Boys at Play: New Evidence in Francis Willughby’s Book of Games

Francis Willughby (1635-1672), the gentleman naturalist and member of the Royal Society, left a manuscript about games, sports, and pastimes among his papers when he died at age 36 (University of Nottingham NUL Mi LM 14).  The unfinished work was intended for his fellow scientists rather than gamblers, even though much of the contents were devoted to games of chance.   Possibly the first taxonomy of its kind, the Book of Games lay largely neglected until the modern edition prepared by David Cram, Jeffrey L. Forgeng and Dorothy Johnston was published by Ashgate in 2003.

The section on “Children’s Plays” shows what a comprehensive view of the subject Willughby had at a time when children’s culture and folklore was beneath the contempt of a gentleman scientist.  The description of the game “Hide & Seeke” preserves a wonderful verse for  “it” to yell before rushing out to discover his playmates’ hiding places.  It is an improvement over the more prosaic modern formula, “Ready or not, here I come,” which doesn’t even rhyme.

One stands at a gaole or barre, hoodwinked [i.e. eyes covered by a piece of cloth] & is to count aloud so manie, as 100, 40 &c., all the while the rest hide themselves.  When he has done counting he saies:

                A Dish Full of Pins to Prick my Shins,

                A Loafe of Bread to Breake my Head,

                Bo Peep I come.

If they get all to the barre, he winkes againe, but if he catch one, he that is catched must wink.

This is the “running-home” variation of the game, described on page 154 of the Opies’ Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) in which hiders can try dashing back to the starting place without being caught.  Neither Willughby or the Opies specify that if the successful hider makes it home, he should yell a rhyme telling the rest of the hiders that they can show themselves and signaling another round of the game.   Americans from different regions of the country are accustomed to calling out “Olly, olly, oxen, free, free, free.”

“Drolery or for the Exercising the Wit & Making Sport” is a selection of word games, which were a more important category of amusements than now.   Beyond an agile brain, they require no equipment or dedicated ground.  They are ideal for passing the time hanging out wherever.    A relatively easy game called “Riming” takes two people, who take turns calling out a word which the other must match with another that rhymes.

A: Able.  B: Stable. A: Fable. B: Cable, &c.

Apparently a rhyming couplet could be supplied, as in this example where A tries to stump B with a polysyllabic word, “porringer” or a dish for holding porridge.Mr Booker was put to rime to Porringer, who presently answered

                The King had a Daughter & hee Gave the Prince of Orange her.

The subjects were Mary II and William III of England. An excellent example of a groaner from the 1600s that has been preserved in a modern nursery rhyme siteAn unnamed juvenile informant, who wrote out five pages in the manuscript, recording the rules of this game of one-upmanship

“Selling of Bargaines” is when one askes the other a question who answers him simply and pertinently, thinking hee meant honestly.  The first replys againe & catching hold of his answer Sels him a Bargaine.  A wishes he had as manie dogs as there are stares.  B asks what hee would doe with them.  A replys, Hold up their Teales while you Kiss their Arses….

When B can sel A another bargaine, A saies, A Bargaine Bought &^ a Bargain Sold, A Turd in your Mouthe a Twelmonth old.,

When B prevents A & gets his bargaine before him, A saies, You say my Word, you may Eat a Dogs Turd,

They strive to sel one another most bargaines as they doe in aping verses who shall capt his antagonist.

A askes B if he can say, A Long Pole over a Gutter.  If B repeat the words, A saies,  A short Turd to your Supper….

A bids B repeat Oxe Ball so manie times in a breath.  B. repeating fast saies, Ballox.

The juvenile informant comments at the end that “All bargaines are either obscene or nastie.”

A good example of the “self-incrimination trap,” in which one person asks another a trick question that sets up a smutty retort, “Selling of Bargains” seems a logical addition to the chapter on “Guile” in the Opies’ Lore and Language –or somewhere else in their corpus on children’s culture and games.   The Opies may have decided that it was not an authentic children’s game because “selling bargains” was a synonym for low prurient humor in the early eighteenth century.  In Peri Bathos (1735) co-authors Dr. Arbuthnot, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope averred that elegant ladies were not ashamed to sell bargains (i.e. talk dirty) in polite drawing rooms or in court.   The juvenile informant and Willughby clearly thought otherwise.

While not exactly innocent, these few survivals are precious in their way.  Willughby deserves wider credit for being ahead of his time as a collector of children’s oral culture—nearly forty years ahead of John Aubrey, whose unfinished manuscript The Remains of Gentilism and Judaism (British Museum Landsdowne MSS 231) is among the most important early antiquarian sources for beliefs, customs, and stories of the common people.

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