Two traditional games of accumulating points

18.28, Tuesday 10 Aug 2021

We used to play conkers at school, when I was 8 or 9, with the variant rules that allowed for rolling up scores.

So here’s the game, if you never played: get a horse chestnut and hang it on a shoelace. Your opponent has the same, and you take turns in swinging your chestnut in order to smash the other. According to the Wikipedia page this used to be played with snail shells, which I never knew.

Beat one opponent, your conker is a one-er. Beat two, it’s a two-er. It’s probably falling apart by the time it’s a six-er or seven-er.

OR: score by adding the loser’s number to your victory count. Beat a three-er with a fresh conker? Well you’re now the happy holder of a four-er. That was how we played. So by the end of the day the scores would get pretty big.

(Locality: the New Forest in the south of England. Other playground games: we played It not Tag; and yelled “123 in, release all prisoners” not “99” or “40-40”.)

From 2014, this episode of In Our Time on chivalry is pretty great: the moral code observed by knights of the Middle Ages. (It’s still available to listen.)

There was a segment on tournaments that caught my ear. It turns out that, if you beat the other knight in a tournament, you get their horse and armour – which are worth a lot. From the show:

If you look at something like the history of William Marshall, who is the great knight of the late 12th century, his early career from a landless fourth son to becoming Regent of England, it’s predicated in his early years on winning large sums of money through horses and armour taken in tournament.

The more money you have, the more time you can spend training, and the better armour and horse you can afford. So success accumulates.

William Marshall had an interesting childhood: his father was involved in a civil war in England called “the Anarchy” (1135-1153) between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda – which is an era of history which is totally new to me. And as part of that, young William was held hostage, but his father was pretty clear that he didn’t consider this a threat, saying: I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons! So! They put the boy William Marshall in a trebuchet, but didn’t go through with trebuch-ing him anywhere, and all’s well that ends well; he ended up regent for the nine-year-old King Henry III in 1216. He’s buried up the road. I’ll have to go visit.


Did young knights play conkers in the training yard? At school we would prepare our chestnuts, baking them in the oven, or soaking them in vinegar, or saving them from the previous year, all the better to roll up points. I can’t help but see it as a rehearsal of tournament life compressed into a single day, a lesson in how to pick opponents and feel out risk. Conkers today a kind of ancient ghost of those chivalric tournaments.

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