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The Game of the Sphere or of the Universe — a Spiral Race Game from 17th century France

   | 29 sept. 2016
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Simple race games, played with dice and without choice of move, are known from antiquity. In the late 16th century, specific examples of this class of game emerged from Italy and spread rapidly into other countries of Europe. Pre-eminent was the Game of the Goose, which spawned thousands of variants over the succeeding centuries to the present day, including educational, polemical and promotional variants.1

The educational variants began as a French invention of the 17th century, the earliest of known date being a game to teach Geography, the Jeu du Monde by Pierre Duval, published in 1645. By the end of the century, games designed to teach several of the other accomplishments required of the noble cadet class had been developed: History, the Arts of War, and Heraldry being notable among them.

A remarkable example of a game within this class is the astronomical game, Le Jeu de la Sphere ou de l’Univers selon Tycho Brahe, published in 1661 by E(s)tienne Vouillemont in Paris. The present paper analyses this game in detail, showing how it combines four kinds of knowledge systems: natural philosophy, based on the Ptolemaic sphere; biblical knowledge; astrology, with planetary and zodiacal influences; and classical knowledge embodied in the names of the constellations. The game not only presents all four on an equal footing but also explores links between them, indicating some acceptance of an overall knowledge-system. Despite the title, there is no evidence of the Tychonian scheme for planetary motion, nor of any Copernican or Galilean influence.

This game is to be contrasted with medieval race games, based on numerology and symbolism, and with race games towards the end of the Early Modern period in which science is fully accepted.