armor getting something designed to show off their body rather than protect it, despite wearing the same armor. Historically, I should note, we don’t see evidence for specialized armor by gender. While armor has to be made to fit, the nature of actual armor – with layers of padding, somewhat loose-hanging mail or globular shapes designed to deflect blows – means that the overall shape of armor doesn’t change much – often not at all – to conform to a male or female figure.1 And so, when a female character dons a plate cuirass in Elden Ring, it remains shaped like a plate cuirass.

And that fits with the overall feel of the world of Elden Ring in that it is a worth where women fight and that isn’t treated as strange. A number of NPCs (e.g. Latenna, Nepheli Loux, Millicent) and bosses are women fighters; likewise many game’s ‘spirit ashes’ (summonable warriors to aid you in a fight) are clearly the spirits of women fighters (e.g. Tricia, Finlay, Tiche). This is a world – like the real one – where a weapon doesn’t care about the gender of whoever wields it, but also where there don’t seem to be strong social norms against women fighting (unlike nearly all pre-modern societies).

At the same time, gender isn’t a non-factor in the world of Elden Ring. First off, while it is clearly not unusual for women to fight in Elden Ring’s world, there are still clearly a lot fewer female fighters than male fighters. Nearly all of the rank-and-file soldiers in the service of various armies are male, for instance. That doesn’t mean, to be clear, that there are no female ‘mooks’ – a lot of the ‘Nox’ warriors in the two Eternal Cities are women, for instance; but women are fairly rare in the ‘rank and file’ of Elden Ring‘s armies. In this sense, Elden Ring is reflective of its time (that is, now): while women in military service is no longer unusual in most countries, most service personnel are still male: women make up 14.4% of active duty U.S. military personnel and perhaps more relevantly for Elden Ring’s cultural background, just 7.4% of the Japan Self-Defense Force. We live in a society where women can fight, but where fighting in war remains a disproportionately male activity.

But I would also say that there is strong evidence of a male design sensibility at work in the game too. While Elden Ring does not have an obvious romance plot (one of the alternate ending paths are pretty clearly coded this way in terms of its imagery), I think it’s also pretty clear that part of the use of female characters in the game is hinging on the way that straight male players are likely to see them. The lore of the game is structured this way: the player is attempting to become a Lord, a process that (you are told by NPCs) is aided by a ‘Finger Maiden,’ and requires becoming the ‘consort’ of one of a couple of female divine beings.2 There are some gender assumptions here, even though absolutely none of this changes if the player opts to play as a female character.

In particular the game leans heavily into using female characters as supportive ‘guides’ for the player (a trend through many of FromSoft’s games – the ‘maiden’ character – the Maiden-in-Black, Firekeepers, the Emerald Herald, the Doll, etc.). Given that these games exist in worlds of lies and half-truths, it is hard not to see the use of gender here as both a signal of the vulnerability of these characters and also their essential trustworthiness; it is a shortcut, assuming a (straight) male player, of building trust and attachment. In Elden Ring, this is particularly striking because – not to get too far into spoilers – many of the alternate endings involve essentially trading from your initial soft-spoken female guide character to one of a few other different soft-spoken female guide characters. By contrast, the main male character who doles out exposition is both gruff and rude to you and also, perhaps unsurprisingly, betrays you and attempts eventually to stop your quest.

And frankly, while the game lacks the sort of obvious romance subplot, I think it is clear that the developers designed with an eye towards how a male player is going to process romance interest through the game. One of the first characters you meet calls you ‘maidenless’ (meaning you don’t have that guiding, supporting NPC), a line which the playerbase immediately ran with for the humor of it, but I don’t think this is just an awkward translation; the (male) NPC who says that line, if attacked, retaliates with a bouquet of flowers. FromSoft is in on the joke here. Likewise, the game features ways to leave messages for other players; the words you can use for these messages are intentionally limited, but ‘lover’ is included in the message set which again, lends itself not just to this kind of humor but also for players to indicate the presence of friendly (almost always female) NPCs with the message, ‘lover ahead.’ Again, FromSoft is in on the joke and has actively designed for it.

I am not an expert on Japanese culture, but I assume some of this strikes me as odd precisely because it is crossing a cultural divide in reaching me. Western games are actually far quicker to make supportive characters more gender neutral (think Anderson from Mass Effect for a male version of a character filling much the same supportive role as a FromSoft maiden) than they are to allow for gender-neutral armor and clothing (to take Mass Effect again as an example, female Shepherd still wears ‘boob plate.’). A western RPG that had gender-neutralized equipment is likely, I suspect, to have also written its story in a way that isn’t going to result in a collection of FromSoft style ‘maidens’ (and they absolutely won’t all be called ‘maidens.’), while a game that does feature those FromSoft style ‘maidens’ made by a western studio is likely to have a pre-set, locked in male main character.

In any case, please don’t take this for me trying to ‘cancel’ Elden Ring or FromSoft. Rather I think the game is fascinating, a ‘deep text’ where there is a lot of layered meaning, imagery and content to be mined out and examined. There a lot of cultural context here and not just in gender. The game’s mythical imagery, for instance, is a glorious pastiche of Christian and Norse imagery, often twisted or repurposed in interesting ways that is just crying out for a full academic analysis. Dissertations ought to be written on the symbolism and embedded cultural context of this game and of FromSoft’s larger oeuvre; given the impact these games continue to have on the broader genre, I suspect they will be.

On to Recommendations!

First I want to note that our diligent volunteer narrator, AGreatDivorce, has been busy at work providing audio versions for a number of posts. From the Ukraine-related series, “Understanding the War in Ukraine,” “How the Weak Can Win” and “Nuclear Deterrence 101” all now have audio versions. In addition, the entire five-post series on “Bread: How Did They Make It?” from farming all the way to the bread at the end, has gotten an audio version (the link there points to the playlist of the whole thing).

I should also note that I have done some writing and such in other places. Over at Foreign Policy, I’ve written about “What Makes Armies Commit Atrocities?” – an article covering the institutional, organizational culture and command factors that lead armies to commit atrocities, of the sort we are seeing committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. If you missed it, I also wrote a review of Expeditions: Rome for Foreign Policy; the planned Collections post on the game is going to expand on some of those observations, but also make a few different ones. I also recorded a podcast with Three Moves Ahead on how imperialism is depicted in strategy games.

On a lighter note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the only good April Fools joke on the internet, which is Roel Konijnendijk spending a day over on r/AskHistorians as everyone’s favorite shouty man, Leonidas, King of Sparta. I’m sorry…LEONIDAS, KING OF SPARTA. This has become something of an annual tradition and it is amazing.

For those looking to keep track of the war in Ukraine, War on the Rocks has done a series of podcasts with Michael Kofman as the conflict has evolved. Hopefully they’ll keep these up as they provide a useful analysis that goes beyond just telling you what happened to explaining what that might mean and its broader implications. Likewise the daily updates from the Institute for the Study of War, for those looking for a fairly granular effort to track the general progress of the war.

Over on History.Net, Wayne Lee has an article on the logistics of grass and, essentially, how Steppe nomads (with particular reference to the Mongols) invented operational art in order to cope with the challenges of moving large armies of steppe nomads. It’s a great article and builds on some of what we’ve discussed with Steppe subsistence systems and also ties in with our book recommendation on operations.

Finally, for this week’s book recommendation, I’m going to recommend B.A. Friedman, On Operations: Operational Art and Military Disciplines (2021). This book is valuable in two ways: on the one hand it is structured in such a way as to serve as a useful primer for the new student looking to understand what operations and operational art are. That’s very important and valuable because war at the operational scale exists at a tricky point: too big to simply be seen (or shown effectively in a movie, game or TV show), but at the same time if just depicted as lines moving on a map, much of the detail work that goes into making those lines move on a map is lost. For the newcomer, this book is going to fill in that gap and that is incredibly useful.

At the same time, this is a book with an argument about how operations should be understood and how they should not be understood. Responding to many of the same themes we’ve touched on here about the danger of elevating operational concerns into the strategic level, Friedman disputes the very idea of an operational ‘level’ that is co-equal with tactics and strategy. He backs this argument up with a good account of the history of the development of the idea of operations, while at the same time noting that people had been doing operations for a long time (see W. Lee’s article linked above for more on that!). In the end, he finds operational art – ‘the disciplines necessary to enable tactics’ – a useful concept, but the operational ‘level’ – to often a backdoor to usurping strategy (Friedman has a glorious quip here, “Prussia and then Germany’s failure to heed Clausewitz’s admonishment took the form of the military side of the civil-military relationship dominating the other. The Soviets failed in the only way Marxist-Leninists could, predictably and through the complete subjugation of the military profession to totalitarian might.” Glorious) – is to be discarded. One can agree or disagree with that argument (I find it more persuasive than not), but even if it isn’t accepted, the book has equipped the reader to understand what operations is.

