Abstracts for 2018 symposium




Sally Abed, Alexandria University, Egypt:  Performance and Pleasure: Female Performers between Reality and Fiction


In this paper, I briefly examine the under-investigated role of female performers in public spheres in medieval Arab culture and use this historical perspective as a segue to the One Thousand and One Nights. I approach the Nights through the performance lens, which I use to investigate the voice of Dinarzad, Scheherazade’s sister, and its role in structuring the tales. Most scholars focus on the dominant voice of Scheherazade and leave out that of Dinarzad since she seems to be outside the hegemonic power structure of the tales. However, I argue that her voice is as crucial as Scheherazade’s in furthering the narrative. It is the “subaltern” voice that contributes to weaving the tales and promoting female agency. Both sisters stage a unique performance that moves subtly from leisure and pleasure to politics. Therefore, I aim to study the multivalent significance of Dinarzad’s voice and her position as a dominant ‘other’ both textually and visually. The position of Dunyazad in the text is both literal as she hides underneath the royal bed as well as metaphorical. Both positions beg for a different interpretation of structuring and performing the female voice in the tales.


Carlee Arnett, University of California/Davis: Hestaþing ‘Horse Meeting’(s) in Medieval Icelandic Culture


In medieval Europe, horses are classified by their use or place of origin, but not by breed. In Iceland between the 9th and 13th century horses were used for transportation, fighting, worship, food and as pack animals. Unlike the rest of Europe at the time, Icelandic horses also provided a source of entertainment. Following Gogosz (2014), this paper investigates the role of horse meetings in Icelandic culture. According to Gogosz (2014:20), there are various terms to refer to horse meetings, such as hestaþing ‘a meeting of horses’ (the most common), hestaat ‘horse fight’and hestavíg ‘horse fight’. Other words like víghest ‘fighting horse’, hestakeyrsla ‘prod a horse’, hestastafr ‘horse staff’ and etja saman, bíta ‘fight together, bite’ show that part of a horse meeting was to have horses fight.  There are 20 references to horse meetings in either the sagas or the law books (Gogosz 2014:21). The first reference occurs in the 9th century and the last in the 16th century.

            This paper aims to contextualize horse meetings and horse fighting in Icelandic society. Solheim (1956) and Gogosz (2014) have provided descriptions of horse fighting in Icelandic sources and speculated about the purpose. Mostly, they have determined what horse fighting is not, for example, it is not a pagan ritual, a component of fertility cults, a way to bleed horses after slaughter, or a pre-burial ritual. They do conclude that horse meetings take place in summer and fall as part of other assemblies or as stand-alone events, the owners of the horses have consented to the fight, and the events are organized and expected to draw a large crowd of spectators and participants. There were events for different types of horses and sometimes fights lasted more than one round or were judged.

            What is missing in these very thorough accounts is the perspective of the horse. What does it mean for a horse to ‘fight’ and why would a horse do this? Given that horses are a symbol of wealth, why would owners risk potential injury and lose a valuable piece of property? Why gather together and watch horses skirmish when this can be seen daily in your paddock at home? Why are they fighting more than stallions? A combination of a knowledge of Icelandic culture and horse behavior can be used to provide a better description of these events than currently exists. To that end, I argue that horse meetings and horse fighting were a way to get together to socialize, have fun, transact other business and advertise horsemanship skills as well as promote healthy breeding on a closed island.


Gogosz, R. (2014). Horse-fights: the Brutal Entertainment of the Icelanders in the Middle Ages. In Średniowiecze Polskí i Powszechne 5:9. Katowice, pp. 17-32.


Solheim, S. (1956). Horse-fight and Horse Race in Norse Tradition. Studia Norvegica 8. Oslo: H. Aschehoug.


Maha Baddar, Writing Faculty, Northwest Campus, Pima Community College, Tucson: The Medieval Harem: More than Just a Space for Pleasure and Leisure  

The paper will challenge the colonial over-simplistic narratives and visual representations of the medieval harem as a space dedicated exclusively to pleasure and leisure. Known works of art by artists such as Matisse and Picasso, for example, represent the harem as a space of sexual extravagance and overindulgence while narratives of the harem focus on stories of intrigue competition among the residents. The presentation will contrast these Orientalist representations of the harem in the medieval Islamic world with historical accounts by medieval Arab historians. The paper will focus on how residents of the harem, slaves and free women alike, used the persuasive means available to them to circumvent an oppressive space and to gain agency in the political and intellectual domains. The paper will conclude by calling for more responsible scholarship studying medieval Arab feminisms. 


Michael Call, Brigham Young University, Utah: Play within Plays: Molière, Regnard, and the Comic Gambler in 17th-Century France



Thomas Kavanagh has described the French seventeenth century as a period “marked by what was nothing less than a national obsession with chance and gambling in all its forms” (Dice, Cards, Wheels, p. 68). It was also an era in which ideas about probability and the random were changing rapidly: the groundbreaking correspondence between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat—characteristically for the period inscribed within the context of an interrupted gambling game—inaugurated the mathematical measurement of chance and the calculation of risk.

Considering comedy’s traditional mandate to represent contemporary society, it is not surprising to find the gambler represented on stage, cast as both a ubiquitous element of the social landscape but also the nexus for growing moral, epistemological, and political concerns. My paper will examine two important comedic treatments of the gambler: his striking appearance in 1661 as part of Molière’s Les Fâcheux, in which he forms part of a panoply of new social “types;” and his theatrical apogee in Jean-François Regnard’s 1694 Le Joueur, in which he becomes the principal figure in a comédie de caractère. In the thirty years that separate the two performances, gambling evolves from merely taking its place among a number of early modern pastimes (including hunting, music, and theatre-going) to becoming a central metaphor for control, loss, risk, and reward. After all, the Aristotelian foundations of early modern French theater invited playwrights and spectators alike to engage with the notion of likelihood—an idea that would come to mean something very different in the era of measurable probability.


Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona: Drinking, Partying, Drunkenness in Late Medieval Verse Narratives and Jest Narratives

In the world of courtly literature there are hardly any references to party life, heavy drinking, and drunkenness. This radically changes in the late Middle Ages, as urban authors increasingly talked about leisure times and activities, often with rather negative consequences. Here I will examine the example of the Wiener Meerfahrt and Heinrich Wittenwiler’s Der Ring, and combine this with an analysis of a variety of didactic text


Michael Conrad, Universität Zürich, Papery Randomization. On the Material-Discursive History of Playing Cards in the Late Middle Ages

With the introduction of playing cards, presumably in the 14th century, a new popular model of chance made its first appearance in medieval Europe.1 One of its main characteristics is the deliberate randomization through the manual technique of shuffling and (re-)distribution. The outcome of card games therefore is much more dynamic and unpredictable than of dice games.2 However, the exact origins of playing cards are still a subject of debate, but it is certain that they entered Europe through the Islamic world. An invention in China seems likely,3 which furthermore emphasizes how much the game mechanics depend on a material whose beginnings can also be traced back to this world region: paper. In the light of material history, playing cards therefore are ‘paper toys’ in the broad sense of the term.4
The proposed paper will discuss the relationship between the specific, and at the time new, experience of chance provided for by card games in relation to theirmateriality and the practices of shuffling and (re-)distribution. Contemporary theoretical reflections on the game and the inherent experience of chance will be discussed on the basis of different source materials, foremost Johannes von Rheinfelden’s Ludus cartularum moralisatus (c. 1377), Eustachius Schildo’s Spielteufel (1561), and Girolamo Cardano’s De ludo Aleae liber (1565), together with texts on card tricks, such as Horatio Galasso’s Giochi di Carte Belissimi di Regola (1593). In addition, the material aesthetics of earliest preserved artifacts, such as the Stuttgarter Kartenspiel (c. 1430), will be analyzed in order to demonstrate how material and discursive practices received a material form in these objects.5 Furthermore, some economic aspects will be taken into consideration as well, such as the trade of playing cards on (specialized) medieval markets and the industry of game-production. In this regard, it is revealing that hubs of playing cards were usually found in close proximity to hubs of the paper and printing industry. In fact, playing cards were an important drive for innovations within these industries.
The historical gaming experience will thus be analyzed as a phenomenon emerging from a material-discursive network of human and non-human agents consisting of the various aforementioned aspects as its elements, as a meeting point of entangled histories.6
1 Ulrike Wörner, Die Dame im Spiel. Spielkarten als Indikatoren des Wandels von Geschlechterbildern und Geschlechterverhältnissen an der Schwelle zur Frühen Neuzeit, Münster, New York, München and Berlin: Waxmann, 2010.
2 In fact, this model was so different from dice that it was not possible to mathematicise it before Jacob Bernouilli’s generalized probability theory as laid down in his Ars conjectandi from 1713. The right method for shuffling is a mathematical problem still unsolved, see, e.g., L. M. Trefethen, “How many shuffles to randomize a deck of cards?”, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 456 (2002), pp. 2561–2568.
3 W. H. Wilkinson, “Chinese Origin of Playing Cards”, American Anthropologist, VIII, 1, (1895), 61–78.
4 It might well be that playing cards indeed were the first type of gaming devices made from paper at all. In his sections on games and toys, Nicholas Orme mentions no paper games for children at all (Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 163-198).
5 Arne Jönsson, “Card-playing as a Mirror of Society – On Johannes of Rheinfelden’s Ludus cartularum moralisatus”, in Olle Ferm and Volker Honemann (eds.), Chess and Allegory in the Middle Ages, Stockholm, 2005, 359-372. Arne Jönsson, “Der Ludus cartularum moralisatus des Johannes von Rheinfelden”, in Schweizer Spielkarten, Bd. 1: Die Anfänge im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert, Schaffhausen 1998, 135–147.
6 A recent study on the materiality of games from the area of game studies is Miguel Sicart, Play Matters, Cambridge (Mass.) and London: The MIT Press, 2014. The term of “material-discursivity” I owe to Karen Barad’s writings, esp. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007.


Allison Coudert, University of California at Davis: Jokes and the Eighteenth-Century Unconscious

Jokes about cripples, dwarfs, hunchbacks, amputees, paupers, invalids, stutterers, the blind, the noseless, and the old appear with great frequency in eighteenth-century Jestbooks. These books were a jumble of puns, riddles, bawdy tales, and rude jokes about farting, defecation, and physical and mental abnormality. William Hay, a dwarf, who became a member of parliament, described the volley of taunts and insults his appearance inevitably provoked, one such being, “Don’t abuse the gentleman. “Can’t you see his back is up?” The deformed and disabled were routinely hired and paid to perform some physical task, which, on account of their clumsiness, produced uproarious laughter. The race between old women described in Evelina and Humphrey Clinker was a standard part of the repertoire of upper and middle class levity, as was the “Crutch Dance,” which proved a favorite interlude in variety shows and public theaters. This humor was not the province of the lower classes alone but widely enjoyed in “polite” circles. Swift was often said to have laughed only twice in his life, and one of these was when he read Mrs. Pilkington’s Jests.             T

This paper investigates the sheer malice of much eighteenth-century humor. Swift’s “A Ladies Dressing Room” makes one winch today. Henry Fielding claimed that only the most “diabolical” person laughs at “ugliness, Infirmity, or Poverty,” but his own fiction is full of cruel humor and violent incidents. The question at the heart of this talk is how does this humor square with the cult of sensibility that becomes such a feature in the second half of the eighteenth century?


