Iconoclasm As Child's Play
Joe Moshenska



LET US BEGIN IN A PARTICULAR TIME AND PLACE. The place can be specified with some precision—Redcliffe Cross in Bristol, in the west of England. The exact time is less certain, but it is sometime in the 1530s. A preacher named Roger Edgeworth stands and delivers one of a series of sermons that he gave on this spot during this period. For some years he has been fighting a fierce battle for the souls of the local people with Hugh Latimer, the evangelical preacher who has risen to great prominence in this region thanks to the patronage of Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer.1 Edgeworth remained a constant irritant to the reformed cause with his insistence that the new and emerging forms of religion had produced not heightened piety but a widespread irreverence and ribaldry among the Christian laity.2 Although the theme of Edgeworth’s sermon on this particular day sounded somewhat abstruse—“treatying of the fift gift of the holy gost, called the spirite of Science”—his denunciation of what he saw as the recent upsurge in impiety took a striking form. He crystallized the behavior that shocked him into a particular and peculiar domestic scene. “Now at the dissolution of Monasteries and of Freers houses,” Edgeworth claimed,

many Images haue bene caryed abrod, and gyuen to children to playe wyth all. And when the children haue theym in theyr handes, dauncynge them after their childyshe maner, commeth the father or the mother and saythe: What nasse, what haste thou there? the childe aunsweareth (as she is taught) I haue here myne ydoll, the father laugheth and maketh a gaye game at it. So saithe the mother to an other, Iugge, or Thommye, where haddest thou that pretye Idoll? Iohn our parishe clarke gaue it me, saythe the childe, and for that the clarke muste haue thankes, and you shall lacke no good chere.3

Edgeworth’s account of the dangerous irreverence that he saw around him is startling. He is describing the removal of holy objects from churches for the purpose of their humiliation and destruction—a process that should be easily identifiable as iconoclasm. This is not, however, iconoclasm in its usual guise. Surely iconoclasts were grim-faced men bearing hammers and flaming torches, fanatics or stern killjoys who destroyed the beautiful and integrated fabric of late medieval religion in an orgy of burning, smashing, and rending.4 Here, however, the hand that is placed on the sacred item does not exert a furious grip: it is a child’s clutching fingers, dancing the object, laughing with it, making it into a game. What Edgeworth describes is not iconoclasm as sternly pious violence; it is iconoclasm as child’s play.

In its most modest formulation my aim in this book is to make sense of the scene that Edgeworth describes, and I will return throughout the chapters that follow to its several dimensions. This was, however, by no means a unique or isolated incident: as I will show, there is scattered but definitive evidence, distributed across a range of geographical locations, that holy things were made into playthings with sufficient frequency for it to be considered an established and recognized part of iconoclastic practice in the early modern period. This, then, is my first and more limited aim: to present this evidence and to try to understand why this activity, in some ways so surprising to modern eyes, became possible. I will place this activity in its context, asking what it tells us about early modern iconoclasm that it could periodically become play, and what about early modern play made it potentially iconoclastic. What were the precise discourses in the culture of the period with which iconoclastic child’s play chimed, which it illuminates and by which it is illuminated?

In developing interpretations of this sort, I might seem to be historicizing iconoclasm as child’s play or to be using Edgeworth at his West Country pulpit, a moment seemingly from the margins of early modern culture, as a somewhat belated form of the arresting new historicist anecdote. I wish both to invoke these possible models and to hold them at bay. For as I have ruminated on the scene from Edgeworth’s sermon, in which the playing children dance the idols that have been wrenched from religious houses and thrust into their hands, I have become less certain that I know what it would mean to put the sermon into context and to determine its meaning solely as an “early modern” event.

