Sunday, November 1, 2009

“The Games of Gargantua”: A Cornucopia of Sport


For my principal area of study, lyric poetry in France, the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries stand alone as singular periods of French poetic genius. Judging from his recent research on Brantôme and his book on 19th-century game treatises, Corry would probably grant me as much for his domain of sports & game theory. One case where our interests intersect is in Rabelais’ satirical 1534 masterpiece Gargantua, whose 22nd chapter presents a veritable cornucopia of some 230 games (some real, some bawdy literary invention). [Here is the Gutenberg Project link to the text in English for those interested: Rabelais, Gargantua, ch. XXII] As we sift farce from legitimate sport, Rabelais’ text offers us a unique window into the leisurely pursuits of fictional giants and privileged Frenchmen of the Renaissance alike.


Situating this abundant chapter between that of the adolescent giant’s useless education with Sophists (that of the Sorbonne)—where time is spent slothfully, eating copious amounts of sausage, belching, and memorizing the alphabet backwards—and one that describes the benefits of a humanistic formation—with its emphasis on physical education—is not without significance. In so doing, Rabelais seems to suggest that, as diversion and light-hearted endeavor, sport ennobles us as it invigorates us and prepares the mind for more formal instruction.


Examining, at random, various games from the list reveals games of chance (lottery, even-or-odd, coin toss, dice), games of strategy (Queens, tric-trac, chess, checkers), games of skill (rifle-shooting, nine pin, tip-and-hurl, billiards), athletic games (cricket, bob-and-hit, bush leap, archery), certain ribald overtly-sexual games—essential to understanding Renaissance humor (tickle-me-prickle-me, belly-to-belly, lusty brown boy, “cuckold”), childhood games (blind man’s bluff, bloody knuckles, twirly-whirlies, spitting contests, pinch without laughing, “au pet en guele”), nonsensical jokes (thrust out the harlot, cock and crank, hind the ploughman, the dying hog, lend me your sack), and various others. My favorite, however, as translated by M. A. Screech, does not appear clearly rendered on this list: “Hide the farthing in your bum”! Take a look for yourself—there is a treasure trove of laughs and learning.


While I have no definitive theories on how game theory enables us to better understand Rabelais, I remain convinced that this seemingly endless list offers us keys to unlocking the Renaissance world of sport.

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