Melvyn Lloyd Draper, Department of History, American University: Leisure and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century British Spas

As we can see from reading Jane Austen and the novels of other contemporary European authors, the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of a therapeutic spa culture that was immensely attractive to the upper classes and to those with aspirations of joining their ranks. Eighteenth-century spa culture was the equivalent of today’s Mayo clinics, golf resorts, fashion shows, dating services, musical festivals, and, dare one say, brothels rolled into one. A typical day at a spa might have involved an early-morning communal bath followed by a private breakfast, a trip to the pump room to drink the waters, and the more leisurely activities of shopping, promenading and attending fashion shows and musical events during the rest of the day and evening. Spas quickly developed into public spaces for people to socialize and be entertained, but they also lent themselves to political and social scheming, one-up-man-ship, and gossiping.

It is the purpose of this paper to highlight the role that these spas played in creating a new upper class social culture centered on medical health and hygiene. The enthusiasm of eighteenth century elites for these spa resorts reveals a recognition of the need to reassert their power and authority in an urbanizing and transforming world, blending body and beauty in a pageant of therapeutic and invigorating sociability.


Susan Dudash, Arizona State: The Politics of Sloth in Fifteenth-Century France

Christine de Pizan (d. c. 1429), official biographer of King Charles V of France; Jean Le Charlier de Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris from 1395-1429; and Alain Chartier (d. 1430), Secretary to Charles VII, were key figures in late medieval French political and moral thought.  Contemporaries and colleagues, they linked vice to social class in an attempt to address moral, and hence social, and political ills.   Yet, until now, their views of virtue, vice, and their relationship to social status form an important but little-explored element of late medieval French political literature, where the vices, like the duties of society, were largely class-specific. 

The portrayal of sloth, in particular, increased exponentially in the post-plague period, yet, in stark contrast to contemporary labor ordinances aimed at regulating itinerant workers, the sin was, surprisingly, most commonly associated with the aristocracy and its leisurely preoccupations, rather than the lower orders.  In Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othéa (Othea’s Letter to Hector) of 1399-1400, for example, hunting is characterized as an activity for those with the leisure to engage in such pastimes, not for those who need to harden their muscles in anticipation of military conflict—let alone those under siege or actually at war. 

 My approach is interdisciplinary, informing a detailed analysis of a variety of late medieval literary genres:  Christine’s political texts, Gerson’s sermons in French, and Chartier’s Quadrilogue.  By examining the manner in which these authors tied sloth to contemporary social practices, my study seeks to open a window onto the moral and political discourses on social accountability that would develop in the early modern and contemporary eras.



Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, Creighton University: Subjects of the Game: Love, Law, and Leisure in William IX’s “Ben vueill que sapchon li pluzor

In his bawdy song, “Ben vueill que sapchon li pluzor,” William IX, the first troubadour, uses the metaphor of a board game of tablas to represent a sexual encounter. While offering a sense of the crude sensibilities and values of Occitan courtly poets and audiences of the early twelfth century, the imagery and language of the song are also indicative of transformations taking place in the understanding of proper conduct and manners of courtly subjects.  Placed in the context of the centralization and concentration of political authority and the rise of law and legislation during the High Middle Ages, the song sheds light on the functions of leisure—including board games, the composition and performance of songs, and the courting of ladies—in the representation and enabling of new forms of domination. In that situation, even high-ranking lords, such as William, can be seen experiencing the transformative effects of leisure that disempowers individuals and renders them into subjects of higher powers embodied in the law.


John Ghent, Independent Scholar, New Zealand: Wakefield Mysteries Re-Cycled

The Wakefield/Towneley play presents problems of interpretation from author to date, from place to purpose, from structure to staging. Recent scholarship evades many of the problems by concluding the manuscript is a literary compilation meant for the study, not the stage. How convenient this must be for scholars – safe at their desks – but the weight of evidence is against them.

If we approach the text in a different way – as the sum of its parts – and set aside assumptions of staging by wagon train (Chester) or wagon wheel (Southern, Martial Rose et al), we come to terms with the anomalies of the text instead of dismissing them. This paper doesn’t have all the answers, but it asks different questions and offers provocative alternatives


Martina Häcker, University of Siegen: ‘Pray you let us not be laughing-stocks to other men’s humours’: The etymology of terms of ridicule in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries

It is a well-known fact that Shakespeare’s plays are a rich source for Elizabethan derogatory terms. The focus of this paper is the subcategory of derogatory terms which were used for  people who were publicly ridiculed. A frequent term in Shakespeare’s time are compounds with stock (e.g. laughing-stock, pointing-stock, and jesting stock), of which laughing-stock is still used in contemporary English.

The OED derives these terms in its entry stock n.1 and adj. A. VII. 59  from the basic meaning ‘trunk or stem’ (A.I.1.a) , assuming that the  compounds were formed in ‘imitation of compounds like leaning-stock’ (which denotes a support in a literal and figurative sense). The editors further assume that the compounds contain an element of the sense which is glossed as ‘As the type of what is lifeless, motionless, or void of sensation. Hence, a senseless or stupid person’ (A.I.1c), as the referents of these terms are ‘treated as incapable of feeling’.  A closer look at the compounds and their context in the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries suggests a different path of derivation: from ‘trunk or stem’ (A 1.1a) via the now obsolete ‘a post, stake’  (AI. 1.6) and ‘an obsolete instrument of punishment’ (A I.1.8) to the person who suffers the punishment (A VII.59).

