Rev. Dr. James Elwin Millard (1823–1894), mentioned as owner when, in 1873, a plaster cast of the gaming piece was made for the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). Since then in private ownership of the family.
The gaming piece, carved out of walrus tusk, depicts a scene from Aesop’s fable ‘‘The Fox and the Stork’. It was probably made in northern France in the early 12th century. The two animals in the fable, shown on the gamig piece in profile, recall the following tale: “A fox invites a stork to be his guest and serves up the most delicious food – on very flat plates, however, from which the stork with his long bill cannot eat a thing.
Greedily, the fox eats up everything on his own while incessantly telling the stork to tuck in. The stork feels deceived but keeps his countenance, praises his host highly and asks his friend to be his guest the next day. Suspecting that the stork would seek revenge the fox declines the invitation. However, the stork does not take no for an answer and, ultimately, the fox gives in. When he goes to the stork the next day he sees that all sorts of delicacies spread out in front of him, served however in long-necked vessels. ‘Just do as I do’, the stork says to him, ‘feel at home!’ Using his long bill he guzzles down everything, all on his own, while the fox, much to his considerable annoyance, can only lick the crockery and smell the food. Still hungry, he stands up from the table and admits that the stork has punished him sufficiently for his malice.”
The moral of the tale – ‘do as you would be done by’ – is easy to grasp and is a premise that applies equally well today.
By choosing to illustrate Aesop’s fable ‘The Fox and the Stork’ the unknown carver picked up on a popular subject. Aesop, a storyteller in Ancient Greece who lived in the 6th century BC, wrote a large number of short, cautionary tales. The fables that were initially recorded in Greek and then in Roman Antiquity were much-loved and prompted other people to render them in a pictorial fashion. The Benedictine monk Adémar de Chabannes (989–1043) wrote and illustrated a manuscript on Aesop’s Fables around 1025.
Interestingly, precursors to this type of image do in fact exist and draw on the depiction of a fox and a stork on an ancient tomb from the 1st century AD. In all probability Adémar de Chabannes adapted this pictorial tradition from Antiquity to create a style of his own, to which our gaming piece belongs. The piece is for a game that was a predecessor to backgammon known as ‘tabula’ (Latin: board). With origins in the Greco-Roman cultural period the game became very popular in the 11th and 12th centuries, especially among the nobility. Important centres where gaming pieces were manufactured in the Middle Ages were Cologne, northern France and St. Albans in England where one of the wealthiest and most powerful abbeys in Great Britain was founded in 793 AD. To play tabula, each player is given fifteen gaming pieces, making a total of thirty on the board.
Very few of these exquisite medieval works of art have survived the course of time. Around 250 gaming pieces with figurative scenes are known to exist today.The small relief captures the moment of sweet revenge. The fox and the stork are shown in profile with a tall jug in front of them. As described in Aesop’s fable, the clever stork reaches down into the high-necked vessel with his long bill and is enjoying his meal while the fox tries in vain to sample the fare. From the top right a palmette reaches into the scene. The carved figures are artistically undercut, giving the depiction a pronounced sculptural effect. A circular ribbon of palmettes and four, evenly arranged palmettes on the wide, outermost edge of the gaming piece heighten the object’s decorative appeal.
As mentioned above, only some 250 medieval gaming pieces with figurative pictorial scenes have survived to this day. The most exquisite and valuable games probably had pieces based on one particular theme. One tabula game, for example, is known to have pieces focussed on the story of Samson; another captures the Labours of Hercules. The pieces also had different colours so as to make the game easier to play. Our gaming piece was doubtlessly also part of a thematically related set. As there are hundreds of Aesop’s Fables, the unknown carver had a wide selection to choose from. However, no other comparable piece is known.
Not only is the artistic quality of the gaming piece exceptional, but its provenance is, too. It was first mentioned in 1873 as being in the collection of the Rev. Dr. James Elwin Millard at Magdalen College, Oxford (1823–1894). At the same time a plaster copy was made for South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). In 1876 John Westwood included the gaming piece in the publication Fictile Ivory Casts in the South Kensington Museum.
In 1923 Adolph Goldschmidt states in ‘Die Elfenbeinskulpturen aus der romanischen Zeit, XI. – XIII. Jahrhundert’ that the gaming piece had been lost. This small precious item, however, had remained in the same family collection since first mentioned in 1873.