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A paper with the title “The Erotics of Backgammon in Provençal and Irish Poetry” piques one’s curiosity, particularly during National Poetry Month.

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In it, James E. Doan reveals the sexual innuendoes and double-entendres based on “tables” (as early versions of backgammon were known) in the love poetry of 12th-century Provençal and 17th- and 18th-century Ireland.

Tables, one of the first board games, seems to have originated in Byzantium. The earliest references to tabula, as the Greeks called it, are from the 5th century. The game, named after the board or table it was played on, had spread throughout Europe by the 14th century. Originally it was an aristocratic pursuit—Scotland’s James I, for instance, was playing the night before he was assassinated in 1437. By the 17th century, it was popular among all classes. The earliest mention of “backgammon,” “presumably meaning ‘back-game,’ or ‘back-play,'” is circa 1645.

While Irish versions of tables were probably different from English or continental ones, the metaphors and allusions wrung out of the game in Irish poems are similar enough to the Provençal of centuries earlier. In Ireland, both the poetic form and the game came in with Anglo-Normans.

But Doan doesn’t just show us where the naughty bits are worked in. More soberly, he says that the Irish poets “closely resemble their troubadour antecedents, whose love poetry was intended not so much to glorify particular women as to show their own worth within the dominant masculine poetic economy, often at the expense of women.”



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Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 12, (1992) , pp. 29-42
Department of Celtic Languages & Literatures, Harvard University