The Strategy of Challenges: Two Beheading Games in Mediaeval Literature

  • Barry O’Neill


I use game models to analyse two mediaeval tales about remarkable challenges. The goal is to understand their plots and to clarify in general why challenges are made and accepted. Children’s contests of daring provide a simple context to study challenging, and I argue that children seek a certain reputation; they want to be known for placing a high payoff weight on others’ estimate of that very weight. This definition might seem circular, but it leads to well-specified, solvable games. The model for the children’s dares is modified in steps to fit the mediaeval stories. Game theory has treated language as a way to transmit information, but here verbal challenges are speech acts, or “performatives” in Austin’s sense, that trigger the concern for reputation. The analysis of challenging is relevant to international conflicts where large powers’ make commitments and struggle in the Third World over “credibility.”


Round Table Fair Play Strong Equilibrium Performative Utterance Mediaeval Literature 
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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1991

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  • Barry O’Neill

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