If we might put the letters but one way,
In the lean dearth of words, what could we say?
– John Donne
Johan Huizinga once suggested that play is older than culture – that it is in fact the source of culture. Taking that idea as its starting point, this series proposes to examine ludic cultures in Europe from the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Our goal in so doing is twofold. First, we aim to tap into a relatively new and important line of scholarly inquiry, one that has begun to concern itself not only with documenting examples of playfulness (to quote the call for proposals, “from backgammon and tops to Papal bulls and theological tractates”), but also with mapping the cultural contours that gave rise to such things.
The timing for such a series seems right: scholars have produced important articles on various objects (e.g., the Bargello Games Board) and ideas (the ethical or moral implications of chess), and some general studies of toys and the like are available. But we have yet to see focused, sustained consideration of the character and range of early modern playfulness as such, from its texts and its objects to its practices and value systems. This series is designed to promote that consideration by providing a venue for scholars from across a range of disciplines to engage in an in-depth dialogue concerning the history of play as a topic in its own right.
This brings me to our second aim, which is to interrogate the historical and intellectual implications of Huizinga’s statement. That is, we hope that this series will result not only in innovative historical research but also continued methodological inquiry concerning what exactly might constitute play in the first place. With that in mind, we welcome submissions from across a broad spectrum of disciplines, including childhood studies, gender studies, history, the history and philosophy of science, languages and literature, material culture studies, performance studies, philosophy, poetics, religious studies, and theater history, as well as the history of art and visual culture. As such a list might suggest, we conceive of play as a subtle and complex phenomenon that rewards interdisciplinary work particularly richly.
Bret Rothstein is a scholar of visual wit who teaches in the Department of the History of Art at Indiana University, Bloomington.