I was reading Eric Jager’s Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection In Medieval Paris, about the murder in 1407 of Louis of Orleans and the criminal investigation headed by Guillaume de Tignonville, provost of Paris. It’s one of the earliest criminal inquiries for which we have really good documentation, like, depositions and all that. We can follow Guillaume de Tignonville’s careful investigation all the way through to when John, Duke of Burgundy, called the other dukes over to say he did it and then fled Paris. At that point the investigation was considerably simplified apart from John getting away with it. Anyway, in part of the backstory to the murder comes this event from January 1393:
… One of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting was to be married, and, to everyone’s delight, the king offered to host the wedding feast and the dancing to follow at the royal palace. A young nobleman, a friend of the king’s, proposed privately to Charles [VI] an entertainment to add excitement and pleasure to the ball: He and the king, and a few friends, would beforehand and in great secrecy put on linen costumes covered with pitch and stuck full of fine yellow flax that looked like the hair of beasts. Sewn into these close-fitting garments and completely disguised from head to foot as wild men or savages, the king and his friends would burst into the ballroom during the dancing to surprise and amuse the guests. The king thought it a splendid idea, and they set the plan in motion, telling only a few servants whose help they needed.
It all ended in tragedy, because everything in that era ended in tragedy, including for the person who thought to warn folks not to let the torches get too near the people dressed in linen with straw pasted all over them by oil and tied together by ropes. But what’s got me is that the King of France thought this sounded like great entertainment. And apparently the guests did too, just thrilled by how much fun it all was, at least until the tragedy started and spread out to help the nation plunge into civil war because everything in that era eventually plunged the nation into civil war.
So this was grand entertainment. Everybody thought a couple people dressed in linen and flax and tied together and running around was just the best idea. These people were starved for entertainment. One good parlor game could have changed the whole course of what tragedies plunged the nation into civil war.
There’s a longstanding tradition in science fiction stories where someone from the present falls into history and makes his fortune “inventing” new technologies. OK, I think there’s like four of them, one of which I refuse to read. And another of which debunks the whole story idea. Anyway, I realize now this inventing-future-technology stuff is useless. Even if I could figure out how to make a transistor there’s no market for it in 14th-century France. Plus the era was centuries away from even Alessandro Volta’s most basic prototype of the mini-USB plug that doesn’t fit any cord you, or anyone else, has ever had.
But the era still needed amusements. They had some, yes, but in impossibly primitive and needlessly complicated form. The chess board, for example, was three by forty squares wide, yet it held only five pieces, and four of them were bishops. And they weren’t allowed to move. All they could do is excommunicate the Patriarch of Constantinople. You could only take three turns per day, except days that allowed five turns, and none at all on Feast Days, except one after sunset. The game innovator who first introduced the “rook” was branded a madman and sentenced to live in Gascony. “That’s all right, I’m from Gascony,” he said (in Gascon French), so that at least had a less-tragic-than-usual ending, but still, it took his reputation decades to recover. They had backgammon boards, but hadn’t yet invented its rules. They just moved markers back and forth until they got bored, which is all I know about backgammon too. And the video games were none too good, what with the screens being embroidery taking upwards of sixty weeks to render a single frame.
So what I need to prepare for in case of being lost in the distant past is to be able to “invent” some games that don’t involve open flame. Even with my scattered brain I bet I could reconstruct a basic Yahtzee set or put together a minimally functional Connect 4. Paper football matches could change the whole course of how the nation plunges into civil war. And if I spent some time preparing? Think what society could do with eight centuries and the plans for Hungry Hungry Hippos. You may call this problem ridiculous, as long as I’m not in earshot, but I like to think I have this one solved, and that’s at least something going well right now.