34. Medieval morris
Morris (see photo of a morris pattern) belonged, together with chess, tables and draughts, to Europe’s four most popular board games, that is beyond doubt. Doubt arises, however, if I want to know how the social classes estimated morris, as there are opposite signals. To find an answer for the Middle Ages I pass the border between Middle Ages and New Time, assuming that board games had before and after 1500 the same social position.
In 1426, the English writer John Lydgate made a social distinction between chess and draughts on one side and morris on the other side. One of the characters in his book, symbol of the human who passionately tastes the joys of life, plays chess and draughts with gentlemen but morris with a shepherd, representative of a low social class [Stoep 2007:161-2]. This is in keeping with David Parlett [2018:109-11], who calls morris a rustic game. This word rustic has the positive connotation of peace of the countryside and the negative connotation of lumpish, uncivilized. Parlett mentions William Shakespeare, who in his “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1596) put morris in a rural surrounding. Shakespeare’s name for the game was morris, I am using this name here. English still has the original name merels, borrowed from French; the French spelling was merelles.
Was Parlett influenced by his colleague and compatriot Robert Bell? Bell thought that the medieval higher circles held morris in high regard, especially in the 14th c. He appealed to a marvelously illustrated manuscript from Northern Italy from this age, made for the court, where the morris diagram in particular was splendid [1969:94]. This should mean, says Bell, that for the people of the court morris was a highly valued game.
In my view this argument is invalid. The racks of our book stands are bulging with books full of crossword puzzles, sudoku’s and so on. The 14th c. manuscript in question, with chess, tables and morris puzzles, is the equivalent of our puzzle books. If the English Prince Charles leaks in an interview about his fancy for cross words, royalists will promptly start an action to surprise him on his next birthday with a book full of such puzzles. They don’t snatch it from the kiosk but engage an artist, so that they can offer their hero a splendid calligraphic book. The quality of this book tells us nothing about the status of the crossword puzzle but everything about the status of the receiver. And accordingly, the splendid medieval manuscript does not tell us anything about the status of board games but everything about the receiver of the manuscript.
Linguistic inquiries suggest that morris had a humble social status: neither the morris piece [Stoep 2007:106,155] nor the morris board [Stoep 2007:153-4] ever had a name of its own. By the way, this lacking name of the board hampers investigation. And that draughts and morris had the same name until the 14th c. does not make research easier.
The subject matter of chapter 33 was the gaming box. I found when the box came up: first half 16th c.
The gaming box
The time of origin is important for our inquiry into the history of morris, as the furniture maker often inlaid the box with a morris pattern, besides the common pattern for tables and for chess and draughts. Parlett [2018:111] assumes, following earlier researchers, that the gaming box was a medieval innovation. Consequently, he concludes that morris had a social status hardly inferior to that of chess and tables.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna exhibited in 1998 29 gaming boards. As the catalogue [Seipel 1998:89-113, 145-201, 219-244) shows the boards, ordered by prominent European families which collected objects of art, were very precious. About 50% (14 pieces) of the boards had a morris pattern. Below the tables pattern from a German (?) gaming box from the 16th c. made of plum and nut wood, taken from Seipel 1998:156-7. On top the morris pattern.
The gaming box in Seipel:164-5 was made in Eger ‒ see for the gaming boxes from Eger chapter 33. It is striking that the artists from Eger did not lay in a morris pattern but preferred a beautifully cut representation of for example a mythology scene. See Voigt 1999 for pictures. I reproduce an image from 1686 depicting emperor Leopold I as Julius Caesar.
Status and popularity
Otherwise than Parlett, I prefer to distinguish between status and popularity. The gaming box-with-morris board was the dominant piece of furniture from the first half of the 16th until the 1730s ‒but it survived until our days [Parlett 2018:111]‒, and therefore we may assume morris was played by the higher circles which could afford such an expensive board. Some representatives of those better off in The Netherlands ordered a costly dolls’ house to impress their visitors, these were not children toys. Silversmiths made gaming boards in miniature, combined boards for morris and draughts.
The quiet countryside
From the second half of the 17th c. until the two first decades of the 20th c., the combined board for morris and draughts on 10×10 squares was common for the countryside in the northern parts of the Netherlands [Stoep 2007:85; Mourik 2014]. The country-people made these board themselves, sometimes with date, their initials or their residence. Here an example.
The social position of morris
Conclusion valid for The Netherlands: morris was played by all social classes, and so morris was a popular game. However, there must be made, I think, a distinction between the status and the popularity of a game. There are Dutch 18th c. eyewitnesses reporting about gentlemen playing tables and draughts in a public place, the coffee house ‒ they did not play chess, this game was hardly known in Holland. What the gentlemen did not play in public was morris. Morris, is my conclusion, was an often-played game with a low social status. This holds as greatly for the Middle Ages. Friedrich Berger [2003:15] comes to the same conclusion.
In the Moroccan part of the High Atlas, Berger remarked, a strong player of morris is held in high regard. It concerns, however, a player in the rustic countryside, far from the “civilized” city.