Friedman then goes on to lay out the principles of operational art, dealing with all of its component elements: administration, information flow, operations themselves, coordinating fires, logistics, command and control and so on. The chapters on these topics are short, but give the reader – especially a civilian reader – a basis to understand a lot of what an army is doing in an operation, especially a lot of the ‘hidden’ activities essential for its success. Friedman also breaks down a ‘campaign taxonomy’ of different kinds of objectives and methods campaigns might have and ends with a series of case studies. The whole thing is written accessibly and without too much jargon (acronyms are all explained), so this is a book the non-military lay-reader can make use of.

If there is one shortcoming to the book, it is the lack of diagrams and maps (there are a few tables), especially in the concluding case studies. Fortunately the case studies are by no means obscure and so the reader can easily pull up a map on Wikipedia or similar resource to follow along without becoming too lost, but one still wishes some custom made maps were in the volume, especially for a volume on operations. That said, at just about $30 for the hardcover, one cannot complain about the value here! If you want to understand where the idea of operations comes from, what operational art is, and in general how it is done and what it is concerned with, this is the book for you.

  1. Now there is a separate point here about armor designed particularly to accentuate the gender-characteristics of the wearer. Given things like muscle-cuirasses and oversized armored cod-pieces, the idea of armor for women designed to draw attention to that fact is hardly unreasonable.
  2. It is clear that the consort-goddess pairing does not need to be male-female. To say with minimal spoilers, there is one (male) boss enemy who has abducted and is holding a male potential-divinity for this purpose, though that opens its own whole can of worms where the only same-sex pairing in the game I am aware of is presented as non-consensual. Interestingly, the player cannot select this divine being to become their consort; they have a choice of two beings, both coded female.

163 thoughts on “Fireside Friday, April 8, 2022

    1. worth → world? “And that fits with the overall feel of the world of Elden Ring in that it is a worth where women fight”

    2. (and utterly trivial: “fairly rare in the ‘rank and file’ of Elden Ring‘s armies” has the wrong apostrophe on Ring’s)

    3. The footnote here seems to be broken, but in a different manner to the first: “requires becoming the ‘consort’ of one of a couple of female divine beings.1”

    4. to → too? “but the operational ‘level’ – to often a backdoor to usurping strategy”

  1. Those are two FINE looking black cats!! (Which rule all others. altho’ the Siamese will argue the point, and the Calicos also have their unique influence.) Ave, Ollie and Percy!

  2. Two superb looking felines! I’m not sure if my initial post complimenting them went thru. Secondary praise is still praise, if this is the case! Ave, Ollie et Percy!

    1. That is a fine looking pair of black cats, all right! I am always up for pictures of Ollie and Percy!

      1. That Ollie is a real sweetheart but I am willing to worship stand offish Percy from a distance. He does haughty very well.

  3. To be honest I am getting a bit tired of video game analyses since I’m not much of a gamer anymore, for instance I really liked the Roman Dictator post since it was not about either the Invasion of Ukraine or video games. Still you always have such interesting thoughts that a usually read in anyways. Also, as someone else pointed out there is something odd with the footnotes on this post

    1. I, on the other hand, wish he did more analyses of videogames. Different strokes, I suppose.

      And speaking of.. Dr. Deveraux, have you played, or perhaps heard of, a little game called “The Forgotten City”? If not, I do recommend it. It’s relatively short, and definitely worth your time, and that of any student of Ancient Rome.

  4. The Mongol reliance on the availability of pastures (at least where they could not co-opt sedentary populations – as in China) is a staple of historiography. For instance, they had great difficulty in southern Syria and Palestine against the Mamelukes, and a later successful tactic used by Hungary and Poland was to combine a network of stone castles with attacks against dispersed forces. The Russians used lines of forts to deny forage to Tatars. A more recent modification of our view of steppe nomads is provided by archaeology in the Urals and the Altai, which show a lot of sedentary settlements culturally affiliated to the steppe. These areas seem to have been incorporated into steppe polities and provided metalwork, grain and other goods.

    1. Even their more successful invasion in the 1240s probably stalled out in what is now eastern Germany, after being long removed from grasslands and getting into more populated areas with better fortifications (it’s unlikely they knew that Ogedei had died when they withdrew).

      And yeah, China shows that too. Northern China was conquered pretty quickly – southern China took over 20 years and effectively using northern Chinese armies to do it.

      1. And from what I’ve read the battle of Mohi was a fairly close run thing decided more by the trebuchets the mongols brought than their horse archery. If the king of Hungary had organised his forces earlier and fought the mongols while they were still crossing the bridge, he likely would have won.

  5. I kinda dislike gender ( or race ) being no factor in games.
    I remember when Baldurs Gate came out, there was some critique by the devs that even despite all the options, people made white dude with a sword.
    And I thought, well why not. If all the races and genders and whatever are just skins, I’m gonna make character that looks like me.
    As a white man, when I get to character customization screen and see something like orks getting 5% more melee damage by ability you can use once a day, it’s not bulding character, it’s just colour, so I make just a dude, which, for me is a white dude.
    Why not make certain races/genders lock you out of some questlines or make them more difficult? In Elden ring, why not make male do 20% more damage and female have 20% more i-frames on roll or something.
    Remember getting to Windhelm, for the first time all those years ago, to join Stormcloaks, and right at the gate, some guys were talking shit about dark elves. Thought to myself, well maybe they won’t like me, a elf, in this army. But the interview went like : Does a elf really want to fight against his brothers? Ok then, here’s a sword.
    Even back then it felt pretty wierd.

    1. I do enjoy having some modifications to the game based off race or gender, but a lot of people who aren’t white dudes like to play what they are without losing content. And honestly starting with Mass Effect I basically always play female characters; the habit started because of Jennifer Hale’s voice work and I just never broke it.

      The thing that bugs me is when there’s inequality in the setting that does not apply to the player character, like that example with the elves, but a woman might want to play a female character in Fallout New Vegas and have mostly full access to content; there’s a couple quests there that are modified by gender and women can’t fight in the Legion pits but it’s mostly the same. I tend to think that is a lot more important to them than having variance is to me so their preference should win.

      1. I think you’d definitely want similar amounts of content that you were ‘locked out of’ by species/gender. In most cases, there’s a tendency to just lock folks out of stuff. It would have been a lot more interesting if say, you were male you could infiltrate the Legion’s pits to try to free slaves/raise a rebellion, whatever. If female, you could infiltrate the women’s quarters and do the same sort of thing.

        The main reason I don’t think it’s done is because if you do it, you’re increasing workload massively for something that only a subset of your players will see. Take a fairly minimal race/gender system, like DAO. You had 3 race options (Dwarf, Elf, Human) and two genders (male, female), so if you wanted similar levels of content, each quest that was race/gender locked would need six quests, rather than one. And then there’s stuff like Baldur’s Gate with like 24 races…

        Now, DAO actually sort of does this with the prologues in that game, but it’s something they’ve mostly abandoned. I think probably due to workload.

        1. Not just creative workload, but also QA workload. Each option increases the QA workload exponentially.
          And QA is *already* fractally difficult

    2. The elder scrolls Oblivion (and older entries as well I think, its been a long while since i last played them) has different stats and abilities for races, and male/female have different stats as well.

      I think most dont bother with it since its more trouble than it is worth. What do you change and what do you imply with it? If you change something like -3 strength but +3 charisma for female characters you get people complaining that men can be just as charismatic as women. And people that min-max complaining they want to play a female fighter but they get penalized for picking that option. There is also a changing trend that people want to do everything in one go, and locking people out of content they can only get to on a replay isn’t appreciated. No changes between male/female saves you the hassle of differentiating them from eachother while also avoiding drama.

    3. Well, yeah, it’s typically expensive, I’m guessing that’s why more “exotic” races tend to be rather showcased as potential party members than available to be directly played ?

      Consider how you meet Viconia in BG2 :
      https://youtu.be/qaOJakFKzus?t=1020
      (Thankfully, Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism saved the day !)

      But then I guess that the BG series being *party* games, with up to 6 characters in the party –
      (IIRC you can start conversations as any party member, though it can be annoying formation-wise ; and even sometimes temporarily leave party members that might pose a problem behind ?)
      – they actually have much more leeway for game-changing interactions depending on your race/sex/alignments ?

      Also, while (IIRC) the (player character sex-dependent) romance options don’t have much of a gameplay impact (except if you fail them), they are still very memorable !

      Plus the potential to play an “Evil” character (and the party to go with it), though AFAIK it is quite a bit harder, and very few people try it, especially not as a first playthrough !

      Now, it looks like BG3 (being very distant from BG1 and 2 in many ways) will have *much* more diversity in terms of characters : being able to play Drows, Githyanki (Klingon trope + history of enslavement by the story’s main antagonists ?), Tiefling (With some “demon/devil” ancestry – that has quite the aggravation potential !), and also a party character that you can “take over” as your player character which is a… (male) vampire !

