The most timid step into social media can't help but stumble over quizzes for every quirk, from what career best suits you to the identity of your inner Pokémon. We're obsessed with figuring out who we are! It's easy to see these quizzes as expressions of a modern desire, a quintessential statement of the self-obsession of the "Facebook generation," but of course curiosity about yourself isn’t just a modern trait enabled by digital formats. Go further back, hundreds of years back, and you'll find the same desires.
Sometimes medieval games predicted the future, and sometimes they revealed one’s inner self. The “Virgilian lots” have you blindly place your finger on a line from a text (ranging from the Aeneid to the Bible) and interpret that line for insight into whatever problem you're thinking about. Others have you choose a fortune from a stack of sealed envelopes, or even choose a slice of cake that has a fortune baked into it, rather like a medieval fortune cookie.
"In this world, not everyone succeeds at once. Throw these three dice to show what is in your heart, whether you’re reckless or steadfast. It might make you laugh, and it might make you hurt. Whatever happens, don’t blame me; it’s all up to the goddess Fortune.”
Then each player throws three dice and ranks them from highest to lowest. Each roll, ranging from 6-6-6 (which is the best, meaning you’re as pure as a pearl) to 1-1-1 (a.k.a. the worst; you’ll never get ahead in life), has a seven-line poem that tells you what your “real” personality is.
If you rolled a 6-5-4, for instance, your fortune would be rather snarky:
Your clothes aren’t much better than your personality.
There’s nobody here who’s going to throw you a party.
Day by day, people love just what you can do,
Because of your attitude, more than they do you;
It’s because you’ve always been bad company.
Cut it out! Look in the mirror! And don’t frown.
You know I’m not lying; it’s all around town.
A fifteenth-century depiction of Blind Fortune. Image via Pierre Michault/Wikimedia Commons.
Seems harsh, doesn’t it? These games had just as many bad fortunes as good ones, though, and some were harsher than this one. Chance of the Dice focuses on behavior, and both its good and bad fortunes emphasize how you should behave in important social settings. This one emphasizes that you should dress well, have a chipper attitude (having “franchise,” or an open and honest disposition, was an important courtly virtue), be fun to be around, and accept criticism.
This game was probably played by young men and women of middling social rank as a way of getting to know each other: a chance to flirt! The fortunes provided an opportunity for a brief discussion about a person, with friends chiming in with the medieval versions of “OMG, that’s so you!” and “Oh, no! We’re going out tonight and proving this wrong.” Responding to others’ results took social skill and told the other players a lot about who you were as a person. Respond graciously to a bad fortune, like 6-5-4? Everybody’s impressed. This was not a game designed to be played alone. A lot of the fun, and much of the meaning of the game, was in how other people responded to your fortune and how you reacted to theirs.
We can't leave it there, though! What about key differences between medieval games and modern ones? Well, modern personality quizzes tend to have a data-driven approach. They ask you to choose your favorite images and then make a declaration about your inner self based on them. There's an underlying belief in the process, the data, the X that leads to Y. The medieval quiz doesn't care about data. It's designed to be random. Medieval players thought they could tap into the truths of the universe through the randomness of the dice. Modern games love process; this medieval one loved revelation.
-- Ryan R. Judkins
Just don't let the game lead you to hell! Image courtesy of the British Library. London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 149v.