I have, to be frank, been seduced by this passage from Edgeworth’s sermon—caught up in its folds, brought back to it time and again, finding myself compelled to wonder at it and to speculate about what is really going on in this scene and what it means. Who were these children? Were they aware of the iconoclastic significance of their actions or blithely indifferent to them? Did they enjoy such play more or less than their other forms of playing? What went through the minds of the parents who gave the children these objects? Were they gleeful at their own daring? Did they do so nervously or with brazen triumphalism? Or perhaps with deep ambivalence? Did they do so because they hated these objects and were sure of their worthlessness? Or because they feared them and found the children’s play reassuring of each object’s inert triviality? Or, if they could not decide, was this a way of keeping the object around—literally keeping it in play—and absorbing it into the household, not so much taming its power as hiding it in plain sight? I have not been able to stop asking these questions of Edgeworth’s scene, even though I began by trying to remain focused on the way in which the scene is mediated by his words and their polemical intent, defined by the framing of a sermon that is in turn framed by its immediate context. To speculate about the feelings, intentions, and complex inner lives of historical actors from several centuries ago is a perilous and disreputable enterprise at the best of times; to do so with figures who may never have existed in anything like this form, conjured up in the service of a controversial sermon, is to risk floundering “in the bog of hermeneutic narcissism,” to use Thomas M. Greene’s chastening phrase.5

Nonetheless, I have become convinced that the value and significance of Edgeworth’s scene—and its wider implications, the elucidation of which constitutes the larger ambition of this book—are inseparable from the way it has come to life for me, the way it has seemed to solicit or at least to enable a certain kind of wild imagining on my part. This has in turn affected the way that I have chosen to write about it. Like a significant number of recent scholars, I have grown impatient with the sense, rarely formulated explicitly but constantly implied by the institutional norms and structures governing academic discourse, that the ways in which we become enchanted by and affectively attached to our objects of study are at best an embarrassment and at worst a distortion rigorously to be overcome.6 While these are arguably questions raised by any historical inquiry, I would argue that they have a specificity, a richness and a tenacity in relation to Edgeworth’s scene of iconoclastic play. This is in part because I have in this instance become curiously and affectively attached to a scene that itself seems to brim with curious affective attachments of varying and conflicting sorts. The children are attached to the objects with which they play—already, before their parents arrive and intervene. The adults, too, are attached to these objects—powerfully invested in the significance that they once had and the new significance that they are supposed to accrue now that they have been placed in the children’s hands; and they are also attached to the children themselves, determined to ensure that their playing takes the right form and confers the right meaning on its objects. Then there is Edgeworth himself, who wants to inspire a radically different form of attachment in his auditors—who wants them to be appalled by this irreverence, to feel horror at the account of holy objects treated in this way, and to reaffirm, by contrast, the proper way that such objects are supposed to matter.

This scene, read from a distance of nearly five centuries, does not offer a straightforward snapshot of facts from the past so much as a crystallized sense of what a particular group of people in the past wanted from one another and from some of the objects that they encountered, as well as a crystallized sense of how we might imagine this past and what we might want it to be. The once-holy object in transit, moving from the monastery or religious house to the playing child’s hand, encapsulates much wider questions about what we want from objects, both historical and contemporary, and suggests the divergent and potentially conflicting forms of investment to which they are subject; the way in which playing occurs, and comes to be carefully guided and shaped by the parents, raises the question of what we want play to be, what meanings we want it to have, and what possibilities it might open up; and, finally, the prominence of children in the scene and their involvement in the iconoclastic process raises the question of what we want children to do, what we want them to be, and what the roles are that they are sometimes asked or compelled to play.

