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  • The Playful Middle Ages: Meanings of Play and Plays of Meaning: Essays in Memory of Elaine C. Block ed. by Paul Hardwick
  • Mariusz Bȩcławski
Hardwick, Paul , ed., 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, 23), Turnhout, Brepols, 2010; hardback; pp. xiv, 247; 95 b/w illustrations, 2 b/w tables, 1 b/w line art; R.R.P. €85.00; ISBN 9782503528809.

With The Playful Middle Ages: Meanings of Play and Plays of Meaning, editor Paul Hardwick has gathered together a fascinating collection of essays by international scholars, from a range of disciplines, on various aspects of 'playfulness' in the Middle Ages in Europe. The book was inspired by the late Elaine C. Block's five-volume Corpus of Medieval Misericords (Brepols, 2003), regarded as definitive in this field of medieval scholarship. All of the contributors are former colleagues of Block's. 'Playfulness' is broadly defined and found in a range of contexts and types of sources, covering manuscript to performance, the domestic to the doctrinal, and both verbal and visual play. [End Page 327]

The volume consists of twelve articles, three of which are in French. The essays aim at discovering the manifestations of the playful beyond the more obvious sphere and they may be divided into three groups: firstly, those dealing with the playful within sacred spaces, which ask how this playfulness may pertain to the more overtly devotional aspects of word, art, and architecture; secondly, those addressing the playfulness of anthropomorphism, the grotesque, and even the scatological in the hope of explaining certain aspects of the transgression of cultural norms; and thirdly, those focusing on wordplay, that is, the fun and threat of slippery language.

A number of essays are worth noting and give an idea of the range of topics covered. Alan Hindley's essay examines the game motifs found in a selection of plays from the sizeable collection of late medieval secular plays, notably the sotties and the moralités. Hindley demonstrates how various motifs were applied to provide episodes of light relief while simultaneously providing a real-life focus for those tendencies that set the sinner on the road to damnation: a telling blend of both the playful and the serious.

In her contribution, Naomi Reed Kline tackles the rules of the game of courtship. The author examines scenes in which elaborate domestic-use boxes given by men to women as luxury gifts are adored. The images and inscriptions on the boxes negotiate a play of mores in which to lose oneself may paradoxically constitute winning.

In her essay, Christina Grössinger explores the depiction of the old as lecherous, greedy, and avaricious. In women, ugly features were highlighted, and in men, the ease with which young women can dupe even the wisest of men. Old age, apparently, is the greatest foe of love.

Hardwick's essay considers scatological comedy that rejoices in the faecal and other earthly, bodily functions. Sylvie Bethmont-Gallerand's contribution (in French) explores the image of a grimacing face that appears on numerous misericords in a number of European locations. The essay by Adrian P. Tudor analyses the Old French pious stories Vie des Péres, especially the tale known as Queue. Clearly, laughter came in handy when the stark messages of salvation and damnation were aimed at a lay audience outside ecclesiastic institutions.

In summary, this is a tremendous work on the medieval perception of joy. This volume is bound to offer illumination and suggestions for further explorations in the playful field.

Mariusz Bȩcławski
University of Warsaw


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pp. 327-328
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