The paper argues that the specific meaning listed under A.VII.59,  which ‘designate[s] a person as the habitual object of some kind of contemptuous or unpleasant treatment’, derives from the setting of the punishment in a public place and the fact that the people thus punished provided public entertainment in the form of mockery. The paper supports this argument by taking a closer look at the context in which this term occurs in literature and pictures of people in the stocks.




Sharon Diane King, UCLA: “J’ai tiré si près / que je touche au but”: Ludic Roots, Spiritual Play in Marguerite de Navarre’s L’Inquisiteur

The theological background of many of Queen Marguerite de Navarre’s plays has been well scrutinized, especially in light of her deep connection to early Protestant theologians and authors (Lefèvre d’Étaples, Briçonnet, Marot, Bonaventure des Périers). Yet there has been relatively little exploration of the games and performative / ludic associations presented in her unique, multitonal farce L’Inquisiteur. This study will examine the real-life games and play of the children in the farce, who stand in opposition to the cruel, overpowering figure of The Grand Inquisitor, and trace the possible spiritual and cultural symbolism of their play. I will further argue that the figure of the Inquisitor both emulates and contrasts with the tradition of Raging Herod in French (and other) dramatic literature of the medieval and Renaissance periods and within Marguerite’s own theatrical corpus. Similarly, the children, whose joyous play steers the Inquisitor towards repentance, both resonate with the tradition of the Holy Innocents (also evoked in her biblical plays) and serve as foils for the wastrels of medieval French theatre whose love for frivolous games seals their doom (i.e., Les Enfants de maintenant).



Jiří Koten, University of Usti na Labem: Two types of Renaissance narratives for pleasure and leisure in the court and in the market town

When assessing the state of Czech narrative literature at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, Czech medieval studies usually tend toward a rather sharp division between an “older” and “more modern” type of popular literature. While the older type primarily drew from the tradition of chivalric narratives (the novel about Alexander the Great, The Chronicle of Stilfrid, The Chronicle of Bruncvík, and The Trojan Chronicle), the newer type (often rather uncritically linked to the Renaissance) explored topics that stood in considerable contrast to chivalric literature. Undoubtedly the themes of the new stories would have been deemed low or trivial in the previous period; on the other hand, those subjects were much more closely connected to contemporaneous life.

The proposed paper attempts to reexamine the existing findings. I will analyse two examples of narrative prose from different social milieus at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries: 1) translations of 10 novellas from Boccaccio’s Decameron, created around 1490 by Hynek of Poděbrady (Heinrich der Jüngere von Münsterberg) from Arigo’s German version. Hynek, the Czech King Jiří of Kunštát and Poděbrady’s son, selected mostly stories with explicit erotic themes, which he partly relocated to a Czech setting, and added his own short story about Lady Salomena. 2) Franta’s Rights from 1518, a parody of guild rules with embedded stories, which was related to German fool’s literature and which contrasted contemporaneous conventions with life values of enjoying earthly pleasures and leisure.

In my analysis I will use methods of contemporary narratology. I will focus primarily on specific features of narration in which expressions of so-called tellability can be observed. Tellability is a set of qualities that ensure the narrative’s success with its audience. I will examine texts of popular literature created by the most privileged social strata as a leisure activity as well as those created in urban environments for amusement and passing time of ordinary townspeople and artisans. Both texts show similarities in the use of a conspicuous narrator and obvious joy from humorous narration. The narrator of Hynek’s Boccaccian novellas sometimes self-styles as a participating character, who appreciates the beauty and attractivity of women. In the story about Lady Salomena he even reproaches the boring husband that prefers a feast to lovemaking as a leisure activity and justifies women’s infidelity. Using parody and overstatement, the narrator of Franta’s Rights speaks against all duties. He recommends his readers to indulge in excessive drinking, sleep, and sloth. Both types of narration share a positive image of the value of human joy, relaxation, and mirth.


William Mahan, University of California, Davis: Peregrine Pleasures: The Sport of Falconry and Self-Identity in German Medieval Tales


Among the oldest sports known to man,1 falconry remained popular through the 17th century. In Les livres du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio (1354–1376, attributed to Henri de Ferrières, ‘King Modus proclaims falconry “the noblest of sports,” a “pleasure” conferred on man by God, who “willed that the birds and beasts should be obedient to him!” Though open to all classes, certain birds were reserved for the nobility. As with grafted plants and other ‘natural’ décor, elegant, tamed animals were an extension of courtly entertainment and grandeur. Falconers’ employment by the wealthy to train them in falconry and capture birds shows that this leisure pastime had value as a means of social, political and economic interaction between nobles. Each knight was as proud of his falcon as he was of his sword, bishops brought falcons to church, and even women took hawks or falcons to social gatherings with them.2 Flemish tapestries from the 15th century depict “hawking parties,” confirming that socialization was also based on falconry itself. More socially acceptable for women than other forms of hunting, falconry allowed for women’s participation in a more traditionally masculine pastime. The patience required to learn the skill in general encouraged solitude or intimate group settings, fostered friendships, and allowed time for potential self-reflection – in addition to bonding with one’s bird.

