medieval

5.5 Playtime

This section is concluded with an aspect of human behaviour that could fit almost anywhere in this framework given its relevance, which makes it the more striking that it is a relatively neglected area of study: play. This tends to get dismissed by many as a childish activity of no great import – a misapprehension on two counts: that childhood is unimportant; and that play is only restricted to childhood. In reality it is a pivotal area of human culture that is relevant to every stage of life. In part this is because it enables an escape from life into ‘play-time’ but it also has the ability to reflect social hierarchies and human ingenuity. It is an important area of study, relevant to a greater understanding of lifeways, mentalities and empowerment. The release that comes from play is hugely important to humans, whether child or adult, not least in its metaphorical and psychological role in ‘Worldmaking’ (for the concept of which see Goodman 1978).

Figure 52: Jet chess bishop of abstract form from a 14th century context in Perth (Meal Vennel), probably the possession of a burgess. Being made of jet would also have given the piece an amuletic quality, © Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth ans Kinross Council, Scotland.

Jet chess bishop of abstract form from a 14th century context in Perth (Meal Vennel), probably the possession of a burgess. Being made of jet would also have given the piece an amuletic quality, © Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland.

Work has begun on the material culture analysis of board and dice games in Scotland. The presence of such begins to be clearly testified to from the time of the Roman incursion. In the second half of the first millennium AD there is plentiful evidence for the cross-cultural (Pictish, Gaelic, Scottish, Irish, Viking, British, Anglo-Saxon) pursuit of games, particularly the tafl variants hnefatafl and fidcheall (which may both be innovations deriving from a Roman game) (Hall 2007d; Hall and Forsyth 2011). The medieval social relevance of gaming is aptly demonstrated by the assemblage of slate-incised boards excavated at St Marnock’s monastery, Inchmarnock, off Bute (Lowe 2008). There they formed part of a large slate assemblage that evidenced the school function of the monastery and the proprietorial church that succeeded it.

During both phases board games were clearly amongst the teaching aids and the subjects being taught. The evidence for later medieval gaming has also been reviewed recently (Hall 2010 forthcoming) and in a Scottish context the early-late transition in gaming terms is marked by the advent and expansion of chess.

The earliest evidence for chess in Scotland may be an abstract piece (with ring-and-dot decoration), an antiquarian find from Coldingham churchyard. An 11th-12th century date for this is not unlikely. This and slightly later abstract pieces from Rothesay Castle, Bute and Kirkwall, Orkney may speak of an Anglo-Norman influence in the spread of the game. In contrast, the figurative Lewis chessmen (part of a wider hoard of gaming pieces) speak of a Scandinavian influence and from a time - late 12th-early 13th century – when the popularity of hnefatafl was waning in favour of chess. The robust Lewis pieces are replete with visual and tactile reference to social hierarchy, patronage, exchange and trade patterns and then high esteem in which play was held. More widely they signal that the island of Lewis was not a cultural backwater but a place that mattered in the North Sea world (Caldwell et al. 2009). Abstract chess pieces (deriving from Islamic pieces) were never replaced by figurative pieces, rather they shared the same chronological trajectory (with, no doubt, fashionable ups-and-downs) as abstract jet chess bishop from a 14th century context in Meal Vennel, Perth, shows (Hall 2010 forthcoming). The material from Scotland is diverse socially, spatially and materially and contributes to the wider European study of medieval mentalities (Hall 2009b).

In recovering the spatial architecture of play in the medieval urban environment archaeologists have much ground to make up and can only do so in an inter-disciplinary context. There are two main aspects to play spaces, the formal and the informal. The informal encompasses those spaces – urban and rural domestic, castles, monasteries and churches – where gaming equipment and toys are found and requires a flexible mind-set on what can be interpreted as a plaything and the setting it is used in (which for children for example, can be almost anything and almost anywhere; Crawford 2009; Lewis 2009; Hall 2010).

The formal encompasses both teaching spaces (see the ScARF Case Study Education) the routes and locales of medieval civic and religious rituals (including Corpus Christi), for, as Lilley (2009) has observed social space ‘carries and constricts social and cultural meanings so it [is] appropriate to consider where processions went in the city: which streets or lanes they followed, which marketplaces and churches they stopped at … these routes are the clearest maps to the significant power structures within a community since they are always deliberately designed with reference to places that are important.’ (p. 164).

Archaeology needs to more closely collaborate on elucidating the performed geographies of processions (always acts of play) and their meanings.

Figure 53: The Perth Glovers Dance Dress. In a strong medieval tradition the Glovers performed a sword dance for King Charles II in 1633. This is the sole surviving costume with additions, repairs and alterations made over the subsequent 300 years. It was donated to Perth Museum in 1944, © Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland.

