The Play’s the Thing

Brueghel’s Children Games (1559), now at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

In his painting, Children’s Games (1559), Flemish artist Peter Bruegel the Elder, famous for his works depicting the popular, ludic world of peasants, illustrated at least eighty different games that children played during the sixteenth century. Most of the games Bruegel portrayed in the picture involve toys and physical games, such as dice, knucklebones, dolls, marbles, balls, and hoops. However, many of the games depicted in the picture were not objects, but rather types of mental games, or role-playing activities, including mock sacraments (wedding, baptism, and Holy Mass), “Dethroning the King,” and, a personal favorite, “the Pope’s Seat” (wherein youths hoisted one of their comrade up on their shoulders, perhaps crowning him as a mock pontiff). Bruegel’s catalogue of children’s toys, although executed for moral reasons, is the pictorial equivalent of the French writer Rabelais’s listing of 217 games, most of them likewise involving mind games and mimicry, in his Gargantua, written some fifteen years before.

Both Bruegel and Rabelais, therefore, shared a broad conception of what games and gaming objects were. As can be seen with its subtitle, Playthings in Early Modernity: Party Games, Word Games, Mind Games, the inaugural tome of the Medieval Institute Press’s series “Ludic Cultures, 1100-1700,” similarly formulates a far-reaching and diverse definition of play and games. In her introduction to the volume, Alison Levy, the editor, uses the term “plaything” to encompass all sorts of objects, not only the more familiar and timeless board games, dice, and decks of cards but also less tangible things such as tricks and rumors. People, too, are included in this expansive definition since counts players, whether gamblers, dinner guests, or dance partners as playthings, each a theme from the fifteen essays in the volume.

The volume draws inspiration from the work of the cultural historian, Johan Huizinga, known mostly for his masterpiece, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1919), a book that opened the doors to the serious study of late medieval culture that scholars of his generation had passed over in favor of political and diplomatic history. However, Playthings in Early Modernity draws on his more philosophical work, Homo Ludens (1938) in which Huizinga found elements of play in every aspect of human society (although he focused mostly on the West), including areas not normally associated with play such as war, law, and philosophy. Levy alludes to Huizinga’s influence when she writes that play was more than just “a pastime, a leisurely pursuit, but also a pivotal way of life, a strategic psychosocial endeavor.”

Giuseppe Maria Mitelli’s print, Il Giocatore (Bologna, 1675)

The fifteen essays in the volume expand on the approach in Levy’s introduction. They range temporally from the fourteen to the eighteen century, and span the globe from the Iberian Peninsula to Vijayangara Empire in India. Moreover, they develop her idea of the plaything. Several of the essays investigate the materiality of games— the geographical depictions on Elizabethan playing cards, the ambiguous morality of the games sheets of seventeenth-century Bolognese artist, Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, and the spatial memorization necessary to play many of the games found in Ascanio de’ Mori’s Giuoco piacevole (1575).  Other essays focus on the mental aspect of games that often involve trickery and deceit. In this vein there are essays on the practical joke that Machiavelli and his friend Francesco Guicciardini played on his hapless host in the small Emilian town of Carpi and the game of cat and mouse that crypto-Jews (conversos) played against their captors in the prisons of the Spanish Inquisition at Cuenca.

The collection, as a whole, breaks new ground by exploring the concept of plaything and by extending it to different modes of play, different times, and different places. Each of the essays emphasized the materiality of games, whether physical or mental. However, they never lose sight that playthings involved the performance of human actors.


John M. Hunt, Utah Valley University and Villa I Tatti

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