16.09.08, Patterson, ed., Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature

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Nhora Lucía Serrano

The Medieval Review 16.09.08

Patterson, Serina, ed. Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan , 2015. pp. xvii, 241. ISBN: 9781137311030 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Nhora Serrano
Hamilton College

Little did Lewis Carroll know that when he mixed fantasy with logic in Through the Looking Glass (1871), he reaffirmed what the Middle Ages already knew about games and "play": ludic pastimes are thought-provoking endeavors, inhabit seemingly real qua magical and/or imaginary qua quotidian domains, could turn one's fortunes, derive from an intricate web of social and political practices, and include objects of "play" that on face value appear ordinary and commonplace. In sum, medieval games encompass and are cultural production. Serina Patterson's edited collection Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature, Palgrave Macmillan's latest entry in their "The New Middle Ages" series, superbly acknowledges this seemingly overlooked truism: the medieval ludic was a serious "maker" and performer of cultural "play" (i.e. ludus, jocus, gamen, and plega). Yes, indeed, Patterson's splendid anthology of scholars effectively and duly beckons its readers to concede that the time has come for the medieval ludic to be heralded in the vaulted halls of Medieval Studies and welcomed onto the playing field of Cultural Game Studies.

From the onset, in the "Introduction: Setting Up the Board," Patterson concernedly outlines a two-fold, far-reaching objective for the diverse collection that primarily deals with "the tension between games and the real world" (2). The first aim addresses why medieval pastimes--such as board games, sporting, jousting, performance, and other recreational activities--have been erroneously excluded from the scope of scholarly investigation in the field of Cultural Game Studies. Through a rich and nuanced examination of the etymology of the word ludus, and the fluidity of its various applications to games depicted in medieval literature, Patterson proposes that medieval "game" and "play" merit a reconsideration from today's scholars. In fact, Patterson unequivocally claims that in the interest of framing a "cohesive cultural theory of games, game studies scholars frequently gloss medieval games" and (mis)understood them as static pastimes (4). Patterson excels in this objective with her astute analysis of the "problem of definition" (5).

In her second objective, Patterson strives to cast the scholarly net especially wide to include all sorts of medieval games, but first considers the significance of chess. For Patterson, chess has been and still is a fruitful trope for recent scholars working in interdisciplinary and intermedia fields like Medieval Studies and Cultural Game Studies. However, to Patterson's chagrin, medieval chess has not been quite the lightning rod that it could have been otherwise scholars would have been drawn to elucidate the relevance about the medieval ludic for interdisciplinary, medieval scholarship. Thus, Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature aims to examine not just medieval chess (a popular game of study) but medieval "game" and "play" in all of its rich iterations in "game-texts," her term for "games-as-literature" (2). Consequently, in widening the scholarly scope to include a variety of medieval "play" from songs, physical sports, parlor games, hunting, wheels of fortune to depiction of games in medieval motets, demandes d'amours, cancionero, and narrative storytelling, the popularity of chess in the Middle Ages and its prominent position in current scholarship is not overlooked but enhanced. What is more, chess inevitably looms large over her analysis although in reality it is only briefly mentioned. I would argue that medieval chess indirectly frames and significantly grounds the collection, suggesting that indeed more scholarly work is needed in the area of medieval "games" and "play." Lest it be misunderstood, mine is not a critique of Patterson's succinct and brief attention to medieval chess in her introduction or to current scholarship that brilliantly tackles this topic, but rather an echo of her sentiment; with the exception of medieval chess, an in-depth study of medieval "game" and "play" has been long overdue. And so, in order to illustrate that medieval games in their totality have been on "the periphery of medieval scholarship," Patterson recognizes previous scholarly work done on medieval chess--such as Harold Murray's A History of Chess (1969), Daniel O'Sullivan's collection Chess in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (2012), and Jenny Adams's Power Play: The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages (2006), to name a few--in the hopes that future scholars can enlarge this illustrious field and move beyond the constraints of the chessboard (5). For this reason, since medieval chess is nonetheless a crucial component to a study on medieval "play," Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature naturally includes three diverse, fascinating, and well-written pieces that address the iconic game that hails from Eastern India and Muslim culture.

