The Games Medievals Play (Mmm… Marginalia #6)

This Monday’s marginal image comes from The Romance of Alexander as it appears in the Bodleian Library’s MS Bodl. 264:

So what’s all this, then? Apparently, it’s the medieval version of the game we call “Blind Man’s Bluff” in America,* and which certain non-Americanized Brits still call “Blind Man’s Buff,”** but which should more accurately be called “Blind Man’s Beat the Hell out of Your Friends.” As depicted above, the game works like this: one man wraps his hood around his head backwards and becomes the blind man. The blind man stumbles around calling to his friends, who must answer back. The blind man “wins” when he is able to tag a friend found through this inefficient echolocation. And when they’re not answering the blind man’s calls, the other players are also allowed to beat the holy crap out of the blind man with their own knotted up hoods.

The illuminators of this particular manuscript also seem to have developed the Title IX*** version of the game, Blind Woman’s Buff:

Put side by side, the two images offer a bit of a (mildly) interesting developmental conundrum. Clearly the visual tradition of one is influencing the other: the four figures are placed identically in the male and female versions of the game, right down to the hood on the ground by the leftmost figure’s feet. The question is, which sport came first?

Both Blind Persons are holding up the trailing end of their garments between their knees, which makes sense for the longer garment the women are wearing in the second picture, but not for the much shorter little numbers the men are wearing in the first, which would seem to indicate that it’s Blind Woman’s Buff that’s the earlier game. Yet the women are all wielding hoods, like the men, but dressed in outfits that don’t actually need hoods, suggesting their image composition is mimicking the male version, instead.

Granted, this is not as sexy a question as the chicken and the egg, but nonetheless, I do wonder whether this bizarre game was first associated with women or men.

*To tell the truth, we Americans are more likely to call it “Marco Polo” and to only play it in the pool, but that’s beside the point.
**Incidentally, switching out words that sound the same in an obscure phrase, like changing “a tough row to hoe” to “a tough road to hoe”, or like buff to bluff, is called an “eggcorn” by trendy linguists.
***For my buffing British readers, Title IX is the law that tries to make sure that American public universities have equal opportunities for male and female athletes.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Steve Muhlberger

    Notice the wicked whip those beaters are putting on their hoods? Ah, those fun-loving medievals!

  • Dr. Virago

    I don’t which model came first, but I am grateful to you for illustrating Blind Man’s Bluff and also for comparing it to Marco Polo. For year’s I’ve been reading scholarship on medieval drama that compares the buffeting of Christ to Blind Man’s Bluff and I had no freakin’ clue what the heck that was. And I’m American. I’m just the wrong generation of American, clearly.

  • Wildcate

    Erm, I know I’m commenting a bit late, but what makes you think that the women’s outfits don’t “need” hoods, while the men’s do? Where is the difference? To me, there is none; you could even argue that since women (at least married women) are usually supposed to wear a headdress, they need the hoods more than the men.
    And thanks a bunch for these wonderful pictures – something new for my collection!

  • Got Medieval

    The women are wearing your bog-standard (unmarried) damsel dresses, which feature that lower flat neckline and aren’t worn with hoods. I’m willing to be proven wrong on this one, though, if there’s a medieval costuming expert out there who wants to weigh in.

  • Brunella

    Do you know this passage from Bodley 649:

    ‘A common game is well known nowadays which the soldiers played with Christ in his passion and it is called ‘the bobbid’. The game is this: one in a group will be blindfolded and bound and those standing around will strike him on the head and say, ‘A bobbid, a bobbid, a biliried, do not strike here unless you strike well’. And as often as he makes a mistake and judges wrongly, he will play a new game. And so, until he picks the one who struck him, he will still be blindfolded and made to play the game’.

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