      I would be very surprised if with all this diversity we’re not going to get race/sex/alignements-relevant quests !

    4. I don’t understand your objection.

      Say, for example, that orcs are better swordsmen and humans are better at magic. If you happen to want to play an orc swordsman or human wizard anyway, this works out fine. But if you want to play a human swordsman or orc wizard, the game punishes you for that decision; in effect, it reduces your options. And how can removing options be good? At best, removing the option doesn’t matter because you weren’t going to do it anyway.

      Now, as for the storyline, I do agree with you; if the story says that people are prejudiced against a particular race, but they’re not prejudiced against you even though you’re that race, that creates a plot hole.

      1. Removings options is literally how games are made. Elden Ring wouldn’t be a game if the player had the option of a literal press X to blow up all enemies button.

        Certain options should be available, but removing options is often the best choice. Heck, it’s often the only choice.

      2. So, this is a classic discussion that never goes well, but I will say that I disagree that choices having sub-optimal consequences is punishing you for making that choice. Though it can often feel that way.

        Or, to put it in D&D terms, I can choose to be the strong rogue, or smart fighter, it just has trade-offs.

  6. As a random weeaboo, my understanding of the cultural difference that you are speaking about in Elden Ring, is that Japanese pop-culture is a lot less likely to see sexual orientation as a big culture war battlefront for “Representation”, in the way as the west does, where it is customarily brought up in the same breath as race and gender.

    Same sex couples in japanese pop-culture exists, in fact the entire genres of yuri and yaoi exist, but they are almost never presented as a Prife-flag-carrying social statement.

    This sometimes leads to mixed feelings, that on the one hand, LGBT representation in Japanese media exists all over the place, it is not controversial and not even a big deal, on the other hand, it feels incidental, and not really put there with the consideration that LGBT audiences exist in real life.

    For example, I can’t really think of any Japanese equivalents to Disney’s shambolic lineup of heralded “First Gay Characters”. The few “Firsts” that were presented as such in the press, were mostly video games with a very clear understanding that the player character’s “mechanical bisexuality” was only added in for the sake of western sensibilities, often patched in after release.

    I could easily see that From Software was at least somewhat self-aware that people care about seeing female player characters for the sake of representation, if not as a big social statement, then at least as a way to cover market segments, but had a complete blind spot over representing player romance options not just for male homosexuality, but even for female heterosexuality, and only coincidentially allowing for female homosexuality as a coincidence.

    1. As someone who is not much of a weeb, but has studied the language and met many Japanese both there and in Europe, I think you explained this very well!

    2. There’s also the thing that many of those portrayals of LGBT folks are extremely problematic. Praising, say, Persona 4 for LGBT inclusion would be like praising Sixteen Candles for Asian inclusion.

      1. I haven’t played Persona 4, but I have heard people praise it for LGBT inclusion. What exactly is wrong with it?

        1. One party member may or may not be gay, and another may or may not be transgender (and the two of them have feelings for each other which don’t go anywhere because one of them is a romance option for the player). I suspect a lot of people get mad because the game tried to hedge its bets rather than committing to having gay/trans characters.

          1. It’s worse than just hedging; it uses the questionably LGBT characters, how they fit into the world, and their story arcs primarily as a device to police the boundaries of acceptable masculinity and femininity.

          2. @Emily Riposte

            I’m not sure what you mean by that: it’s pretty clear that the game thinks it’s OK that Kanji is a boy who likes sewing and that Naoto is a girl(?) who wants to be a detective.

    3. I think LBGT culture in America has more of a “pressure for firsts” thing going on and more of a “actively agitate for and celebrate inclusion” thing too, but that this happens for a very specific reason.

      The US has a fairly consolidated anti-LBGT movement; so far as I know, Japan does not, not in the same sense of active pushback.

      LBGT communities in the US have very real reasons to expect deliberate attempts by certain political factions to cut them out of public discourse, brand them as perverts, and ensure that children and young adults who start presenting as LBGT (or considering doing so) will be in fear of ostracism or abuse. Because those things happen. In some states, they are literally happening write now in the very same week that I write this.

      If Japan has no corresponding anti-LBGT countermovement, and if LBGT people in Japan have cause to feel like they are only struggling against the passive inertia of the public, then I wouldn’t be surprised if that gives them a bit more breathing room and less reason to be touchy about things and eager for any bits of positive representation they can get.

  7. At the time of writing this (just before 8am, EST) I don’t think the endnotes are working properly. There’s a scattering of [efn] and [/efn_note] around the article, and the one link that does exist (about being the consort to female divine beings) doesn’t actually link to any text.

  8. Swords care very much about the strength of the hand that wields them. Swordsmen will always be the vast majority because swordswomen who can actually hold their own are statistical flukes.

    Yes, there are numerous cases of housewives killing cops with kitchen knives. This occurs when the cop doesn’t take her seriously. A battlefield will make her serious.

    1. Wouldn’t that be rather dependent on the type of sword? They aren’t all the same and some depend on strength and others finesse, speed etc.A saber isn’t a two-handed broadsword for example. Kitchen knives wouldn’t be swords they would be daggers which are close in weapons and rely on very different efforts.

      Having taken Tae Kwon Do for years (though on pause from Covid) I know people tend assume all techniques are alike and available to the same people and thus strength wins. From a distance long legged people win but up close they don’t, and can even be at a disadvantage to a short person with a good stance. To paraphrase my instructors, placement of force is the key to bringing someone down.

      1. the “finesse” weapons (rapier, court sword, etc.) tend to become popular after gunpowder has made armor less effective. They also depend on strength, which often equals speed, and length of limb.
        Yeah if you fight in a closet a short person with a knife is going to beat a tall person with a sword. Most fights don’t start in a closet.

      2. If you’ve done Tae Know Do, you should be keenly aware that while certain body types has an advantage in certain situations, being stronger and faster is always an advantage.

        When I did jujutsu there was a saying that “15 kg was worth a belt” – basically that being bigger could compensate for a gap in skill and experience. Hence weight classes.

        Oh, but maybe a weapon compensates for this? Sure, to some degree. A small girl that is skilled with a sword will cut you. But a big man with sufficient (not equal, just sufficient) skill to make a parry is going to dominate her. Physics still apply, after all. If the disparity in strength is sufficient, it is going to take *a lot* for the weaker party to deal with even a simple cut from above.

        This is pretty much true for all weapons I have experience with, though to various degrees.

        Longsword? If you are stronger, it is easier to take the centre line, and either just cut through or dominate in a clinch.

        Sword and buckler? If your opponent is sufficiently stronger than you, it is exceedingly difficult to defend from the simplest technique: Cut into the centreline and then rush for your head.

        Rapier? Well, the manuals depict people with effing massive thighs for a reason. If you’re stronger, you gain the explosiveness to increase your reach and speed, but also the control to do so without going off balance.

        Dagger? Fighting with daggers or knifes is always a bit of a lottery where you can expect both parties to be hit, but at that range… see comment above about jujutsu.

        Generally speaking, if you are stronger, techniques become simpler to perform, and perform better. It is easier to control the centre line. It becomes easier to win using techniques with low complexity, even against skilled opposition. It becomes easier to gain and retain the initiative. Strength turns equal exchanges into favourable exchanges, and disfavourable exchanges into equal exchanges.

        Plainly, there is a reason why there are usually “Open Longsword” and “Women’s Longsword” at HEMA tournaments.

        1. Agreed, but I’d argue that the gap isn’t so prohibitive as to render the weaker person obsolete (not necessarily your argument, but worth mentioning). Especially in group combat (which is where most proper warfare takes place). Two weaker people are far more likely to beat one stronger given anywhere near parity in skill and equipment.

          1. Sure, with skill and equipment you’d expect two people to beat one stronger one – after all, the Romans seems to have done fine, despite sources that keep telling us that Germanic people were so much taller, stronger and cleaner =)

            However, most people in most societies aren’t fighting in wars most of the time. Some others have commented men being more “expendable” because women have a larger time investment and risk when it comes to making kids. I’d make the argument simpler: Most women and indeed most men had and have better things to do, and the elites going to war probably could not have changes that even if they wanted to (often they probably didn’t).

            Even in pre-modern times when the economics of warfare was different, most people were busy being subsistence farmers and lacked both the time and resources to go to war. And the elites that may have economic (or just cultural) reasons for going to war lacked the institutions and infrastructure to support armies that actually drew from a significant amount of the population anyway.

            So if you’re going to war, you’re not thinking “two weaker people are better than one strong, so I’ll just recruit every man and woman in this village”. You’re more likely thinking, “I can bring maybe three guys and they need to supply their own kit”.