It is this final point on which I want initially to dwell, for the question of interpretative investment in children is perhaps less frequently posed than the question of our attachment to the past or to certain objects, but no less crucial, and it will become increasingly central to my argument as it develops across the ensuing chapters. In his account of the Tambaran, the religious cult of the Arapesh people in New Guinea, Donald Tuzin attends carefully to the role played by children in sustaining a sense that the local spirit named Nggwal is dangerous and malevolent, their response of “undiluted terror” producing “the purest image of the giant ogre, the towering monster whose bloody, toothy maw waits hungrily for naughty or unwary children.” Tuzin observes that “the role of children as ‘culture bearers’ has been largely unattended in anthropological analysis.”7 If we approach Edgeworth’s scene as historical anthropologists, would it not seem explicable in just such terms, with the children asked to become bearers of the emerging culture of iconoclastic reform? Michael Taussig, however, perceptively observes that Tuzin “implies that the credulity of the child sustains the adults’ secret,” creating a false binary of total (childish) gullibility and knowing (adult) awareness about the nature of religious ritual and belief. Instead, Taussig insists, we should attend to “the back and forth between child culture and adult culture,” and recognize that “it is not the child but the adult’s imagination of the child’s imagination that is the ‘culture bearer.’8 This superb and curious phrase—“the adult’s imagination of the child’s imagination”—echoes through Taussig’s book, and it will resonate through mine as well. It will be one of my central contentions that adults cannot stop imagining children—as pure and impure, innocent and guilty, gentle and violent, saintly and savage, idolaters and iconoclasts. Children, write Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, “tend to be seen as either wholly innocent and good, and therefore corrupted by adults, or wholly bad (vicious and sexual and rivalrous) and therefore simply small members of the unpleasant human race. This polarized view of childhood has had damaging consequences.”9 Phillips and Taylor are summarizing a widespread modern Western view, but it is possible to trace historical forms in which this binarism appears and from which it emerges; these include, for example, the repeated claim that there are two kinds of play, good and bad, and that how a child plays encapsulates his or her moral condition (though I would add that seeing children as “wholly bad” has, historically speaking, not necessarily involved seeing them as “simply small members of the unpleasant human race”; their badness can, as we will see, be construed as entirely demonic, alien, in a category all its own). It is partly the light it sheds on these ways of imagining children, their play, their imaginations and their cultural role that makes iconoclastic child’s play so significant.

We might revise Tuzin’s account, then, by saying that it is not merely the playing of the children in Edgeworth’s scene that dramatically transforms the status of the formerly holy object but the adults’ imagination of the children’s imaginative play that effects this change. Because my focus is not on the child as a historical entity but on the adult’s imagining of the child as a cultural process, I will have relatively little to say about the concerns that have been central to historians of childhood and of children’s literature—particularly whether children were in fact recognized as a distinct group in the early modern period and when they became one.10 Instead, I will suggest that iconoclasm as child’s play illuminates with unique clarity the curious ways in which the child has been construed as “other” to reason and to culture in the West. Consider the following, from Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz’s influential cross-cultural study of the image of the artist, in which they discuss the nature of “magical thinking,” arising in circumstances in which “men are inclined to equate . . . the picture and the original it depicts. Such conditions,” they write, “are more easily found among primitive people than among [those] who have reached our level of civilization, though in our culture they do occur in the wake of mental illness. . . . They evolve more readily in crowds than in an individual; they occur more frequently in children than in adults.”11 By aligning children with primitives and the mentally ill, Kris and Kurtz participate in a much longer history of exclusions that have been deeply formative of Western norms. As Anthony Pagden shows, Aristotle’s account of the slave, the woman, and the child as innately defective in reason was frequently used during the early modern period to justify the innately slavish imperfections of non-Western peoples: “The suggestion that the Indian was a natural child . . . echoed the unreflective opinions of countless colonists and missionaries.”12 While the crucial and ongoing work of scholarship in the past decades has illuminated and indicted the habits of thought by which women, non-Western people, and the mentally ill have served as the scapegoats of Western reason—the quarantined Others that allow its smooth functioning—there has been markedly less attention to the peculiarity of the child in these narratives. The child—specifically, of course, in Aristotle’s account the free male child—is a different and strange kind of Other: both external to the realm of reason and destined to join it, a rational adult in potentia. Children are inferior, but their inferiority is a state not of being but becoming. This is a reassuring narrative for adult reason: the child is destined to overcome its otherness and join the fold. But it also makes the child a potentially unsettling presence during its protracted meantime: the child is the Other within the household, the Other whom we once were, whose otherness has a time-limit, and who must be both clearly distinguished from the community of reason and brought progressively ever closer.

