Corinna Kirschstein (Universität Wien)

“What Pleasure May Thee Arise from It?” ‘Pig-beating’ as a Game Constituting Participation and Order in the Late Middle Ages

Embedded in festivities and other social events, games and competitions formed a vital part of social life in the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era. They produced an amenable and transient social formation that served as a stage for conflicts and alliances, which could not be dealt with in other ways. In this way, this entertainment became a substantial part of social processes. Though taking place beyond the regime of labour and daily routine, they can provide insight into specific cultural mechanisms.

One of the most peculiar and oddest among these games was ‘pig-beating’. Blind beggars, equipped with clubs, were summoned and ordered to beat a pig to death in an enclosure. During the fight, the blind unwittingly knocked down each other before killing the pig, thus becoming the laughing stock of an exhilarated crowd. From the beginning of the 13th century until the end of the 16th century, numerous sources throughout Central and Western Europe attest to the popularity of the game, among those exempla, chronicles, travel journals, illuminations, and tapestries. As multifaceted as its sources are the occasions on which the game took place: princely representation, carnival, crossbow tournaments, and fairs being among those mentioned. Retaining its framework, the ‘pig-beating’ seems to adapt easily to various contexts.

Hence, it is crucial to enquire into the functionality of the game within the diversity of contexts named above. Unsurprisingly, there is no coherent interpretation of ‘pig-beating’ that tackles all its aspects. Disability studies and sociology focus on the situation of the blind in medieval and early modern societies. Other attempts at an interpretation suggest it to be a counter-event to tournaments or other competitions, when not denying its existence at all.

While most of the sources only provide rather short descriptions of the game, they do allow research into important aspects, which can hardly be observed in present-day games and competitions, e.g., into the connexion of violence and laughter. Furthermore, the analysis of the game can substantially add to our understanding of forms of conflict resolution by externalization or substitution (using the blind or the pig as a ‘scapegoat’).

The long period of written records provides material to describe the change in cultural patterns concerning the role of games and competitions (namely, as performative practices) in producing participation and ‘Gemeinschaft’. Finally, the considerable insight into the substitution of ‘more civilised’ entertainments and spectacles for rites of violence and infringement gained from analysing the game will enable further research in the field of cultural history and historical theatre and performance studies.


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