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Manuscript Exhibition Examines Aspects of Play in Medieval Society
"Playing Dice", Book of Hours (Hours of Jean de Mauléon) France (Tours?), ca. 1524m, parchment, acquired by Henry Walters, 1903 (W. 449, fol. 2v)

BALTIMORE, MD.- We are all familiar with praying monks, but playing monks? A Book of Hours from Flanders finds them deep in a game of “Blind Man’s Bluff,” while on the opposite page peasant boys enjoy a rigorous game of hockey. Such delightful images of play are unexpectedly ubiquitous in medieval manuscripts. Neither stodgy nor perpetually pious, medieval people found time for amusement in the margins of their lives and their manuscripts. Surprisingly, playful images are most often found in religious books, where artists tended to populate the margins with humorous, even outrageous or irreverent imagery. The medieval mind loved juxtaposing the profound and the frivolous. Sometimes the artist’s playfulness was meant for the most serious ends, intended to help one remember a prayer or the Gospels. But often the artists were simply having fun, creating delightfully lighthearted images for the entertainment of the reader.

This exhibition at the Walters Art Museum looks at many different aspects of medieval play, including board games, sports, free play, visual ciphers and even games of love. Drawn entirely from the Walters’ own stellar collection, the exhibition features 26 manuscripts, original medieval game pieces and a 13th century toy soldier. In the pages of these books, knights battle with dice instead of swords, children shirk their winter duties to lob snowballs at each other, monkeys dance gleefully to “Ring-Around-a-Rosy,” and damsels forget their distress and go out for an afternoon of butterfly hunting. Through these images, this exhibition encourages visitors of all ages to explore a sense of whimsy and fun that is uniquely medieval, yet remarkably relevant to us today.

Nothing is quite so satisfying as winning a game of chess against a worthy opponent or solving a puzzle on your own through patience and mental prowess. This was just as true a thousand years ago as it is today, and the importance of these games to medieval people is evident from the fact that they chose to spend time and money illustrating them. Not only were the images of people playing games costly, but the game pieces themselves could be intricate works of art made from precious materials. However, while these objects could be expensive, they did not have to be—the beggar shown playing dice clearly knows the game, and the playing cards displayed here are printed on paper and would have been relatively inexpensive. Games were, and still are, something to be enjoyed by all: through strategy and luck, anyone can be victorious.

Huzzah! Ah, the fanfare of the joust, the whiz of arrows in an archery contest, the cheers as the batter rounds the bases. . . Jousting might be the sport most often associated with the Middle Ages, but many of our modern sports, such as baseball and hockey, have their roots in this period as well. Sometimes played purely for pleasure, sports could also be a way of peacefully settling differences or proving one’s worthiness. Sports such as archery, however, had a very serious undertone, for the playing field was often preparation for the battlefield. Yet whatever the underlying reason for playing them, medieval competitive sports, much like our own today, offered an exciting blend of mental skill and physical prowess that was enjoyed by players and spectators alike.

During the medieval period, when most people did not have the luxury of a carefree childhood, the opportunity to play was not taken for granted. Medieval artists celebrated these activities in their work, and their images are full of whimsy, perhaps even nostalgia. Were they drawing upon their own childhood memories? The pure joy of climbing a tree or having a snowball fight with friends after a heavy winter storm is universal and timeless. The very act of these artists creating such images was in its own right playful, and we can only imagine the delight they took in illustrating these charming scenes.

Visual and Intellectual Games
Learning can be fun, or so we are often told. During the Middle Ages, even the most serious subject could be turned into something of a game. Often visual riddles and word play were used as tools to help one contemplate greater truths or to aid the memory. Mnemonic devices, images and texts that help one remember something, were especially popular during the later medieval period. These could be used for secular purposes, such as teaching children the alphabet, or for religious enlightenment—for instance, helping the faithful memorize important prayers and biblical texts. Other types of imagery that had to be deciphered were used purely for entertainment, such as illustrated proverbs that were meant to guide you to recognize the saying they depicted. The works shown here demonstrate the wide range of textual and visual codes created by, and for, the medieval mind.

Games of Love
All’s fair in love and . . . chess? Love is a game—perhaps the game with the highest stakes of all. The idea of “winning” someone’s heart implies competition and strategy. In the medieval era, images of men and women playing games were often metaphors for games of the heart. Depictions of courtship rituals and flirtation often convey a sense of playfulness, both among the people depicted and by the artist who is representing them. From the lovers playing footsies during their backgammon game in the “Games” case in this exhibition to the couple here sneaking some snuggling during a gondola ride, medieval artists play with the viewer, much as lovers play with one another’s heart.

Walters Art Museum | Manuscript Exhibition | Medieval Society |

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