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 early sources give a sense of how widely penances can vary in focus and complexity: 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:

Note that Higgins (1854) calls forfeits "stupid," 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--perhaps explaining why Enfantin (1812) praised "The Impromptu Tale" for its strong potential to yield pledges while noting they may not work in all groups.

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 primarily through kisses and de Voyer's description of pledges redeemed through elaborate literary production, and probably different gaming groups had very different expectations, evidently including in some a willingness to let people avoid penances they would dislike. His personal 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"].

Incidentally, dislike and avoidance of penances is also a minor theme of the fictional frame story, translated here, in François Hédelin Aubignac's 1673 story sequence Histoire galante et enjouée, interrompue par des entretiens de civilité, d'amitié et de passetemps.

As a footnote and open question about Rachel Revel and Dean & Munday's association of forfeits with Christmas / Twelfth Night in England--not to mention Robert Burton's list in the early 1600s, Joseph Addison's comments in 1711, the register of the Order of the Garter from 1724, or the 1731 recontextulization of Le Noble's parlor game story sequence as "Winter Evening Tales"--it's worth observing ghost stories and tales of the supernatural that were also associated with Christmas / winter ritual settings in 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. "Merryman" (1734) for example describes the game of "Questions and Commands" and also how an indoor game of "Hoop and Hide" (essentially "Hide and Seek") might sometimes end in "Kissing, &c." in the same Christmas-related text that includes several tales of ghosts/witches. We know that French fairy tale authorship in the 1600s (described in Zipes (2013) and elsewhere) and evidently the 1800s (as in "The Impromptu Tale") sometimes had a parlor game context, and it may be that English ghost stories sometimes did as well--though in these examples a less formal one than a literary gathering.


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