            Whether mustering troops is about gathering retinues of retinues, or some sort of conscription, or indeed building a standing, professional force, you are not recruiting a large fraction of the population. Most pre-modern states could not feasibly mobilise more than 5 % of the population for war. The Roman Republic may have managed as high as 10 %, but only during emergencies. Heavily militarised early modern states, such as Sweden (until the early 18th century) or Prussia could typically mobilise around 7 % of the population. Even the most extreme modern cases, such as Bulgaria in the first world war and the UK in the second world war could not mobilise more than a quarter of the population.

            Given that for most societies at most times can pick maybe 3-5 people out of a 100, who are you going to bring to war? Most *men* are going to be left at home.

            To bring it back to my example of HEMA tournaments, the women participating would absolutely stonk 99 % of the population in a swordfight, but they are not fighting against the untrained 99 %, are they?

      3. Speed and finesse depend on reflexes and strength, in which again men would have an overwhelming advantage. There are sports where men and women compete against each other on equal terms, but fencing isn’t one of them.

    2. On average, human males have more upper body strength than human females. Now, because humans don’t comprehend averages very well, they assume that to mean that any given male will always be much stronger than any given female. This isn’t actually how that works. The amount of females that have greater upper body strength than average males is not negligible, i.e it’s not something like <1%. It's inaccurate to suggest that a female is only capable of killing a male if he doesn't take her seriously.
      We see this reflected in cultures that permit both sexes to fight, such as our own, or that of Steppe nomads or early Germanic agriculturalists. Some females fight, less than the males, but still a noticeable demographic of fighters.
      Instead I'd offer that females are necessary to propagate a community, and unlike males they need to invest the better part of a year into creating a child. Populations cannot afford to bleed females the way they bleed young males.
      God, that last paragraph of mine sounds weird.

        1. From the link: “Less expected was the gender related distribution of hand-grip strength: 90% of females produced less force than 95% of males.” [All subjects aged 20-25 years, for reference.]

          That is both surprising to me, and at one stroke pretty much explains the whole phenomenon of women asking men to open stuck jars for them. Wow.

          1. Well, that specific matter is just a seduction game anyway – you don’t open a jar using raw strength – you do it by removing the vacuum first by inserting and wiggling a (knife) point.

      1. The armed forces have been trying to compensate for women’s lower upper body strength for years. They have not succeeded.

      2. As I noted above, offering that females are necessary to propagate a community is overcomplicating things: In most societies, at most times, most men aren’t going to war either.

        If you are a pre-modern state mobilising 5 % of your population, even if you did so entirely on merit in an entirely egalitarian society where men and women trained equally for war, you would still recruit mostly males. Because the top 10 % of males are going to be stronger, faster and more resilient than most females.

        1. I submit that states rarely recruit based on merit (or rather, that their idea of “merit” is often more complicated than “the 3% who can lift the most”)

          1. I not only agree, but would also add that an entirely egalitarian society where men and women train equally for war does not exist, and probably never has =)

    3. But we are talking of a fantasy world here. It’s not hard to devise some feature of a world that makes gender irrelevant to proficiency with a sword (while still not making everyone equal). In fact, I’ve done it.

      1. It is easier to devise some feature that make swords stupid. Hypotheses about how a fantasy world could be different does not change what it is. And especially do not defend against rebutting claims of realism.

        1. We do have a small but relatively steady stream of women joining the army (by pretending to be men) and many of them seems to not have been found out, so it’s not as if it is immediately obvious in an army setting.

          1. Personally I don’t believe a woman could successfully hide herself without a confederate or two to cover for her when necessary.

    4. This sounds like something someone who has never fought a woman with a sword would say.

      My personal experience is that women are extremely capable fencers and that speed and wit are much more important than size and strength. It’s telling that in HEMA not all tournaments have separate women’s divisions. Women have also won major mixed-gender tournaments before.

      Height and strength do give an edge, but it’s just an edge. It’s not at all like wrestling or boxing/MMA, where there really isn’t much of a chance for the smaller and weaker to win.

      1. “My personal experience is that women are extremely capable fencers and that speed and wit are much more important than size and strength.”

        Your personal experience is clearly deeply misleading, because most women (and men) in the modern world know nothing about fencing and are NOT extremely capable fencers. If you go looking for mixed pairs of men and women who can fence about equally well, then you will find pairs in which the man is physically stronger, and the woman has some compensating advantage.

        But if you do the reverse and search for equally skilful men and women, the stronger people with greater stamina will have the advantage. And they will all be young men. Likewise, if you take unskilled people and train them equally well, the stronger people with greater stamina will have the advantage. And they will all be young men.

        Indeed, as the young men will have greater stamina, they will probably be slightly easier to train, which suggests they will end up stronger, with greater reach, and greater stamina, and more practice, than any other group.

        1. Genuinely uncertain why you think young men have greater stamina – upper body strength, yes, but stamina?

          Women have been shown in clinical trials to have a fair bit more pain tolerance than men on average, which means they can endure training harder and longer than their male counterparts could. So even this notion of training them equally well isn’t far from me saying ‘if you take a man and women of equal strength…’.

          1. Events such as long distance running and cycling should not be dominated by upper body strength, yet male athletes still seem to outperform female ones at them. My understandings that this is due to men having a somewhat higher lung capacity. Perhaps I should have written about “endurance” rather than “stamina”.

            The only endurance events at which I know women to outperform men are certain kinds of long-distance swimming, because women have a higher percentage of body fat and tend to float better. That is not an advantage for most athletic events.

            I don’t know how pain tolerance is measured objectively, as it is hard to tell how much pain someone else is feeling, but that should not matter. If pain tolerance is a big issue in your training, you are overtraining, and probably doing yourself damage.

    5. But this isn’t a story of the statistically average woman. By virtue of the fact that they are a player character, the Tarnished in Elden Ring is above-average compared to the rest of the people living in the Land Between. If they weren’t exceptional, they would not have succeeded.

      1. Not to mention they have magical capacities granted to them by the Maiden and such. It’s incredibly easy to simply say ‘ah well see because the Maiden is also female, there’s an easier bond there so you get empowered slightly more than men are, thus, equal’.

  9. Closely relevant to representations of female armor in video games is the recent Halo TV series, which has four Spartans* among the main characters, two of whom are female, and nothing about their armor indicates femininity aside from being very slightly slimmer to fit the builds of the actresses who play them. No boob plates. I wasn’t even sure they were female until they took their helmets off.

    *I also take every opportunity to remind people of the hilarity that Halo’s super-elite warriors are named after a society who weren’t that great at being warriors and also suuuuuucked (and I usually link to your series about them).

    1. On the other hand, it is (perhaps unintentionally) fitting that Halo’s Spartans originated as a force of brutalized children tasked with killing rebels in a protracted conflict between a privileged core and an exploited periphery, and that the in-universe public is unaware of this.

      1. Considering the depth of worldbuilding that went into the Hall games at Bungie, I’d wager the similarities were fully intentional.

    2. “hilarity that Halo’s super-elite warriors are named after a society who weren’t that great at being warriors”

      Our gracious host frankly tried to prove far too much with that bit of analysis. Sure, if you take the entire list of battles he gives in this post: https://acoup.blog/2019/09/20/collections-this-isnt-sparta-part-vi-spartan-battle/ , one that stretches over a century and a half, the Spartan win/loss record isn’t that great, and if it were evenly spaced out I wouldn’t object to this.

      The problem is that it isn’t evenly spaced out; the list can be very easily broken into three distinct eras:
      1. Pre-Peloponnesian wars (9 battles, 1 defeat, 2 draws, 6 victories)
      2. The Peloponnesian Wars (16 battles, 7 defeats, 9 victories)
      3. Post-Peloponnesian Wars (13 battles, 9 defeats, 1 draw, 3 victories)

      The disparity there should be obvious–Sparta’s record before the Peloponnesian War is fantastic, during the Peloponnesian War is so-so, and after the Peloponnesian War is utterly miserable, which means that something had to have changed. Devereaux actually touched on that in the series–after the big earthquake and the Peloponnesian Wars, there simply weren’t enough Spartiates, because too many had either lost their ability to support themselves after the earthquake or died in the two decades of war with Athens, and the system for allowing in new Spartiates was deliberately designed to not let in new blood.

      In other words, the Spartan system produced what it was designed to produce (that is, good warriors), as shown by the Spartan record before the Peloponnesian Wars; the problem was that said system was not resilient at all, and the sort of warrior produced by the Spartan system is extremely unlikely to engage in the sort of long-term or strategic thinking that would cause them to think that maybe having more Spartiates would be a good idea. (I also suspect that, by the time of the Peloponnesian Wars, the Spartiates had drunk their own ink, and beating Athens only added to their arrogance.)

      I realize that it’s very comforting to think “oh, the Spartans weren’t even that great at the thing they were supposedly good at,” but the facts…don’t really bear that out.

      (I could also get into why this analysis actually makes the name of the SPARTAN program extremely appropriate, but this comment is long enough already.)