Even as I make this point, however, there seems no way to avoid at some point speaking for children, whether in the past or in the present—of speaking both of the child and on the child’s behalf. This is the unavoidable risk identified by Jacqueline Rose when she writes of “a form of investment by the adult in the child, and . . . the demand made by the adult on the child as the effect of that investment, a demand which fixes the child and then holds it in place.”13 We might understand the scene of iconoclastic child’s play, preliminarily, as a scene within which adults invest both in children and in certain objects in order to fix and hold them in place; but it is also, as I will argue, a scene in which these acts of fixing and holding are stretched to the limits, their stakes and workings thereby revealed. By owning up at the outset to my own affective investment in this scene, my own lack of cool objectivity or pure historical rigor, I also want to make clear that I by no means exempt myself from these risks, as if it is only other, less self-aware adults who imagine children in a certain way or try to fix them in a certain time and place. I too, inescapably, am imagining the child imagining. I aim, unapologetically, to interweave my historical and critical interpretations with further imaginings of this sort, distinguished not by their unique validity but by my attempt to make the varied historical processes by which adults have imagined children part of what I seek to understand.

My opening wager, then, is that iconoclastic child’s play is worthy of sustained attention because it has the potential to illuminate in new ways our multiple and affective attachments: to particular historical details, narratives, and events; to objects holy, unholy, and otherwise; to play; and to children. The play that Edgeworth describes has this potential not because its meanings are so apparent but precisely because it is doubly inscrutable and therefore presents a particularly rich interpretative and imaginative challenge. It is inscrutable, first, because the evidence that iconoclastic child’s play occurred, while indisputable, is also meager and fragmented, polemically framed and distorted, suggestive rather than decisive in its meanings. But play is inscrutable in a much deeper sense, I would argue, because the playing of children is often a particularly powerful encapsulation of the way in which human activity can be at once opaque and compelling—compelling because opaque. This is in no small part why it is both so tempting and so difficult to interpret and to imagine. These features are brought out in Michael Fried’s influential account of the powerful hold that certain paintings seem to have on us through their depiction of figures who “exemplify . . . the state or condition of rapt attention, of being completely occupied or engrossed or (as I prefer to say) absorbed in what he or she is doing, hearing, feeling, thinking.”14 Fried pays particular attention to Pierre Chardin’s “depictions of children and young people playing games or engaged in apparently trivial amusements,” and he identifies Chardin’s refusal to distinguish “between the pictures of games and amusements on the one hand and ostensibly more serious or morally exemplary scenes on the other.” He remarks that, while a painting might seem by definition to capture an instant, “Chardin’s paintings of games and amusements . . . are also remarkable for their uncanny power to suggest the actual duration of the absorptive states and activities they represent. . . . A single moment has been isolated in all its plenitude and density from an absorptive continuum. . . . Images such as these are not of time wasted but of time filled.”15

Fried’s analysis allows me to introduce what will develop into two persistent concerns of this book: first, the instability of any distinction among the playful, the trivial, and the serious; second, the crucial connections among iconoclasm, child’s play, and the experience or understanding of temporality, of lived time. For now, I wish to amplify the simple but powerful argument that Fried makes in relation to Chardin’s work: there is something captivating, compelling, about the sight of the child at play, not because we immediately feel able to understand the operations of such activity, or feel that it occurs for our benefit, or feel able to join in, but precisely because we are so radically excluded from it. This play does not need us to function: its meaning feels self-contained and self-sufficient, and we are made to feel utterly superfluous in its presence. We experience, before these depictions of the child at play, our separateness, our irrelevance. Whereas for Fried this is just the nature of the aesthetic response that he values, the reactions that the exclusionary self-containedness of the child at play can provoke vary, as we will see, from delight to fear and rage. But I wish to suggest that the mood of the viewer before these paintings of “games and amusements” is the mood in which we should approach the historical phenomenon of iconoclastic child’s play: frank wonderment at an activity that seems to bristle with a meaning that is not, and cannot fully be, ours.

