From Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor:
Falstaff. Pistol, did you pick Master Slender’s purse?
Slender. Ay, by these gloves, did he, or I would I might
never come in mine own great chamber again else, of seven
groats in mill-sixpences, and two Edward shovel-boards, that
cost me two shillings and two pence a-piece of Yead Miller,
by these gloves.
Slender’s peculiar complaint contains several layers of absurdities, principally by introducing units of money (mill-sixpences and Edward shovel-boards), but then ascribing a greater worth to them than their face value.
This is an Edward “shovel-board”:
It is a silver shilling struck during the reign of Edward VI, so Slender was paying more than two shilings for a single shilling. Which sounds dumb, except of course Slender is swearing out a criminal complaint, and wants more than a single shilling in compensation for his lost shilling. That is perversely clever, and not so unbelievable either, for coins don’t get like that naturally.
Notice how the lettering is intact while the king’s portrait has been obliterated. The shilling above (which came in the mail today) was carefully hammered flat and worn down smooth, so it could be used as a playing piece in the old bar pastime Shove Groat. It took considerable energy to wear the coin down, and perhaps someone like Slender would save himself the effort by exchanging two of its brothers to acquire one.
Interesting contrast to today where a good shilling for someone with as short a reign as Edward VI will go for hundreds or thousands of dollars, while mine was acquired for just $20. Today people buy old coins and have a horror of playing with them. My coin isn’t all that rare either – Shove Groat was a popular game and many coins were worn down like this one. Edward shillings were a very popular choice for the game, and there’s even an Elizabethan poem about them, by John Taylor “The Water Poet”:
About my circle, I a Posie have
The title God unto the King first gave.
The circle that encompasseth my face
Declares my Soveraigne’s title, by God’s grace.
You see my face is beardless, smoothe and plaine.
Because my soveraigne was a child ’tis knowne
When as he did put on the English Crowne.
But had my stamp been bearded, as with haire,
Long before this it had beene worne and bare.
For why? With me the unthrifts every day,
With my face downwards do at shove-board play . . .
Rather evocative detail, the poet noticing how the unthrifty put the king’s face down and grind across a barroom table. That’s how it went with my coin, too – notice it is the much more worn surface, and there are several long, straight scratches on that side but not on back.
As soon as the coin came this evening I wanted to try it out. After these hundreds of years the coin is still wonderfully smooth – alarmingly so.
I could not find a concise rulebook for Elizabethan shove groat, so me and my boys kept it simple – we took turns hanging the coins just over the edge of the end table and trying to flick them. This made for highly imaginative play; Thing 1 would wallop his halfway across the room sometimes (and so would I), while Thing 2 would keep nudging his until it was in the winning spot. Victory went to the closest to the edge without going over. I understand they used to play this way. People praise power, but it’s finesse that wins the prize.
Even with a tailor-made 465-year-old playing piece, the game has quite a learning curve. I started out trying to finesse my fingers and hit the coin without hitting the table, but then realized it’s easier to blunt your finger-force by striking coin and table-side simultaneously. That improved my performance, but not enough to catch up to Thing 2’s brilliant strategy.