      1. The Spartan system certainly produced what it was supposed to produce, which was “good” citizens primarily, rather than warriors.

        The Spartans were a leisured elite that valued athleticism. They also controlled a relatively large population they could draw additional troops from. It is, in other words, no wonder they had a strong record in the – let’s be frank – very simplistic warfare of pre-Peloponnesian Greece. Being able to more or less march into the field of battle in an orderly fashion, and then having the benefit of being athletic is sufficient to make the Spartans notable in Ancient Greece. It is… overly generous to suggest that makes them notably good warriors in a wider context.

        While I agree it is wrong to react to the typical “Spartan were incredible warriors”-memeing with going entirely in the opposite direction, it is in light of all the myth making probably more accurate and useful to downplay Spartan military prowess than to continue talking them up. Especially when considering the sort of implicit ideology that tends to go hand-in-hand with Spartan myths…

        1. “it is in light of all the myth making probably more accurate and useful to downplay Spartan military prowess than to continue talking them up. Especially when considering the sort of implicit ideology that tends to go hand-in-hand with Spartan myths…”

          Yeah, no. While I understand the desire to counter the myth-making, acknowledging that societies that are objectively terrible do not always fail to produce things that are effective is necessary, in order to avoid underestimating people who do not believe as you do.

          1. You misunderstand. I did not say that we should not acknowledge that Spartan society may have been effective. Rather, we should be realistic about that effectiveness, and be stern in the face of ideologically motivated misuse of history.

            Realistically, Spartan society was very impressive at creating a cohesive elite. This was also the point of the agoge. It was not boot camp. It did not produce warriors.

            The Spartans had a relatively short period of (albeit clearly impressive) military success, though this was within a very narrow cultural, geographical and technological context. It is not clear that their military success was because they were particularly good at fighting as such, as opposed to recruiting from a large population pool (when including non-Spartiates), being better at what we might today call psyops (that is, the myth-making around especially Thermopylae that persists to this very day), and that their opponents were simply worse. Remember that we have exceedingly little evidence of organised military training in Ancient Greece in the period that Sparta was actually successful. You can only fight what is in front of you, but eventually Sparta could not even do that.

            For a comparison, France has a winning record in both wars and individual battles throughout French history. Well over a *millenia* of being on average better than their neighbours at fighting. Taken as a whole, French military history is a lot more impressive than Sparta. Yet, who has the “Come and take them”-meme and who are considered surrender monkeys?

            Consider two readings of Spartan history:

            1. Sparta had a short period of considerable military success, but institutional rigidity and a particularly cruel and oppressive ruling class prevented them both from making any notable military innovations nor establishing a lasting empire.

            2. Sparta had a period of considerable military success, brought forth by their impressive institutions that moulded their men to be strong and uncompromising, and it was only the combination of natural disaster and a devastating war that lasted a generation (which impressively they still won!) that halted their dominance.

            Based on your post above, it seems you would agree more with the second reading, no? You’d be wrong.

            The myth of Spartan military excellence survives in part because it has been allowed to set such impressively deep roots in culture. It also survives in part because it is very convenient for certain strains of ideological thought. Whenever you misrepresent Spartan history (because reading 2 is overall a misrepresentation, even if you can make well-supported argument that they have an overwhelmingly positive record pre-Peloponnesia) you are feeding into that. Whenever you suggest that the agoge somehow turned Spartans into superior ‘warriors’ you are adding fuel to the sort of ‘hard times makes for hard men’ thinking that go hand-in-hand with all sorts of awfulness. When the historical evidence is pretty clear that this was not the purpose of the agoge, nor does it seem to have been a side-effect, it is at best irresponsible to continue making the argument.

            If you are worried about “objectively terrible” societies being able to produce things that are effective, then you should not be arguing about Spartan military prowess. You could perhaps make an argument for Spartan obedience or some such. And you’d be better of talking about how Louis 16th may have had some bad policies regarding religious freedom, but boy didn’t the French fight pretty much all of Europe to a standstill, eh?

          2. The thing is, Sparta is, by most metrics, just not very impressive. They managed to beat up their fellow greeks… who were also not that impressive militarily. I think the easiest comparison is Rome, or even Persia, or heck, Macedon. *these* were impressive militaries. Sparta was not. Even at it’s height they were only capable of dominating their immediate surroundings and fend off incursions into their core. They have an impressive string of victories, but it’s no more impressive than a dozen of other mid-tier also-rans. The kind of thing the spartans achieved… Just isn’t that impressive in the grand scheme of things.

          3. Apparently you missed the part which pointed out that Sparta’s institutions were lousy at being resilient (failing to recover from a war that you win is usually a bad sign) and at producing people who were capable of long-term thinking, and chose to only focus on the bit where I pointed out the weakness in the “LOL Sparta’s rep only based on propaganda” meme, because that’s the only way you could have come up with that weird misreading of my position. Should I have made my position that A. the Spartiates were kind of awful people and B. clearly Sparta’s institutions could not sustain themselves even more explicit than I already did?

          4. I understand that there were a thousand or so Greek city-states. How many of them were militarily more effective than Sparta?

            If the answer is smaller than five hundred, Sparta would seem to have been militarily more effective than most of its peers. So I would be cautious about calling it especially ineffective, militarily.

          5. You misunderstand. I did not say that we should not acknowledge that Spartan society may have been effective. Rather, we should be realistic about that effectiveness, and be stern in the face of ideologically motivated misuse of history.

            And his whole point, as I understand it, is that “Spartans sucked at fighting” *isn’t* a realistic assessment.

            Also, you talk about “ideologically motivated misuse of history”, but downplaying Spartan skill at fighting for fear of “adding fuel to the sort of ‘hard times makes for hard men’ thinking that go hand-in-hand with all sorts of awfulness” is itself an excellent example of such ideologically-motivated misuse.

          6. The thing is, Sparta is, by most metrics, just not very impressive. They managed to beat up their fellow greeks… who were also not that impressive militarily. I think the easiest comparison is Rome, or even Persia, or heck, Macedon. *these* were impressive militaries. Sparta was not.

            When the Spartans fought the Persians at Thermopylae and Plataea, they performed pretty well on both occasions. N = 2 and all that, but it still runs counter to the idea that the Spartan military was merely the best of a bad bunch.

  10. Fascinating quotes from Friedman’s book, but the phrasing of that paragraph leaves me very confused as to what is “to be discarded”.

    1. The operational “level” (as a full-blown level to be treated separately like strategy and tactics can be, I assume).

      For my part, I’m wondering what exactly is the context for :

      “The Soviets failed in the only way Marxist-Leninists could, predictably and through the complete subjugation of the military profession to totalitarian might.”

      Is this specifically about Stalin’s era (especially early WW2) or not ?

      Because on the other hand the Foreign Policy’s “Russian Atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine, Comes From Military Culture” *really* makes me think that Castoriadis’ 1980’s writings on Russian society (which I have already posted here a few weeks ago) were on the spot, about how a nationalist-imperial imaginary springs forth from the (back then) only functioning sector being the army (with the addition of the quite earned victory over the Nazis) – the “ultimate patriotic institution” as Dr Deveraux says, that was latent already way before Putin, but which he seems to have nurtured and twisted to his own ends :
      https://www.telospress.com/cornelius-castoriadis-on-russian-society/

      But then wouldn’t it mean that (at least post-Stalin ?) the Soviet military have on the contrary had significant freedom ?

      (Also, Garry Kasparov has recently also raised the “increased violence when losing” explanation for Russian treatment of Ukrainian civilians. Thanks for also reminding about the hazing rampant in the Russian military.)

      (BTW, Foreign Policy’s articles’ whole (?) text can be read by using Firefox’ Reader View.)

      1. I have an edition of the Marquis de Custine’s La Russie en 1839 with a foreword by a member of the American embassy describing it as the best book for understanding the USSR. Culture lingers.

        1. Nice, thanks, I’ll try to find it… once I finish *War and Peace* (1869, describing events of 1805-1820) that I *finally* managed to start !

      2. It’s a nice one-liner, but not at all reflective of Soviet military history – which was often markedly innovative. The Russian performance in the Ukraine is typical of a kleptocratic show army (eg the Philippines under Marcos, or Chiang’s Nationalists): basic maintenance neglected, loose discipline, internal rivalries.

  11. I’ve long wondered if men’s above average strength factored into their dominance of armed forces and wider society. That the stronger gender was always going to dominant the military, and that any pre-modern society that had an armed forces was going to be dominated by members of that armed force seems pretty intuitive to me!

    But I’ve found that common sense is often justifications for how things are now masquerading as wisdom. I asked a well respected history professor seven or eight years ago about this, and she said it was hotly debated without actually going into the details. Has anyone read any books on this that they could recommend? I’d love to take a more in-depth look.