To develop an adequate response to such experiences of paradoxically rich exclusion, this book begins in a particular historical moment in which iconoclasm became child’s play but spirals outward from this starting point to consider a considerably wider set of narratives, discourses, and commitments that illuminate and are illuminated by this specific historical phenomenon. My conviction that iconoclasm as child’s play is acutely relevant to various ways in which we understand and imagine children, objects, and the past has informed both my structure and my approach in the chapters that follow. I make more consistent use of texts and artifacts from the sixteenth century (and, to a lesser extent, the seventeenth) than any other era, since this is the principal period in which iconoclastic child’s play seems to have taken place. Each of the chapters that follows begins with a particular instance of iconoclastic child’s play—or, in the case of the final two chapters, with surviving objects that were used for such play—as its point of departure; then, in order to make sense of the longer-running and sometimes tangled threads within which, I argue, this specific phenomenon is enmeshed, I go on to incorporate materials from a wide range of disciplines and historical periods. This reflects in part my own dissatisfaction with the ways in which historical materials and epochs are still carved up with excessive clarity in the modern academy and in part my desire to embrace eclecticism in the face of this sometimes dreary division of labor, to pronounce, with Ian Hacking, that “I help myself to whatever I can, from everywhere.”16 This is not to say my approach is rampantly eclectic: I draw consistently on a particular set of not entirely complementary conceptual sources, especially the broadly Marxist but itself eclectic thought of Walter Benjamin and T. W. Adorno; psychoanalytic theory in the tradition of object relations (especially D. W. Winnicott and Christopher Bollas); and anthropological accounts of objecthood and play from Lévi-Strauss to the present, as well as more critical engagements with deconstruction, thing theory, and the work of Giorgio Agamben.

This approach is not so much a theory or method as the outcome of my growing conviction that eclecticism of this sort is a necessary response to the phenomenon of iconoclastic child’s play itself. To treat it exclusively as an “early modern” phenomenon—to “put it in context,” when this means assuming that it must be explained solely in terms of discourses and modes of understanding from the period in which it occurred—would be to limit and define its meaning in advance. As postcolonial, feminist, and queer theorists among others have in recent decades repeatedly and valuably shown, such seemingly innocuous acts of scholarly situating can themselves be ways of reinforcing ideologically freighted modes of understanding history and temporality as if they were the only way of doing things.17 Elizabeth Freeman has written powerfully of these modes of “chrononormativity,” by which “manipulations of time convert historically specific regimes of asymmetrical power into seemingly ordinary bodily tempos and routines, which in turn organize the value and meaning of time.”18 These modes affect the organization of time on every level, from the specific experiential rhythms of a single hour or day to the larger schemes within which history is organized and divided. Literary scholars such as Wai Chi Dimock and Rita Felski have begun to call for modes of writing that break out from the model of the historical “period” as enclosed and self-identical and to allow texts and ideas to act on and resonate with one another across time.19 My aim is not just to interpret iconoclasm as child’s play in context but to experiment with a mode of writing about it that moves rhythmically in and out of its time frame, in two senses—both the historical period in which it occurred and the multiple and shifting temporal dynamics opened up by the scene that Edgeworth describes. For this reason each of my chapters takes as its title a single word, which, I argue, reverberates in a new way when placed in relation to iconoclastic child’s play and radiates out from this starting point. I aim not only to historicize the scene but, to use Dimock’s term, to express, expand upon, and exfoliate the resonance of Edgeworth’s account as a way of understanding both the scene itself and the ways in which we might relate and fail to relate to the scraps and fragments of the past.20