The relationship between culture and nature in German literature of the High Middle Ages fluctuates between a power struggle and harmonious cohabitation.3 For women and knights who tame a falcon, the process is coupled with identity exploration. The falconry motif echoes a larger relationship between man and beast.  In Hartmann von Aue’s Iwein, Iwein earns the name “Iwein with the Lion,” which is an identity achieved through friendship with an animal.4  In some narratives, the falcon (or lion, etc.) serves as the only companion during quests or Aventiure (also a means of entertainment and prevention of monotony). Taming an animal also becomes a taming of the self – the creatures resist taming, but are open to friendship. The knight or lady finds themselves in a liminal space of nature that transcends courtly boundaries, while also bringing the creature nearer to the courtly realm of domestication. While falconers did not historically take up this activity for exploration of the self, but, rather, for social and economic reasons, the tamed falcon nonetheless came to symbolize taming of the self in the German texts I explore. In the fictional realm, animal taming/friendship serves as a means to deconstruct boundaries between culture and nature and to explore liminal identities. Van Den Abeele cites its introduction to the western world in the 5th century with the Germanic invasions, though it dates back much farther). Van Den Abeele, Baudouin (2014). Falconry. Oxford University Press.

  1. cf. Forsyth, William H. (1944). The Noblest of Sports: Falconry in the Middle Ages.The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 9 (May, 1944), pp. 253-259

  2. According to Bruno Quast, as described in his lectures at Wilhelms Westfällische Universität, 2015.


Paul Milliman, University of Arizona:  A Natural History of Medieval Pleasure and Leisure


Medieval natural histories (broadly speaking, as expressed in written, visual, and material cultures) were often intended to be both educational and entertaining.  This dual role is made explicit in the titles associated with some of these works, like the early thirteenth-century Otia Imperialia by Gervase of Tilbury.  These works explore, in a variety of media, topics related to medieval pleasure and leisure, and they could also be consumed as objects of pleasure and leisure by medieval readers, listeners, viewers, etc.  Therefore, the purpose of my talk is twofold.  First I will explore medieval attitudes to pleasure and leisure as depicted in natural histories.  Then I will explore how we can use these natural histories to engage our students in an entertaining and educational exploration of a variety of medieval topics.  That these works can also be both educational and entertaining for modern audiences and therefore useful for teaching our students about life in the Middle Ages was demonstrated by Urban Tigner Holmes, Jr. almost 70 years ago in Daily Living in the Twelfth Century: Based on the Observations of Alexander Neckam in London and Paris (Madison and London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1952).  I hope to capture something of the playfulness both of this work and of the medieval natural histories in my talk.


Kevin and Brent Moberly, Old Dominion University: Nine Men’s Medievalism: The Impossibilities of a Half-Forgotten Game’s Ludic Past


In 1991, Sierra Entertainment released the second (and last) installment of its short-lived Conquest series of medieval-themed computer games, Conquest of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood. Sierra’s Legend of Robin Hood was the third mass-market game released that year featuring Robin Hood—a moment of ludic synchronicity motivated by a desire to capitalize on the release of the 1991 feature film, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Yet, while the other two games explicitly align themselves with the film, Sierra’s title promises players an experience that is at once immersive, inspiring, and, above all else, authentic. As the back cover of its box makes clear, the game employs the “brilliant palette of an illuminated medieval manuscript” to capture the “splendor of 12th century England” and features an “original soundtrack based on medieval music styles, and using the sounds of period instruments.” More significantly, The Legend of Robin Hood promises players a chance to test their heroic inclinations against a series of medievally-inspired arcade challenges, including an “authentic medieval board game, 9 Men’s Morris.”


The Legend of Robin Hood, in short, makes the case for its value as a leisure product in part by the degree to which it is able to reproduce as authentic not the cinematic experience of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, but the actual (which is to say, the literary) experience of Robin Hood as it is mediated through and validated by presumably genuine representations of medieval play. In doing so, the game’s marketing materials explicitly recall the way that Joseph Strutt justifies his 1801 treatise on medieval games, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. Interested in remedying foreign misrepresentations about the “true state” of the English character, Strutt offers his readers an exhaustive account of the “rural and domestic recreations, May games, mummeries, pageants, processions, and pompous spectacles” of medieval England, interspersed (as in Sierra’s game) with quasi-historical illustrations and “reproductions based on ancient paintings in which are represented the most popular diversions.” Accordingly, Strutt’s compendium offers readers a chance to validate their national heritage through a careful, curated retrospective of a distinctly English ludic past.


The irony, of course, is that 9 Men’s Morris was not and never was an “authentic medieval board game.” Although widely enjoyed during the Middle Ages, archaeological evidence suggests that it significantly predates the period. Much of the same can be said about many of the games Strutt catalogs. Whether or not they were played during the Middle Ages, none are authentically medieval in the sense that, as Umberto Eco reminds us, the medieval is a designation often applied after the fact, one that only has meaning in relationship to its imagined difference from the modern. If these games appear medieval, then, it is because they have been made to appear medieval. Accordingly, what they represent is not the Middle Ages, but the underlying praxis of medievalization—the textual and, in Strutt’s case, belletristic logic through which the past is authentically subordinated to the needs of the present.


Interested in how this textual logic plays out in a variety of historical and popular accounts of medieval games and play, our paper uses the specific example of 9 Men’s Morris to interrogate the sometimes-fraught process through which games are made medieval. In doing so, it speaks to the larger challenges facing scholars as we attempt to simultaneously capitalize on and distance ourselves from the emergence of games and gaming as a mass-market phenomenon.



