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Playing, Gambling and Cheating in Early Modern England and France

Foreword: Playing, Gambling and Cheating in Early Modern England and France

Introduction : Jeu et tricherie dans l’Angleterre et la France modernes
Line Cottegnies et Louise Fang

Résumé

Far from being a purely incidental aspect of daily life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gambling and games of chance sparked heated controversies on both sides of the Channel throughout the period. The engagement of these activities with money, well studied by historians, made them objects of considerable concern. Gambling, any form of gambling, was seen as an activity that favoured cheating and suspicious, illicit transfers of money. Because of their heavy reliance chance, all profits resulting from games of hazard could potentially be considered a form of theft according to Puritan moralists. Gambling was more generally the target of invectives from religious authorities from all quarters, who were wary of this emerging parallel economy, and from many moralists who sometimes called for its outright ban. The debts and resulting impoverishment caused by gaming also worried public authorities. It is therefore not surprising that the social phenomenon of gambling became such a widespread motif in the literature and iconography of the period. The present collection of articles has grown out of a regular seminar on games and gaming held in 2019 and 2020, and an international conference on cheating and gambling in the early modern period held at Sorbonne Université in September 2020.

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1In The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (1848), William Makepeace Thackeray portrays a young man whose fortune is built partly thanks to gambling: with the help of his uncle, Barry roams the gaming tables across Europe, and his success is not only financial. In the central scene of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, the seduction of the wealthy Lady Lyndon takes place at a gaming table – a reminder of the fact that Thackeray’s first title for the book was in fact The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Early-modern literature teems with players and gamblers, and these representations were based on a historical reality amply recorded in sermons and treatises on the games of the time. In the seventeenth century, Charles Cotton’s essay The Compleat Gamester (1678), which was reprinted many times, thus bears witness both to the culture of playing and to the gambling fever that swept across the British Isles, a phenomenon common to most of Europe. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama already contains, however, a host of situations involving players and gamblers, from the deceitful card-play in the anonymous Arden of Faversham (1592) to the male characters’ flawed gambits in the denouement of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1623), or Bassanio’s bet to secure his heiress in The Merchant of Venice (1598). In the Caroline period, the city comedy of James Shirley’s The Gamester (1637), a favourite of King Charles I’s, focusses on the character of a gambler and reflects on a society that seems obsessed with playing. In Restoration and eighteenth-century comedy, the gaming tables and faro banks become familiar, with their lots of bankruptcies, intrigues and sassy or naive female gamblers.

  • 1 Elisabeth Belmas, Jouer autrefois. Essai sur le jeu dans la France moderne (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles), S (...)
  • 2 See for instance David Dean, “Elizabeth’s Lottery: Political Culture and State Formation in Early M (...)

2 Far from being a purely incidental aspect of daily life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gambling and games of chance sparked heated controversies on both sides of the Channel throughout the period. The engagement of these activities with money, well studied by Elisabeth Belmas among others, made them objects of considerable concern.1 Gambling, any form of gambling, was seen as an activity that favoured cheating and suspicious, illicit transfers of money. A new genre of cautionary texts exposed the unscrupulous practices of some players prepared to do anything to win the stake. Because of their heavy reliance chance – which implies that the winners of a game are devoid of any form of merit – all profits resulting from games of hazard could potentially be considered a form of theft, according to Puritan moralists. Gambling was the target of invectives from all religious authorities, who were wary of this emerging parallel economy, and from many moralists who sometimes called for its outright ban. The debts and resulting impoverishment caused by gaming also worried public authorities. Although legislation was adopted in order to regulate these activities, governments paradoxically attempted to profit from this “gambling fever” by setting up royal lotteries designed to provide additional funds to the Crown.2 It is therefore not surprising that the social phenomenon of gambling became such a widespread motif in the literature and iconography of the period.

  • 3 Peter Burke, “Viewpoint. The Invention of Leisure in Early modern Europe,” Past and Present, 146, F (...)
  • 4 See in particular Laurent Thirouin, Le Hasard et les règles : Le Modèle du jeu dans la pensée de Pa (...)

