Conversion: the board game

The new game of human life, Victoria and Albert Museum

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, first published in 1678, was, and remains, immensely popular, and has never been out of print. Bunyan’s allegory of spiritual trials and eventual salvation offered a powerful model for Christians writing in the emerging genre of spiritual autobiography, who wanted to narrate their own struggles and conversions, whether those conversions were understood as a turn to the Christian faith or an intensification of religious feeling.

‘The new game of human life’, a board game dating from 1790, gave families the opportunity not just to read Bunyan’s allegory but to experience it in the form of a parlour game. According to the instructions, if parents or tutors encouraged children to stop at each character and drew ‘their attention to a few moral and judicious observations, explanatory of each character as they proceed and contrast the happiness of a virtuous and well spent life with the fatal consequences arising from vicious and immoral pursuits, this game may be rendered the most useful and amusing of any that has hitherto been offered to the public’. It’s not clear what children thought of such a carefully moralising game — but anyone keen to experience it for themselves can find a modern version to try at home!

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A symbol of conversion in sixteenth-century Bologna

This group of terracotta figures, which Vasari claimed was the most famous work of art in the entire city of Bologna at the time of its completion in 1522, depicts a relatively common subject from the life of the Virgin, her burial, with some unusual elements.  The sculptor, Alfonso Lombardi, gives a central position to an apocryphal figure, the Jew Ananias, who in several retellings attempted to overturn the casket and was struck down by an angel.  Though it is not represented in the sculpture, the story concludes with Ananias’ conversion to Christianity.

This dramatic sculpture with a strong anti-Jewish subtext was placed in the heart of one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Papal States at a time when its Jewish bankers were competing for control of the city’s lending with monti di pietà (charitable lending operations) run by the mendicant orders.   In later decades, after a series of laws issued by Paul IV, Pius V, and Clement VIII drastically limited the conditions under which Jews in the Papal States were forced to live, the Jews of Bologna were enclosed in a ghetto, expelled, and re-admitted, while a casa dei catecumeni founded in the 1560s offered the only real possibility of escape from marginalization, poverty, and religious persecution- conversion to Christianity through a process of isolation from the Jewish community, gradual introduction to the precepts of Christianity, and finally, baptism.

The turn to religion?

In a 2004 article in the journal Criticism, titled ‘The turn to religion in early modern English studies’, Arthur Marotti and Ken Jackson declared that something new was afoot in their discipline. ‘Religion’, they noted, was ‘once again at the center in interpretations of early modern culture’. Marotti and Jackson acknowledged that many students of the English Renaissance had previously tried to comprehend the complex and numerous belief systems of the period, not least since the faith of the most famous writer of his age — William Shakespeare — has long been the subject of intense debate.

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