Alan Murray, University of Leeds, ‘He who would do deeds of chivalry must travel through many lands’: Ulrich von Liechtenstein and the Development of the Joust

Tournaments originated as mass combats which gave knights the chance to practice the skills and manoeuvres that were essential to their success in battle. Over time, however, different forms of the tournament developed which came to place greater emphasis on the prowess of the individual combatant as well as on the entertainment value for patrons and spectators, so that by the end of the Middle Ages tournaments had become more of a chivalric entertainment than practice for war. Much of what we know about the practice of tournaments in the south-eastern parts of the Holy Roman empire in the thirteenth century derives from the literary work of the Styrian knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein (d. 1275). He is best known for his composition of a unique autobiographical poem entitled Frauendienst (‘Service of Ladies’). Most research on this romance has concentrated on its love themes and the many interpolated specimens of Minnesang, dance songs and letters in both prose and verse, yet it is just as much concerned with the practice of tournaments; the detailed descriptions of these events show the tournament evolving into quite diverse forms. These include the mass tourney, the joust, the foreis or individual challenge, but the most innovative are two events lasting several weeks: the Venusfahrt (Venus Journey) and the Artusfahrt (Arthurian Journey). While much of Frauendienst is undoubtedly fictional, the detail of tournaments had to be credible, and can be taken as evidence of changing practices.


This paper investigates the two journeys undertaken by Ulrich in the guise of the goddess Venus and of King Arthur respectively, in which he challenged all comers to joust for the honour and love of ladies. While each one involved a series of individual combats, the journeys were conceived as unitary events with a single framing literary theme. They were also lengthy, each lasting several weeks, and traversing diverse territories, in the first case from Venice to Vienna, in the second from Carinthia to the frontier of Austria and Bohemia. The emphasis on spectacle and social bonding during these two journeys set them apart from the existing common forms of mass tourney and individual jousts. It is argued that Ulrich had invented a completely new form of tournament, the chivalric journey. While Ulrich’s new form was not emulated beyond his own network, several of its features anticipate the elaborate pas d’armes which developed in Burgundy and northern France over a century later. The character of his challenges, the chivalric identities adopted by Ulrich and his opponents, and the elaborate staging clearly show how his new form was inspired by the most influential romance literature of his time. Above all, it is the central element of the lengthy quest or journey which provides a direct link with the works of Wolfram von Eschenbach, who declares in his epic Parzival (499,9-10): swer schildes ambet üeben wil, / der muoz durchstrîchen lande vil (‘he who would do deeds of chivalry / must travel through many lands’).


Daniel F. Pigg, The University of Tennessee at Martin: Langland’s Attitudes Toward Play, Leisure and Pastime: A Realignment of Priorities

When the topic of play, leisure, pastime, and pleasure arise in Langland’s Piers Plowman, a fourteenth-century English poem written in multiple versions, the immediate thought is that the poem holds a dark view toward them. In the “Prologue” readers are met with comments about those who waste what others provide through their labor—a labor which is seldom interrupted by anything resembling play or leisure. The medieval world is one of the music of pleasure provided by minstrels, but in Langland’s poem, such merriment is seen as the product of those who juggle words and are called the children of Judas. Games often lead to excess and the loss of perspective by those who frequent taverns. Gluttony is the sin proposed to describe the world orchestrated around conspicuous consumption, while poverty reigns in the larger society. On the surface, all of these images of play, gaming, leisure, and pleasure seem out of balance with a world on the brink of collapse, at least according to Langland’s apocalyptic worldview. Each of these leisure activities will be situated in historical context and with reference to popular-based literature.

            This paper asserts, however, that such a quick characterization of Langland’s vision involving play, leisure, and merriment misses the point in a poem where images of these activities are apparent. Instead, this paper proposes to demonstrate that Langland’s attitude toward play, music, merriment, and leisure activities actually can be fitted to the needs of the individual so as long as the larger social needs are met. Even the knight on the half acre still pursues his hunting, and he does not engage in the physical act of plowing. Langland’s world of play and action is very much rooted in the larger concepts of “treuthe,” which he understands to underlie the fabric of the social order. It is a society in balance            Leisure, play, music, and games do indeed have a place, but Langland’s vision seems to concentrate most on those who do not find that balance that is necessary for the social order. While Langland may be concerned with word jugglers, as Mary Davlin noted over two decades ago, Langland himself is involved in word place to achieve meaning to open up the possibility of understanding.

            Rightly understood, Langland’s Piers Plowman is about a re-visioning of the world, and for Langland, part of that revision involves more helpful play and leisure.


Marilyn Sandidge, Professor Emerita of English, Westfield State University: The Games Giants Play


Games as organized social ritual do not play a major role in medieval narratives that feature giants. In fact, games almost never appear. The one real example I have found of giants playing a sports game is the tennis match Sir Gawain is invited to play with the seventeen giants under the command of the King of Man in The Turke and Sir Gawain (I would welcome hearing of any others).  Given the usual behavior of giants, it is understandable to find almost no carefully structured games with rules and referees in their worlds. Physical, verbal, and intellectual contests abound in these narratives as King Arthur, for example, proves his kingly prowess by striking the giant at St. Michel above his eye, which eventually leads to streaming blood blinding the giant long enough for Arthur to hack him up. Elsewhere Gawain famously enters into a series of bonds of oath to exchange, first of all, blows with the giant known as the Green Knight, but this contest is not a sports game or even a demonstration of physical strength; instead it is a test of Gawain’s character. The Green Knight’s transformation during the tale into the very civilized Lord Bertilak mirrors the transformation in Gawain suggested at the end from a seriously flawed narcissist, thus a monstrous creature, into at least a more self-aware human being. 