    1. Only tangentially related, but a long time ago, I read Growing up in Medieval London by Barbara Hanawalt. Now it’s not about military history, it’s about more slice of life and demographic history, primarily of London, but also of some compared urban areas in Europe at the same timeframe examined, but one thing that I picked up from it is that death in and around childbirth was *very* common. Now, I want to stress this book was examining urban environments, so disease was a much bigger factor than in more rural areas where most of the population of pre-industrial society lived, but the takeaway I got from that was that women didn’t enter a lot of non-domestic fields because

      A) They died young. A lot.
      B) Enormous cultural forces converged to keep women alive and sequestered so they could last long enough to keep popping out children until they likely died doing so.

      That would lead to an implication as to why women in military contexts are very rare that has little to do with physical strength. But I want to stress this is my conclusions drawn from data that isn’t even in a book about military history and is a 1993 publication, so it’s reasonably likely further scholarship has come along since then.

      1. Death in childbirth was common enough that everybody had personal knowledge of a case but the majority of women survived their childbearing years. The deathrate for males and children was also high making everybody conscious of the urgent necessity of reproduction to keep up the population. Basically this meant women of childbearing age were strongly discouraged from doing anything else. It wasn’t some kind of evil patriarchal conspiracy, in fact older women were the enforcers.
        The strength and size difference between the sexes is perfectly real and a definite factor in discouraging women from taking up arms as a career. Necessity was a different matter. While rarely warriors in the Real World women belonging to the warrior aristocracy could and did lead armies and direct campaigns. Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen of England, was acknowledged to be a fine general, better than her husband. Princess Pingyang of the T’ang, Aethelflaed daughter of Alfred the Great and Lady of the Mercians, and so forth?

        1. Tangent: The Empress Matilda wasn’t the wife of King Stephen of England; they were cousins and rivals for the English throne. Matilda’s husband Emperor Henry V was dead by the time the civil war started.

          1. There are far too many Matildas in this period. They seem to have been named for the Conqueror’s wife who was apparently one badass lady in spite of being under five feet tall.

        2. “It wasn’t some kind of evil patriarchal conspiracy, in fact older women were the enforcers”

          One does not exclude the other. I am not saying what you’re saying was an evil patriarchal conspiracy (because I hardly think a cabal of men planned human biology). However, patriarchal institutions are very often upheld at least in part by the women it oppressess. It is an unfortunate mistake to assume or argue that because women are enforcers, women are not oppressed.

          In patriarchal ‘honour’ societies, in which women are ostensibly the property of their father or husband, it is typically other women that perform most of the social control. It is not Somalian fathers who cut their daughters’ genitals. It is the mothers.

    2. I can’t recommend specific books but my general understanding is that the extent to which men dominated societies throughout history has been exaggerated by the fact that men very much dominated the Victorian era and several of our other big sources of historical records.

        1. I think the thought is that serious historiography started in the C19, and that set a pattern which persisted. The last few decades have seen a lot of (often very good) ‘subaltern history’ – looking at the way subordinate groups shaped events. Often by very different ways to the public, political processes dominated by elite men.

        2. It’s actually somewhat more complicated than the victorian era (which is long and complex and has a lot of development during it) but there is a point that the reformation (and later on enlightenment-era reforms) oftten actually limited women’s particiaption (often as a consequence of the relative increased egalitarianism: As the aristocracy loses power this also loses a wedge for certian women to wield power, because historically thier status as aristocrats under certain circumstances outweighed their status as “women”).

          That said, the 19th century was a complicated time and one of great change: The cult of domesticity and the beginnings of the modern feminist movement coexisted, and interacted in often complicated ways.

        3. It’s not really the kind of thing you can go with “Evidence” for, but consider the issue of reigning queens: Something that was rare, but still happened fairly regularly, then look at how as monarchy is replaced by more democratic or republican forms fo government who do not allow the special situations where a woman could become the equivalent of a reigning queen.

          There are similar things going on lower levels (the reformation often in protestant europe closing off women’s official participation in religious life, f.ex.)

          This isn’t saying that pre-modern societies were neccessarily egalitarian (they were obviously not), but rather that there is a particular edge-point in the 19th century where older “loopholes” that allowed women’s participation are closed off by new systems that are theoretically more egalitarian but also explicitly male-only.

          1. Reigning is an activity statistically indistinguishable from zero even before you factor in that the queens were rare among them .

            And you need evidence that similar things are going on at lower levels.

            And yes, you do need evidence.

          2. Mary, statistically, yes, but symbolically (and administratively ?) very much not so.

          3. People do not live symbolically. The question of what life was like for helot women in Sparta was not prettied up by citing that Spartite women had it somewhat better than other Greek citizen women.

          4. People not only live symbolically (that’s one of the main differences with the other animals), they’re often willing to sacrifice their lives for symbolic reasons !

            Anyway, my point was that I would expect women rulers on average to prevent & commit much less atrocities on woman than men rulers – am I wrong ? (And AFAIK Sparta was very much not a king/queendom, so I’m doubting its relevance for this discussion ?)

          5. Societies where women do not hold the role that you claim makes women’s lives better are immensely relevant to your claim that their lives were better.

            Also, that they commit fewer atrocities is not even remotely plausible l

        4. Then read some history of sociology? It’s not very hard to find out. That the reformation and to some extent early enlightenment (though it gets more complicated, it was often a matter of domains being gained in certain areas and for certain groups and lost in others) leading to a more constrained set of options for women isn’t exactly controversial. (heck, we even see it in guilds, where a lot of them start closing their loopholes that would have let women, usually widows, keep their positions)

          Now, the 19th century is kinda complicated because it is both the high-point of this development and when things start turning becuase of modern feminism and the women’s rights movement. As laws becomes more uniform and codified the loopholes that were previously open to women disappear. (unti women start to successfully agitate for these new egalitarian laws also applying to them)

      1. I’m having some difficulty believing that Britain in the reign of Queen Victoria was especially male-dominated. Whatever else you say about her, or other British women of her time, she did not live her life secluded from all men not of her immediate family, didn’t have her feet crippled and bound, and wasn’t burned alive on her husbands funeral pyre. That alone suggests her country was less male-dominated than any of the other major civilizations in Eurasia.

        I am tempted to run this argument backwards, and conclude that the extent to which men dominated societies throughout history has been minimised by the fact that men had so little dominance in the Victorian (and subsequent) eras.

        1. You appear to be defending Western civilization. There’s no place for that sort of analysis in the contemporary academy. Luckily you are anonymous–and hopefully not seeking employment in academia, for many reasons.

          1. It’s only a defence of Western civilization if you take it for granted that male dominance of society is a bad thing. Which, if you think about it, is a very Eurocentric thing to do.

          2. There are a great many famous academics who explicitly or implicitly defend Western civilisation on the regular.

            I don’t personally agree with their publishing that sort of apologetics, but the idea that there isn’t a place for them in academia is objectively wrong.

      1. I don’t really see how plowing would create patriarchy. If plowing a field was higher status than spinning thread, that would be the result of patriarchy, not the cause.

        Also, that article begins with a quote that claims to be from 8500 B.C.; this is far older than the oldest known writing, so I wouldn’t place a lot of trust the rest of the article either.

        1. It’s not a real quote – she’s an author who describes the historical sources that she based her work upon – which you would have realized if you had actually bothered to read farther than the “quote”.

          At which point, why would you even try to engage a discussion with that first question, if you don’t know if it’s answered in the followup text ?

      2. Hunter-gatherer societies are generally patriarchal, and certainly warfare in such societies is an almost exclusively male activity. So it isn’t agriculture or the plow specifically that creates male dominance.

        1. You seem to directly contradict (the sources of) my source without any sources of your own ?

          And anyway, I’m more interested here in comparisons between agricultural societies that used plows and those that didn’t (less different variables !)

          1. Try Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization, and the sources cited therein. A little more scholarly than an odd internet article with three or four citations.

        2. Warfare is a male dominated activity in every culture I’m acquainted with. Women are sometimes involved but generally in small numbers. The female warrior is rare. Very rare. They are definitely the minority among the Scythian women and related cultures. In many societies women taking up arms is a sign of a desperate situation.
          Elite women, acting on behalf of their male relatives, are known to call up and direct armies. Ahotep of early 18th dynasty Egypt was praised for handling of a military campaign during her son’s minority and her grave goods includes three large gold flies, an AE award for valor.

          1. I do note that warfare is in some sense *always* a minority activity: Even in modern mass-scale industrial war only a small proportion actually fights or is called up at any given time.

            Military actions have been male-dominated in most cultures, but very rarely exclusively so: Even the most hardcore attempts have a few women slipping through the cracks (either taking up arms to defend themselves, dressing up as a man and joining anyway, being part of a social caste like nobility where they are put in positions of command as replacements for a male heir, or just other strangeness.)

