Redeeming Pledges, a.k.a. Forfeits


Many parlor games create occasions for players to make mistakes, whereupon they forfeit a pledge--some small personal item or article of clothing, like a scarf or a hat--which must be redeemed through pénitences or penances. Some 1800s sources in English offer concrete details on the process of collecting pledges and rituals for redeeming them: In short, redeeming pledges in the 19th Century tends to involve a quick, final round of light games, awkward tasks, or mild intimacies taking place after a series of parlor games. Many sources provide lengthy inventories of penances paid to redeem forfeits: Some earlier sources give a sense of how widely penances can vary in focus, complexity, and social atmosphere:

Note that Higgins (1854) calls forfeits "stupid." In 1784, G.M. Woodward's country kinsman was enraged by a kissing forfeit, and Sorel (1643), Ferra (1811), Waterman (1853), and Bogue (1854) all make it clear penances could involve embarrassment, flirting, and light physical contact--above all, kisses--presumably explaining why Enfantin (1812) praised "The Impromptu Tale" for its strong potential to yield pledges while noting older people included in a mixed group might not be subject to them. Dislike and avoidance even of purely literary/artistic penances is also a minor theme of the fictional frame story of a 1673 story sequence by François Hédelin Aubignac, translated here.

Goethe's autobiography (written 1811-1833) explains his feelings about forfeits at length:

Those little games, as they are called, which are more or less ingenious, and by which a joyous young circle is collected and combined, depend in a great measure upon forfeits, in the calling in of which kisses have no small value. I had resolved, once for all, not to kiss, and as every want or impediment stimulates us to an activity to which we should otherwise not feel inclined, I exerted all the talent and humour I possessed to help myself through, and thus to win rather than lose, before the company, and for the company. When a verse was desired for the redemption of a forfeit, the demand was usually directed to me. Now I was always prepared, and on such occasions contrived to bring out something in praise of the hostess, or of some lady who had conducted herself most agreeably towards me. If it happened that a kiss was imposed upon me at all events, I endeavoured to escape by some turn, which was considered satisfactory; and as I had time to reflect on the matter beforehand, I was never in want of various elegant excuses, although those made on the spur of the moment were always most successful.

Goethe's account points to a middle ground between Sorel's description of pledges redeemed through kisses and de Voyer's description of pledges redeemed through literary production. His views on forfeits also shed light on the counting-game episode in The Sorrows of Young Werther: "Charlotte placed the chairs in a circle; and, when the company had sat down in compliance with her request, she forthwith proposed a round game. I noticed some of the company prepare their mouths and draw themselves up at the prospect of some agreeable forfeit" ["ein saftiges Pfand"].

A fable in which a group of women are humiliated when Phryne tricks them with a forfeit task is related in "Lettre XCIV" in journalist Anne-Marguerite Petit du Noyer's Lettres historiques et galantes, de deux dames de condition, volume 6, published in 1713.

However, many other authors have offered more romantic perspectives on forfeits:

Differing contexts for forfeits in England and France are also worthy of note. Numerous English sources associate parlor games with Christmas, Twelfth Night, or winter evenings: C19 parlor game manuals like Rachel Revel's and Dean & Munday's; Giacomo Surian's letter about Twelfth Night at the court of Queen Elizabeth in 1566; Robert Burton's list in the early 1600s; Joseph Addison's comments in 1711; the register of the Order of the Garter from 1724; the 1731 recontextulization of Le Noble's parlor game story sequence as "Winter Evening Tales"; the lyrics to a theatrical song from 1782; and above all G.M. Woodward's "Christmas Gambols." This does not seem so prominent for French parlor games.

Of course, ghost stories and tales of the supernatural were also associated with winter ritual settings in English sources such as Baldwin (1584); the "Stories of Ghosts and Apparitions" that make up "Winter Evening Conversations" in Defoe (1727); "Merryman" (1734); the Christmas ghost stories and games alluded to in Irving (1819-1820); and the many, many more Christmas ghost stories after Dickens and up to the present. This too does not seem to be the case in French parlor games, which instead have stronger connections to the poetry and fairy tales composed for literary salons and trips to chateaus in the countryside, e.g. see Zipes (2013).


Return to Early Collaborative Games of Fantasy and Imagination.