Why the game of tennis, therefore–with its carefully defined rules that substitute striking a ball for striking an enemy, not to mention a referee–in The Turke? Although one theory argues that athletic contests and sports limit or prevent violence by serving as substitutions for pent-up aggression within groups, another views physical competition at athletic events as a catalyst for dangerous confrontations and erratic behavior (Lorenz, Ibrahim). If we look at the series of challenges Gawain faces on the Isle of Man, the “adventures” he must undertake progress from playing a game of tennis, to lifting a massive chimney, to throwing a giant into a cauldron of boiling lead, none of which he can accomplish on his own by the way. The movement is from a carefully regulated sports activity played by royals and clergymen, to a crude feat of brute strength, to a barbarous act of murder with undertones of hell. The transformation from civilized behavior to evil destruction seems inevitable as the King of Man’s level of frustration skyrockets.  This sudden transfiguration may be said to illustrate the dual nature of medieval heroes, at once operating in a legitimate system of power while also crushing its veneer to expose the destructive world of the monstrous giant.


Found in the Percy Folio MS dating from around 1650, the poem itself seems to have been written around 1500. Although badly damaged with parts missing from every page in the manuscript, the passages outlining the plot and the specific nature of the three challenges are clear.




Scott Taylor:  Pima Community College, Tucson, AZ:  Jeux Interdits: The Rationale and Limits of Clerical and Lay Efforts to Enjoin “Scurrilia Solatia”

Throughout the Middle Ages, accelerating during the twelfth century, but continuing in various contexts well into the Frühneuzeit and occasionally beyond, prelates and princes prohibited various games ranging from chess to soccer, bowls and shuffleboard altogether or restricted their pursuit to certain groups and specified conditions or circumstances.  Some scholars such as Le Goff have posited the economic explanation that in expanding and increasingly monetary economies, ecclesiastical authorities feared that the populace would divert their largesse from pious endowments to recreation and entertainment.  Robert Bubczyk, sympathetic with Le Goff’s view, seems to suggest that the economic impetus could be extended as well to secular authorities.  This paper suggests to the contrary that a fair reading of the texts condemning chess and other games, even where aleas are mentioned, reveals that the underlying hostility is less toward gambling than toward scurrilia solatia, silly or idle recreations.  It is not so much that they are immoral per se, as that they are amoral distractions from the true Christian vocation, whether one be cleric or layman.  In some respects, the arguments of clerics such as Bernard against gaming resemble their arguments and those of writers such as Andreas Capellanus in the De Reprobatione against Courtly Love, itself perhaps the greatest “game” of the Middle Ages, and which in the romans of authors such as Chrétien de Troyes was frequently interwoven with chess and other games. While secular rulers were concerned for more mundane implications of diversions – for example, Edward IV and Henry VIII banned bowls and shuffleboard for commoners and particularly the soldiery because they were too “distracting” from the useful pursuit of archery – they, like the Church, were in some respects less concerned with what their subjects did with their money, as Le Goff posits, than they were with what they did with their time. The failure, at least in the longue durée, of such attempts to control recreational activities suggests that in expanding monetary-commodity economies, despite the Western hostility that Le Goff identifies toward otium, except perhaps among the aristocracy, contrary to earlier shibboleths, there was a corresponding development among an expanding pool of subjects of what could be called prototypical “leisure time” subject to diminishing control by Church or State.


David Tomíček, John Evangelista Purkyne University, Czech Republic: Leisure Time, Earthly Pleasures and Health Risks in the Mirror of Medieval and Early Modern-Time Dietetic Rules


Medieval and early modern medical treatises paid attention to the activities linked with earthly pleasures especially in the context of dietetic rules. In particular, these were subjects such as “food and drink,” “exercise and rest,” ”sleep and wakefulness,” “secretion and excretion,” and “mental affections.” However, this way of experiencing was in direct contradiction to the elementary dietetic postulate of the given era which first and foremost urged moderation and restraint. This fact can be well demonstrated by feasts where the participants usually eagerly endeavored to eat and drink their fill while the contemporary medical literature recommended abstemious consummation. In the case of sexual activities, the desired experience was intense pleasure, and here too the contemporary medical opinion was conditioned by the thesis on retaining harmony between bodily humors. Medical literature held a similarly circumspect standpoint toward social entertainment linked with laughter and gaiety. The present contribution therefore aims to shed light on the real relationship between the dietetic discourse of pre-modern society and leisure activities and earthly pleasures.



Warren Tormey, Middle Tennessee State University“Envisioning Monastic Recreations in the Anglo-Saxon Patristic Tradition”


Can patristic literature shed light on the character of monastic recreation within the Anglo-Saxon tradition? To begin, the sixth century Rule of St. Benedict disparages recreation and amusement, such that its condemnations also imply the approved recreations available to those in orders. According to Benedictine mandates, the monastic space is one where satisfaction and purpose was to be found in order, structure, ritual, and routine. The fourth chapter of this work details the “tools of our spiritual craft,” or qualities and attributes that define the duties and expectations of individual monk, including prohibitions on excessive pleasure and laughter, and exhortations toward humility, charity, self-denial, contemplation, and prayer. Within that structure, authors of Anglo-Saxon Saint’s Lives, Sermons, and other patristic narratives, all highly stylized and rhetorically structured, are likewise prone to envision monastic discipline and spiritual education as duties cheerfully undertaken, and to depict recreations judged as self-serving or indulgent in a condemnatory light. Bede’s descriptions of an “unworthy” blacksmith, detailed in his Ecclesiastical History, therefor imply that the brother took to his craft with a suspicious degree of interest that stood at variance with routine monastic labor.

