Tuesday, 24 March 2015

DALLYING WITH DICE - a medieval pastime by Elizabeth Chadwick

Two men playing at a dicing table. Detail from the Prodigal Son window at Bourges Cathedral
Note that the chap on the right has no money and is down to his underpants.
Last month I reviewed LOST LETTERS OF MEDIEVAL LIFE by David Crouch and Martha Karlin.  One of the letters in the collection is from a man refusing to help a friend's shiftless kinsman who has fallen into debt.  Part of the letter calling time on the kinsman says in translation:
I do not wish, nor am I able to lend him anything of mine for he is an inveterate dice player and he loses everything that he gambles...  He goes on to say that any money lent to the kinsman will disappear the same way and 'those who were with him in the tavern when he lost (either 10 marks, shillings or pounds)...gained everything, right down to his underpants (braccas).

Plainly gambling away one's wherewithal has been a folly for as long as dice have been around (and probably longer. I hazard that cavemen gambled the odds with bones or stones), but my concern is with the medieval aspect of the the vice.


Gambling with dice seems to have largely been a male folly. Men were mostly the ones with access to the cash and more leeway to go out losing it.  It was a game associated with drinking, and tended to have a rough, macho element to it.  It could lead to rowdiness, violence and - as in the case of the above mentioned young man - nudity!  Men would get drunk, wager all their money followed by their clothes and possessions.  This is alluded to in many works of literature of the period. Wace, writing of a dice game in the Roman de Brut of 1155 describes it in very similar terms to the above. The man who sat down to play clothed, might arise naked at the close of play.' 

Another literary source, the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, completed in 1226,  reveals that dice were used to settle disputes.  The argument below is settled by a simple game called 'Highest Points.'
The poem's hero, William Marshal had won a horse at a tourney but was having trouble obtaining it from its erstwhile owner. In the end, after some discussion, the men agreed to play dice for the animal.  'Let the horse...be the sole property of the man throwing the highest score with three dice.  Isn't that the way? Shall it be so?'
The men agree and 'Three dice were brought which quickly slipped out of the hand as soon as they were thrown.'
Which makes one wonder if there were dice that didn't slip out of the hand so easily and if such dice were fixed.
As it happened, the other man threw a nine and the Marshal threw eleven, so he won the horse, which is as one would expect from a tale lauding our hero!

The main dice games of the Middle Ages were 'Highest Points' (plus poins)  played as above mentioned with three dice thrown onto a dicing board or table - highest score takes all, Then there was ''Raffle' also played with 3 dice.  In the latter the hope was to throw all three dice alike, or failing that, to throw a pair with a higher value than one's opponent.  Hazard was a dice game very popular from the thirteenth century onwards and the ancestor of the modern game of craps. Its name came from the Arabic word 'al-zahr' meaning a die.  It was played like the other with three dice.  There is only one thrower per round who is decided by agreement of the other players, or by all the players throwing the dice to see who goes first. If the player with his first throw scores a 3,4, 5, 6, 15, 16, 17 or 18, then those scores are called 'hazards' and he wins. If he scores them with his second throw, however, he loses.  If neither his first or second score is a 'hazard' it is called a 'chance'  and will be anything between 7 and 14.  He goes on playing until either his first score or second score comes up again. If it's his first score he wins. If it's his second, he loses.
A replica die owned by the author.
Bone with a ring and dot design.

We know from the pipe rolls that King John enjoyed gaming. He gave his illegitimate brother William Longespee money so that he could gamble. and in the summer of 1210 John could be found whiling away the time on his Irish campaign by wagering at dice. He 'Lent to to Robert de Ros for play, when he played with Warine FitzGerold at Carlingford, and the King was his Partner, £1.17s 4d whereof he returned 14s 8d. Also to the same Robert £1. 0s 4d when he played with the same Warine, and the King was again his partner in the game. (Praestita roll, 12th year of King John).
There is a tale from the medieval French Fabliaux in which a minstrel is brought into hell by a demon and left in charge of all the souls there while the devils go out looking for more. St. Peter turns up in their absence and plays dice with the minstrel until he wins all the souls the latter is supposed to be watching for the devils and promptly leads them out of hell and up to heaven.  The minstrel is in dire trouble when the devils return to find the place empty. They decide he's a rotten servant and throw him out.  He runs all the way to heaven and St. Peter lets him in, and that, says the tale is why minstrels, among other rogues and gamblers are refused entry into hell!


A game of dice chess.  The Prodigal Son Window Chartres Cathedral. Again, no money and he's
lost most of his clothes!
Chess at this time was sometimes played with dice too, adding in an element of chance to the game. It  was seen as slightly inferior and less intellectual than unadulterated chess and as a game slightly more fit for ladies' to play than straight dice, the chess element lending it the respectability of a parlour rather than tavern game, although it could be both. A lady who gambled with dice was risking her reputation, although it was considered acceptable to do so in a social context if the company was mixed and the men put up the money for the stakes.  This happened for example in 1260 when Count Alphonse of Poitiers, brother of King Louis IX invited everyone to play dice in his chamber and paid for the ladies' stakes himself so that no one was embarrassed and no reputations called into question.


Dice and shaker. Museum of London.

The dice themselves were generally rather small and usually carved from bone with ring and dot patterns marking out the six sides. They are frequent finds on archaeological dig sites.  The dice were sometimes fraudulent. The set above which can be seen in the Museum of London are all fixed.  Three only have high numbers and three only low. The rest are weighted with mercury to fall the same way every time.  The pewter shaker in which they were found was originally a pot for birdseed.

Although it is often said that the past is a different country, I am often struck by the similarities between then and now. Some things are hard wired.  My personal view is that the past is the same country, but just a few bus stops further back. Crane our necks that little bit further, and we can catch sight of our ancestors in the distance.  Gambling has gone digital in a huge way and TV programmes bombard us with late night adverts to be cool and get down to the online casino. Where presumably some of us, in the grip of too much wine and adrenaline will end up losing our virtual underwear!

Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of several best-selling novels set in the Middle Ages including THE GREATEST KNIGHT about William Marshal and THE SUMMER QUEEN and THE WINTER CROWN about Eleanor of Aquitaine. She is currently working on her third novel in the Eleanor trilogy THE AUTUMN THRONE.





6 comments:

Becca McCallum said...

Great post. I particularly like the bus stops analogy. I found some old glass-plate negatives in my grandma's house, and they show some Victorian boys standing on their heads (with support) and making funny faces for the camera, just like kids today would.

Libby said...

Great article Elizabeth, really enjoyed reading it. :)

Ann Swinfen said...

Really enjoyed this, Elizabeth! I loved the story of the gambling minstrel in Hell! I expect that as long as there have been dice, there have been loaded ones. I'm sure the Romans had fake dice. And who's to say that today's online gambling games aren't virtually loaded?

Marilyn said...

Fascinating article. Love to see how similar the past was to the present.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Losing your clothes gambling reminds me of the film A Knight's Tale, and poor Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany) trudging the road naked because he's gambled his clothes away. Not far-fetched at all by the sound of it!

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