Fun Fact

Are You A Good Person? ~ The Game of the Blind and the Pig

Early depiction of the game of the blind and the pig ~ Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, f. 74v

You’re a nice and kind person, are you not? I mean, not to everybody, of course, you’d kill your noisy neighbour in a heartbeat like anybody else, but let’s say you see a blind person in the street trying to board on a bus by himself. You’ll help him—right?—because that’s the right thing to do.

You’ll even be what we can call a “good Christian.” Indeed, we read in the Leviticus (9, 17)—among many nonsensical and very outdated prescriptions—: “Do not put a stumbling block in front the blind.” Jesus himself reminds us about the blind (John 9, 3): “Neither this man nor his parent sinned.” Meaning that blindness is not some kind of divine retribution. It’s just… Shit happens bro. *Shrugs.* I’m sorry it happened to you.

You’ll forgive me being preachy there a minute, quoting the Bible and all, but we’re talking about the Middle Ages in this post and we know how important religion was during the Middle Ages. Right?

I mean, there was no way people would go against the moral prescriptions of the Church back then. Right?

It’s not like you’d gather blind people, hand them weapons and ask them to hit a dangerous moving target at the risk of hitting themselves. Right?

Right?!

Well… *Sighs.* Nope.

I found some cheese!

When you see how Dukes and Kings embraced adultery, if not debauchery, and broke their wedding vows on a daily basis—I’m looking right at you, Philip the Good!—, you can’t be too surprised when you read about blind people being pitted against a pig. In a fenced square. For the merriment of an urban crowd. Despite Jesus’ teachings.

~That last sentence was too long so I added a few periods for dramatic effect.~

This is exactly what happened on August 29th, 1425, in Paris. The Moon entered Libra that morning and it would have called for a peaceful and well ordained day, yet the people of Paris didn’t hear it that way.

The whole “Paris: City of Light” turned out to be fake news and they were totally fed up with natural disasters, unruly companies of bandits, a desultory nobility, conniving merchants and corrupt churchmen. Children were being snatched from their homes to be allegedly eaten by wolves or actually dismembered by vagrants that turned them into beggars. Young women prostitute themselves not to starve. The Seine would flood Notre-Dame and drown horses every year or so. Whenever a new army would take control of Paris the city was brutally sacked. Those were not the good old times. Just ask the anonymous author of the “Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris” how pissed he was. I mean, there’s a good reason that the people of Paris still behave like total dicks on a sunny day. They’ve endured a lot. Their streets, houses and bridges still carry the memory of those long awful years and it poisons their minds! It’s the only logical explanation for them being so disparaging all the time. It’s rooted deep down in their “stadtgeist” or city spirit DNA.

But I digress.

On August 29th, 1425, a few blind people were herded, given weapons and asked to kill a pig. The one who would kill it would win its meat. It turned into a ghastly spectacle. The blind started to hit each other, thinking they were hitting the pig. The pig would run them over and trample them. They’d have killed one another if they’d been armed with actual weapons.

It all sounds like a random anecdote but it turns out to be a very famous game from the Late Middle Ages, especially in Northern Germany, the Low Countries and in Northern France. The first actual record of such a game is dated from 1386, in Lubeck, though medieval scholars mention such events already in the 13th century.

Well, believe me, the people of Lubeck knew what they were doing.

During Carnival, the young lords of Lubeck picked out twelve healthy blinds. They made them drink to heighten their joy and spirit, then they plastered their bodies with cuirasses, equipped them with mismatched pieces of armour and put helmets on their heads but backwards to insure that they really couldn’t see anything.

[Translated from Richard (2015), p. 525]

Followed the same scene that happened in Paris, on August 29th, 1425. It turned into a bloody mess. For one thing. Pigs back then were not cute hairless pink babes. No. They were still pretty much fearless wild boars. Hoink! Hoink! They really took a page from Pumba’s book and charged head on yelling “They call me MISTER PIG. Yaaah!” Many a mighty lord faced with such a terrible foe died in the process of fighting the ungulate beast. I’ll write about it in a later post.

To even the odds, the pig would sometimes be tethered to a post or readied with a little bell. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! This is the sound of death. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! You’re dead. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! And the brave folks of the market place are laughing at your corpse! Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! Isn’t it a shame that you were born blind just to die that way?

One thing is sure, John the Blind experienced a more epic and respectable outcome.

Olivier Richard gives many interpretations of this “urban ritual.” The one that really struck me though is how this parody of a fight is, actually, the parody of a fight! More especially the parody of a knightly tournament. It is not a coincidence that this game happened during Carnival in Lubeck, in 1386. Then in Paris, in 1425, it was held near the Hotel d’Armagnac, the mansion of most hated lord that the people of Paris were more than happy to deride.

Most of the time, the game of the blind and the pig was held within a series of events that would constitute a festival of some sort. When the Emperor, Maximilian of Hapsburg, came to Bruges in January 1481 with his wife, Mary, Duchess of Burgundy and Countess of Flanders, the dutiful people of Flanders organized several days of festivity. It started with a knightly tournament of the outmost noble fashion. It ended up with blind people pitted against their worst enemy: the pig.

This game would be played up until the 20th century in Flanders! However, from the 16th century onwards, the participants were not actual blinds anymore, but regular people with covered eyes. Some chroniclers share some doubts though, like Alphonse Vandenpeereboom, writing in the 17th century. He rules out the possibility that actual blinds were pitted against the pig but only because he thinks it would be too cruel. Was he right, though? Were people actually nicer in his times than they were two to five centuries ago? What would it teach us about our society as a whole?

Well… it’s all a prank and fake news anyway. #Trololo We all know blinds are actually secret Kung Fu masters that would eat you for breakfast. Isn’t that right, Hundred Eyes?

Further readings:
~ Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris de 1405 à 1449. Edited by Colette Beaune. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1990 (Lettres Gothiques).
~ Olivier Richard, “Le jeu des aveugles et du cochon. Rite, handicap et société urbaine à la fin du Moyen Âge”, in Revue historique (2015), 675, p. 525-556.