3 But all these representations point to a gradual autonomisation of games and gambling from the moral, political, and religious discourses that represented them as illicit and even pernicious earlier in the seventeenth century. With the gradual waning of the religious control over the social sphere, gambling gradually became more of a social issue than a moral one.3 Games and gambling also became subjects of study, with the birth of a science of probability: Blaise Pascal in particular, as a mathematician, wrote a treatise on probabilities which also fed into his metaphysics when he elaborated his doctrine of the metaphysical gamble. Play and gambling could thus become instruments of thought to theorize the relationship between providence and chance.4

  • 5 The Conference, entitled Cheating and Gambling in the Early Modern period, was organized on 13 Sept (...)

4The present collection of articles has grown out of a regular seminar on games and gaming held in 2019 and 2020, and an international conference on cheating and gambling in the early modern period held at Sorbonne Université in September 2020.5 The first three articles here deal with the political and religious significance of games that underpins the representation of playing, risk-taking and gambling in early-modern literature and iconography. In her article, entitled “The Game’s the Thing: Politics and Play in Middleton’s A Game at Chess,” Supriya Chaudhuri draws from Clifford Geertz’s analysis of Balinese cockfighting to examine how cheating, gambling, and the play-world of chess in Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess (1624) relates to the political reality not only of the strained diplomatic relations between England and Spain, but also to the medium of theatre, as performing the play was in itself a gamble for the author and his company. In an article entitled “The Revells of Christendom ou le dessous diplomatique des cartes,” Gilles Bertheau focuses on an engraving printed around 1609. He shows how the representation of several European monarchs shown playing a variety of games of chance is used to satirize the diplomatic tensions of the Thirty Years’ War, and argues that their games of cards or dice explicitly downplays the role of providence in history. In the next article, entitled “Taking chances: Gambling and Providence in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice,” Louise Fang also focusses on the issue of gambling and providence, but this time in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice where she argues that games fully illustrate the evolutions of early modern capitalism. Here again, it is the skill of the protagonists, rather than providence, that is put to the fore through the gambling metaphor that pervades the play.

5The second set of articles draws attention to the extent to which early-modern literary sociability relied on playing and games. Drawing on Gregory Bateson’s work on the nature of play, Guillaume Fourcade, in an article entitled “‘Lo, here I lie’: les jeux du paradoxe chez Donne,” analyses one particular type of literary games, paradoxes, in John Donne’s poetry and shows how the poems can be construed as play-spaces characterised by autoreferentiality and a constant migration of meaning. Literary games were also highly dependent on the context that fostered them, as shown by Line Cottegnies. In an article entitled “Jeux littéraires en France et en Angleterre au XVIIe siècle – des salons parisiens à Aphra Behn,” she examines how the literary games that emerged in the culture of galanterie in France’s “salons” were transposed (or not) in England. To do so, she focuses on Aphra Behn’s appropriation of that culture in her adaptation of a précieux work by Balthazar de Bonnecorse, La Montre, or The Lover’s Watch (translated in 1686), to cater for an English readership.

6The next two articles show how gaming and gambling become philosophical instruments to interrogate the meaning of chance and the workings of providence. In an article entitled “Il (ne) faut (pas) parier : Le jeu et sa morale dans Le Page disgracié (1643),” Laurence Plazenet focusses on the uses of gambling in a work that is usually described as libertine to show how the author engages with a traditional and Christian-inspired moral criticism of gaming and the discourse of vanitas. She argues that the novel, more ironic – and Erasmian – than had been commonly thought, should be read as part of Tristan L’Hermite’s religious turn in the 1640s. In his contribution entitled “Fontenelle: jouer, philosopher,” Christophe Martin shows how Fontenelle’s whole philosophy is based on the idea of playfulness. The philosopher, quietly engaging with Pascal, does not use games and playing only as objects of mathematical and philosophical reflection, when, in “Eloge de Montmort,” he applies for instance modern arithmetics to the analysis of games of chance. He also develops a conception of the universe that posits a universal playfulness in the work on nature to break away with the providentialist conception of a great divine design.

