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Is It Period.... Does it Matter?

Updated on November 21, 2014
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Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.

The badge of the Avacal Games Guild
The badge of the Avacal Games Guild | Source

Is it fun or is it period?

As gamesminister of Avacal, and a lover of historical games, I often come across the question of is Kubb or Tablero and should be played at events/demos. There are many games that SCAdians play that are not period, Kubb and Tablero are some prime examples. So today I will be examining the periodness of some of the games we play, and if it is even relevant.

A Kubb set
A Kubb set | Source

Kubb: Period or Not

Proponents of Kubb claim that it is a viking game originating in Gotland somewhere around the 5th century (sometimes earlier, depending on who's making the claim). The truth is though that there is zero evidence of this, and rather strong evidence that it is not the case. Kubb is not mentioned in any of the Viking sagas, and games feature quite prominently so you would think a game that is supposed to have been a popular Viking game would have at least been mentioned in passing. The Society of Gotland Games is a group dedicated to preserving the history of gaming in Gotland, and they do not recognize Kubb as a valid game of Gotland.

If not Gotland, where, and when, did Kubb originate. The fact is Kubb is a completely modern construct, it rose in popularity in the 1990s when commercial sets began appearing, the Viking backstory was a simple marketing ploy. No one really knows where Kubb came from or who invented the game, but it is decidedly NOT a Viking game and is not even remotely a period game.

Tablero: Period or Not

Tablero is a near infamous drinking game which is much loved in several kingdoms throughout the SCA, and while there are many claims that it is a documented 15th century game, the fact of the matter is this history is more than a little dubious. Several articles I have read on Tablero cite the earliest record of Tablero as Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Los Santos de Campo in Granada were known to be fond of the game in the early 15th century. This seems like a compelling claim, often there is even a specific date of 1404. Often it is claimed that Pope Sylvester V banned the game in 1458, this argument I find particularly convincing because much of our knowledge of gaming history comes from edicts banning a variety of games.

So are the claims true? Hard to say for sure, but in all the articles I have read not once are the references actually properly cited, in other words the claims of the history are made but not backed up. Where did the original researcher read that the game was played by monks in 1404, and 1404 is an oddly specific date for a general claim that doesn't have specific historical context.

The Pope Sylvester V ban is the nail in the coffin of the Tablero claim though. In 1458 there was a change of popes, from Callixtus III to Pius II not Sylvester V, in fact Pope Sylvester V doesn't exist there have been four popes named and Sylvester Sylvester IV, who claimed the papacy from 1105 to 1111, is not even actually considered a legitimate pope as Paschal II still reigned as pope in Rome, Sylvester IV eventually gave up his claim and admitted he was a false pope.

So what are the true origins of Tablero? It is a modern construct, it does not exist in history outside the reenactment community. Recently I was informed that the person who introduced it within the SCA got the game at a renfaire and the mock history was included in the ruleset. Many claim to be the originators of the game, but no one knows for sure who the true perpetrator of this hoax is. Whoever it is I tip my hat to them, the backstory they created for the game is incredibly plausible as long as you don't look too closely at it.

Does it matter if an activity is period?

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Does it matter?

The real question is not if these games are period or not, because they certainly have a period flavour, they look authentically period, they don't ruin the medieval atmosphere, so what's the harm? Some re-enactment groups are real particular about periodness everything must be perfect, the SCA is not such a group and so games such as Tablero and Kubb are fine to play at SCA events in my mind, with some minor fine print.

Periodesque activities should not be played at public Demos where we are demonstrating what the SCA does, at Demos (in my opinion) we should strive for accuracy in activities we are promoting, and be able to provide the historical context for the activities we are demonstrating, periodesque activities have no historical context and should be avoided. The only other time I disagree with it is if the activity is being promoted as actually period. So, in my opinion it is fine to play and teach periodesque games and activities such as Tablero and Kubb (there are of course countless other similar games and activities), but when you start promoting them as period and give them false historical backgrounds that is when you cross the line. Always ensure you know the actual history of an activity before you promote it, check references, don't assume because something sounds historical that it is.

There are times, in my point of view, where playing periodesque games is more desirable than playing perfectly period games. Keeping the atmosphere of the age is more important than the historical accuracy of a given activity in my mind. In other words playing croquet with a set that has modern materials such as plastic wickets is less desirable than playing Kubb with a wooden set.

While I have focused primarily on Games within the SCA in this article, I believe this holds true for any activity/class for any historical reenactment group.

© 2014 Jeff Johnston


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      docphil 2 years ago

      I personally don't think it should matter whether or not a game is period. Croquinole, jue de palets, countless "pub game", etc aren't period but they also aren't modern looking. I think that they are well within the feel and aesthetic of the SCA. If someone has a problem with the games not being period they don't have to play. I also think they shouldn't ruin everyone else's fun.