Monday, January 10, 2011

The past is a foreign country. They had far, far less to do there.

When I hear people lamenting the proliferation of entertainments--TV, video games, text messages, the Internet, etc.--that abound in our relentlessly modern world, distracting us from ye olde contemplative life, I often find myself shaking my head. Really? Would you really want to go back to the days when, outside big cities, almost all your entertainment options involved hitting someone with a stick? (See, for example, the two games--jingling and backswording--described in these posts about Tom Brown's Schooldays.)

I know that I'm oversimplifying the case nearly as much as the knee-jerk nostalgists are, but my reading over the weekend added a couple more entertaining arrows to my quiver. First, from Frans G. Bengtsson's The Long Ships (1954), I learned--to no surprise--that when it comes to brutal games, Tom Brown's classmates had nothing on the Vikings. When the warriors engage in a celebratory session of tests of strength, such as "finger-tug, wrestling, and flat-buttock lifting," as well as "the difficult sport known as knot-lifting," a translator's note explains that the last of these is:
A sort of invitation to break one's neck, played by strong, drunken men after a feast. One (the weaker) sits on the ground, while the other (the stronger) kneels on his hands and knees. The latter is the man who risks his neck. The weaker man sits with his knees drawn up and wide apart, puts his arms outside his thighs and locks his hands under his knees. The strong man then puts his head forward between the other man's knees and into his locked hands, and tries to rise to a standing position, while the victim does his worst by pressing his knees and his locked hands round the strong man's neck. It was (says the author, in a letter to the translator) "a frightful game, only played by drunken men."
Fun stuff!

At least the Vikings had the excuse of being drunk. The participants in the other game I came across this weekend didn't even have that. Here's a note to the Oxford World's Classics edition of George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody explaining a parlor game, "Cutlets":
Patrick Beaver, in Victorian Party Games, describes this as a variant of "Quakers' Meeting," which he explains thus: "The company arrange themselves on the floor in a straight line, all kneeling on the right knee while on the other nee they rest their hands and twiddle their thumbs. It is forbidden to smile--any player detected doing so having to pay a forfeit. The following conversation is then carried on, each line of which must be repeated in turn by every player before the next line is said.

Well friend, and how art thou?

Hast thou heard of Brother Obadiah's death?

No, how did he die?

With one finger up (As each player repeats this line he stops twisting his thumbs and holds up his right forefinger),

With one eye shut (Each closes his right eye),

And shoulder all awry (Each does this).

How did he die?

In this way.

At this point the player at the top of the row give his neighbour a mighty shove and the whole company goes over like a pack of cards."
Oh, those wacky Victorians!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go . . . do any of a vast number of activities that are right at my fingertips--and that don't involve shoving, breaking necks, or hitting with sticks.

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