J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Break the Pope's Neck?

A recent query on the Revlist prompted me to look up information about a game from the 1700s winningly called “Break the Pope’s Neck.” (As we say in my family whenever we learn of some obtuse habit of our ancestors, those were simpler times.)

Philip Vickers Fithian, living on a plantation in Virginia as tutor in a wealthy family, described young adults playing this game in his journal entry for 9 Aug 18 Dec 1773. It sounds like quite the party:

When the candles were lighted, we all repaired, for the last time, into the dancing-Room; first each couple danced a Minuet; then all joined as before in the country Dances, these continued till half after Seven when Mr. Christian retired; and at the proposal of several, (with Mr. Carters approbation) we played Button, to get Pauns for Redemption; here I could join with them, and indeed it was carried on with sprightliness, and Decency; in the course of redeeming my Pauns I had several Kisses of the Ladies!

Early in the Evening came colonel Philip Lee, in a travelling Chariot from Williamsburg.

Half after eight we were rung in to Supper; The room looked luminous and splendid; four very large candles burning on the table where we supped; three others in different parts of the Room; a gay, sociable Assembly, and four well instructed waiters!

So soon as we rose from supper, the Company formed into a semicircle round the fire, and Mr. Lee, by the voice of the Company was chosen Pope, and Mr. Carter, Mr. Christian, Mrs. Carter, Mrs. Lee, and the rest of the company were appointed Friars, in the Play call’d “break the Popes neck.” Here we had great Diversion in the respective Judgments upon offenders, but we were all dismissed by ten, and retired to our several Rooms.
The illustration up top, courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg, shows the more formal part of such an evening—in Britain, judging by the skin color of the servants.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, Fithian didn’t explain the rules of “Break the Pope’s Neck,” but I found a description in an 1833 book by Ashburnham native Asa Greene called The Life and Adventures of Dr. Dodimus Duckworth:
The play of breaking the Pope’s neck, consists in twirling a plate on the edge, and letting go your hold; when if it fall bottom upwards, the Pope’s neck is held, to all intents and purposes, so far forth as the amusement is concerned, to be fairly broken. Again the neck is to be set: this consists also in the twirling and letting go of the plate, when, if it fall with the right side up, it is held to be well and truly set.

If, therefore, when ordered to break the Pope’s neck, the operator should set it instead; or if, when ordered to set it, he should proceed to break it rather—he is mulcted in a fine; and pocket-handkerchiefs, pen-knives, combs, and such-like articles are levied upon—redeemable, however, at a certain price, according to the will of the judge who is appointed to decide upon the causes. The play, therefore, though it is called breaking the Pope’s neck, consists equally in setting it; and derives most of its interest from the redemption of the forfeits.
Perhaps Mr. Lee as the “Pope” chosen at the Virginia party had the responsibility of calling which way the plate should land and/or deciding what were fair forfeits and exchanges for people who didn’t succeed. As Fithian’s excitement about kisses during “Button” showed, the goal of these games wasn’t so much winning as achieving fluid social interaction, particularly with the opposite sex.

The name “Break the Pope’s Neck” obviously reflects the general British anti-Catholicism of the time, and became politically incorrect in later decades, like colonial America’s “Pope Night” processions and bonfires. But New Englanders in the middle of the 1800s still recalled it as a game they played as children.


KL said...

Actually, I was just reading today that this game was created not by British anti-Catholics, but instead native born American protestants that were both anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant. As for the rest of your information, I'm glad you had it up. I came across a reference to this game in my reading and had to find out what it was. Thanks much!!

J. L. Bell said...

In 1773, when Fithian wrote about this game, Americans were still British. And the British Empire still had laws against Catholics participating in politics; indeed, anti-Catholicism had become one of the main ideologies “uniting” the Empire. That’s why I linked the game, wherever it originated, with the larger anti-Catholic sentiment in the British Empire.

SirWilliamXV said...

In the book "Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791" edited by Richard Brown, the quote as listed in Mr. Fithian's journal comes from a date of Saturday 18 [December] 1773.

J. L. Bell said...

It's been so long I don't recall why I thought that diary entry came from August, but you're quite right—it's from December, a week before Christmas. Thanks!