Working in this way raises one pair of questions irresistibly: do I mean this approach to be a kind of iconoclasm? And do I intend it as a form of play? Here a glance at Felski’s recent work is instructive: building on Bruno Latour, she has argued that a whole array of scholarly writing, insofar as it presents and understands itself as a mode of suspicious critique, revels in its self-proclaimed iconoclastic status. “After decades of heady iconoclasm,” she writes, “we are left nursing a Sunday morning hangover and wondering what fragments, if any, can be retrieved from the ruins.” She subsequently offers an alternative diagnosis of what this critical activity, which presents itself as iconoclasm, truly is: “While often wary of pleasure, suspicious reading generates its own pleasures. . . . The delight it engenders is in part a ludic delight, a pleasure in creating complex designs out of textual fragments, conjuring inventive insights out of overlooked details. . . . Critique, in other words, is a form of addictive and gratifying play.”21 For Felski, then, critique is a mode of writing that takes itself to be iconoclasm when it is in fact play, and she presents this as a truth that critics cannot admit to themselves. The question emerging from these claims that drives and informs my own account is, How might it change the way we view our modes of historical and critical interpretation, if they are indeed torn in this way between the iconoclastic and the ludic, once we recognize that iconoclasm and child’s play might be one and the same? Stephen K. White begins his account of “weak ontologies” in contemporary political writing with a thought experiment that speaks to the same combination of activities that Felski finds lurking in contemporary theorizing: “Imagine yourself standing by a vacant lot watching children play. Debris lies about, for a building once stood here, until its foundation gave way. Chunks of the building remain here and there, as does the gaping hole left from the foundation. As the children clamber over the remains and jump in and out of the hole, you begin to think that they are playing a game, but it is one with which you are unfamiliar. In fact, the rules still seem to be emerging, and the children themselves are sometimes uncertain how to proceed.”22 White’s imagined children play in the ruins rather than with the ruins: they recall the children in certain seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, who play in ruined churches with the fragments left in the aftermath of iconoclastic fervor.23 He develops the scene into an analogy for what it is like to observe certain theoretical schools in action. What appeals to me in his account is White’s genuine fascination and bemusement before the play that he observes; in fact, it is not even clear that it is play, whether it has stable rules, and whether its nature is any clearer to those participating than to those observing. It unfurls open-endedly, uncertainly, and amid broken fragments, yet it remains play—or so it seems to the simultaneously absorbed and excluded observer, like the one before Chardin’s paintings. The influential play-theorist Gregory Bateson, whose work I will consider in a later chapter, writes that “play, as a label, does not limit or define the acts that make up play,” and this makes the limits of any concrete play-situation supple, provisional, prone to open up and swallow one who merely looks on in the manner that White describes: “Indeed, anybody who has tried to stop some children playing knows how it feels when his efforts simply get included in the shape of the game.”24

It is with such an understanding—of play as unstable, polymorphous, unbounded—that I approach not just child’s play as a historical phenomenon but attempts to theorize play. Two notable and influential instances merit attention here for the way in which they overlap with but ultimately differ significantly from my own. First, particularly influential in early modern studies is Stephen Greenblatt’s account, in his reading of Christopher Marlowe, of a “will to play” that “flaunts society’s cherished orthodoxies” and “courts self-destruction in the interest of the anarchic discharge of its energy. This is play on the brink of the abyss, absolute play.” This Marlovian play is self-consuming and ultimately self-defeating, somewhere between a howl of despair and a gleeful cackle, and finally impotent: “the attempts to challenge this system” are “exposed as unwitting tributes to that social construction of identity against which they struggle.”25 Greenblatt’s idiom—a “will to play”—hints at the Nietzschean foundation of his argument, which is shared by Jacques Derrida’s widely influential account of play as the undoing of structure, first articulated in response to the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. “Play,” Derrida writes, “is the disruption of presence. . . . Being must be conceived as presence or absence on the basis of the possibility of play and not the other way around.” He then distinguishes between two types of play: “sure play, that which is limited to the substitution of given and existing, present pieces,” and another conception, severed from all accounts of absolute origin and of the human as its ground, which is “Nietzschean affirmation, that is the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming.”26 To read these exciting passages by Derrida and Greenblatt is, however, also to be reminded how easily these idioms—“absolute play,” “the play of the world”—became devalued by overuse. If these various genitives involve play beyond the human, play that is always of some larger, transindividual entity—play of the world, play of the signifier, play of meaning—then, I want to ask, what makes it play at all? What does it share with scenes of children at play, like that described by Edgeworth, that makes them worthy of the same name? It is worth noting that Nietzsche himself was interested in the concrete nature of children playing, not just in play as affirmation and escape: “A man’s maturity: having rediscovered the seriousness that he had as a child, at play.”27 I am not interested in attacking deconstruction and its derivatives as itself a form of mere playing with words, a reduction of truth and value to a game, as some have done—like Teresa Ebert, who decries what she calls “the hegemony of ludic logic” that has depoliticized and hence neutralized cultural theory.28 Such criticisms are predicated on a conception of mere play, trivial and shorn of significance, whose long history I discuss in my first chapter. I prefer, instead, to take the prevalence of theoretical lusus in these late twentieth-century accounts as symptoms of the way in which play is both everywhere and nowhere in current critical discourse. While my opening chapters will continue to focus on the narratives and arguments in which play and iconoclasm have assumed important roles, my recursive engagement with Edgeworth’s scene of iconoclastic child’s play has led me not to a definition of play in general but to an understanding of its recurrent characteristics that differ markedly from these accounts of play as absolute undoing or affirmation.