In proper proportion, however, activities both practical and spiritual were encouraged and seen to conjoin service and hints of recreation. The Hortus Conclusus, or enclosed garden, a common space in warmer climates for individual monks to practice the virtues of care, cultivation, and patience, receives scant mention in specifically Anglo-Saxon contexts. Meanwhile, in his Life of Ceolfrid Bede portrays his mentor Ceolfrid, then a beginning monk, readily accepting the duties of the monastery baker and administrator of monastic structure alongside his more ritualistic priestly duties. In of Saint Guthlac, the eighth century monastic author Felix celebrates the young monk’s zealous self-instruction in divine discipline and devoted self-teaching of psalms, hymns, canticles, prayers, etc. Willibald’s Life of St. Boniface, composed after the Saint’s death in 768, likewise valorizes his precocious spirituality and healing capacities, evident from a young age, as precursors for the life of Godly service shown in his mature years. In his Life of St. Cuthbert, Bede also highlights the striking devotion of the young monk as revealed in his intuitive medical skills, which facilitate self-healing, and his ability to mitigate harsh weather conditions through the power of prayer. Later, Bede provides detailed accounts which explain Cuthbert’s noteworthy ability to banish devils from his immediate vicinity, a narrative pattern also seen in select homilies and throughout the Saint’s Lives of Aelfric.

Beginning with a consideration of these pre-Conquest sources, this essay will attempt to discern attitudes toward amusement and recreation within Anglo-Saxon contexts, and will discuss specific activities that passed for “sanctioned” amusement within monastic spaces. Even so, literary evidence implies that within the order of monastic structure we find evidence not only of the engagement of monastic audiences with magical tales of Christian heroism, but also that the tales themselves, expressing the dichotomizing character of Anglo-Saxon hagiography, also express a veiled attraction toward accounts of demonic spaces and transgressions. Recognizing this contradiction, this essay will then compare these Anglo-Saxon attitudes toward recreation and amusement with select post-Conquest patristic works, where conceptions of sin and transgression, having matured and diversified according to changing social and economic factors, have likewise transformed. The late twelfth century monastic writer Adam of Eynsham, whose Visio reflects this change in its depictions of his hero’s journey through purgatory, captures these transformed notions of sin and transgression. His narrative depicts a more detailed portrait of monastic daily ritual and recreation within a broader population of monastic personalities, whose collective example reflects a range of transgressions and misbehaviors more rooted in monetary exchanges and transactions. This comparison of pre-and post-Conquest patristic narratives will, I hope to show, reflect a change in attitudes—if not a growing tolerance toward—recreation and amusement in monastic environs as shaped by evolving economic circumstances.  



Alex Ukropen, University of New Mexico: Didactic Functions of Play in Aldhelm’s Enigmata

Though Aldhelm’s Enigmata certainly owes its inspiration to the collection of 100 riddles of Symphosius, it also draws upon an Anglo-Saxon penchant for word play, ultimately utilizing a conventional method of play to serve an edifying purpose. Though the only extant Old English riddles are written in the Exeter book during the tenth century, certain Germanic myths and conventions of Old English poetry convey a sense that word play was a popular theme in the vernacular long before. While descriptions of other games are sparse in Old English and Anglo-Latin texts, as there are a few mentions of a board game called tæfl, the admonishing of children’s games in a few Saint’s Lives, and of course the athletic contest between Beowulf and Breca, riddles seem to serve as a form of play that was not only accepted by the ecclesiastical body, but repurposed and transmogrified to suit the church’s needs. Where Old English riddles of the Exeter book might use Aldhelm as a source in some entries, they function as a different mode of play where they are often humorous and even bawdy at times. Still, like Aldhelm’s Enigmata, these riddles portray their subjects in ways that imply new perspectives to it, guiding the reader to understand the answer on a deeper level. While Aldhelm’s riddles follow this familiar formula, his work entices readers to not only play, but also to learn Latin and, with his longest, final riddle, “Creatura,” ruminate on Christian topics. The emulation of Aldhelm’s works by later authors attributes to the popularity and effectiveness of these riddles.


Thomas Willard, University of Arizona: ‘His usuall Retyrement’: Leisure and Duty in the Early Writing of Henry Vaughan

For young men coming of age in the British isles during the 1640s, the long series of civil wars between the forces of Parliament and the king marked an end to what books of conduct called “the planned life.” For Henry Vaughan (ca. 1621-1695), the oldest son of a long established family in the Welsh county of Brecon, the outbreak of war in 1642 meant the end of his legal studies in London as well as his time in taverns where young poets gathered. Called home by his father, he considered that his formal education was ended, leaving no prospects ahead of him. He clerked briefly for a local judge and fought for the king in at least one battle, but he spent most of his time with poetry and humane letters (literarum humaniorum). Like many others of his generation, and especially those who sided with the royalist cause, he saw life in terms of the ancient distinction between virtuous action (negotium) and leisurely retirement (otium), along with the possibility of carrying on public duty within private life.


Vaughan expressed this tension in his first book of poetry (1645), where he wrote about the common theme of “retirement” from ordinary duties. He devoted half the volume to his translation of Juvenal’s tenth satire, which Samuel Johnson later imitated in “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Vaughan considered that Juvenal “had as much true Passion, for the infirmities of that [Roman] state, as we should have Pitty, to the distractions of our owne.” He later found work as a physician and consolation in religious devotion and poetry, but he wrote from a strictly secular perspective before that, as a single young man seeking companionship and simple pleasures in a deeply divided world. This paper will consider how Classical conceptions of the well-lived life affected social mores and literary production in early modern Britain.