      3. The opening seems to be about a fantasy society or a thought experiment not based on actual history.
        In Real Life there’s considerable doubt that a true matriarchy ever existed anywhere at any time. Matrilineal societies are not uncommon but tracing descent through women does not automatically put women in charge. Gender roles vary enormously and some societies are more equal than others but there is no society in which women don’t have power, even if it’s informal power and usually family centered.
        Wives and lovers could have influence over their men but the most secure position of power was mother. Even in very patriarchal systems such as confucian China a man was expected to serve and defer to his mother and grandmother.

        1. It can be hard to measure. As Chesterton sagely observed, it was illegal for a man to marry his dead wife’s sister, but legal for him to marry her scullery-maid — and the frequency of the first marriage was much greater than the second, because of social pressure, much of which is feminine.

        2. When I think that I spent like half an hour trying to find the best possible source *not too dry, and which itself refers to a wide variety of sources*, discarding half a dozen of other potential sources, for then have people that bother to comment not even bother to scroll down, or even just read other people’s comments… I weep for the state of online discourse.

          1. One of the sources your source mentioned was a novelist another was Marja Fimbutas who might as well have been a novelist, she was a mythmaker not an anthropologist. Now one can create any kind of civilization one likes for a novel or fantasy. But the sad fact is that every imagined matriarchal culture of the past has turned out to be anything but upon further study. Catalhuyuk for example or Minoan Crete.

          2. Roxana, which source of my source is a novelist ?

            And you better have a *very* good reason to call someone that Wikipedia says “was a Lithuanian archaeologist and anthropologist known for her […] Kurgan hypothesis” which “is the most widely accepted proposal to identify the Proto-Indo-European homeland from which the Indo-European languages spread out throughout Europe and parts of Asia” a “mythmaker not anthropologist”.

            (Would you call Newton “not a physicist” because he spent much of his time doing alchemy and theology ?) (And yes, I checked the Talk pages.)

          3. @Peak Singularity: just to note that (to my knowledge) Marija Gimbutas’ work is in fact heavily criticized amongst archeologists, especially her theses on the “goddess” theories and peaceful matriarchal Old Europe. While she is a valued authority on Bronze Age Europe and early Indo-Europeans in general, I believe her hypothesis on matriarchal societies is largely considered as refuted.

          4. Marja Gimbutas did some good work before she became obsessed with her primitive matriarchal theories and discarded all intellectual standard.
            The novelist in your articles sources was Katherine Gilman of ‘Yellow Wallpaper ‘ fame.

          5. Thanks, we’re getting somewhere ! It’s a shame that this blogposter/writer just included a non-(relevant-field?)-academic in there amongst other “real” ones without pointing this out.

            So, more specifically, what about that 2011, Nunn, et al. study ?

            https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/alesina/files/ontheoriginsofgenderroleswomenandtheplough.pdf

            (I would have sworn that I first saw it in a blogpost or discussed here, but I didn’t find it – hence that other blogpost !)

  12. Your review of Expeditions: Rome makes me curious what the upper end was in terms of Roman treatment of slaves. My impression is the range of treatment was very wide, but based not on the master but on the work being done. Certainly being sent to the mines was awful—but didn’t some slaves work independently and merely have to pay a portion of their income to their masters? And my impression is some slaves were entrusted with levels of responsibility that would seem improbable if they hated their masters. Though in either or both cases I may have the Romans and Greeks mixed up (my spouse is a classics nerd, so I get a lot of this stuff via unreliable osmosis).

    1. Romans clearly used freedmen for a lot of independent work and freedmen could be quite rich (and their sons could be in the Senate). They also used slaves as tutors for the rich and powerful.

      IIRC Rome also had limits on Testamentary manumission, which implies that some people would free very large numbers of slaves in their will given the chance, enough to potentially cause social problems. AFAIK this is not something that came up in any Greek polis.

      All of this make me think that Roman slaves could probably be quite well off compared to the “typical” slave (with, as you say, the actual treatment heavily based on the work being done). Universal massive oppression of slaves simply doesn’t go well with letting the slave’s children into the Senate (or having one freedman officially listed as a dictator of Rome). At least some substantial number of slaves were well enough treated that it was reasonable to expect them to be loyal to their former master’s family if manumitted.

      Based on treatment of Freedmen and on limitations on citizenship, I suspect that the Greeks averaged much harsher than the Romans.

      1. It is not uncommon historically that slaves close to the master’s family received better treatment that those outside that circle. We see very similar patterns in American slavery, where those in close contact with slaveowners often received more clothing, better access to food, and privileged position compared to other slaves. Note that this isn’t a rule, but just a trend. It would not be surprising if Roman slaves experienced some of the same.

        However, such slaves were not exempted by punishment and could receive abuse on a whim. In the Antebellum era we have utterly appalling stories of abuse and other heinous acts carried by masters even against slaves whom they basically lived with day in and day out for their whole lives. Some slave masters mercilessly whipped their own enslaved children and/or sold them off as laborers or into prostitution. Ladies of the house could, and some did, order the most inventive tortures a warped mind might devise be done to their servants for the pettiest of reasons.

        1. And it should be noted, this was the circle of slaves most likely to be sexually abused by their masters.

        2. Slaves were the obvious victims for sadists and horrible cases did occur but such behavior was NOT acceptable to other whites. Madame Lalaurie, who I assume you are referencing, was hounded out of New Orleans by a raging white mob. Frederick Douglass, the very last man to apologize for slavery, stated that white opinion did rein in abusive masters. Actual slave testimony stated that truly evil masters were as rare as saintly ones. The majority of masters were described as kind – unless they were drunk or angry. Slaves were helpless targets for owners’ temper tantrums or drunken abuse and slaveowner testimony seems to indicate a lack of basic self control or clear reasoning on their part. It’s true that slavery is bad for the masters.

          1. That kind of misses the greater degree fo consistent and regular abuse meted out on a regular basis (usually for things like failing to meet arbitrary standards of “working hard enough”) violence and the threat of violence was a constant reality.

            Slaves were at the whims of their masters temper and sadism (and let us not forget, their sexual demands), but that’s only a small part of the regularized violence: There as also the systematic violence that was part of forcing people to work without paying them. Torture was absolutely an intrinsic part of the slave system.

          2. Yeah, when talking about slavery in any era it’s important to remember that good treatment is very much the exception; the masters held the power of life and death and exercised it, and whippings were routine. Even the best-treated slaves were still unable to decide not to work for their masters on pain of potentially death.

          3. Slavery is an absolute evil. No matter how well treated a slave may be he or she is a wronged human being.
            But slaves were not cowed and cringing no entities. They actively and passively resisted in all kinds of ways in spite of the power imbalance and quite often they won because their owner couldn’t be bothered to use that power. Plantations were not total institutions like concentration camps. Slaves had a surprising amount of agency, by their own accounts, and confirmed by those of frustrated masters. There are any number of terrible stories of abuse. But there were also a
            significant number of small victories where a slave got something he or she wanted even when their owner didn’t want to give it.

        3. I am not sure the American South is a good analogy. In the South there was an effort to more or less limit slaves to performing manual labor exclusively. Some, like Frederick Douglass, were taught to read illegally but as far as I know the laws against teaching slaves to read at least prevented slaves from working as tutors, clerks, or other professions where their illicitly-acquired literacy would have been obvious. So you’re not going to see slaves protected from abuse by useful skills to nearly the same extent as you might’ve seen in ancient Rome.

      2. Greeks tended to be limit the number of citizens. Remember that Aristotle thought Athens was too large for its form of government. That may not be a “slave” thing as such. (I have heard a story of Athens manumitting slaves to act as rowers for a military ship, and promising them the status of “citizens of an allied city” if they made it in time.)

      3. I wonder if Roman slaves might have been better off than Greek ones was because the elites of Rome were a orders of magnitude more wealthy. Youvd probably need to compare with peer states like Parthia or Han China, although that might be difficult considering the cultural differences.

        1. The distinctive Roman attitude to slavery – where slaves became citizens if manumitted – goes back to the earliest days of the republic, when it was just another clump of villages.

    2. The upper end was the personal slave/best friend and confidante. Several emperors were accused of being under the thumb of such a slave (or freedman). That may have been a way to avoid accusing the emperor directly, but it was not regarded as intrinsically ludicrous.

    3. There are anecdotes from the proscriptions of the Late Republic of slaves who helped hide their masters from the death squads, even when offered their freedom for turning their master in. This would suggest that at least some slaves had good relationships with their masters, which in turn suggests that they were treated well.

      1. While I can get behind this argument, we must not forget that Stockholm syndrome is *also* a thing.

  13. Now there is a separate point here about armor designed particularly to accentuate the gender-characteristics of the wearer. Given things like muscle-cuirasses and oversized armored cod-pieces, the idea of armor for women designed to draw attention to that fact is hardly unreasonable.

