Iconoclasm As Child's Play

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Joe Moshenska
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , April
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


People from just about every culture around the globe, from ancient to modern, agree that certain objects bear special significance. Often this occurs in religious contexts in which people imbue icons, vessels, altars, and shrines with sacral value. However, when an opposition party comes to power and wants to desacralize these objects, what is the most effective method to do so? Many people have desecrated holy objects through violence—smashing, cutting, disarticulating, and/or burning them. Joe Moshenska’s monograph, Iconoclasm as Child’s Play, examines an alternative method of desacralization: handing over holy objects to children for their use as playthings.

Moshenska focuses on 16th-century northern European examples of this phenomenon, enacted as a cultural outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation. He begins by highlighting an excerpt from a sermon delivered by a preacher in Bristol, England, in the 1530s. The excerpt depicts a scene in which parents find that their child possesses dolls, and they question the child about the dolls: “What nasse, what haste thou there? The childe aunsweareth (as she is taught) I haue here myne ydoll.”  Following this, the parents ask whence the child got the dolls. The child answers, “John our parishe clarke gaue it me”  (ix).

This quote serves as the launching point for the book. From there, Moshenska sets forth pursuing two main objectives: First, he seeks to marshal evidence to demonstrate a cultural pattern of iconoclasm as child’s play, especially amidst the Protestant Reformation; second, he seeks to analyze the meanings of this gesture, investigating especially notions of childhood and play in the adult imagination.

Moshenska provides numerous examples of this nonviolent type of iconoclasm. He records acts of trivialization in Elizabethan England, such as handing over sacred objects to a tinker, giving religious ceremonial garments to the poor, using a holy water vat as a swine trough, and converting a sacring bell into a horse bell. Moshenska relates how once, a dove  representing the Holy Spirit in a church in Biberach, Germany, was submitted to children and broken through play. Most of the evidence that Moshenska presents focuses on icons converted into dolls: A man in Cologne, Germany, in 1536 broke the arms off a crucifix and then gave it to his children as a toy; girls and women kept figures of the infant Jesus as dolls; carved oak figurines of apostles and saints were given as dolls to children in England.

Moshenska describes accounts of these examples throughout his book, but they constitute a relatively minor portion of its overall content. Moshenska devotes most of the book’s attention to philosophical explorations of the nature of play and childhood. Although one might initially view the submission of holy objects to children for use as playthings as a simple and sensible method of trivialization, Moshenska contends that this process is much more powerful and complex than it first appears. At the heart of Moshenska’s explorations of both play and childhood is not these things themselves, but rather “the adult’s imagination of child’s imagination” (xiii, 183).

Demonstrating the elusiveness of play, Moshenska juxtaposes conflicted assessments of its merits. He acknowledges a tradition of Christian vehemence against play, citing for example John Chrysostom’s declaration, “It is not God that grants to play, but the devil” (27). Moshenska balances this with a tradition of theological writings that valorized play, celebrating God’s playing.

Akin to the ambiguities and strong emotions surrounding play are ideas about the mysterious nature of children. Beneath the surface of characterizations that adults often impute upon children as naïve, innocent, and simplistic, Moshenska notes the fearful response of anxious adults when confronted with the idea of playing children: “The child is both a threat—the wild, untamed other in the heart of the household—and the form of otherness that seems (at least in theory) to be the easiest to tame” (101).

The book’s style fascinatingly transforms as it progresses. It begins with a standard academic approach (introducing topics, defining terms, setting out agendas), familiar to scholarly works. Yet it gradually loosens and meanders repetitively through philosophical explorations of ludic theory – a system of concepts pertaining to the nature of play It is easy to lose track of Moshenska’s arguments at certain points, which tend to be cumulative and nonlinear. The book ends with Moshenska ‘s  playfully disturbing analysis of Children’s Games, the painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in which the author ,  notes some of the troubling details of the children in the painting presenting “the tendency for the child at play to be seen as a kind of living mask, demonically other in the inaccessibility of its operations” (176). Finally, the book concludes with an evaluation of a charming, yet dark, scene in which children play with the corpse of a slain dragon in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene.

The reasoning of this book has a hypnotic, spiraling effect. Consider for example Moshenska’s statement, “when Europeans imputed naïve belief to Africans, the only naïve belief truly present was their belief in this belief” (111). Not only is this statement informative and profound, but it is also playful. Unpacking ludic theory, Moshenska builds upon Hans-Georg Gadamer’s concept of play as “to-and-fro movement that is not tied to any goal that would bring it an end. . . . The movement of playing has no goal that brings it to an end; rather, it renews itself in constant repetition” (33). As one gets deeper into the mesmerizing reasoning of Moshenska’s book, it becomes increasingly clear that this book about play has become a display of the author playing with the concept of play.

Although Moshenska’s rhetorical method is unorthodox, it is brilliantly effective and true to its subject. The book is instructive without feeling instructive. Upon final reflection, the book could perhaps best be described as philosophical artwork. The absence of a bibliography is disappointing, especially for those interested in follow-up research inspired by the book. Nevertheless, the book is well researched (with sufficient notes), rich with insight, and satisfying.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Craig Evan Anderson is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joe Moshenska is associate professor of English at the University of Oxford, and tutorial fellow of University College.


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