Childish games or harbingers of conflict?

July 7, 2000

The anxious voices chimed a familiar warning: society would pay a high price if children were not stopped from playing such violent games. What prompted medieval social commentators to warn: "It is a sign of future conflict and dissension for the land"? The hobby-horse.

Sylvie Bethmont-Gallerand, a historian at the Universite de Paris, appreciates the irony: "Today people say computer games create violent mentalities in children. They said absolutely the same thing about children jousting on stick horses in the Middle Ages."

Bethmont-Gallerand has studied many depictions of children at play, most recently in the choir stall carvings of the church of St Anne de Gassicourt, in western France. Such carvings are a reliable source of information on the minutiae of everyday life in the late Middle Ages.

Aside from jousting on hobby-horses, the St Anne de Gassicourt carvings show children playing blind man's bluff where a blindfolded child attempts to identify his playmates with a stick. A young man is shown tossing a ball; another playing with a bird. Carvings of the forerunners of sports such as rugby, tennis and cricket can be found elsewhere in European churches.

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