Friday, May 16, 2014

On Crowds, the Middle Ages, and Periodicity: Armies and Monks


Read Jeffrey below, returning to his old stomping grounds on giants. When you're done, come back, come back, come back....

Cameron Kunzelman, a smart guy who writes about video games and black teeshirts, among other things, blogged about the interface of Assassin's Creed 2. Knowing mainly that the first game's set in Crusader-era Jerusalem, I knew I had to put in my oar.

There, I found that the two games -- one set in the Middle Ages, the next in 15th-century "Renaissance" Italy--use crowds differently. In the first, the assassin often (?) disappears into crowds of monks, "a silent group who eliminated all of their personal characteristics in order to become just that — an order"; in the second, he disappears into a "raucous, heterogeneous group who are all functionally identical in their difference. They are not an order; they are a crowd."

Given what I've had to say about periodicity, I had to say more. First on twitter:

The result was a comment that merits--or deserves--distribution to medievalists. Here it is:

Following up on this, I’m interested in what this means from the standpoint of medievalism:
Altair disperses himself into a silent group who eliminated all of their personal characteristics in order to become just that — an order.

Ezio disperses himself into a raucous, heterogeneous group who are all functionally identical in their difference. They are not an order; they are a crowd.
By ‘medievalism’ I mean post-medieval imaginations (especially recreative imaginations, nostalgia and make-believe) of the Middle Ages [though the Middle Ages had its own nostalgia about itself, something that can't be discussed in this comment]. Now, a standard line about the Middle Ages/Modern difference is that modernity ‘invented’ the individual. Some Early Modernists will still spout this line, and, yes, we can see that there’s a real difference between, say, Jane Austen’s characterizations and those of Chr├ętien de Troyes. So, my sense is that AC may fall into the standard division of medieval from modern.
But, because I’ve been watching this lately, I immediately realized that one key difference between the Middle Ages and modernity is the professional army and its key aspect, the uniform. I’m not a military historian, thank god, so grain of salt: but my sense is that military ORDER, with the dedicated drumming out of individuality, has its closest analog in monastic de-individualization, to the extent that, perhaps, the military uniform’s closest analog is the monastic habit [idea of course could be developed by playing with habitus].
Meanwhile the actual chivalric armies of the high and late middle ages were marked as collectives of individuals through heraldry. In literature, we see them as crowds out of which individuals emerge to show their prowess. They fight ingroups but not, I’d say, as groups, at least in literature.
This means, of course, that the engine of modernity and modern imperialism, the 18th-century (?) army, is, in some key ways, ‘medieval’ at its heart. Meanwhile, religious fervor becomes increasingly ‘individualistic’ with the rise of printing and the explosion of Protestant sects. Periodization needs more work, again.
From a game play perspective, from someone who hasn’t played these games nor many, I’m wondering what how it would play out for our assassin to don a uniform, disappear into an army, and kill a fellow soldier in the midst of a battle….particularly if his target were on the opposing side. How would this ‘individual’ killing rate within the surrounding general slaughter? What would happen to the story of this hero if, in fact, his killing was just the killing all these normal soldiers were doing anyhow?

Apparently what I describe in the last paragraph [SPOILER, JUST STOP] happens. Good job, designers; that'll do.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about, from Jean d'Arras's Melusine (trans Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox). Urian and Guyon, two of Melusine's sons, have come to Cyprus to rescue its king from Saracen besiegers. Note the way that crowds work here, and how the narrative separates the commander, Urian, and his one opponent (victim? sacrifice?) from the crowd, to turn this clash of professional armies, briefly, into a clash of individuals. It would be easy to say that this is the late fourteenth century, and that the use of cannons, bowmen, and crossbows, heralds (that most medieval of words!) the modern army, and that the narrative is dealing, as best it can, with an encroaching modernity. But I think we might do more:
The knights spurred back to warn their party about the situation. On their way they met twenty bowmen and sent them, along with fifteen armed men, to man the bridge against the Saracens. When these reached the bridge, three Christians had already been felled. "Onward!" cried one of these bowmen. "We're delaying while these curs are advancing on these brave men!" Loading their crossbows with well-crafted bolts, they fired simultaneously and felled twelve aggressors on the bridge. Awed by such a feat, the Saracens immediately retreated. (85)
"Then [Urian] sent the entire army into battle, under the command of Guyon and the Master of Rhodes. He had the standard borne out ahead and rode into battle in the lead, wielding the commander's baton, keeping the ranks so tight that there was not even a finger's breadth between them" (85)
"Then the clatter of lances began in earnest. Urian pierced one Saracen through lung and liver. The clash was a sight to behold, but finally the Saracens abandoned the bridge, and many plunged into the waters below" (85)


Michael Sarabia said...

I love that you're commenting on these games, Karl. Sorry that I missed the twitter conversation (I don't frequent that site nearly enough, apparently).

One thought in response to your query at the end. You ask "[w]hat would happen to the story of this hero if, in fact, his killing was just the killing all these normal soldiers were doing anyhow?" I can tell you, having played through all but one of the games in this series, that there's a way in which the martial violence in the later installments becomes so routine and desensitized that the game loses something of its enchantment. There are doubtless other factors contributing to my declining enthusiasm for this series; however, given that I feel compelled to go around and simply "brawl" with soldier NPCs (in Assassin's Creed III and IV, especially) rather than engage the story-events or even pursue the many secret items only to then grow tired of the gameplay--I think maybe that has something to do with it. Fighting other soldiers becomes a rote task, like crunching numbers, rather than a gripping adventure.

Maybe it's just that the first game still had a newness to its overall feel and for that reason it was more compelling and interesting to play. I haven’t played AC1 since 2006, though, and so can’t comment too well on the degree to which it conjures (or approaches) an authentic middle ages (whatever that is.) I do remember at the time that the design of Jerusalem, and the way one could scale the architecture and take a peak across an expansive virtual world, only to then sneak back into the shadows and assassinate a Templar, provided a really immersive experience: it felt like an interactive adventure and the button-mashing receded to an almost unconscious level.
Point is, I think you’re on to something. Among other things, there’s a way in which situating this series in modern warfare has made the story a little less exciting from a gameplay perspective. With that said, AC4: Black Flag is tremendously fun if for no other reason than that you get to be a high-seas pirate.

Steve Muhlberger said...

You should bring in military/chivalric order as discussed by Llull and Charny (both 14th c)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Love this. Most theorizations of what crowds do center on Victorian and later literature (John Plotz has an award winning book on the subject), but Latin had a sophisticated vocabulary for the agency of the crowd that is worth examining here as well. Crowds are weirdly anti-individual and yet actors all the same.