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In the time before Twister, an age ahead of Apples to Apples, the party games of medieval social gatherings were highly active, often physically demanding endeavors. You may even say some were sadistic, such as Hot Cockles, which involved people taking turns hitting an individual who, blindfolded, had to guess the identity of their striker to emerge victorious.
In 1801, the British engraver and writer Joseph Strutt published a compendium to showcase some of the bizarre, bygone pastimes of his country. Recognized by some as “the first major scholarly effort in English to chronicle games and sports,” Glig-Gamena Angel-Deod, Or, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England proved popular at the time and was released in several editions. A sale being held on Wednesday by Swann Auction Galleries presents a timely opportunity to revisit a copy of the first edition, which stands out among the lots of maps, atlases, and color plate books for its absurd illustrations.
The games were rendered by Strutt, who took pains to create 39 hand-colored, engraved plates of these activities. Each entry includes a set of lengthy instructions for play as well as poems inspired by the games. Some inclusions are expected, such as hunting, hawking, archery, jousting, and theatrical “mummeries,” also known as mummers’ plays; others are more unusual, including Strutt’s examples of Hot Cockles. One variation of the painful pastime features a woman with her face buried in another’s lap as her tittering friends slap her head; another is even more mysterious, depicting an individual who totes a chicken while balanced on a stick propped up by two players. Another man trails the peculiar procession, ominously brandishing a stick.
“Much of what Strutt describes and illustrates in the book he has taken from studying medieval paintings or manuscripts, so each of the scenes is based in some way on historical play,” Caleb Kiffer, a specialist at Swann told Hyperallergic. “Medieval life seemed strange to people in the 19th century, just like it does now. Strutt must have been equally amused, intrigued, and perplexed by some of the bizarre pastimes he discovered and documented.” A trio of activities involving buckets of water, candles, poles, and planks certainly left him flummoxed: Strutt simply labeled them “Games unknown.”
While his tome was likely not written as a manual, it’s possible that some of Strutt’s readers read his instructions and actually attempted to play these games. But those like Hot Cockles and Hoodman’s Blind, a precursor of Blindman’s Bluff — except the poor blindman received repeated blows as he stumbled around — don’t seem particularly appealing considering the pain involved. Pain, however, doesn’t always have to be agonizing, especially when received in a group setting.
“Much of what constituted a ‘game,’ at least for adults, was to give people a chance to flirt and interact in a strict society,” Kiffer said, noting that even Jean-Honoré Fragonard, painter of 18th-century elites’ not-so-innocent, giggle-inducing interactions, devoted a canvas to a lazy afternoon spent playing Hot Cockles. “The solo activities such as balancing on a stick in a bucket of water while holding two candles were probably invented to break up the tedium of the day,” Kiffer added. “Strutt himself described it as ‘a curious pastime.’”
Of course, we’ve since moved far beyond turning to buckets and sticks to counter boredom, but such illustrations highlight the many highly creative activities people have come up with to entertain themselves with relatively limited resources. Strutt’s book also invites us to think about how our ideas of and attitudes toward games have evolved, and in turn, to consider the odd pastimes of our own time.
Maps & Atlases, Natural History & Color Plate Books takes place at Swann Auction Galleries on June 7.