The Perth Glovers Dance Dress. In a strong medieval tradition the Glovers performed a sword dance for King Charles II in 1633. This is the sole surviving costume with additions, repairs and alterations made over the subsequent 300 years. It was donated to Perth Museum in 1944, © Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland.

The evidence for Perth’s processional and performing spaces is admittedly slight (Hall 2005, 223-4) but it is unequivocal in its certainty and sufficient to draw parallels with other European cities, including Chester (which also had a performing space just outside the town wall), York, Bruges (like Bruges, Perth had a relic of the Holy Blood), Rome, Wurzburg and Frankfurt (Lilley 2009, 158-87; Rubin 1991, 267-9; Dyer 2007; Noreen 2007; Brown 1997; Boogaart 2001). Such performances were not restricted to cities, smaller urban entities and parish centres had their play places and in Cornwall many still survive (e.g. St Just); in Scotland they became perhaps an unseen casualty of Reformation zeal.

The known incident of social performance in Perth incorporating the river Tay was when the Glover Incorporation, in all their livery, performed a sword dance on a floating platform in the river, to celebrate Charles II’s coronation in Scone in 1633 (Bennett 1985). It should serve to remind that it was unlikely to have been a one off but part of a long-standing, medieval tradition of civic performance and once more link Perth to wider European practice: pageantry and performance on and around the river Rhine at Basle, Switzerland and on the river Adige at Trento, northern Italy are but two examples.

Certainly before the Reformation in Scotland (and in some parts of it well after) such rituals, performances, plays and pageants had a dual function of seeking to establish and reinforce a hierarchical, social cohesion (under God) and through the recitation of Psalms, prayers and hymns that accompanied and were integral to processions (especially of relics, themselves powerful agents) sought God’s apotropaic protection for the town or city, against all evil and misfortune.

Case Study: Education

Figure 51: A painting from c.1640 showing red-gowned students outside King's College chapel in the University of Aberdeen. Current archaeological excavations are focussing on the site of the late medieval grammar school that can be seen here as a low building abutting the street wall in front of the College, © University of Aberdeen

Figure 51: A painting from c.1640 showing red-gowned students outside King's College chapel in the University of Aberdeen. Current archaeological excavations are focussing on the site of the late medieval grammar school that can be seen here as a low building abutting the street wall in front of the College, © University of Aberdeen

The archaeological analysis of medieval education is in its infancy in Scotland. But the evidence is accumulating and archaeology is revealing important aspects at both ends of the medieval period. Excavations on the island of Inchmarnock, off Bute, at the remote (but well connected by sea) chapel site of St Marnock revealed rich evidence for monastic-based teaching on the island, during the 7th- 11th centuries, succeeded by post-12th century teaching activity in the context of a proprietorial church. The key evidence for a schooling practice is a large assemblage of slates variously incised with graffiti, pictures, inscriptions, letter-forms and board games (an aspect of elite education and not unexpected if fostering was an element of the schooling practice on Inchmarnock), concentrated enough to be interpreted as pointing to a school-house sited between the workshop area and the living quarters of the monastery, and in sight of the church and cemetery (Lowe 2008, figures 6.15 & 9.7 and p. 114-116 & 257-263). The key evidence for later schooling practice is a group of six slates inscribed with Gothic letter forms, dating to the 13th-15th centuries (Lowe 2008, 149-151), though it should also be acknowledged that some of the gaming boards are also post-1200, notably the merels boards and at least one fragmentary stone bearing two unrecognised designs for haretavl (‘hare and hounds’) and probably alquerque. The stone was excavated from a child’s grave of 17th/18th century date (Lowe 2008,169, IS.61) but could easily represent reuse of a medieval graffiti.

For the later medieval period elsewhere in Scotland there are several important pieces of material culture (notably the 15th century maces from the Universities of St Andrews and Glasgow – Caldwell 1982, 88-90) but it is only recently that excavation has started to contribute to our understanding of the medieval origin and development of universities in Scotland though there is some way to go to compete with some of the results achieved for the Continent. In Rostock, Germany, for example, extensive excavations have shone new light on the university buildings (for teaching, faculty and professors houses) and the study of magic at the university (Münch and Mulsow 2005).

At King’s College, archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen have begun investigating the buried history of their institution, focusing on the site of a late medieval grammar school. The building is depicted on Parson Gordon’s coloured map of Old Aberdeen from 1661, and on several contemporary paintings, showing a single-storey stone structure located near the chapel founded by Bishop Elphinstone. Documentary records indicate that the school was in existence at least from the Reformation, and aimed to provide remedial tuition in Latin for students – some as young as 11 – whose existing skills were not up to the task of university studies (Stevenson & Davidson 2008, 134f). In oblique light conditions sub-surface features are clearly visible on the College lawns, and geophysical surveys have confirmed the presence of buried masonry structures where the school is believed to have stood. Full-scale excavations are planned to begin soon, incorporated into a new research programme for the archaeology of the King’s College campus and its environs.