12.09.26, Hardwick, ed., The Playful Middle Ages

Main Article Content

Matthew Sergi

The Medieval Review 12.09.26

Hardwick, Paul. The Playful Middle Ages: Meanings of Play and Plays of Meaning, Essays in Memory of Elaine C. Block. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011. Pp. xiv, 247. ISBN: 978-2-503-52880-9.

Reviewed by:
Matthew Sergi
Wellesley College

In the chapter he contributes to The Playful Middle Ages: Meanings of Play and Plays of Meaning: Essays in Memory of Elaine C. Block, Frédéric Billiet remembers the genesis of Block's immense Corpus of Medieval Misericords project, the product of the sudden and complete devotion of the final three decades of her life to the carvings in and around choir stalls: "Elaine Block décide alors de render justice à ces artisans talenteux et à leurs commenditaires en consacrant tout son temps et son argent à répertorier les miséricordes. Elle prend donc sa retraite de professeur à Hunter College, achète un appartement à Paris, et parcourt des milliers de kilomètres dans toute l'Europe avec sa Renault 5 bleue. Il n'y a pas un responsable de paroisse dotée de stalles qui ne se souvienne de 'cette dame aux cheveux blancs qui venait spécialement de New York pour photographier ce mobilier quasiment inconnu des habitants'" (8).

The subsequent chapters, taken together, are a thorough exploration-- not really of medieval play, despite the volume's title (more on this below)--but of the comic, primarily expressed in carvings, particularly where profane humor appears in proximity to sacred spaces or material (a more fitting subject, anyway, for a Festschrift honoring the founder of Profane Arts).

Ten of the twelve chapters in The Playful Middle Ages deal specifically with carvings; of these, eight focus on misericords and other carvings in and around choir stalls. Billiet shows that a set of choir stalls housed at Moscow's Pushkin Museum, which Block's work already connects generally to Bordeaux (16), can be more specifically identified as part of a continuous set of stalls held partially at Saint-Seurin in Bordeaux and partially at Saint-Martin in L'Isle-Adam (20). In his cheerful anecdotal narration of his discovery, Billiet provides not only a eulogy for Block and her work, but also a step-by- step demonstration of how to make productive use of Block's Corpus and the other resources that she left behind. Kenneth Varty also makes a new discovery: two Cheshire misericords that depict a fox "playing dead," a motif that appears nowhere else among currently known misericords, despite very frequent associations of foxes with playing dead in bestiaries and beast fables (240)--a discovery that would delight Block, given her Reynardian research interests.

Kristiane Léme-Hébuterne reveals a comic mischievousness in the carvings of Amiens Cathedral, where humor inheres not only on the culs-de-lampe (125) and other areas "loin des yeux des chanoines" (127), sometimes only a few millimeters in height (131), but also in some ostensibly sacred scenes in the more visible choir stalls. These visual gags, amusingly, can appear on the reverse side of biblical scenes (for instance, a rodent crawls behind the dying Virgin, 137). Sylvie Bethmont-Gallerand zeroes in on one frequently carved figure, the Baboue--a grimacing face or mask that pulls at the corners of its mouth while sticking out its tongue. Bethmont- Gallerand's close study of this face (which, as she points out, is ubiquitous in various media, be they pre- or postmodern, 143) takes her across etymology (145-6), typology (154-157), and an excavation of medieval and early modern evidence of folk culture. She isolates the primary valence of the face as a physical gesture that adults make at children to ward them off of forbidden or dangerous things (160). The reason the Baboue appears in so many church carvings, Bethmont- Gallerand argues, is not only to ward adult believers away from diabolical temptation by co-opting a gesture familiar from childhood, but also, in so doing, to put the Church itself into the role of mother-to-all (160).

S. J. F. S. Phillips and Luuk Houwen both address the frequent representation of animals in British misericords. Phillips collates data from as many as 1550 animal-themed misericords (176). Phillips suggests that these carvings are doubly protected from censure-- misericords are hard to see, while anthropomorphized animals can critique human failings without offending actual humans--allowing for more liberally bawdy and satirical expression (185-6). That comic reading of animal misericords is echoed in multiple examples provided by Billiet, Varty, and Léme-Hébuterne ("Un animal peut faire sourire par l'incongruité de sa presence dans une scène sérieuse, voire dramatique," 137). Houwen begins his essay with his own collation of data from animal-themed misericords, this time from three churches, which act as test cases (196-204; more cross-referencing would have helped all of the chapters in this collection, but Phillips and Houwen seem at times to reinvent each other's data). From there, Houwen argues convincingly that very few misericord animals can be reliably linked to sources in bestiary manuscripts, though most prior work on the subject has assumed this to be so (226). He urges fellow interpreters of misericord iconography, who have thus far relied on bestiaries for easy typological correspondences (216), to reconsider the animal carvings as multivalent symbols.

Paul Hardwick, the editor of the volume, presents a powerful argument with major implications for iconographic studies: "that the widespread prominence of the scatological in late medieval culture--including depictions in sacred spaces--may be a response to concerns about the rise in status of the European vernacular languages and the concomitant empowerment of the laity" (81). He uses two literary texts (the early sixteenth-century German Till Eulenspiegel and Chaucer's Miller's Tale) as guides to how scatological puns could signify. Not only do these analyses shed new light on scatology in all media, but they also bear value in themselves as innovative close readings. The late Christa Grössinger also incorporates misericords into a study across media, in this case collecting a wide array of medieval and early modern depictions of the "foolishness of old age" (61). The most interesting hypothesis to emerge from her survey concerns the way that age overlaps with gender: old women can take on evil qualities and intents (71) to which old men, innocently simple-minded or gullible, usually remain immune (74).