Robert Bubczyk's "Ludus inhonestus et illicitus? Chess, Games, and the Church in Medieval Europe" opens the collection in "Part I: Spaces of Play" with its unique focus on the uncomfortable and disparate opinions towards the games of chess, tables, and dice amongst Church officials. This piece in particular--zeroing in on the dangers of what Johan Huizinga would call the "magic circle" in his Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1950)--illustrates Patterson's objective of showing the rich multiplicity of the word "play" by interrogating the complex nature of the social space that excludes, forbids, or clandestinely plays. Moreover, Bubczyk's well-crafted piece highlights a different type of medieval ludic, the local clergyman. "Part II: Game and Genre," the larger section in the volume, is dedicated to the representation of games in literature, i.e. "game-texts." Tamsyn Rose-Steel opens this section with a truly refreshing, meta-textual focus, the performance of the representation of "play." In "Church, Court, and Tavern: Games and Social Hierarchy in Some Medieval Motets," Rose-Steel tackles composers Montpellier and Guillaume de Machaut and their subversion of the Church and embellishment of ladies in their multilayered polyvocal structures. Amongst the games mentioned, Rose-Steel dedicates a portion of her piece to the representation of chess in the motet Tant a souttille pointure/Bien pert qu'en moy/Cuius pulcritudinem sol et luna mirantur (Such a subtle sting/It is clear that I/By whom the sun and moon are amazed) and how it exalts the lady in question. In turn, Rose-Steel's piece coincidentally responds to Daniel E. O'Sullivan's very thoughtful and smart piece "Words with Friends, Courtly Edition: The Jeux-Partis of Thibaut de Champagne" from earlier in the volume in "Part I: Spaces of Play." O'Sullivan argues that much in the same vein as today's digital game "words with friends," the notable trouvère Thibaut de Champagne engaged in verbal jousting. Furthermore, the subsequent process of transcribing these infamous jeux-partis speak to "play" as much as the noble player and the games themselves. In particular, O'Sullivan's piece perfectly answers Patterson's rhetorical call to arms, i.e. to demonstrate how medieval games are an integral part of the cultural history of "play." Following Rose-Steel in "Part II," Jenny Adams's wonderful essay on a thirteenth-century Flemish romance, "Colonizing the Otherworld in Walewein," is the third piece in the volume that employs the iconic game of chess to develop and complicate further the idea of medieval "play." I would argue that Adams's essay is the pivotal cornerstone to the collection not so much for the spotlight given to chess but rather for its adroit theoretical inquiry of "play." Adams's meticulous discussion of Walewein is exquisitely reminiscent of Italo Calvino's Le città invisibili (1972), where chess's eastern origins are emphasized to destabilize a seeming sense of Western political order as well as to reimagine and reforge new political relationships. It is in this light that the iconic game and all medieval games can and should be interrogated in today's landscape of the "Digital Turn," or as Betsy McCormick labels it the "Ludic Century" in the "Afterword: Medieval Ludens," i.e. as tropes and sites for dynamic cultural exchange and iterations of cosmopolitan "play."

Throughout Patterson's "Introduction" as well as McCormick's "Afterword," they remind us that any proper study of the newly emerging field of cultural game studies must take heed that medieval games are not "a mindless repose from work" (4) and that the medieval ludic is not unlike today's "makers" of games. (215) To this end, Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature as a whole draws attention to the enduring relevance and shortcomings of Huizinga's Homo Ludens. For example, in identifying the three main threads--"Game and The Problem of Definition," "Games and Earnest," and "Games and Reality"--that bind the collection together, Patterson acknowledges how Huizinga was "the first serious scholar to investigate play as a subject of serious scholarship" (7). Yet, Patterson, as do her contributors, acknowledges the limitations of Huizinga's approach, i.e. the unfortunate trivialization of games and the restrictive binary nature of "magic circle," to name a few. In this light, I would be remiss to not make mention of Nora Corrigan's "The Knight's Earnest Game in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales" and Kimberly Bell's "Rounes to Rede: Ludic Reading Games in the Alliterative Wheel of Fortune Poem Somer Soneday," two innovative, and scintillating pieces that either build upon or depart from Huizinga's Homo Ludens. Corrigan turns to Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales to discuss the dichotomy between jest and seriousness--ludicra-seria--, the game-earnest topos. For Corrigan, Chaucerian storytelling complicates Huizinga's notion of games as trivial because the seemingly entertaining tournament as well as demandes d'amours (love questions) are presented as serious endeavors, which coincidentally transgress imaginary boundaries (i.e. the magic circle). Put simply, these Chaucerian games can result in grave repercussions. Equally, Corrigan points out that for Chaucer, medieval "game" and "play" are positive, didactic pastimes that can be inscribed within the formal literary structure of the frametale in order to teach ethics and morality. On a related note, the subsequent piece by Bell looks at a Middle English alliterative chanson d'aventure, and how much like Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" it is a readerly text about games--a "literary hermeneutic puzzle"--and the process of "play." In a fitting complement to Patterson's second objective, Bell examines in Somer Soneday the motifs of a deer hunt and Wheel of Fortune, two activities no longer seen as games today. According to Bell, the juxtaposition of two games scenes lends itself to dismantling Huizinga's notion that games are trivial. For example, upon first glance the activity of hunting in Somer Soneday is rendered as a pleasant, courtly, and physical pastime. Yet as Bell argues, in the Middle Ages there is a symbiotic relationship between knowing how to hunt and moral virtue. In Somer Soneday this correlation is presented as a critique against aristocracy's frivolity. For Bell, the poet issues a didactic lesson on life's fortune wrapped up as a warning, which in turn is inscribed within the very framework of gameplaying; this textual puzzle problematizes Huizinga's magic circle and the imaginary space for "play."

Equally, the other three pieces in this volume not discussed here for sake of time, not because of lack of interest, cohesiveness within the volume, or erudite analysis--Nicholas Orme's "Games and Education in Medieval England," Patterson's own entry "Sexy, Naughty, and Lucky in Love: Playing Ragemon le Bon in English Gentry Households," and Juan Escourido's "Textual Games and Virtuality in Spanish Cancionero Poetry"--deserve everyone's careful attention. They too are well-written, well-researched contributions that elucidate the relevance of the medieval ludic for interdisciplinary, medieval scholarship. My only critique of the volume lies in that it was not more global as a whole, i.e. contributions do not speak to other medieval linguistic as well as cultural traditions. Nonetheless, these nine contributions, along with Patterson's "Introduction" and McCormick's "Afterword," clearly have "propose[d] a path for interpreting the collection within the larger context of medieval cultural studies" (5). Put simply, Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature has reminded us that games and "play" in the Middle Ages are "vehicle[s] for cultural significance across Europe in diverse social settings...[as well as]...multifaceted...objects, events, and spaces of cultural expression" (15). Patterson and her contributors have succeeded in showcasing that "nondigital games...[are] a serious area of study," and in laying "the groundwork for future research on premodern games" (11).

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