Backgammon epitaph, published 1640

by Darius Kazemi on September 24, 2012

in history

This is really neat. I was searching through Google Books for references to Backgammon before 1700, and I found reference to an epitaph that consists entirely of Backgammon puns. The epitaph was collected in 1640 in a book called Wit’s Recreations (reprinted in 1663), and is attributed as the epitaph of John Crop. Whether this was a real epitaph, or just written for the book, is unknown to me. Whatever its veracity, the epitaph itself is pretty great if you understand the rules of Backgammon. (Note: “Tables” was the common English name for Backgammon used at least as late as Shakespeare.)

Here’s the full quote, from an article on Backgammon in Knight’s Penny Magazine, March 6 1841:

In a curious collection of epigrams, epitaphs, &c., published in 1663 under the title of ‘Wit’s Recreations,’ we find an epitaph on one John Crop, which is throughout a continued series of puns upon the different and peculiarities of the game, and which therefore will, we doubt not, be interesting to all those who, in spite of the dictates of fashion, still adhere to this favourite old English sport:

Man’s life’s a game at tables and he may
Mend his bad fortune by his wiser play;
Death plays against us, each disease and sore
Are blots; if hit, the danger is the more
To lose the game; but an old stander by
Binds up the blots, and cures the malady,
And so prolongs the game :  John Crop was he
Death in a rage did challenge, for to see
His play ; the dice are thrown ; when first he drinks,
Casts, makes a blot, death hits him with a cinque :
He casts again, but all in vain, for Death
By th’ after game did win the prize–his breath
What though his skill was good, his luck was bad,
For never mortal man worse casting had.
But did not Death play false to win from such
As he? No doubt, he bare a man too much.

“What though his skill was good, his luck was bad, / For never mortal man worse casting had.” As a Backgammon player: I feel ya, John Crop.

By the way, Wit’s Recreations is a fascinating book. It was an edited collection of jokes, epitaphs, and other amusing things, mostly in verse. As such it has no author. Its first edition was printed in 1640 with several more editions after that. I found a book called Facetiae, Musarum deliciae from 1817 — Volume 1 collects two similar books – Musarum Deliciae (1656) and Wit Restor’d (1658), and Volume 2 collects Wit’s Recreations itself. The preface to the 1817 edition of this collection has some history of Wit’s Recreations, which the author finds every bit as fascinating as I do. Here is the Backgammon epitaph in this 1817 reprint of the original book.

As an aside, the book contains many poems about farts, if you’re into reading 17th century fart poems. (For example: “Upon a Fart unluckily let”, and my favorite, “The Fart censured in the Parliament House.”, which contains the great line “this Fart would make an Image speak.”)

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