Naomi Reed Kline and M.A. Hall contribute two chapters that deal with secular carvings and material culture, acting as useful complements to Block's work in sacred spaces. Kline, helpfully, shows how the two fields diverge, proposing that "[m]isericords often depict the pitfalls of secular life with an insistent misogyny. However, in the examples of the secular objects...the hopes and desires of both partners are inscribed" (56-8). Her primary task is to cover the breadth of sexualized images carved or drawn onto small objects (mostly boxes) used in secular households, but she pauses to closely analyze certain items. For instance, a gift box given by a new husband to his new wife sometimes depicts, on its cover, a woman holding another such box, while a man inserts his key (49). Thus, the woman's penetrable body is the box, while then again the box itself is an item only granted to the woman as a gift from the man's own possessions (49-50). In one such case, the woman complains in a caption that the man's key is "too small for her lock" (50, one of many scenes that allow Kline and her readers to take some pleasure in the humor). Hall presents archaeological data on faces carved into Scottish pot-querns (a form of milling stone). Hall conceives of this essay as a wind-up to a set of "punchlines" (122-3): only at the end does Hall offer some conjectures on the comic implications of the faces' upturned mouths and bulging cheeks (creating another missed opportunity for cross- referencing, this time with Bethmont-Gallerand).

Only the remaining two chapters, by Adrian P. Tudor and Alan Hindley, do not discuss the plastic arts. Tudor's concern is the "complex relationship between laughter, comedy, and play" (162) as exemplified in the Queue episode of the Old French Vie des Pères, an "odd light touch" inserted into an otherwise serious text (174). He argues that St. Jerome's laughter in the Queue story, directed at a woman dragging a little devil through the mud on the train of her ostentatious dress, is "in no way comedic" (173, though I'm not sure I'm convinced on this point), but rather that the laughter is an instrument of exclusion (172). Hindley's well-researched chapter on play in early French performance focuses on the signification and cultural function of gameplay--not only comic folly and satire, but also gambling, sport, child's play, and horseplay--within medieval plays. He demonstrates that, "when a game is incorporated into a dramatic action, it can assume a fresh dynamic, its own 'rules' subservient to the conventions of the dramatic medium that frames it, thereby setting up perspectives that dramatists can exploit" (41). Hindley extends his discussion across four distinct genres of early French performance; most useful are the connections he points out between the types of play and the genres of performance (i.e. gambling games tend to arise in the mystère and the moralité but not in the farce or the sottie).

Hindley's chapter thus stands out as the only one in the collection to discuss as play subjects that are not also necessarily comic. While Johan Huizinga is the first scholar (Block is second) to be cited in The Playful Middle Ages, and while he receives brief mentions throughout the book, his seminal work on play insists that the comic-- which he defines as "the opposite of seriousness"--must be considered separately from play, even though the two categories so often overlap: "In itself play is not comical for either player or public...When we call a farce or a comedy 'comic,' it is not so much on account of the play-acting as such as on account of the situation or the thoughts expressed. The mimic and laughter-provoking art of the clown is comic as well as ludicrous, but it can scarcely be called genuine play. The category of the comic is closely connected with folly in the highest and lowest sense of that word. Play, however, is not foolish. It lies outside the antithesis of wisdom and folly." [1]

I do not mean to say that most of the collected essays do not fit within the broadest conception of play, nor that they are not well- executed and valuable explorations of their subjects, but only that, since their discussion does not venture beyond the comic, the title The Playful Middle Ages: Plays of Meaning and Meanings of Play creates confusing expectations. Besides Hindley (who considers the comic in addition to other forms of play), all of the scholars here who present their material as "play" (Billiet, Bethmont-Gallerand, and Houwen do not) restrict their scope to comic play, or to folly--worthy subjects too, of course, coalescing into an equally interesting discussion of profane humor. Hardwick focuses on scatological punning, Kline on sexual punning (chess and hunting do appear, but only incidentally), Grössinger on portrayals of the elderly as foolish, and Varty on the tricky Renard, while Léme-Hébuterne uncovers comedy throughout Amiens Cathedral, Hall finds "punchlines" in carved faces, Phillips conjectures about satire and bawdiness in animal scenes (Phillips also mentions the possibility of other "playful themes," but does not say what these might be, 185), and Tudor argues for a specifically anti-comic interpretation of Queue (so that the question of humor still forms the core issue of his thesis). Hall and Léme-Hébuterne include broad lessons on the historically contingent nature of humor, not play, to form fundamental premises for their interpretations.

The difficult title, at times, exerts influence on the theoretical apparatus employed by the contributors. The terms "play" and "game" appear frequently, often used interchangeably with "humor" or the "comic," most often in the introductions or closings that link the essays to the apparent project of the collection. But because play theory is not actually fundamental to any essay but Hindley's, the words "play" and "game" sometimes become empty signifiers, in some cases deployed in modern idiomatic constructions (the "games people play," "face-play," the "game of life") that are treated as if they inhere in medieval subjects (45, 93, 167-71, and elsewhere). One contributor even suggests that, under normal circumstances, play usually has "no place in liturgy," assuming play to be the opposite of seriousness (164).

However, as a study in profane humor near sacred spaces and subjects-- and especially as a resource for the thorough collation and interpretation of data on comic misericords and other carvings--this collection is a valuable and fitting tribute to the white-haired heroine in the blue Renault 5 whom Billiet and the other contributors, all of whom worked with Block (2), so fondly remember.



1. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949, repr. 2002), 6.

Article Details

Author Biography

Matthew Sergi

Wellesley College