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Checkmate! Medieval People at Play


apes dancing

During the medieval period, when most people did not have the luxury of a carefree childhood, the opportunity to play was not taken for granted. Medieval artists celebrated these activities in their work, and their images are full of whimsy, perhaps even nostalgia. Were they drawing upon their own childhood memories? The pure joy of climbing a tree or having a snowball fight with friends after a heavy winter storm is universal and timeless. The very act of these artists creating such images was in its own right playful, and we can only imagine the delight they took in illustrating these charming scenes.

(image: W.82, apes dancing

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Hours and Psalter
Hoisting Text into Place Title
British, ca. 1290–1300 Period
W.102, fols. 39v–40r, acquired by Henry Walters, ca. 1930 Accession
This image expands the idea of “play,” encompassing not just the actions of the figures depicted but those of the artist too. Here, the scribe has accidentally left out a line of text, a common occurrence, usually corrected by simply adding the missing line elsewhere on the page. However this artist, perhaps the scribe himself, has used this error as an opportunity to have fun, and has drawn a figure hoisting the text into its proper place on the page. About
Catching Butterflies
Catching Butterflies Title
French (Dijon), late 13th century Period
W.109, fols. 27v–28r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
In this lovely marginal image, two fashionably dressed ladies set off on an outing. The net held by one of them indicates that they are chasing butterflies, but the artist does not depict the prize they seek. He leaves it to us to imagine the rest of their day—the fun of chasing and catching butterflies is ours. About
Snowball Fight
Snowball Fight Title
Flemish, ca. 1510 Period
W.425, fols. 11v–12r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1903 and 1931 Accession
The solemn yet harried preparation for a holiday feast is usually the image accompanying the December calendar in a Book of Hours. The image displayed here is a rare and delightful departure from convention. Through color the artist has beautifully captured the chill of a winter day, and he skillfully conveys the excitement of a snowball fight. All is not play, however, for in the distant background, work still goes on. But for a wonderful moment, the world is a playground. About
Youth Swinging from a Tree
Youth Swinging from a Tree Title
French Flanders (Cambrai?), ca. 1300 Period
W.88, fols. 75v–76r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
In this charming image, a young boy has climbed a tree and is swinging from one of its limbs. This is an extremely rare depiction, and it has nothing to do with the text it accompanies (Psalm 5, a reading for the dead) but is simply an opportunity for the artist to have fun. The small size of the tree in comparison with the child focuses our attention on his antics, inviting us to imagine ourselves as carefree. About
Apes Dancing to Ring-around-a-Rosy
Apes Dancing to Ring-around-a-Rosy Title
Flemish (Ghent), ca. 1315–25 Period
W.82, fols. 192v–193r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
The song “Ring-around-a-Rosy” is still popular today, often danced in a circle just as we see the monkeys doing here. Yet this seemingly lighthearted song has a dark past. The plague swept Europe during the 14th century, and the song’s words actually refer to its terrible symptoms: a circular rose-colored rash, sneezing or coughing, and finally, death. Flower petals were worn in a pouch around the neck to keep the smell of death away. The song, then, seems very different in this context.
Ring-a ring-o-rosies
A pocket full of posies
Achoo, Achoo,
We all fall down.
Toy Mounted Knight
Toy Mounted Knight Title
European, 13th–14th century Period
54.2476, museum purchase, 1969 Accession
Medieval toys rarely survive, for they were often crudely made and discarded when they broke. This knight, one of the earliest surviving examples of a toy soldier, is therefore a rare glimpse at a medieval child’s plaything. An object like this crosses the barrier of time, for it is not unlike our own toy soldiers, and one can imagine a young boy playing at the joust, dreaming of one day being the knight he holds in his hand. About