Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Getting Sloshed with Mr. Steward

There is a card game that the Authoress of this Blog used to quite enjoy playing back in her college days.  Cursed with the rather indecorous name of "Asshole," the game was, essentially, a race to get rid of one's cards first and become the "President," where one could invoke a series of self-serving and arbitrary rules upon the other players.

18th Century Playing Cards
Not sure as of yet whether "Asshole" was played
The rest of the players would continue to get rid of their cards until the last man to hold a card was declared the "Asshole." This unfortunate player would not only have to forfeit his or her best cards to the President in future games, but would also be coerced into a series of symbolically degrading rituals.  (The most common of these was having to drink large quantities of very cheap and unpalatable canned beer.)

But where did this game originate?  Where did the rules come from?  In the past few days, I have been looking at the rules inscribed in two 18th century club minute books  –– those belonging to the Wednesday's Club and the Centenary Club –– and I was struck by their similarities.  Indeed, it appears as if the social dynamics suggested by these club rules shared many of the same traits as this ubiquitous 21st century college drinking game.

I'll point out a few examples...

Egotistical yet unproductive rules enacted to coddle the President's ego and reaffirm the status quo were in full force.  The Wednesday's club rule book declares  "if any member of this clubb shall during the time of the clubb call the steward by any office other than Mr. Steward, such members shall for every offense forfeit and pay to the steward for the use of this Society 6 pence."  (This rule is very frequently enacted by 21st century college-age "Presidents.")

Members of club were all equals before the rules
but that doesn't prevent the Steward from getting a special title
(I also enjoyed the goose drawing c. 1685) 
The injunction to drink (or not to drink) becomes the prerogative of the President.  For example, "in case any member of this society shall talke, or otherwise interrupt the steward or his deputy during the time the names of the members of this society are calling over, such member shall forfeit and pay to the steward for the time being for the the use of the society for every such offense 3d."

Indeed, the level of drunkenness among members was strictly policed by the President, who also controlled who, when and to whom toasts were raised.  Further, "Any member that shall at any time during the club come to be disordered by drinke," the Centenary Club's rule-book stated, "shall forfeit 6d."  Bringing a drunk friend cost a shilling.  As I read on in the minute book, however, the antics of the members made it clear that the club took a very liberal view of drunkenness.  

None of these rules and penalties –– either then or now –– carried any real meaning.  These assertions of status and hierarchy are purely symbolic, holding true only among the participants in a clearly demarcated space and time.

After all, we always say, it's "just a game."

Yet the fact that two distinct 18th century social clubs ascribed to "rules" that are so similar to those espoused by boisterous college students today is thought-provoking.  Historical distance from our objects of inquiry can easily fool us into attributing more profundity to the purpose of these clubs than they really deserve.  Indeed, I'm finding that, for many of them, the professed agenda amounted to little other than a night of laughs and intoxication.