Checkmate! Medieval People at Play – Manuscript Exhibition Examines Aspects of Play in Medieval Society

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.

This is the theme for a new exhibition at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Checkmate! Medieval People at Play 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.

Planning for the exhibition was already underway when Lynley Herbert, Carol Bates Fellow at the Walters Art Museum, became the exhibit curator. “The idea was to put together an exhibition from our medieval manuscript collection that would compliment the exhibition we have coming in the fall, of children’s book illustrator Walter Wick, whose work often includes games and visual ciphers,” she said in interview with  “I was given the theme of ‘Games’ and that was it, so I proceeded to search through our manuscripts, and the collection as a whole, looking for anything that would qualify as games or play.  I tried to interpret this as broadly as possible, so I included sports, free play, visual and intellectual games that the artist plays with the viewer, and even games of love.”

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.

Lynley Herbert notes that these images, “open up new ways of thinking about the medieval mindset as a whole – these images show they took pleasure in fun, witty, and even somewhat sacreligious imagery, and that they didn’t take themselves too seriously.  The old idea of this period being the “dark ages” is such a misnomer, and I really hope images like these will help revise that perception – medieval people were sophisticated and creative, and enjoyed play and relaxation just as much as we do now!”

Hebert also explains that while some of the drawings were done by monks, many others came from the secular artists: “it was not uncommon for an artist to be brought in to do the images, especially during the later medieval period, so we have to be cautious about reading these images as only the work of monks.  In fact, some of these manuscripts were probably written by secular scribes as well, so again we should try to get away from the idea that they were all done by monks.”

One of Herbert’s favorite images is from Hours of Jean de Mauléon, a French manuscript from ca. 1524, which shows a peddlar playing dice in a rich man’s home. “But after studying it closely,” she said, “I discovered that they are playing a game called raffle – similar to a modern slot machine – where rolling 3 of the same number at once wins.  If you look closely, the peddlar has rolled three “3s”, and has therefore won.  He smiles smugly, but the angry expression on the wealthy man’s face, and both of their gestures pointing to the dice, suggest that there is some conflict.  I discovered in my research that weighted dice was a major problem, especially in this game, and that people would often use their own dice to cheat, and then run away with their winnings before the loser realized he had been duped.  So I think this is the story being told by our artist, and it was a fun and rewarding journey of discovery for me.”

Herbert, a PhD student in medieval art history at the University of Delaware, describes working at the Walters Art Museum as “a dream come true for me.” The Walters is home to a vast collection of historical art, including Egyptian, Greek and Roman, Byzantine, Ethiopian and western medieval pieces. It has over 900 illuminated sacred and secular manuscripts from all over the world, as well as 1,300 books printed before 1500. Earlier this year, the Art Museum announced that it creating an online project to digitize over 38 000 pages from its manuscript collection – see our earlier article Museum’s digitization projects offers access to medieval manuscripts for more information.

Herbert adds, “With this exhibition I had the opportunity to go through dozens of manuscripts, and each was more amazing than the last.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop!  There is nothing like holding a thousand year old manuscript or object in your hands…imagining all the history it’s seen, all the other people who have held it before you…there is no way to describe that feeling, and only the original object can truly have that effect.  Having the freedom to look through these precious works and choose whichever I felt fit my exhibition was unbelievably exciting!  The quality of the Walters collection is truly remarkable, and it has been such an incredible privilege to have access to it!”

The Checkmate! Medieval People at Play exhibition will be on display at the Walters Art Museum until  October 10, 2010. Click here for more information.

Source: The Walters Art Museum

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