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Having written in the past about the spatiality of board-games  – particularly the spiralling ‘Game of the Goose’ – I was delighted to come across the following reference to a related, playful space.  Like the Game of the Goose, this takes the form of a spiral path, but one on a large scale rendered as a stone labyrinth in the floor of a medieval church.  This labyrinth was used to perform the following liturgical dance, described here in Max Harris’ book, Sacred Folly: A new history of the Feast of Fools (2011, Cornell University Press):

“Early in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, the dean and as many as a “hundred” canons would gather at a paved stone labyrinth set into the floor at the west end of the nave [of Auxerre cathedral].  The newest member of the chapter carried a large leather ball.  In 1412 the cathedral chapter ordered that the ball should be “smaller than usual, but too large to be grasped in one man’s hand, requiring two hands to stop it.”  It was, perhaps, the size of a soccer ball.  A manuscript account, written shortly after 1538, describes the dance: “The dean or his representative, who was dressed like all those present in an amice covering the head, used to receive the ball from a newly inducted canon.  The dean began to sing antiphonally the appropriate Easter sequence, ‘Victimae paschali laudes’; then he took the ball with his left hand and danced the tripudium [dance] repeatedly in time to the music, while the others joined hands and danced the chorea [circle dance] around the labyrinth [circa daedalum].  While they danced, the dean would deliver the ball alternately to each and every one of the dancers, [who were] in the form of a garland [serti in speciem], and they would throw it back.  There was sport, and the meter of the dance was set by the organ.”

This enchanting image uses the symbolism of the spiraling path to represent (like the Game of the Goose) the virtuous person’s approach to redemption (or other goal).  Like the board game, therefore, it creates a ritual space within which particular rules of movement and engagement apply, but from which a moral lesson is to be drawn.  In this case, of course (and this seems to have happened in many other cathedrals throughout the middle ages) the moral lesson is also symbolically performed by a large group of people.

The symbolism of the ball is not clear cut.  Harris cites various interpretations: that the ball represents the balls used by Theseus to defeat the Minotaur (a ball of pitch thrust into its mouth to stop it biting and the ball of wool that allowed him to escape the labyrinth), or perhaps represents the ‘joyful rising of the sun on Easter morning’, or, in any case, a symbol of Christ.

Whatever the symbolism, the ‘dance’ performed in this was seems to have itself been a solemn affair, though with ‘sport’ too.  Harris dismisses the suggestions that it is a close precursor of the Feast of Fools, but even if that is the case, it demonstrates both the variety of liturgical performance (most of which has been lost) and the playful fun the monks managed to have. The marking out of a particular space with the church – already a space apart – for the performance endows it with a particular magic and not just for the participants.