    Of course, a world where women warriors are respected enough to get fancy custom armor made for them might have different ideas about which feminine gender characteristics are most worth accentuating than one that spent its formative years, to be blunt, considering women more as accessories for men than full people.

    I think a skilled fantasy worldbuilder/artist could do something really neat by running with that idea. How might women from a world that traditionally valued them as more than baby factories and sex objects want to portray themselves? I doubt it would have much overlap with chainmail bikinis!

    Interestingly, the player cannot select this divine being to become their consort; they have a choice of two beings, both coded female.

    On one hand, taking someone who was (nearly?) a victim of allegorical sexual assault and then allegorically seducing him could come off as icky.

    On the other hand, FromSoft games routinely have you slaughtering a good number of innocent beings (in DS1 alone, ranging from a magical butterfly to a god quietly slumbering in his tomb to a very loyal dog), for reasons that tend to be hazy at best and outright corrupt at worst, so…as far as icky things done in pursuit of power or some higher goal, I’m not sure that allegorical seduction would really register.

    1. To expand on that second point: The butterfly, god, and dog referenced are just the bosses on the critical path. There’s also a fair number of innocent optional bosses (Crossbreed Priscilla, again from Dark Souls 1 specifically, comes to mind). The difference between an icky thing done in pursuit of power necessary to complete the game’s story, and this hypothetical icky thing that could optionally be done to obtain power, seems like an important point to emphasize if we’re doing that comparison.

        1. Yeah, it’s a major pain. Especially to those of us who are lousy proofreaders or have an uppity spell check.

  14. >>I’m not sure why we ended up with a whole lot of history-in-video-games in a row here, but no one seems to mind, so that’s good.<<

    I mind, I've just been too polite to say so. Don't get me wrong, the old Microsoft Age of Empires / Age of Kings held my attention for years. Especially the voice production, primitive I dare say by today's standards.

    But… they are fictions, not history. It's a fundamental divide

    1. While I fully get what you’re saying, I’d go on to say that video games are history. They’re just the history of now, or the very recent past.

      I’d also suggest that they’re a very valid lense for exploring how our current cultures view history. Not sure of the right word for it! It’s like exploring how medieval Europeans viewed the Romans, and how they used that understanding to shape aspects and behaviour of their own culture. It’s definitely a slightly parallel field than something that might be described as ‘history proper’ if that makes sense.

    2. Fundamentally, we learn most of the world not directly accessible to us (like the past) through fictions (aka myths), *especially* in the domains of humanity sciences.

      So art –
      (which wouldn’t be art without at the minimum making us invent our own story about what it represents)
      – definitely should be criticized for what it teaches (or doesn’t).

      (One thing that has been annoying me is how some game (video or not) just takes a culture (aka “setting”) and then just changes some names/characters/story elements here and there… thereby not only wasting an excellent opportunity of *teaching* about that real culture, but potentially creating confusion if you do start to try to learn about it !)

      And video games had for a while this complex of not being considered as “real art” (whatever that means). Well, maybe being a bit more “responsible” would help ?

  15. Mount and Blade Warband has shared armor between male and female, and I always appreciated it, although the peasant/noble dresses have breasts built into the mesh, which makes it kind of strange when you put male characters in them.

  16. FromSoft’s treatment of gender in Bloodborne is its own special can of worms. The game was clearly written by a man deeply creeped out by pregnancy; it might be the most “masculine” game I’ve ever played.

  17. Glad to see Prof. Devereux recommend the ISW analyses, which I had discovered on my own. They portray the war as an almost unrelieved disaster for the Russians. I hope they’re right, but only fools confine their reading to items they find congenial. (I realize that the world contains a lot of fools.) I wonder if there are any reasonably objective analysts (i.e., not Russians propagandists, whom one also encounters in the swamps of the internet) with a more encouraging picture for the Russians?

    1. I will as surprised to see the Guardian, WaPo, Die Zeit and El Pais all relying on ISW maps and analyses. The ISW is led by Kimberly Kagan, who brother-in-law is married to Victoria Nuland of Maidan and leaked phone calls fame. According to Wikipedia, ISW is financed by Raytheon etc. I can hardly imagine a more biased source apart from government-paid propagandists.

  18. The game is continually sniggering at Kanji; it absolutely does not present the message that he is OK in his identity. And it’s happy for Naoto to be a crossdressing girl, as long as she’s willing to present herself as a sex object when the boys demand it.

  19. Over on History.Net, Wayne Lee has an article on the logistics of grass and, essentially, how Steppe nomads (with particular reference to the Mongols) invented operational art in order to cope with the challenges of moving large armies of steppe nomads.

    This was really fascinating. I didn’t realize just how much milk a fully fed mare could produce – it’s wild that they could basically feed three men on the move for days.

  20. Glanced back at the first Fireside. Did the post on doctrine ever happen? Was GREYHOUND any good? There’s some discussion of doctrine in No Man’s Land, and of course the recent glossary, but more detail would be cool!

  21. Does Ukraine’s military in the current war meet the standard of the ‘modern system’? It definitely seems like it’s closer than Russia is managing, but for an amateur it’s not obvious quite how close it is.

    1. Can’t say if it is a good source, but this article says that the Ukrainian military did a lot of reforming after 2014, including giving junior officers a lot more leeway to use their initiative without having to clear everything with superiors. And OGP talked a lot about how that is an essential part of the modern system, but can’t be used in some authoritarian systems because it makes coups easier.

      https://theconversation.com/in-2014-the-decrepit-ukrainian-army-hit-the-refresh-button-eight-years-later-its-paying-off-177881

  22. >The game’s mythical imagery, for instance, is a glorious pastiche of Christian and Norse imagery, often twisted or repurposed in interesting ways that is just crying out for a full academic analysis.

    If you like this sort of thing, then it may be worth checking out “Shin Megami Tensei” (SMT): The premise is generally a (pre or post) apocalyptic setting, where “demon” negotiation and summoning is required to survive. How does society deal with this power? How should we deal with this power? What do the demons think? (the “demons” are mythological creatures from all around the world, be they heroes, gods, monsters, angels.)

    (The “Persona” spin-off series has a rather different tone and theme from the rest of the series: it is not apocalyptic or utopian and instead focuses more on personal drama/conflict in a mostly ordinary Japan)

    The series is pretty big and many of the modern games are playable and interesting (most are on console or handheld, but SMT III recently got a PC port/remaster), but I can recommend “SMT Strange Journey (SJ)” for having a setting and plot “crying for academic analysis” In fact, someone already has done a Master’s thesis on it:

    >Guan van Zoggel “The Utopia of Apocalypse”: Anti-human exceptionalism in Shin Megami Tensei & A critique on the anthropocentric understanding of established notions of utopia in science fiction studies (2012)

    I found it a good read. The parts that discuss the game directly are quite readable even without the theoretical background (or at least, I don’t have the theoretical background and could read it just fine).

  23. I was also thinking it would be nice to get a quick primer on operations vs. operational art vs. operational level. You’ve talked about operations many times before but (lay reader that I am) when I saw you say here that you agreed with the notion that the operational level was bogus, I was really confused. I’ve started reading On Operations so I’ve gotten a little clarity on the distinction between the three, but I guess the “operational level” concept isn’t one I’ve really encountered before, so at first I thought you meant you were suddenly dismissing the operations part of the strategy-operations-tactics trinity you’ve spoken about so often.

  24. Any analysis of FromSoft’s games needs to be grounded in their greatest inspiration: Kentaro Miura and his Berserk. I’d be interested, too, to see if Kazuma Hashimoto has written anything on the gender and sexuality aspects of the game, since unlike most people writing in English, he actually knows a goddamn thing about the culture of the LGBT community in Japan today and how it relates to wider mainstream culture.

  25. It’s pathetic of you to censor comments just because they contain facts you don’t like, Bret.

    1. Are you sure the comment was censored, not swallowed by the software? I’ve disagreed with Prof. Devereux, sometimes even–to my subsequent regret–to the point of rudeness, and he has never censored my comments.

  26. “I’m not sure why we ended up with a whole lot of history-in-video-games in a row here, but no one seems to mind, so that’s good.”

    I believe someone is trying to write off the absurd expense of a new graphics card and an ultra-wide screen gaming monitor.

    1. Alas, I have neither of those things. My graphics card is a redoubtable but by no means top of the line GTX 1070 (not the Ti version, to be clear) that’s about four years old and my monitor is your standard 1920×1080 kind of display. I’ll probably have to replace the graphics card soonish, but I try to stretch out the useful life of my computer components as long as I can. The computer itself is 8 years old now; I build my rigs myself, since its a lot cheaper.

      1. Haha I’m very similar. My 1070 drives a 2560×1440 with out much difficulty though. My case and power supply are nearly 20 years old now.

        I’m considering an upgrade to 32″ 4k, but my desk is rather constrained and that would be a bother if I still wanted a second monitor.

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