Since I will emphasize these characteristics throughout, it may be helpful to enumerate them here. First, the forms of play that concern me do not involve establishing a stable relationship with an object; instead, the relationship between player and plaything is one that unfolds and changes, unpredictably, through time. As D. W. Winnicott succinctly observes, “Doing things takes time. Playing is doing.”29 Second, this affective, temporally uneven mode of interaction leads the plaything not only to become invested with increased significance but to verge on animation and agency. Third—and in part owing to its combination of animating intensity and unpredictability—play tends (as I have already suggested) to be opaque, its precise meaning ungraspable by those not involved in it (and perhaps by those who are). As the following chapters will suggest, these three intertwining characteristics, and the ways that we imagine them and the children engaged in them, are crystallized in iconoclasm as child’s play.

My introduction, rather than considering the specific details of iconoclasm as child’s play, begins with large-scale historical, cultural, and aesthetic narratives in which iconoclasm and play have been prominent but argues that these activities have tended to be opposed: insofar as iconoclasm helps to inaugurate disenchanted modernity, it is held to have driven play from the world. I argue that their convergence in the sixteenth century, therefore, has the potential to alter these larger narratives in showing that play cannot be equated with freedom nor iconoclasm with disenchantment. My first chapter begins with iconoclastic child’s play in Elizabethan Lincolnshire; I relate but ultimately distinguish this practice from rhetorical strategies of trivialization and argue that we must rethink the assumption that to compare an activity to play is to trivialize it. Exploring the widespread iconoclastic term trifle, I argue that a strain of thought runs from scripture through the church fathers all the way to Thomas More that offers a more laudatory account of play as a way of responding to the divine and leaves play in a fluctuating position between the highest and the lowest significance. My second chapter begins with a desecrated crucifix given to children in Cologne as a plaything and argues that we should consider it as a form of what Edgeworth calls an “idoll,” which I read as a hybrid of idol and doll. I present the doll as a figure perennially poised on the boundary between play and piety, and between reverence and violence, ending with our encounter with such works in the modern museum and in modern art. In Chapter 3 I continue this analysis in relation to movable puppets of doves, representing the Holy Spirit, that were given to children as playthings in Germany, and consider the marionette as a figure whose foregrounding of its constitutive brokenness paradoxically enables it to incarnate shattered Christian divinity, a foolish and material version of holiness whose implications were explored most fully by Erasmus.

My fourth chapter introduces the fetish as a theoretical term whose history has always been bound up with both iconoclasm and childhood; I approach it via iconoclastic child’s play in non-European contexts, specifically Southeast Asia and New England, but also consider discussions relating to fetishism and play by modern thinkers including Lévi-Strauss and Adorno. In Chapter 5 I begin with a set of objects in Audley End House that survived partly because they spent a period as dolls. These objects guide my discussion of possible temporal models for play—especially smoothly developmental models that are held to inculcate piety and virtue—and I show how these emerge in ancient and early modern writers, but remain an issue for modern accounts of child development, building on the analyses by Ian Hacking and Christopher Bollas. I suggest that adults place children and their play into reassuringly linear temporal models in order to limit the meanings that such play can assume. In my sixth chapter I juxtapose the Audley End figures with the equally expressionless visage of an early modern wooden doll in order to explore the manner in which play does not seamlessly fill time but acts as a form of challenging blankness or vacancy within it, embodied in the figure of the masked child. I consider this alternative model of play as a neutral interlude via the writings of John Harington and others and end with an extended reading of Pieter Bruegel’s painting Children’s Games (and Hans Sedlmayr’s unsettling reading of this painting) as an encapsulation of the interpretative challenges of iconoclasm as child’s play and of the tendency for children to appear as demonically other in their playing. Finally, in my conclusion I discuss the category of the toy as an item that has been used to organize history into contrasting periods of playfulness and seriousness. I argue that the object of iconoclastic child’s play, suspended between competing time frames and ways of meaning, encourages us to think of objects and texts as polychronic and replete with potential for surprising new meanings. I read an episode from book 1 of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene as emblematic of the kinds of reading that such a conception, inspired by iconoclasm as child’s play, makes possible.


