The preface begins with a sermon by Roger Edgeworth, delivered in the West of England in the 1530s, that describes children playing with objects removed from monasteries. The children are interrupted by their parents, who insist that these objects be denounced as "idols." Drawing on discussions from art history and political theory, it suggests that this scene is emblematic of the way in which the closed world of child's play seems both to demand and to resist interpretation. It distinguishes the delicate interpretative balance of the scene from some more recent attempts to see play either as entirely open and free or as entirely closed and predetermined, and sketches out the overall trajectory of the book.
The introduction traces the wider historical and theoretical narratives in which iconoclasm and child's play have played prominent—but typically opposed—roles. It begins with Baudelaire's association of parents who deny toys to their children with Protestantism, and shows that this is symptomatic of a widely postulated opposition between play and the Reformation, linked to the identification of violently iconoclastic disenchantment as the essence of modernity. It then explores the roles that iconoclasm and play assumed in the emergence of modern aesthetics from Schiller to Gadamer, and the prominence of toys in modern accounts of materiality. These discussions set up the larger narratives of iconoclasm and play against which the texture of iconoclastic child's play itself is tested in the chapters that follow.
This chapter begins with lists compiled in Lincolnshire in the 1550s. These lists show that objects including pyxes—containers for the Eucharist—were given to children as playthings. The chapter links this practice to the widespread discourse that sought to demean traditional religion as a mere trifling with inane and worthless things, but it argues that the practice of iconoclastic child's play differs from this polemic in that the object actually lingers as a potential locus for newly emerging meanings. This possibility is linked to the wider complexities surrounding the status of trifles and inanities in the history of Christian thought and its consistent inversions of value, as well as to the self-reflexive interrogation of the status of trifles in the writings of Thomas More.
This chapter opens with a father in Cologne in the 1590s who snapped the arms from a crucifix and gave it to his children as a toy. Returning to the sermon by Edgeworth discussed in the preface, the chapter considers this broken object as what Edgeworth calls an "idoll"—a hybridization of doll and idoll. This possibility is linked to the wider presence of "holy dolls" in medieval Christianity, but ultimately the doll is explored not as a stable and readily identifiable category but as a way of conceiving of ambiguous objects that may be more or less human at different moments and subjected alternatingly to violence and care. The implications of this possibility are explored in relation to a medieval Christ child, a broken crucifix, and a contemporary representation of a shattered doll.
This chapter opens with a movable image of a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, that was made into a plaything in sixteenth century Germany. It relates this specific object to a wider range of articulated and jointed figures involved in late medieval piety that were often attacked as empty puppets by reformers. It uses these objects to think not about puppets per se but rather about the jointedness or constitutive brokenness of holy things more broadly, particularly relics poised between the sacred and the disgusting. These objects are related to the unstable place of playfulness and the material in Erasmus's writings, and to the wider place of creative breaking and the disgusting in modern art.
This chapter opens with an ambiguous set of objects collected by a Dutch woman named Margrieta van Varick and described as "Indian Babies," possibly brought with her from the Dutch East Indies to New England, and relates them to the practice of iconoclastic child's play in Malaysia. It repositions iconoclastic child's play in a fraught colonial context and asks how the play of other cultures is to be interpreted. Beginning with ethnographic and psychoanalytic discussions of child's play by Lévi-Strauss, Winnicott, and others, it then moves to consider the category of the fetish as one that has long been intertwined with the status of children and their playing. It uses the contested status of this category—as an object both replete with, and devoid of, meaning—to reconsider the fetish as plaything both in sixteenth-century Guinea and in Adorno's writing on artworks and children's games.
This chapter opens with a set of medieval wooden statues in Audley End House in Essex that survived in part because they spent a period being used by children as toys. It considers the uneven trajectories through which these objects have passed—existing at different points as holy things, playthings, and art-things—to consider the wider temporal narratives into which play (and especially the playing of children) is often folded. It considers the way in which educative and habituating schemes from Plato to Renaissance figures such as Thomas Elyot and Montaigne involve the interpretation of play as a linear process of habituation, but it argues that these narratives involve a defensive simplification of the way in which play can in fact unfold in and through time, an attempt to limit and tame its meanings.
This chapter begins with a wooden doll from the seventeenth century that is juxtaposed with the statues from Audley End considered in the previous chapter on the basis of their equally fixed, impassive visages. This feature is used to consider the way in which children, especially when at play, have been seen as troublingly masked, inscrutable, alien beings. It discusses accounts from the sixteenth century, notably John Harington's, that recognize in play periods of vacant, blank, neutral time. It then proceeds to an extended reading of Bruegel's painting Children's Games, and especially a consideration of the reading of this work by the Nazi art historian Hans Sedlmayr. This painting, and Sedlmayr's remarkable and deeply disquieting account, are seen as encapsulating the ways in which child's play's resistance to interpretation can provoke fear and horror—a possibility linked to the periodic association of children with witchcraft and demonic possession.
The conclusion returns to the larger narratives into which play has often been folded in order to reconsider them in relation to the complexities of iconoclastic child's play. It suggests that neat temporalities in which play and seriousness contrast and alternate with one another need to be replaced with trajectories that have room for sudden alteration and reversal. Drawing in part from the writings of Hans Blumenberg, Bruno Latour, Michel Serres, Siegfried Kracauer, and Igor Kopytoff, it suggests that we think of objects (including artworks) in terms of their "toy potential"—the perennial possibility that an object might both come to be, and cease to be, a plaything. The implications of this possibility are illustrated via a reading of an episode from Spenser's Faerie Queene in which a malevolent allegorical dragon is startlingly transformed into a child's plaything.