7Finally, the last three articles here explore gambling and cheating through their relation to gender construction and social hierarchies. Clara Manco, in a piece entitled “Games and the Margins: Winning Fops and Gambling Women on the Restoration Comic Stage,” focusses more specifically on gambling scenes in several comedies by Aphra Behn and John Dryden, to show that they constitute moments of suspension which allow marginal characters – here understood as women or comic butts – to renegotiate social hierarchy. In her article, entitled “Gambling with Women, Estates and Status in Long Eighteenth Century-Comedy,” Beth Cortese compares two comedies, Aphra Behn’s The Lucky Chance (1685) and Susanna Centlivre’s The Basset Table (1705), to show how gambling could be seen as an opportunity for social elevation for women who were still limited by the legal status of coverture, as it allows them to engage with the vital issues of property and inheritance in an indirect way. The gaming table could thus allow transfers of property that would not have been otherwise possible. These issues were still central in Georgian England. In an article entitled “‘Sorting out a Pack of Cards’: Gambling, Card-Playing and Figuring Credit and Social Identity in Georgian England,” Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding reminds us that in the eighteenth-century gambling was identified as a great moral and economic danger, as an addiction could imperil family fortunes. It led to a deluge of moralising essays, plays, newspaper publications and novels, as well as visual representations satirising gaming and gambling; but gambling also served as a metaphor to describe the new economy’s credit system. The article explores the use of images of cards and card games as tropes to discuss the period’s economic transformations and to define social and political identities of public male and female figures, men and women alike. The satirical representations of Charles James Fox and Georgiana Cavendish, two notorious gamblers in the shape of playing cards, are discussed in connection with their gambling addiction and political engagement. Again, through a wide variety of examples, it appears that gambling and credit were central to the construction of social identities, especially for female gamblers.

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Notes

1 Elisabeth Belmas, Jouer autrefois. Essai sur le jeu dans la France moderne (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles), Seyssel, Champ Vallon, 2006.

2 See for instance David Dean, “Elizabeth’s Lottery: Political Culture and State Formation in Early Modern England,” Journal of British Studies, 50.3, July 2011, 587-611 and Marie-Laure Legay, Les Loteries royales dans l’Europe des Lumières, 1680-1815, Villeneuve-d’Ascq, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2014.

3 Peter Burke, “Viewpoint. The Invention of Leisure in Early modern Europe,” Past and Present, 146, February 1995, 136-50, later taken up in Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 3rd ed., Farnham, Ahgate, 2009; Leah Marcus, Politics of Mirth. Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell and the Defence of Old Holiday Pastimes, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1978, and Gregory M. Colon Semenza, Sports, Politics and Literature in the English Renaissance, Newark, London, Delaware Press and AUP, 2003.

4 See in particular Laurent Thirouin, Le Hasard et les règles : Le Modèle du jeu dans la pensée de Pascal, Paris, Vrin, 1991.

5 The Conference, entitled Cheating and Gambling in the Early Modern period, was organized on 13 September 2019 by Line Cottegnies and Alexis Tadié at Sorbonne Université (also organizers of the Modernités 16-18 Seminar in 2019 et 2020).

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Référence électronique

Line Cottegnies et Louise Fang, « Foreword: Playing, Gambling and Cheating in Early Modern England and France »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 39 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2021, consulté le 18 septembre 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/episteme/9589 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/episteme.9589

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Auteurs

Line Cottegnies

Sorbonne Université

Line Cottegnies is the author of L’Éclipse du regard: la poésie anglaise du baroque au classicisme (Droz, 1997), and has co-edited several collections of essays, including Authorial Conquests: Essays on Genre in the Writings of Margaret Cavendish (AUP, 2003, with Nancy Weitz), Women and Curiosity in the Early Modern Period (Brill, 2016), with Sandrine Parageau, or Henry V: A Critical Guide (Bloomsbury, 2018), with Karen Britland. She has published widely on seventeenth-century literature, from Shakespeare and Raleigh to Aphra Behn and Mary Astell. She has also edited seventeen of Shakespeare's plays for the Gallimard complete works and one play, Henry IV, Part 2, for The Norton Shakespeare 3 (2016). With Marie-Alice Belle, she has co-edited two Elizabethan translations of Robert Garnier (by Mary Sidney Herbert and Thomas Kyd), published in 2017 in the MHRA Tudor and Stuart Translation Series.

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Louise Fang

Université Sorbonne Paris-Nord

Louise Fang is a lecturer in Shakespeare and early modern theatre at the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord (Paris XIII). After graduating from the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris-Saclay in English, and passing the agrégation examination, she defended her PhD thesis entitled “Games and Theatre in Shakespeare’s Plays” in 2019 at Sorbonne Université (Paris IV). This research places Shakespeare’s theatre within the wider historical context of early modern debates on games and sports.

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