Checkmate! Medieval People at Play

July 17, 2010–October 10, 2010

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 surprisingly ubiquitous in medieval manuscripts. Neither stodgy nor perpetually pious, medieval people found time for amusement in the margins of their lives and their manuscripts. Surprisingly, playful images are most often found in religious books, where artists populated the margins with humorous, even outrageous imagery.

This exhibition 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 eachother, and lovers nonchalantly play footsies during their backgammon game. Through these images, this exhibition ecnourages visitors of all ages to explore a sense of whimsy and fun that is uniquely medieval yet remarkably relevant to us today.