1. The history of the area gave Latimer hope: the surroundings of Bristol had a rich tradition of Lollardy and vernacular religious practice and was therefore seen as fertile ground for reform. See Martha C. Skeeters, Community and Clergy: Bristol and the Reformation, c. 1530–1570 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), chaps. 3–4, for an excellent account of this context. The best overview of his life and theology is the introduction to Roger Edgeworth, Sermons Very Fruitfull, Godly and Learned, ed. Janet Wilson (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993).

2. For the context of this dispute see Susan Wabuda, “‘Fruitful Preaching’ in the Diocese of Worcester: Bishop Hugh Latimer and His Influence, 1535–39,” in Religion and the English People, 1500–1640: New Voices, New Perspectives, ed. Eric Josef Carlson (Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1998), 49–74, esp. 64.

3. Edgeworth, Sermons, 143.

4. This general view is summed up in the title of Lee Palmer Wandel’s excellent study, Voracious Idols and Violent Hands: Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

5. Thomas M. Greene, “Rescue from the Abyss: Scève’s Dizain 378,” in The Vulnerable Text: Essays on Renaissance Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 99–115, 101.

6. For a thought-provoking exploration of these attachments see Carolyn Dinshaw, How Soon Is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).

7. Donald F. Tuzin, The Voice of the Tambaran: Truth and Illusion in Ilahita Arapesh Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 216. See 35–46 for a detailed account of how children are initiated into the spirit cult, as well as the observation that “the novices are reduced to being pawns in the serious games grown-ups play” (101).

8. Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 204 (my emphasis).

9. Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness (New York: Picador, 2009), 10.

10. Much of this work has responded to Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, trans. Robert Baldock (New York: Random House, 1965). For a useful overview see Peter N. Stearns, Childhood in World History (London: Routledge, 2017). On early modern children in (and as) literature see Michael Witmore, Pretty Creatures: Children and Fiction in the English Renaissance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).

11. Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz, Legend, Myth and Magic in the Image of the Artist (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 76–77. See the excellent discussion of this passage and the issues that it raises in David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 201–4.

12. Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 106; see esp. 44, 104–5, and the quotations on 222n275, which straightforwardly state of the “Indians”: “ellos son como niños.”

13. Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, rev. ed. (London: Macmillan, 1994), 3–4.

14. Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 10.

15. Fried, Absorption and Theatricality, 46, 47, 49, 51.

16. Ian Hacking, Historical Ontology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 17.

17. See Dinshaw, How Soon Is Now? and the summaries of scholars including Chakrabarty, Bhabha, Kristeva, and Grosz in Jeffrey J. Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); and Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Age of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

18. Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 3.

19. Wai Chi Dimock, “A Theory of Resonance,” PMLA 112, no. 5 (1997): 1060–71; Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), esp. chap. 5: “Context Stinks!”

20. Dimock, “A Theory of Resonance.” Dimock’s use of resonance both builds on and departs from the wide currency given to it by Stephen Greenblatt: see “Resonance and Wonder,” in Learning to Curse (London: Routledge, 1990), 216–46.

21. Felski, The Limits of Critique, 15, 110.

22. Stephen K. White, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), ix.

23. See Angela Vanhaelen, The Wake of Iconoclasm: Painting the Church in the Dutch Republic (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012), 159, 178, discussing images by Herman Saftleven.

24. Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979), 139.

25. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 220, 209.

26. Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 1978), 351–70, 369–70 (emphases in the original). For useful discussion of Derrida’s account see James Hans, “Derrida and Freeplay,” MLN 94, no. 4 (1979): 809–26; and Robert R. Wilson, “Play, Transgression and Carnival: Bakhtin and Derrida on Scriptor Ludens,” Mosaic 19, no. 1 (1986): 73–89.

27. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Marion Faber (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 62. On Nietzsche and play see Lawrence M. Hinman, “Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Play,” Philosophy Today 18, no. 2 (1974): 106–24.

28. Teresa L. Ebert, Ludic Feminism: Postmodernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 148 and passim.

29. D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (London: Routledge, 1971), 41 (emphasis in the original).